Star Wars Episode I: Racer

Star Wars Episode I: Racer is certainly good enough for its gameplay to speak for itself without the support of the franchise it belongs to; it is thrilling, it is impressive for standards of the day, and it is quite a shame that LucasArts did not continue to explore its concept with more installments

The Phantom Menace, the first episode of the Star Wars saga, is overwhelmingly derided by the property’s fan base. Nevertheless, there are a few aspects of the movie that escape heavy criticism and have the same people who bash the film agreeing on their greatness. Darth Maul, the main villain of the story, is usually perceived to be a pretty awesome bad guy, even if he lacks a little bit of development. Furthermore, Duel of the Fates, the signature song of Phantom Menace, is a greatly beloved piece of music by legendary composer John Williams, generally ranking among his best work. Finally, in the middle of so many dull segments, the podracing sequence involving the young Anakin Skywalker racing a bunch of vicious aliens in a brutal high-speed competition through the desert is noted for being quite a thrill.

Released for the Nintendo 64 in 1999, Star Wars Episode I: Racer recognizes not just the quality of that last item but also its potential for being turned into a game, and brings the excitement of podracing to the home of players and Star Wars fans. As any longtime gamer ought to know, products that are based on movies often contain some pretty questionable experiences: they are usually developed with lower ambitions and quality control, since they are bound to surf on the success of the flick to a good level of sales anyway; their production cycles tend to be strictly limited, given they have to come out close to the movie they are based on in order to take advantage of the moment; and they are frequently handled by studios with poor track records.

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For starters, at least, Star Wars Episode I: Racer does not fall entirely into those traps. Sure, it was probably developed within a tight time frame since its release had to coincide with the movie’s arrival on theaters; however, rather than being handed over to a company with a suspicious background, the game was built by none other than LucasArts itself, a studio that is far from being a stranger to classic products. The question that remains, therefore, is if Star Wars Episode I: Racer is a paper-thin clumsy effort that suffered from the need for its release to happen right on time, or if LucasArts was able to inject it with quality and value before it had to push the package out the door. The answer happens to be somewhere in between, but it leans strongly enough to the more positive side of that spectrum for the game to qualify as a good movie-based title.

During the podracing segment of The Phantom Menace, in a good slice of world-building, characters make references to the competition that reveal there is much more to it than the Tatooine race seen in the movie. There are nods to Malastare as a planet with great circuits where the best podracers of the galaxy often meet; there is the notable figure of Sebulba as a legendary, nearly unbeatable, and quite dirty champion; there is how the podracing events seem to attract betting gangsters and other underground figures who try to pull strings to influence the races; and there are numerous competitors that get some screen time, emerging like well-known characters that go around the universe for danger and speed.

In one of its most disappointing flaws, Star Wars Episode I: Racer does not capitalize on the opportunity to flesh that interesting niche out. Yes, Malastare shows up, as it houses a few tracks; Sebulba, Anakin, and others that appear in the movie are part of the roster, which includes more than twenty podracers, each with their own uniquely designed double-engine machines; and players surely get to dive a little deeper into the competition’s universe. Yet, thanks to how interesting the whole podracing realm is, it would have certainly been nice if the title made an effort to offer some sort of backstory into the characters and circuits alike. Sadly, though, there is none of that.

Feelings of unfulfilled curiosity aside, it is obvious that – ultimately – the value of Star Wars Episode I: Racer hinges not on world-building, but on the quality of its races. And on that front, the outcome is pretty good. Floating slightly above the ground, the pods are incredibly fast machines, and the game does an excellent job at building a solid sensation of speed; so much, in fact, that when joined with the circuits’ occasionally narrow spaces and plentiful obstacles, players will have their reflexes tested to the point of getting sweaty palms, especially when races are tight.

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The controls are pretty easy to grasp. While the A button accelerates, the B button activates the brakes. Furthermore, the Z trigger allows vehicles to skid when turning; the L shoulder button alters the style of the on-screen map; holding C-down brings up a rear view; in a choice that generates a couple of awkward moments, C-left and C-right roll the vehicle on its side so it is easier for it to squeeze into a few rare extremely tight passages; and C-forward changes the camera, opening the way for players to race with the more cinematic perspectives of the first-person view or even an angle that replicates what the pilot is seeing, with only the engines and track being visible. It is all pretty standard, but Star Wars Episode I: Racer does have its unique mechanics.

