Star Wars Episode I: Racer, a Twenty Year Reunion
We all dislike Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Widely regarded as the single most disappointing movie of all time, the film kicked off the maligned prequel trilogy, the one mostly remembered by excessive amounts of CGI, midichlorians, George Lucas’ terrible screenwriting capabilities, and actors delivering abysmal Anakin Skywalker performances.
Episode I is not my most disliked Star Wars movie of all time. That award goes to Attack of the Clones due to the fact The Phantom Menace has a few redeeming qualities that make me tolerate its existence, those being Darth Maul, Duel of the Fates, the novelty value of seeing Liam Neeson dressed as a Jedi, Yoda still being a puppet, and most importantly, podracing. Lucas’ unusual homage to Ben-Hur also resulted in the creation of one of the coolest games of 1999, Star Wars Episode I: Racer.
Star Wars Episode I: Racer follows in the footsteps of other contemporary antigrav racers like F-Zero and Wipeout, with its own twists besides the obvious Star Wars coat of paint. There are no zip lines or turbo pads: all podracers are equipped with their own turbo boosters and you can use them at ease as long as you’ve been accelerating nonstop for a while. There is a health bar, but you can repair the podracer itself. Whenever you crash, the race isn’t over, as you’ll respawn after a few seconds (and you’ll do that a lot). You can buy new parts with your racing earnings as well.
The game sounds like a simplified and more streamlined version of F-Zero or Wipeout, but simplified doesn’t mean easier. You may have turbo boosters, but you can only use them for a short period of time before your engine overheats. You may have a repair button, but that drastically reduces your top speed and acceleration while doing so. There’s a lot of strategic planning involved. You need to figure out when it’s best for you to boost and repair, as well as plan your corners properly, considering the high speeds and track layouts.
Star Wars Episode I: Racer is actually one of the most challenging racing games I’ve ever played. It’s up there with the likes of F-Zero GX, to be fair. With the exception of the first five or six races, which are comprised of wide corners and easy-to-memorize tracks, the remaining courses are very long, full of tight corners, obstacles, death traps, endless pits, branching paths and aggressive enemy AI. Tracks like Grabvine Gateway and The Abyss are easily among the hardest racing levels ever put into a videogame. Episode I: Racer is stupidly hard, but also fair and rewarding.
There’s a lot to unlock in the game, as you start off with half a dozen racers and three tracks to enjoy. You can end up unlocking 25 tracks and 25 racers across three different championships and a sanity-defying invitational challenge circuit. Unlocking characters is simple, albeit not easy: all you need to do is reach first place at their favored track. Anakin is available right from the getgo, with Sebulba being the second-to-last racer you can unlock (the last one being some weirdo called Ben Quadrinaros). There’s a lot to do and a lot of places to visit. For a game released at the time, Episode I: Racer was booming with content and replayability.
I replayed the PC version, available on GOG, in order to get footage for this article, but the Nintendo 64 version was the one I grew up with. The differences are very noticeable, with the PC version, as well as the Dreamcast one, running at a buttery smooth 60 frames per second at a 480p resolution. The sensation of speed is fantastic to this day.
The Nintendo 64 version ran at a much more conservative framerate, averaging between 20 and 30 frames per second, depending on your field of view. It also ran at a smaller resolution, but that doesn’t mean that version was unplayable in comparison. It still did wonders, especially when you consider the difference between the N64’s hardware and the power of the Dreamcast.
Every single podracer is oozing in detail, and the levels are vast, with the asteroid prison of Oovo IV deserving special praise. Both games featured a lot of voice acting, mostly comprised of people screaming gibberish in Huttese, with Jake Lloyd himself reprising his role as Anakin. Just like pretty much every other Star Wars game ever released, there is a lot of licensed music in it, with the Nintendo 64 featuring lesser quality versions of what the PC and Dreamcast versions offer.
No matter which platform you choose, you’ll still be in for a great and very challenging time. Star Wars Episode I: Racer is easily one of the best things to come out of the prequel trilogy: a stupidly challenging but unique racer brimming with charm and content that, surprisingly enough, still holds up to this day. I’d love to see a brand new iteration of this game in modern consoles, especially in VR, but we all know that we shouldn’t expect a lot from Star Wars games these days. The Battlefront 2 wounds haven’t been fully healed yet.