Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Star Wars Episode I: Racer (PS4)

Around the release of Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace came a cavalcade of licensed games to cash in on the hype, many of them aimed at children, with varying levels of quality. Arguably the one that best stands the test of time is Star Wars Episode I: Racer, a racing game inspired by the Podracing sequence seen in the film proper. Though this game originally released on the Nintendo 64 system, I have fond memories of playing the PC port as a kid, for which I still have my original copy, and so I was excited when a modern re-release of the game was announced, later picking up a physical copy of the PC reissue and the PS4 port from Limited Run games along with the PS4 port of its sequel, Star Wars Racer Revenge. After finally receiving my copy of Episode I: Racer in the mail, I decided to revisit the game through the PS4 version and found myself having a blast with it despite some technical hiccups with the port.

To quote the game’s opening crawl: “For generations, the GALACTIC PODRACING CIRCUIT has thrilled citizens of the Outer Rim Territories with its fast and dangerous contests of repulsor and turbine-driven land vehicles. Amid the ruffian and racing elite, one champion stands above the rest. His name is Sebulba, a cunning and ruthless pilot who wins by any means necessary. To challenge him, all the best Podrace pilots gather on the desert planet Tatooine for the legendary BOONTA CLASSIC determined to claim the title of fastest podracer in the Galaxy...”

The story itself is minimal, however it fits in with the world of Star Wars and provides enough motivation to play through the Podracing tournaments present in the game. For those who care about continuity, the inclusion of Anakin Skywalker as a playable character, not to mention Qui-Gon Jinn and C-3PO and background characters, opens up some questions about how the game fits within the timeline of The Phantom Menace, however in the grand scheme of things it’s best not to think about it too hard.

The PS4 version follows modern racing gameplay, where you use R2 to accelerate and the left sick to steer. Building off of this, the core gameplay takes further inspiration from the Podracing gimmick. Holding forward on the stick increases a meter on the speedometer and pressing X at the right time activates Boost Mode, making the Podracer go faster. Keeping Boost Mode active for too long can cause your Podracer to overheat, though it can be deactivated by hitting part of the environment or manually by pressing Circle. Additionally, Circle slows your Podracer down enough to work around sharp turns and holding R1 can repair your engines during the race at the cost of speed. You can also taunt others by pressing Triangle, though notably this also allows Sebulba specifically to use a flamethrower weapon from his right engine, keeping in line with the film.

How gameplay appears in the PS4 version.

Though fairly simple, the gameplay makes it really fun to race through various Star Wars locales at high speeds. Helping this is the wide range of characters, including those seen in The Phantom Menace, with differing starting stats that affect their performance on the track. There are multiple gameplay modes, including Tournament, Free Play and 2-Player, however you must go through Tournament mode to unlock new characters and tracks for the other modes. Finishing a Tournament race rewards you with Truguts, the game’s currency, that you can spend on Pit Droids to repair your Podracer between races as well as parts to upgrade the Podracer(s) from Watto’s shop or the Junkyard, however you must place in the race to earn Truguts and you only earn said reward once, so it’s imperative that you consistently place first to earn the most money the fastest. This can be mitigated by restarting the race before you place, and you can adjust how much you earn from the race by moving the stick left or right after selecting a track. There’s also a noted exploit involving buying damaged parts for cheap from the Junkyard, then winning a race to repair said parts between races and using those newly-repaired parts to reduce the prices on higher-end parts.

While the gameplay has held up well, the visuals have noticeably aged quite a bit. Though the graphics have been upscaled to work with modern HD screens, the models are otherwise the same as in the original release, not to mention the low-res environment and skybox textures as well as the aged cinematics recycled wholesale. Despite this, I was less concerned about this during the actual race, as the environments can still immerse you into the world of Star Wars and the tracks themselves have unique layouts from each other, albeit with some recycled areas between versions of the same planet. The inclusion of a minimap is very useful in Tournament mode for navigating the winding courses and seeing your position in relation to the other racers, however I was bothered a little by its absence in Free Play and 2-Player, meaning the game assumes you have memorized the course by then.

Though the presentation is identical to that of the original, there were some issues introduced to the PS4 version that stand out despite not affecting gameplay. While the HUD was updated to use a much cleaner font, the kerning isn’t perfect, to where if you glance up at it you can sometimes see the numbers overlap. Another thing that was noticed was that the exhaust of the Podracers isn’t quite the same, being rendered in black rather than yellow as in the original release or the actual film.

In addition to the course design, the music by John Williams used in the game increases the immersion, even including some music from The Phantom Menace such as the famous “Duel of the Fates”. Of the voice actors in the game, Jake Lloyd and Lewis MacLeod appropriately reprise their roles as Anakin Skywalker and Sebulba from the film, respectively, giving their characters a degree of authenticity with some natural performances. That said, due to a limited dialogue pool and a lack of space between said lines, Watto’s voice can get grating rather quickly, leading me to mute the TV whenever I had to deal with his shop or the junkyard just to shut him up. The audio mixing also suffers in places from the port, with the sounds sometimes being louder than the music (though you can adjust this in the options menu) and the music drowning out the announcers at the start of the race.

Watto's Shop has all your Podracing needs.
Also, Watto does not shut up.

Despite its age and some technical flaws in the console port, Star Wars Episode I: Racer stands the test of time as a fun Star Wars game and an enjoyable racing game in its own right. For those that played the game when it first came out, the re-release still taps into the nostalgia you have from your first time playing it, though there’s no reason not to seek this out if you are a fan of Star Wars, racing games or both.

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