The first is in the R button, which is used for repairing. If they crash hard enough, gamers will watch as their pod explodes, having to then wait a second or two for it to respawn so they can continue racing; a punishment that can make solid leads disappear. In case the bump is not sufficient to completely wreck the vehicle, however, its engines will instead absorb the hit, with an on-screen indicator using colors to show how badly broken they are. Accumulating a lot of damage is a bad idea because, after a certain point, it will cause control over the machine to degrade, as it will heavily pull to one side. This can be remedied, though, via the R button, which slows down the pod but activates a repairing process on the engines.

The second unique mechanic, and by far the most important one, is boosting. Keeping the control stick tilted forward will give a little extra speed to the pod; and if it is held long enough, the ball on top of the speed indicator will turn orange, meaning the A button can be quickly let go and pressed again to trigger a massive boost. Although there are no limits to how often it can be used, the goodness of this extra speed is kept in check by two elements. Firstly, since boosting heats up the machine, its duration is controlled by the speed gauge; if it reaches the very top, one of the engines will catch fire, forcing racers into massive repairs. Secondly, due to the heat, activating the technique repeatedly without considerable breaks will cause subsequent periods of extra speed to be shorter, since the pod will not have cooled sufficiently.

There are numerous elements that contribute for one to be competitive in Star Wars Episode I: Racer, such as not exploding too much, not damaging the engines too frequently, having good reflexes, and learning the tracks. None of them, though, have as much potential as boosting. Whether it is in finding ways to trigger it as often as possible or in trying to keep it going for extended periods of time, squeezing the best out of the technique involves a lot of skill and the audacity to go for extra speed in unlikely moments, creating a thrilling exchange of risk and reward. Through it, Star Wars Episode I: Racer lands on a solid mechanic that is easy to grasp, but tough to master.

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When it comes to structure, the game’s main mode does not feature the traditional championships somebody would expect out of an effort of the genre. Instead, players simply need to clear races one by one. The twenty-five tracks are divided into four different circuits, each with its own level of difficulty; and as a nice touch that allows gamers to choose their own path, the opening races of the Amateur, Semi-Pro, and Galactic circuits are unlocked from the get go, with only those of the Invitational one being completely blocked since they are opened by getting to the end of the other three circuits. All races are three-lap affairs that involve twelve competitors, and while ranking within the Top 4 will unlock the subsequent track, beating the character denoted as the course’s favorite will make him available to be selected – unless, of course, they are already part of the relatively small initial roster.

It is a format that works well, and it is made even more interesting by an underlying upgrading system. When starting out, all pods will have quite low stats given they will be equipped with the worst possible parts. Ranking within the Top 4, however, will net players some cash, and they can use their hard-earned money in Watto’s shop to purchase the new parts they desire or even buy some droids, which fix components that have been damaged and have – consequently – lost a bit of the bonus they deliver. Since there are multiple stats (like top speed, acceleration, braking, cooling, repairing, and etc) and due to how better parts are quite expensive, this feature pushes players to do some customization as they try to improve the aspects of the vehicles that better suit their style.

There are plenty of pieces that make Star Wars Episode I: Racer unique, and a list of them could not be complete without a mention to its tracks. The courses are spread around the galaxy, being located in eight planets of very distinct scenarios. Tatooine and its deserts are in, including the spectacular track that appears in the movie. The other locations are the desolate tundra of Ando Prime; the rich cities of imposing architecture, the rocky coast, and the underwater tunnels of Aquilaris; Baroonda and its incredibly varied landscape filled with impossibly tight turns; the dark Malastare and its challenging professional circuits; the fiery mining facilities of Mon Gazza; the prison complex of Oovo IV, with its numerous zero-gravity passages; and the clouds of Ord Ibanna.

Despite the difference in their scenarios, the tracks are generally tied together by some overarching characteristics. For starters, even though there are a handful of shorter circuits, most of them are long, with a considerable bunch having race times that gravitate around or surpass the six-minute mark. Additionally, with the exception of the Malastare courses, they are all permeated by a rally spirit, as if they were put together by joining roads and areas that were not built with the purpose of having races happen on them, because of that, many are the tracks that go through a myriad of different sites; Baroonda’s Grabvine Gateway, for instance, spends a good time snaking around a city before going out into a mountainside, a desert, a forest, and a swamp, only to then come back home. Finally, to further boost this rally feeling, circuits on the same planet often share a few segments, with most – if not all – having the same starting location and then branching out to different areas afterwards.

