Content of the article: "I played Star Wars Episode 1 Racer (1999) and I have some thoughts."
So before I get started I want to preface by saying that I love this game. As a kid, the pod racing scene was my favorite part of The Phantom Menace so seeing this sport fleshed out into a video game is awesome. This is a game I grew up with on the N64 and remember fondly. I recently found it on the Switch for $7 so I figured I’d give it another go, but does it still hold up?
If I had to sum up this game, I’d say it’s F-Zero with a Star Wars skin. The racing is fast-paced, often requiring split second decision making, and the controls complement this well by being smooth and responsive. One thing I really like is how most tracks are long and often feature branching paths. This keeps them feeling fresh, even when set pieces and locations are reused from race to race. As well, the player gets to choose from a huge host of alien characters to race with. Some are better than others but none are necessarily bad. My personal favorite is Bullseye Navior. I also like Neva Kee for his unique pod racer design.
I also really like the damage/repair system. This provides the player with a penalty for reckless driving while not crippling them in such a way that they’ll automatically lose due to a single crash. I did have problems with crashing however on a few tracks where I’d blow up at the top of a ramp for seemingly no reason. I just figured it’s better to avoid the ramp altogether instead of risking a crash into an invisible wall.
Another point I’d like to touch on is the difficulty. As a kid, I found this game incredibly difficult, especially the later tracks, but as an adult it was quite the opposite. For every race, I’d adjust the betting stakes to winner takes all. I thought this may be considered harder since the player risks getting nothing if they don’t come in first but what actually happened is this allowed me to almost fully upgrade my speed, traction, and steering after only the first circuit of races. This made all of the subsequent races incredibly easy to the point that I’d have have enough of a lead in every race that the only time I’d ever see another racer is if I lapped them on shorter tracks. I did have trouble with one race but I’ll get to that later. I guess I could make the game harder by lowering the stakes, effectively throttling my pod racer stats, but I’d feel cheated in a way knowing that I could be going faster. I’d prefer to have my racer fully upgraded with a difficulty slider that gives me a challenge even at those high speeds.
The game ends and the credits roll after you beat Sebulba on the race track from the movie. It’s a great final track and the developers did a great job of connecting the parts we see from the film into a fluid and cohesive track. There are then 4 more tracks that could be considered post-game content, even though you technically unlock these with each completed circuit. These up the difficulty a little bit and I think are generally a good challenge for better players. The final of these is a race through a lava-filled volcano set to the tune of Duel of the Fates, which is an excellent setting for a final challenge to players. My only beef with this is that the reward for completing this race is getting to play as Ben Quadrinaro. You may be asking who the hell that is and you’re not alone. He’s the alien in the movie who sucked so bad that his pod racer blew up right at the starting line. This just didn’t feel like a worthy reward for completing the game. I think it would have been better if we were offered cameo racers like Qui-gon Jinn or Darth Vader. Maybe that wouldn’t make sense in Star Wars canon but neither does a slave Anakin Skywalker touring other planets as a professional pod racer.
One other complaint I have is with one track in particular, Abyss. This is a post-game race so it makes sense that it’d be hard but I feel like they did it it a cheap way. At the start of the race, there’s a section where two tracks are stacked on top of each other. The goal is to stay on the high road which ultimately leads to a shorter path. Once you fall onto the low road, there’s no getting back up and this alternate path is so long that it’s impossible to catch back up to first place, even after 3 laps. Remember that I was fast enough to never see another racer once I left the finish line on races both before and after this one. In races where I fell onto the lower track, even if only on the first lap, I never once caught up to first place. Just resetting the race and starting over was always a better option than trying to finish the race and I don’t think that’s a good thing.
The only other thing that I’d change is to offer button mapping, especially on ports to newer consoles, like the one I played on the Switch. For example, on the Switch:
Rz: gas, Lz: Slide, R: repair, B: break, A: boost
As someone who likes to use my index fingers for both shoulder buttons, I would have liked to be able to map repair to the X or Y button while keeping my gas on Rz. I would have also liked to map break to Lz because Lz-Rz break and gas makes more sense in my mind than B-Rz. I don’t see why custom controller options would be a difficult thing to include.
So all in all Star Wars Episode 1 Racer is a great game. It’s rare for an N64 racer to hold up as well as this one has so I think that says something to the quality of this game. It isn’t as accessible to newcomers as Mario Kart 64 but I’d still consider it the better game. The controls are tight and responsive and the gameplay is just plain fun. The soundtrack, which I’ve failed to mention, is made up of tracks ripped straight from the film and it sounds great. I have a few minor complaints but it’s nothing game breaking. If you enjoyed this game as a kid, like Star Wars, or even just like the racing genre, I highly recommend giving this game a shot. The only shame is that this game never saw a sequel, as it laid an excellent base upon which to build a potentially stellar series of games.
Thanks for reading!
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