As a Star Wars fan, I was SUPER excited when Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace released in 1999. I was a kid back then, so I could see past just how mediocre the actual movie was – especially since it featured some awesome things such as Darth Maul (who will always be one of my favourite villains), Jar Jar Binks (just kidding), and, of course, pod racing.
I also just so happened to play the heck out of Star Wars Episode I: Racer when it released on the Nintendo 64, with the frantic racing title offering hours upon hours of speeding fun across a selection of varied Star Wars locations. That too was flawed back in the day, most notably with a shoddy frame rate, but I didn’t mind… it was fun.
Well, twenty-one years on, it has had an unexpected remastered release courtesy of the team at Aspyr and is now available on the Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4, bringing with it a fresh lick of paint as well as some technical improvements. Much like in 1999, it’s still a lot of fun to play too, even if it is guilty of showing its age in a lot of elements of its design.
Star Wars Episode I: Racer offers exactly what you’d expect: a pod racing experience set in the Star Wars universe. There are multiple character to play as that each bring with them their own unique pods (though I think just Anakin and Sebulba will be familiar to most), with more characters unlocking as you progress through each of the game’s tournaments. The tournaments themselves are simple in design and are just made up of a selection of races with little fanfare in between, but they do offer a sense of progress and give players something to work towards.
The pod racing itself will be straight forward to anyone who has played a racer before, with an emphasis placed on speed, vehicle control, and braking at the right moment to avoid crashes. You can probably expect to crash a lot in the game though, especially since your dual-engines each have their own damage meters that build up when you clip the environment or hit a hefty jump – fortunately, you’ll quickly respawn back into the race if you do end up in a disastrous explosion, so it’s not too much of a deal breaker.
Whilst you can switch up your character at any time to take advantage of the different attributes that each vehicle offers, you can also purchase upgrades that’ll improve your stats and allow you to shape a vehicle to suit your playstyle. Whilst this can be essential, especially when it comes to your durability on some race courses, it can also work against you – I ramped up my speed stat so high that I couldn’t handle my pod during some of the tighter courses where quick turns were essential, leaving me in a crashed heap over and over again. It shows there’s an element of strategy to some courses in regards to your vehicle choice, meaning you will have to play around with what’s on offer to figure out what works best. It’s a neat way to add an element of variety to the experience and means that you can’t always rely on simply being the fastest racer in order to succeed (even if it does help… a LOT).
There’s no denying that Star Wars Episode I: Racer is a whole lot of fun to play, with the varied track selection offering varied levels of challenge to keep players’ skills constantly tested. With their mixture of tight passages, airborne sequences, hazards to avoid, and harsh bends, they’ll really keep you on your toes as you go head-to-head with your rival pod racers. That being said, you shouldn’t expect too much of a challenge from your fellow competitors, with the AI of your opponents rarely hitting the mark. I never really found myself challenged or jostling for positions, with the only time they ever really overtook me coming if I crashed or was respawing following an explosion. Whilst I’d like to put this down to my expert pod racing skills, the reality is that the game lacks a bit of challenge as far as the ‘racing’ side of the experience is concerned. But hey, it doesn’t stop it being a hell of a lot of fun to play, with the main excitement of Star Wars Episode I: Racer coming from surviving the many hazards and tricky twists and turns of each track.
Whilst Star Wars Episode I: Racer will feel the same to a lot of gamers from a gameplay perspective, it has seen a fair few improvements in this remastered release that really refine the experience. Remember the shoddy frame rate of the original game on the Nintendo 64 that often struggled to stay in double-figures? Well, that has been fixed here, with Star Wars Episode I: Racer now hitting a consistent 60fps that ensures the racing remains silky smooth throughout, regardless of how frantic the action on-screen might be. The upscaling of the resolution means a lot of the in-game models look better too, even if they are a bit chunky in design thanks to the fact that the original models from 1999 are used. The draw distance has also been improved upon and removed the Silent Hill-esque fogginess that was ever-present in the original Nintendo 64 release, so you can even see everything that’s ahead of you when racing.
These may all seem like standard improvements as far as remastered releases are concerned, but they go a long way in making Star Wars Episode I: Racer feel like a much better game. Whilst the Nintendo 64 release was fun, it hadn’t aged all that well on a technical basis – these changes make the game a lot more enjoyable to play in the modern day.
However, not everything in the game has seen improvement, with the textures found on a lot of the courses just looking plain ugly and feeling like they still belong in 1999. Of course, they were more forgivable in the days of standard definition televisions, but they look a little grim now when you see them at a higher resolution. The sound design of the game is all over the place too, with the audio levels rarely feeling consistent and the sound compression adding a fuzziness to all of the music and sound effects in the game. It is nice to see that a lot of the original soundtrack from the Star Wars movies is present during races, but you shouldn’t expect any of them to actually sound that great.
Whilst not a criticism, it’s also a real shame that online multiplayer couldn’t be included in this remastered release of Star Wars Episode I: Racer – online pod racing would have been AMAZING, especially with the creative and tightly designed nature of the courses. It’s an understandable omission given that it wasn’t featured in the original game, whilst the two-player local racing still manages to be a lot of fun. But still, a reviewer can dream for online pod racing, right?
Star Wars Episode I: Racer offers an improved take on the Nintendo 64 classic that still feels fun to play now, even if it is a little flawed in places. The exciting track design and frantic nature of the pod racing itself makes for some really hectic and enjoyable showdowns, whilst the improved frame rate ensures the game feels super smooth to play.
Of course, it isn’t perfect and some sketchy textures, inconsistent (and often too easy) difficulty, and distorted audio problems do hinder the experience a fair bit. They’re not problematic enough to make Star Wars Episode I: Racer feel like a bad game, but they’re still obvious issues that can be hard to ignore in places.
Still, it’s clear that Star Wars Episode I: Racer has managed to stand the test of time and it’s easy to recommend this remastered release for both returning gamers and those who never got the chance to race in one of the iconic pod racers back in 1999.
Developer: LucasArts, Aspyr
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4