I was young and dumb enough at the time of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace’s release to think it was a legitimately good movie. After all, I was already indoctrinated in the ways of Star Wars, lapping up games like Shadows of the Empire and Rogue Squadron. I can honestly not tell you how exciting it was to get a new movie at that time.
I’m older now and more bitter. Star Wars is dead to me. Between the horrible changes to the special editions, to the disappointing prequel trilogy, to the sudden and precipitous drop in the quality of games, you could say I’m a lapsed fan. All the Star Wars merchandise once treasured in my youth now gathers dust in my parents’ basement.
One thing that hasn’t gone away, however, is the games inspired by that movie: Episode 1: Racer, Battle for Naboo, and… actually, I guess that’s it. They were some great games, though. I played the hell out of Racer and picked it up many times since then. I’m happy to see it’s still getting re-released on other platforms, because it certainly deserves it.
SOMETHING SOMETHING, WORM-O
Do you remember the pod racing portion of The Phantom Menace? It’s hard not to. It was George Lucas’ long, over-indulgent callback to Ben-Hur. It was also one of the more tolerable parts of the movie, even if its pretense made little sense. The idea of it is that drivers strap themselves into small, hovering pods that are pulled along by giant turbine engines. Basically, yeah, chariot racing but sci-fi.
Someone looked at a Star Wars movie and thought that was a good concept for a video game, and, holy crap, they were right!
Basically, every mechanic featured in Racer was pulled from somewhere in that long scene, so you have boosting, aerial controls, on-the-fly repairs, and that Sebulba douche really does vent his engines to the side to try and set yours on fire. It’s almost an exact recreation of the fictional sport, and all of it works.
IT’S WORKING! IT’S WORKING!
You start off selecting your character from a selection of 23 pods. A lot of them are locked at the beginning, requiring you to finish the entire game before you can play as Ben Quadinaros. I always played as Gasgano for his speed and awesome pod. Also, he didn’t die in the movie.
From there, you start one of three circuits of increasing difficulty. Each time you rank high enough in a race, you’re able to move on to the next one. Completing an entire circuit nets you a special, tougher track. Pretty standard setup.
One cool thing about it, however, is the progress offered by upgrading your pod. After each race, you’re given the ability to visit Watto’s shop or junkyard, and never buy new, children. Buy up all the pit droids early, then scour the junkyard for the top parts. By the end of the first circuit, your pod could be in peak form, and if you don’t crash, the pit droids will wipe all of the patina off those previously owned parts.
You can also change how the race winnings are divvied up, and if you don’t choose winner-takes-all, you’re a chump. Are you really going to accept a second place outcome? I thought not.
So far, so standard, right? So what makes Episode 1: Racer still worth playing?
The tracks are fantastic. There’s 25 tracks cut out of 8 worlds, which means that you’ll see certain parts of them repeated but most still feel distinct. The eight worlds have their own feel as well: a prison planet, an ice planet, a jungle planet, a cloud planet, Tatooine. They range in length, with some being less than a minute a lap, while others exceed 9 minutes for the complete track.
They communicate danger quite well: long jumps, anti-gravity sections, weaving slalom like canyons. Your pod is as fragile as a gossamer ballerina, hit a wall too hard and you’ll destroy an engine, boost for too long and your engine will catch fire. There’s a certain ricketiness to your vehicle that you feel in every bump, like you’re barely holding on by the skin of your teeth.
It’s a very risk and reward racer. There are lots of shortcuts, incentives for taking dangerous measures. You have to be careful when you choose to boost, as deceleration can be tricky business and a sudden turn could eliminate all your gains. There’s a lot to think about while racing; a game more about technique than finesse.
IT’S A NEW! LAP! RECORD!
I don’t remember what it’s like to be bad at Episode 1: Racer. I think there was a time when I found this game challenging, but these days I just walk through it. On the normal tracks, I rarely see another racer as I speed through them. I only struggled with one single invitational track; it really was the only time I lost a race on this playthrough.
So, I can’t comment on the game’s difficulty. It’s possible that there’s some challenge here, but my thumbs have been programmed with a lifetime of muscle memory. It’s important to note that this isn’t my first time through the game, nor is it my second, nor my third. I just know how to race pod effectively by now.
One place I can comment on is how bad the sound design is. Did you like Episode 1’s score? Probably! It was pretty good, unlike the movie. It gave us Duel of the Fates, which is pretty boss. Get ready to hear that soundtrack underpinned by the endless whooshing of your turbine engines. This constant, warbly hum that sounds like someone is pressing a vacuum to your ear.
Then there’s the voices that assault you from the beginning, the racer taunts are okay, just extremely dopey. Take a stop by Watto’s shop, though, and prepare for regret. He assaults you with various lines endlessly when all you want to do is search for parts in his junkyard. It’s deplorable.
OUTLANDERS, HOW DO THEY FIND ME?
I’ll make the bold claim that Star Wars: Episode 1: Racer was one of the top tier racing games on the N64. You know, right up there with F-Zero X and Beetle Adventure Racing. I’ve probably popped it off the shelf more times than any other. It’s just comfort food for me, even though it inevitably winds up reminding me of the movie.
It’s almost shocking how good it is. There’s this feeling that the game is almost an afterthought; an obligation. That it was done because some executive said, “This would be marketable as a video game.” Yet, somehow all the pieces fell into place and created this wonderful machine. Maybe Episode 1 was worth it if we got games like this. Maybe.
This review was conducted on a Nintendo Switch using a digital copy of the game purchased from the eShop. It was paid for by the author.