One of the first games I ever played was Star Wars Episode I: Racer. As a defender and fan of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, having a racing game based on the high-octane drag racing sequence was a formative gaming experience, and one of the main reason I play games today.
While the original game was on the Nintendo 64, the game recently got an re-release for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. The update was a simple polish and shine, updating the graphics and the frame rate so the game would run smoothly (sometimes the N64 would play like a powerpoint) and that was it.
It was kind of refreshing to see a game of a very particular time be brought to a modern console. The early 3D graphics where every shape needs a right angle, the stripped-down story, and sometimes odd animations, it has a retro charm that goes a long way to papering over its failings. Being a Star Wars game it would have been so easy for the Game Overlords that run the SW brand to force micro-transactions or some daft online ranking to the game, but it’s thankfully been kept as pure to its original form.
So, as a defining game of my childhood, I decided to pick it up and blasted through it over a lazy weekend. Despite the rather short lifespan of the game, I loved every moment, so I wanted to list a few reasons why it is one of my favourite games of all time.
Start Your Engines! – Why I Love Star Wars Episode I: Racer
1. The Universe
While we’ve only seen pod racing once in the entire cinematic Star Wars canon (in one of the best sequences of the entire saga) the game builds upon the work the film did with new tracks and worlds that are not even seen in the other movies.
I think a lot of SW films are kind of boring when it comes to their landscapes, mainly just reusing the same sand/snow/forest landscapes, but in Racer we have a whole host of planets and racetracks.
While the game has the sands of Tatooine and the snowy mountains of Ando Prime, it also has the methane lakes and geysers of Malastare, the smoky quarries of Mon Gazza, and the modern architecture and rocky cliffs of Aquilaris. Those are just the tame ones.
The game also features some standout tracks such as the abandoned gas stations of Ord Ibanna, suspended in low orbit, just like Cloud City from The Empire Strikes Back. Another is Oovo IV, which is a space prison situated on an asteroid belt, complete with cells and airlocks. My favourite tracks are on Baroonda, a planet of tropical jungles, swamps, and beaches, complete with Moai-inspired statues as well as the odd volcano.
While the locations are a high point, the are pushed even further by their individual quirks that helps bring them to life. Ando Prime is inhabited by monk-like aliens, with statues and flags reminiscent of temples in Nepal and Tibet. The race course on the asteroid Oovo IV has several sections without gravity and rogue asteroids. The spice mines of Mon Gazza feature everything from massive diggers to transports that litter the courses. The machines slowly move backwards and forwards so that they are not in the same place as each tracks progresses.
Each planet has its own look and feel, which leads onto…
2. The Tracks
While the game only has eight planets, it manages to keep each one rather fresh, even while refusing certain sections of a map. When attempting a new course it’s a fun mixture of certainty and fear, knowing how to tackle some corners and sections, while at the same time having to pick up on the fly how to navigate other sections of the map.
While the earlier tracks are definitely the easier and less interesting with wide open spaces and flat plains, there are always a few little extras to spice up runs, be they secret areas obscured by vines or waterfalls as well as branching paths that take you to completely different areas of the track than your competitors, or just really big jumps that let you glide effortlessly above the other racers.
Later tracks becoming increasingly difficult with sequential hairpin bends (with nothing to stop you flying of the side of the rocky cliff face that you’re racing on), erupting volcanos that change the layout of the course.
Even in some of the earlier tracks there are hazards. Pod racers are good on solid terrain, but when going across the ice lakes of Ando Prime, the swamps of Baroonda, or the methane rivers of Malastare, pods can start to drift, sending them careening off course, usually to an explosive end.
The Boonta Classic, the track that is featured in The Phantom Menace and the last track of the game, also features sharpshooting Tusken Raiders and moisture pockets, both are severe dangers to weave through. These little features are great, as it throws a curveball into racing so even if you’re ahead of the pack, one wrong move could have them catching up to you.
