When I was just about three years old, my parents had gotten me a Nintendo 64 and with it Star Wars Episode I: Racer. My memories of being a young lad blur from there, but there has always been a certain set of memories that burn bright in my mind. All at once it was as if I had gotten a toy box filled with surprises I kept finding. It was a whirlwind tour of lush, exotic locales and grim cyberpunk hellscapes. It was a melting pot of cultures, languages and species. The awkward way the announcer said “It’s a new lap record.” But most of all, it was the speed. Dodging around walls, corners and extremely large construction vehicles. That feeling of racing into the red zone, turning on the boost and for a moment becoming one with the wind. You’d soar high over the ground before crashing back down to hit the next turn at full throttle. Now THAT is podracing.
In the North America the Nintendo 64 version of Star Wars Episode I: Racer was released on May 19th 1999 to coincide with the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. It was also released in a bundle with the Nintendo 64 system itself, and released in Australia with another randomly assorted game. The game itself is an anti-gravity racer, putting it in competition with it’s more famous contemporaries; Wipeout on the Playstation and F-Zero on N64.
As with it’s contemporaries the gameplay consisted of heavily customized and finely tuned machines hitting the corners of the track a ludicrous speeds, with racers having to constantly be careful not to destroy themselves on walls or to fly off course. The basics of course were accelerating your pod to top speed and then mixing that speed with precision use of the air brakes to safely take turns without plastering against walls.
The finer points of this system that set it apart from the other racing games, were it’s systems concerning boosting and the fact that podracers operated using two or more separate engines. Boosting in the game works by tilting the stick forward and hitting the A button after the boost gauge fills up, accelerating you to ludicrous speeds while rapidly heating your engines. If you make the tiniest bump into a wall during this time your engine is likely to completely shatter, sending you spinning into oblivion. If you let your engines overheat much the same will happen.
Respawning of course is horrible when your fellow racers are also likely racing along at upwards of 800 miles per hour. After all with more than one engine, such high speeds are easily attainable. Your engines are separated by left and right, also being separated by front, middle, and back sections. Each section has it’s own level of health, which is lowered by collisions with other racers and by grinding on the walls during tight turns. As you might guess, if any of the sections takes enough damage to sound warning alarms, the engine is likely to explode. However there’s a repair option which can save your engines from fatal damage. The trade off being that while the engine is repaired, it’s also turned off.
The interplay of maintaining engine integrity while also maintaining speed and concentration on the course led to a slight depth of strategy and mental fortitude along with the pure reflexes and dexterity required to navigate the course. The gameplay along with its unique sci-fi environments and satisfying progression led the game to glowing positive reviews at the time of release.
Of course in my youth the only things I was able to appreciate about the system were that I could reach amazingly high speeds by racing with the coolest, sleekest looking podracers in the galaxy. Love blossomed when I got first place on the second track of the game and watched as my rival for the course, Teemto Pagalies backed his pod into my garage, allowing me to select him for future races. At that moment I was three years of age and I decided that my goal would be to get first place on each of the 21 main tracks and the 4 bonus expert tracks. This would earn me the right to play as the galaxy’s fastest and finest, including the vile Sebulba. Which funnily enough I never got around to until I decided to play again while writing this article.
Something else that I didn’t notice until replaying that game was that there were only eight planets to race on, with each of the 25 tracks being variations, extensions, or remixes of the other courses. Another thing younger me didn’t appreciate to the fullest extent was the upgrade system. There was a fine amount of customization so that one could buy the right parts to get the perfect balance of handling, speed, acceleration, boost usage, and durability of their pods. This led to my love for my favorite racer Mars Guo. Guo had the highest top speed I had ever seen, so of course I decided to capitalize on it and spent all my credits on the best engines to max out his top speed. This led to me taking one of the best racers in the game and turning him into a dark green comet that sped past the other racers and right into the walls.
In the end, Star Wars Episode I: Racer is a game that I feel has stood the test of time in terms of gameplay quality. It does so well on its own that it’s a definite exception to the rule of movie tie-in games being trash. You almost wouldn’t know it’s a tie-in game, since the only actual attachment it has to the movie is having the Anakin, Sebulba and the Tatooine course. Graphically it’s of course super outdated, but hey are you really going to worry about graphics when you’re blazing by at hundreds of miles per hour? We all know the answer is “yes”, but don’t let that deter you from an amazing racing experience, Star Wars fan or not.