1999 was a more innocent time for a Star Wars fan. Long before the fandom raged against the corporate machine that is Disney, everyone was wide-eyed and excited at the prospect of The Phantom Menace. The movie, rather famously, didn’t live up to expectations of any kind. We still see the lingering effects of Episode I to this very day; a cycle of seething anger across many an armchair expert when it comes to Star Wars fandom.
Living through that time, it was nothing but a positive media blitz. Even those who didn’t like The Phantom Menace have to admit the absolute feeding frenzy of books and promotions for the movie were in full force. For Star Wars video games, it was an embarrassment of riches for players in 1999. The most obvious tie-in came from the game that captures arguably the best part of the movie, the podracing sequence. That is Star Wars: Episode I Racer, one of the classic LucasArts titles that fans always clamor for more of.
The recent rerelease on GOG is their answer, bringing to us a relic from a bygone age. In the same vein as the Wipeout or F-Zero series, today these sci-fi themed racing games are a rare occurrence. Episode I Racer is on record as being the most successful game in the genre, with a Guinness World Record for the most worldwide sales when compared to its competition. While the game certainly has been weathered by time, it holds up as a perfect time capsule of its era in terms of graphics, controls, and speed.
What made Episode I Racer so good was the blend of twitch racing reflexes with excellent progression. The mechanics are tight and fast-paced. Tougher tracks require precision reflexes and drifting techniques to get through. Typical races have you rocketing on the track at over 600 to over 1,000-mph at a time as well. The designs of the tracks are also strong. You have 21 tracks that maximize the number of jumps, alternate routes, and sharp turns as you get further into the game.
The progression comes in the form of maintenance of your pod in tournament mode. With 15 different podracers to unlock, the game offers a ton of variety in the way you wish to play initially. Want a high-top speed on the straight ways? How about strong traction and acceleration? This is all enhanced by the games own economy. Winning races in tournament mode give you money to spend upgrading your pod. These upgrades are necessary for success in the later levels of the game, adding a fairly smooth progression to follow. There's a component of grinding for money here, but by the time you finish the final course, a re-creation of the race on Tatooine from the movies, your pod will be a fine-tuned machine.
Adding to this is the tight in-race controls, including a variety of options to use on the fly. Boosting, for example, overheats your pod if used for too long. So, boosting during the race needs to be done strategically to maintain a healthy pace. You can also repair your pod mid-race to give you more longevity with your boosts and damage. This is also strategic as you move slower as you self-repair. Little touches such as this offer a bit of strategy in what is otherwise a straightforward racing game.
Unfortunately, the downsides of Episode I Racer stem from it being a product of its time. Like most arcade-style racing games you have limited modes of play. Outside of tournament mode, you standard racing fares of time attack and free race modes. There is a multiplayer mode, but even in 1999, it was difficult to get into. LAN works well for the PC version, and can, in theory, support up to eight players. To have it reliably do so is another story altogether.
In truth, there is not much “game” in the game. This is really a product of the genre more than anything else, but it is a negative nonetheless. Arcade-style racers are all about improving track times and having fun in multiplayer. Sadly Episode I Racer lacks the capacity for modern multiplayer lobbies. It’s an early internet, LAN-focused game, so it will be difficult to get players to race together. It's a shame, as the old design shackles all the potential fun. The controls and gameplay are strong enough to carry the title, but it doesn’t have much lasting power outside of tournament mode.
Episode I Racer is also an odd game due to the PC version arguably being the inferior pick for a re-release. While the PC version was first out the door in 1999, the game was ported and upgraded for the consoles of the day. Many have cited the Nintendo 64 version, with the enhancements of the Nintendo Expansion Pack, being superior in terms of bug fixes, controller use, and graphical quality. Controls-wise, the best way to play is with joystick controls. Keyboard play is doable but cumbersome ultimately, so an old-school computer joystick is as close as the PC version gets to the smooth controller controls.
Graphically the Nintendo 64 version is simply superior, even in 2018. Episode I Racer is a detailed game but not a pretty one, with a lot of low-polygon textures used for in-game backgrounds and character models. Even getting the game to run properly requires you to run the game on your desktop resolution. Only the pods have any real work put into their digital models. The rest is window dressing that needs some cleaning.
Soundwise, each version of the game is a winner. One of the hallmarks of Episode I Racer is having the game fully benefit from Industrial Light and Magic’s own sound mixing. The game features fully orchestrated music from Episode 1 (including bars from fan favorite “Duel of the Fates”) and authentic sound effects straight from the movies. The two main racers, Anakin and Sebulba, also have their voices reprised by actors Jake Lloyd and Lewis MacLeod, respectively. Like many LucasArts titles, it feels like an authentic Star Wars experience when you play it.
Star Wars Episode I: Racer Review | Final Thoughts
For many, that is good enough. Star Wars: Episode I Racer is arguably one of the best things to come out of Star Wars: Episode I. It is a solid game with excellent controls, sound design and for the time, innovative ideas that don’t feel out of place when it comes to racing games. A must-have for Star Wars fans, but a must play for anyone looking for a fast-paced arcade racer.
Our rewind review of Star Wars: Episode I Racer was conducted on PC with a copy provided as part of our ongoing partnership with GOG.
- Star Wars Presentation and Sound Design...
- Tight, Responsive Controls...
- Tons of Unlockables and Challenges.
- Addicting Gameplay.
- The Best Scene in The Phantom Menace.
- ...Mediocre Graphical Quality.
- ...Minimum Gameplay Modes.