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These unique design choices might be troublesome to some. The length of the tracks will probably turn away those who prefer shorter races. In what should be a more universal point of contention, however, the sharing of segments between circuits can cause some of them to be slightly dull. Sure, all tracks have a defining characteristic or part, but sometimes the copy and paste goes overboard, leaving a couple of circuits without much character. Nonetheless, this last problem winds up being nothing but a small smudge on a collection of courses that is very good.

The real issues of Star Wars Episode I: Racer happen to come from other fronts. The first major one is the sound; an especially bitter weakness since the title is related to a franchise that has always thrived in that department. The sound effects, the lines spoken by characters, and the music are all of poor quality, as if they were ultra compressed to a level that makes them crack at points. Moreover, regardless of the planet the race takes place in, the music will be exactly the same: during the first two laps, the game will only employ ambient sounds, not playing any tunes whatsoever, which is an acceptable choice; when the final go around comes, one of the movie’s songs will then start playing to raise tension, a move that works, but does not capitalize on the opportunity to make each planet have its own tune. Fortunately, regarding the game’s technical aspects, the graphics go the other way and are, despite the usage of some fog, actually pretty good, especially considering the speed with which the console needs to render the environment.

The second big problem is the AI. Its behavior is rather predictable, and only some sort of disaster will stop the track favorite from coming in ahead of all other CPUs, which removes any feeling that there is an organic competition going on. In addition, even though building leads is quite possible, therefore meaning the game has no extreme rubber-banding implemented, catching up to those who are ahead and overtaking them is too easy, making it seem characters purposely slow down in case they get in front of players. Because of that, anyone with a decent amount of experience in racing games will likely find Star Wars Episode I: Racer to lack challenge, in spite of how some of the late tracks can lead one to crash often enough to be suddenly thrown into a tight race.

That characteristic becomes even more troublesome due to the fact there is simply no way to adjust the AI level. The most one can do is, before each race, set the distribution of money among the Top 4, with one of the configurations causing only the racer who finishes first to receive all the cash; that way, stakes are raised, and failing to win will limit one’s ability to acquire upgrades. However, even if that feature was clearly created as some sort of challenge tuner, it is simply not the same, and many will wonder why in the world harder difficulties were not implemented.

Consequently, the reality is that Star Wars Episode I: Racer can be completely cleared quite quickly, as one can run through its twenty-five courses within six hours. And rather than getting replay value out of the product by engaging against tougher competition, players have to resort to the other modes: time trials and multiplayer. To a degree, they do their jobs competently, even if the latter is limited to two players due to hardware restrictions; yet, as it is the case with the money distribution configuration, they do not replace more difficult AI levels, meaning they come off like insufficient consolation.

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Published in a system with plenty of solid racing games, like Diddy Kong Racing, Mario Kart 64, and F-Zero X, Star Wars Episode I: Racer employs clever gameplay mechanics, a unique approach to course design, and the power of a universally beloved franchise to rank as a worthy experience, pleasantly giving players the chance of stepping into one of the only memorable moments of The Phantom Menace. As a result of the need to release it alongside the movie which inspired it, the title comes with a few glaring holes and possible improvements that would perhaps have been taken care of if the schedule of its development had been more flexible. Still, these issues do not send it to the trash can reserved for movie-related games that are nothing but quick cash-ins; Star Wars Episode I: Racer actually stands pretty far from it, and what it offers is quality futuristic high-speed racing.

The ultimate question that should probably be asked about the game is whether or not it would be notable if it were not attached to such a huge property. The completely accurate answer for that is impossible to reach, as it is located somewhere in a very hypothetical realm. However, Star Wars Episode I: Racer is certainly good enough for its gameplay to speak for itself. It is thrilling, it is impressive for standards of the day, and it is quite a shame that LucasArts did not continue to explore its concept with more installments. Fortunately, this flawed gem of the Nintendo 64 is guaranteed to always be there for anyone who wants to experience racing in the world’s most famous faraway galaxy.

FINAL SCORE: 7 – VERY GOOD

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