Star Wars Episode 1: Racer
Let's face it, Episode 1 was not a great movie. It doesn't take a movie critic to tell you that the direction and performances were rotten and the less said about Jar Jar Binks, the better. It took me over 15 years to brave re-watching Lucas' prequel for the first time since the premier night and it still stinks today. There was one sequence however which brought back that feeling of heart racing action first experienced during the "Death Star trench run" sequence. Perhaps I'm overselling it, but that podracing sequence was pretty awesome.
Lucas has long been known as a merchandising genius, waiving $500,000 from his directing fee for the original trilogy in exchange for licensing and merchandising rights - a mistake that cost 20th Century Fox billions of dollars and turned Lucas into an empire of his own. Phantom Menace's Pod Racer sequence seemed like it was designed with the intent to one day be converted into a video game. Four years prior, Wipeout was a huge hit for Psygnosis on the PlayStation and Saturn. The similarities are clear. Anti-gravity vehicles lap a circuit, with violence being an accepted part of the spectacle. Moved from a sleek, techno and neon setting and into Tatooine's scrap-metal and dust, you have a Star Wars sequence that is remembered by many as the best part of that movie.
If creating a video game from this sequence was indeed intended from the start, Lucas' genius is proven further, as Star Wars Episode 1: Racer outsold both the Wipeout and F-Zero franchises which previously dominated the sci-fi racing genre. The power of the Star Wars franchise is undeniable. The license has been tied to hugely successful games throughout history, many of which were not of a quality deserving of their sales figures. Racer, however, was excellent. Most importantly, it was FAST.
Re-visiting the Dreamcast (released later than, but superior to its N64 cousin) version of the game for this article, speed is the first thing that hit me. Starting on Tatooine's Boonta Training Course (the movie's Boonta Classic is the final stage), the moment the countdown began, it feels like your heart jumps into your throat and your lungs slam into your spine. The training course is extremely wide, allowing you to acclimatise to the extraordinary speed without smashing embarrassingly into the sides. The design of the game's opening tracks is savvy to the fact that the feel of the vehicles are alien (sorry) to the player and a learning curve is required.
"Tournament Mode" has you selecting a character from a roster of aliens seen in the movie sequence, with a few more thrown in. The temptation to pick the adolescent Darth Vader was too great for me. Besides, he did have the coolest repulsorcraft in the film. You then progress through that character's career, from the aforementioned amateur circuits, to invitational tournaments, all the way up to the Galactic Podracing Circuit - the F1 of the Star Wars universe.
Before each race, you decide how the winning pot should be split. The winnings can be distributed across the grid, heavily favour the top four finishers, or be winner-takes-all. This gamble ends up being an important decision, as there are finite races in a career and winnings can be spent on crucial upgrades and droids for your podracer. Miss out on a pot, or lack the confidence to bet on yourself coming first and you could find yourself short of the horsepower required to take on the big boys. At worst, this can mean restarting your career. Sounds frustrating, but I actually thoroughly enjoyed starting over and strategising when to upgrade and when to go all-in on my bets, with the new knowledge of what tracks I would soon be facing. It felt like an F1 management game on the side of the racing action.
Oh yeah, that racing action. Did I mention the game is really fast? With upgrades it only gets faster. The satisfaction of nailing a circuit without crashing into any opponents, or walls, is extremely satisfying. With upgraded airbrakes you can throw the weight of your podracer round the corner at a wicked angle, without losing any pace. It feels GREAT when you nail it. Tearing through a chicane, dabbing the breaks slightly when needed and tilting your entire craft on it's side to fit through a narrow gap, all at breakneck speed is exhilarating. Podracing feels dangerous and Jedi-like reflexes are appropriately required to survive.
Damage taken during a race can be repaired by holding down the left trigger, deploying a droid to weld you back together, at the cost of some speed. The more droids you own, the faster this repair takes. It sounds elementary now, but feeling the repair complete with force feedback rumbling in your hands feels like smart design for 15 years ago. It's little touches like these that add up to a surprisingly deep experience for a racing game tied to a movie franchise.
Star Wars Episode 1: Racer on the Dreamcast was a lot of fun to revisit and comes highly recommended for retro gamers, Star Wars fans, or those who enjoy the sci-fi racing genre. It's a little easier to get into than Wipeout, but I'd argue that the podracer upgrades and money management actually give it a little more depth than its competitor.
I've seen the game go for between $10-$20 on eBay and the PAL version supports 60Hz, so there is no need for European gamers to import.