Star Wars Episode I: Racer comes to Nintendo Switch and PS4. Yippee! But can a 21-year-old N64 game save the Star Wars franchise?
I saw the first trailer for Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace on a date, right before Shakespeare in Love.
21 years on, it remains a masterclass of mood and scene-setting. A new Star Wars film didn’t need hype, but the trailer only increased my anticipation for the MOVIE EVENT OF THE MILLENNIUM.
I saw the film’s second trailer at work. Back then, work involved tabbing through databases on green-screened IBM AS/400 terminals, updating call logs, and flirting with each other via a SNDBRKMSG. As a member of the marketing team, I was one of only two people – the other, my friend Andy – to also have a Windows PC connected to the internet. Netscape was the browser of choice. Altavista the search engine we relied on.
When the second trailer for The Phantom Menace was released on the Star Wars website, a gaggle of excited co-workers gathered around my desk as it buffered s-l-o-w-l-y into low-resolution glory. On that small CRT monitor, we watched as majestic transporters rolled over the green hills of Naboo. We saw armies of droids prepare for battle. Darth Maul gazed chillingly into our souls. And our first glimpse of pod racing promised a chariot race for the 21st century.
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace was going to be the best film we’d ever seen.
Andy and I saw the film on the first weekend of release. We liked it. A lot. Didn’t we? I mean, that kid was a little annoying. And it didn’t make much sense. And Darth Maul was underused. Something about tax. But it was still amazing, right?
I wasn’t sure. So I went to see it again with two other friends. I left the cinema no clearer about my opinion. One of my chums – who had never seen a Star Wars film before – said: “What the &%$* was that #*&#?” He might have been on to something.
We didn’t want to admit that maybe, just maybe, Episode I was a bit of a stinker. Let’s be clear: we didn’t think that George Lucas had murdered our childhoods, but there was a feeling of gradual deflation. It was a lesson learned in avoiding the machinations of the hype machine.
Around this time, Andy and I would spend our evenings drinking beer and playing Mario Kart 64 and GoldenEye 007 on my Nintendo 64. Andy wanted his own console, so we took a trip to the Oxford Street branch Electronics Boutique. And there we saw it. A new bundle. The pack-in game was Star Wars Episode I: Racer.
That’s the thing about Star Wars. It can disappoint you. It can let you down. But your love for it never quite goes. We didn’t think the film was great, but we adored the pod race. So Andy bought his first games console. It had a picture of Jake Lloyd on the box.
Star Wars Episode I: Racer quickly became part of our gaming rotation. Sure, the film’s Boonta track only features twice and the others were set on planets we’d never heard of, but it scratched the itch. However, over time, we began to enjoy racing on these new strange worlds. Caressing the curves of Scrapper’s Run on Ord Ibanna was an exercise in pure concentration, and taking on Sebulba’s Legacy on Malastrae was a controller-clenching thrill. For a time, the game saved Star Wars.
21 years later
We lie in the wake of another Star Wars film that has left audiences baffled, bemused, and frustrated. And here is Star Wars Episode I: Racer to save us one again.
Like the studio’s previous work with Star Wars: Jedi Knight 2: Jedi Outcast, Aspyr Media’s new console port of Star Wars Episode I: Racer is not a full-fledged remake. Instead, it’s up-rezzed remaster of the original. The textures are still blurry – although the overall image is crisp – and the audio is still tinny, while the video cutscenes show their compressed age.
Retooled rumble and motion controls are welcome additions, but, most importantly, it’s the rock-solid 60fps frame rate that transforms the experience. The game shows its age, but it now plays like a dream. Each race is exciting and nerve-racking. The best of them are precarious balancing acts in which split-second decisions are the difference between gliding into the perfect racing line or careening into a rock.
There’s a wealth of characters to unlock, and the upgrade system – although basic by modern standards – is fun to tinker with. It makes a tangible difference in how each racer performs and handles.
The game also brims with humorous details, from the Pit Droids larking around in the garage to Dud Bolt’s over-enthusiastic mid-race grunts. Greg Proops and Scott Capurro resume the role of Fode and Beed with gusto, and Andy Secombe’s Watto is employed to hum the Cantina theme at the end of each race. What more could you want?
In many respects, Star Wars Episode I: Racer doesn’t feel like part of the current Star Wars universe. With its locations and characters all but ignored by recent entries into the franchise, the game is a race into a fictional dead end, and it’s all the better for it.
Racer can’t make up for the disappointment of Episode IX – after all, it’s based on a film with a fair few problems of its own – but it’s successful in taking players back to a more innocent and optimistic time. To a time when Star Wars was the fever dream of a mad, misguided genius, rather than the daily grind of a weary lore committee.
Star Wars: Episode 1 Racer is probably only for the franchise’s most ardent fans, but for gamers of a certain vintage, the Midi-chlorians are still strong with this one.
Game: Star Wars Episode I: Racer
Platform: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4
Publisher: Aspyr Media
Developer: LucasArts / Aspyr Media
Release Date: June 23, 2020