3. The Podracers
Podracing to me is so cool. Taking the high speed of Formula 1/drag racing, place them on dangerous terrain, and just boost everything to as much as it could be. The idea of a small pod that by the sheer speed and force of the massive engines makes it float is such a novel and interesting concept, and Racer replicates that dangerous sense of speed perfectly.
While we only saw a fraction of the racers in the film, the game goes all out, adding all the racers that were included in the deleted scenes, each with different strengths and weaknesses. And while some racing games’ vehicles would be simple re-skins or little tweaks, here every pod racer is unique. You have the monster truck equivalents of Sebulba and Mars Guo, to the dainty butterflies like Anakin Skywalker and ‘Bullseye’ Navoir. My favourite is Neva Kee, who is unique in the fact that his pod has no cables (that purple energy bar that connects the engines), and is essentially just a tiny cockpit glued to two giant rockets.
As you complete each race you usually unlock a new pod racer which can be useful considering the different tracks layouts as you aren’t stuck with one machine. If you’re on a course that has a lot of tight corners, you can choose a racer that is more suited to turning. On a course with long straights, you can pick someone with a fast boost and high acceleration. Size and weight also plays a factor in choosing a podracer. Smaller pods are generally faster, but can’t take as much damage as the larger, slower, pods.
The pods do everything they do in the film, which is something unique in the racing genre. While they have the standard boost, the pods can also flip sideways to fit through narrow gaps and have air brakes that allow you to float over jumps and gaps. It’s thrilling on tracks like Ando Prime where you can boost off the top of a mountain peak and then just gently float across ice gorges and alien monasteries of that planet.
Each pod can be customised, either through buying from Watto’s Shop or by exploring for parts in the junkyard. While these custom options are more for building stats than changing the look of your pod, it’s still great fun to max out your speed and boost stats, leaving you on the edge between ‘in control’ and ‘totally lost it’.
The sounds design helps sell the illusion of the pods with every single engine having a beautiful hum and rev. Even the small things like shutting down an engine to repair it or put out a fire, to the whistling air as you fly across a gap, to the hiss of the air brakes, each one is solid, sounding exactly like what would you think these gigantic machines would sound like, and mixing perfectly with the ‘vroom’ of the pods around you.
And it doesn’t hurt to having the excellent John Williams score layered over the top. Nothing beats hearing the boost of a pod over the pulsing strings of ‘Duel Of The Fates’ our soaring through the air to the blaring trumpets of ‘Battle of Naboo’, and making you want to shout, “NOW THIS IS PODRACING!”
Despite being over twenty years old, I had a so much fun with Episode I: Racer. And while there was a sequel by the same studio for the PlayStation 2 called Racer Revenge, it was met with mixed reviews.
Episode I: Racer is still fondly remembered by many, featuring highly on several ‘Best Star Wars’ game lists, and was happily received with its re-release. It took a sequence that was only about fifteen minutes of the first film, and delivered all the promise that it offered.
I was partly raised on racers, with things like Gran Turismo, Forza, and Mario Kart being pretty much constants throughout my gaming life. And while each of those is fun in their own right…there is just something better about Racer.
I could be biased, but there is just something about the sense of speed, trying to control two full force engines, flying through impressive vistas and winding corridors that no other game has replicated.
The only other game that really worked in the same way is Split/Second: Velocity, a beautifully daft arcade racer, also published by Disney. Split/Second is filled to the brim with powerful looking and sounding cars, interesting and unique locations, and explosive gameplay. It too, like Racer, has been left behind by Disney, a one-and-done game that deserved a sequel.
Despite Disney breathing life back into the Star Wars property, the games have been few and far between, with only two controversial Battlefront games, one action adventure (Jedi: Fallen Order) and one flight sim (Squadrons) being released. With the new trilogy finished, now would be the time for games to fill the space between new films and television shows being created.
If we were to ever get more Star Wars games, I hope that one is based on pod racing. With today machines, Disney could push it further and farther than before. New tracks from planets across the saga, new racers, more customisable options, a strong story, and even the option to build your own pod racer from scratch.
There is so much that could be created and improved…and with a name like Star Wars, it’s all but guaranteed to make money.
Banner Photo Source: nintendo-insider.com