Review by Malorkus
The pod cast.
For decades, Star Wars was an untouchable franchise. It was highly respected, and people would joke about the Holiday Special as the de facto punching bag, as it was the only thing really worthy of ridicule. That prestige disappeared in a blink with Episode I: The Phantom Menace. It has gone down in the years since as one of the most disappointing releases ever, full of many stupid ideas and stupid characters. There is such negativity around the film’s legacy that it is hard to believe that not every idea was a complete embarrassment. Case in point: pod racing. Watching the pod races was exciting for both younger and older viewers. They felt like a video game, and made you wish you could pilot one yourself. George Lucas had the same idea as you. Star Wars Episode I: Racer is exactly that - a Star Wars racing game. It’s fast, and it’s flawed, but it’s probably one of the more respectable things to come from this tale of woe.
Playable racers are taken from the actual film, meaning you will not recognize most of them, although at least they had the sense to not include Jar Jar Binks. Their respective pod machines will vary in terms of speed and flight performance. On the surface, the game features a lot of basic elements found in most non-simulation racing games, such as boosting and vehicle damage. Episode I: Racer correlates those two for a unique take, though, as overusing your boost will cause your pod racer to overheat, temporarily suspending you. It’s a subtle risk-and-reward system that does a lot to make the game stand out. Scraping against canyon walls or colliding with other racers will also damage your pod, so ramming another racer out of the way should only be done if you can afford it. You can repair damaged pods in exchange for some temporarily reduced speed. Again, this takes an existing racing game element like pit stops and puts a new spin on it.
The different modes are pretty standard, for better or worse. You have your standard tournament mode, where you compete in increasingly difficult races to be the fastest in the galaxy. There is a time trial mode to set your own personal fastest times for each course. Given the Star Wars property available, it feels like a missed opportunity not to offer something else, even if it was a short and goofy story mode. There is a lack of lasting single-player incentive here, even with numerous characters to unlock (again, more recognizable faces would make this more appealing). You can also unlock parks, which Watto can use to upgrade your vehicles. There comes a point where it feels like you are grinding parts in order to beat later tournaments, though, making the races feel tedious after a while.
Multi-player can be enjoyable enough, and is probably necessary to get the most out of the game. The split-screen action runs pretty smoothly for a game of this age, and on a technical level, Episode 1: Racer is an impressive feat at least. Your vehicle getting destroyed may be frustrating against the computer, but it’s a riot against a friend. Star Wars Episode 1: Racer correctly pounces on the opportunity to turn pod racing into a video game, but never lives up to its full potential. The lack of modes is disappointing, and the controls can be rather clunky at times too. The game excels where it puts unique twists on traditional racing mechanics, like vehicle damage, which makes it all the more noticeable where it stays too traditional. It’s certainly a competent racer, however, which might be the most you could ask for given the source material.
Product Release: Star Wars Episode I: Racer (US, 05/18/99)
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