Star Wars games: “Episode I: Racer” (PC)

It’s the 4th of May, 2022, which means Star Wars Day and a review of LucasArts’ classic Episode I: Racer.

Star Wars Episode I: Racer (PC)
(USA 1999, developer: LucasArts (defunct), publishers: LucasArts (defunct)/Disney/Nintendo/THQ Nordic, platforms: PC, N64, Gameboy Color, Dreamcast, Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch)

Racers across the galaxy get into their podcars to show who is the best.

Memorable thrill ride
If there’s one memorable moment in Episode I: The Phantom Menace, then it’s the high-speed podracing sequence on the planet of Tatooine, as young Anakin Skywalker takes part in the competition to win repair parts for Obi-Wan Kenobi and his friends as well as his freedom being a slave. The scene might just have been an eye candy thrill ride without any real meaning for the franchise, except that it introduced someone who would later become Darth Vader, but it was exciting nevertheless.

Less story and more speed
Episode I: Racer does away with any dramatic storyline, as its main premise is that one takes control of various vehicles as one of over 21 podracers (among them Anakin) to become the best of the best. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t any Star Wars atmosphere, because in addition to the classic beginning with yellow text scrolling down and accompanied to the John Williams score, each race takes place on planets that are familiar to fans of the sci-fi saga. With every new setting introduced by a short video the otherworldly races feels as real as they can be, even though there isn’t any plot or character development to speak of.

Planet hopping
The real stars of the show are obviously the varied environments with 21 tracks on 8 worlds, ranging from a city in the clouds to canyons in the desert, ice or jungle or volcano landscapes. A few unexpected events, e.g. fire geysers or mine crawlers getting in the way as well as jumps over chasms and even sudden anti-gravity tunnels, make it particularly difficult at times to navigate the levels, although this adds to the atmosphere as well as the breakneck speed experience.

Changing characters and vehicles
Choosing the different characters comes with its merits and problems, as their ships handle differently, too. Some of them have to be unlocked first, which usually means completing a planet with first place in every race. One isn’t stuck with the initial stats for very long, though, as one soon earns money after successful runs, preferably when reaching the finish line first after three laps. Being able to buy upgrades for improving the attrbutes traction, turning, acceleration, top speed, air brake, cooling, or repair dramatically changes how one races through the levels.

In control
In spite of the superfast speed which one moves around in and often precarious situations when squeezing through tight spaces or evading devastating corners, handling of the ships is intuitive. As the map shows most pitfalls in advance and one doesn’t have too many keys, gameplay always remains fair. However, it becomes important to know when to use a boost and when to stop accelerating if one doesn’t want the engine to catch fire or the racer to smash into walls.

Sections which change the track into zero gravity arcade flight sequences are especially tricky, as one has to circumnavigate flying boulders and go through narrow passages. Thankfully, the opponents aren’t particularly aggressive so that one can usually focus on the environments without thinking about being hassled from all sides.

The fast, furious, and frustrating
Without any weapons (except one special racer but who doesn’t really come into the equation), races simply revolve around being faster than the opposition, and it’s here where a bit of excitement and intensity is lost. Unlike other racers, futuristic or not, one rarely fights for the best position, as one is either too far in front or behind the other ships.

Except for the last tough four bonus levels which are only unlocked after the credits roll, the game is rather easy, as one usually races around environments and is rarely overtaken by other opponents. If this does happen, it’s a pretty cool moment because each driver screams in his alien language, which also happens if one passes by another racer. Unfortunately playing together or rather against another human player is only possible via LAN, so there’s no split-screen mode (except for the new Nintendo Switch version).

It’s a bit disappointing that one is only pushed to the limits in one or two of the bonus levels when shortcuts become essential and one small mistake can mean falling back from first to almost last place in a heartbeat. This shows that there’s something wrong with the AI, as one rarely has to struggle in most of the game and suddenly everyone becomes much better in only a few levels.

Too fast to look
The graphics in-game haven’t aged particularly well, especially the backgrounds. But as there aren’t any technical hiccups and the game keeps a consistent frame rate, one doesn’t mind. This becomes apparent when one simply doesn’t have the time to take in most of the environment due to the superfast gameplay. The cut-scenes are still quite good with their various depictions of planets, although the human character models are rather ugly.

Immersive sound
Of course a Star Wars game would only be half of the experience if it didn’t have John Williams’ music, and fortunately it does have those memorable pieces that feel like an additional adrenaline shot in each race. One can even say that without it, the races would be less memorable. In addition, the fun commentators do a great job to encance the experience, while the sound effects when using boosts, jumps or revving up the engine are nice, too.

Pure adrenaline fun
Despite outdated graphics and a very short playtime of just around 4 hours (plus one more for the surprisingly difficult bonus levels), Episode I: Racer is everything a Star Wars fan, old or new, can wish for, at least in a futuristic racing game.

The way most ships handle and how they change depending on the upgrades one buys is as much fun as learning each track’s pitfalls and staying on top of the game with a sense of speed very few racing titles can offer. The fantastic music and sound effects are the icing on the fan service cake as well, although the lack of a local multiplayer split-screen mode (at least in the PC version) is disappointing.

Score: 8/10

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About nufafitc

Being an avid gamer, cinemaniac, and bookworm in addition to other things the internet and new media present, I'm also very much into DIY music, rock and pop in particular. Writing short or longer pieces about anything that interests me has always made me happy. As both an editor for German website "Adventure-Treff" and UK website "Future Sack", I like to write reviews and news about recent developments in the movies, games and book industry.
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2 Responses to Star Wars games: “Episode I: Racer” (PC)

  1. Pingback: Happy Star Wars Day 2022 with GOG “May the 4th be with you” sale | Emotional Multimedia Ride

  2. Pingback: Overview of (blog) life in May 2022 | Emotional Multimedia Ride

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