Review: Star Wars Episode I: Battle for Naboo (N64)

Tour de Force

While it wasn't quite the workhorse that Rare was during the Nintendo 64 era, Factor 5 developed a handful of third-party games that arguably matched Nintendo's own efforts in terms of technical quality. The studio had a knack for getting underneath the hood of the system and exploiting its raw power to create fascinating visual experiences. Its first effort on the N64, Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, was a considerable success and praised by critics for its visual prowess. Given how superb the title's visuals were, you'd think it impossible for Factor 5 to top it. Nevertheless, in late 2000 (early 2001 in Europe), Star Wars Episode I: Battle for Naboo — a spiritual successor to Rogue Squadron — was released. Developed in collaboration with LucasArts, the title features some of the best visual and audio work seen in an N64 game.

Set during the events of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the game puts you in control of Gavyn Sykes, a Lieutenant in Naboo's Royal Security Forces during the time of the Trade Federation invasion. Up against an overwhelming force, Sykes' story sees him building a resistance movement and taking the fight to the enemy. This actually works in the game's favour, as it doesn't get bogged down in any of the silliness that plagued the film. The focus here is on all-out action and this is something that Battle for Naboo easily achieves. The fact that Jar Jar Binks is seen getting crushed by the N64 logo during the game's intro screen speaks volumes about what to expect.

It's important to note that Battle for Naboo isn't just a re-skin of Rogue Squadron. In fact, despite being quite similar to its predecessor in terms of gameplay, Battle for Naboo doesn't actually use the same game engine. The end result is a game that is one of the most technically advanced games for the N64. The title makes good use of the system's 4MB Expansion Pak, featuring a whopping 640x480 high-resolution mode and farther draw distance than most other N64 games. Moreover, certain levels, such as Naboo Bayou and Hutt's Retreat, feature weather effects such as rain and snow. The most impressive thing about this is that the frame rate is in no way affected. Albeit, the effects look quite basic by today's standards, but this was pretty advanced for the time and proved that the system still had a few tricks up its sleeves as it was coming towards the end of its lifespan.

Audio is another area where Battle for Naboo impresses. Factor 5 was able to overcome the limited storage of the Nintendo 64 cartridge — in this instance, a mere 32MB — to include full voice-over work. Granted, it's a little unclear at times, but that partly seems to be the result of the voices being modify to sound like they're being heard via a radio. Nevertheless, it adds a great deal of production value to the experience and Factor 5's efforts should be commended.

Throughout the game's 15 missions, you switch between a selection of land, sea and air vehicles. This mixture provides a varied experience, although there are a few issues. For example, controlling the land vehicles can feel a little cumbersome in some of the less open environments. Moreover, two of the game's missions take place in orbit above Naboo, and as the game doesn't feature a three-dimensional map, the entire experience becomes very clumsy (this was later addressed in Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader). Lastly, some vehicles just feel redundant. The Police Cruiser, for example, is a ship you get near the start of the game, but there's simply no use for it once you get your hands on the far superior Naboo Starfighter. In a way, having more missions early in the game that could have centred around the lesser crafts would have likely helped build up a greater sense of progression.

Nevertheless, one of the game's best features is to switch vehicles mid-mission. In certain stages it's a requirement in order to progress, but in one particular instance you're given the option to choose based on preference. This changes the entire structure of the mission, adding a great deal of replay value. It's just a shame that more portions weren't designed with this multiple approach concept in mind.

Despite this, most of the missions in Battle for Naboo are extremely fun. During the battle segments, there's usually always an impressive number of enemies and allies on-screen at the same time. Some of the mission objectives are rather testing, too, especially when it's possible to fail right up to the last moment. With that said, the majority of missions require one or two attempts at the most. As a result, Battle for Naboo is a woefully short experience and can easily be completed within an afternoon. A multiplayer mode would have been a nice addition, but given that the game already pushes the Nintendo 64 to its limits, it's not hard to understand why this wasn't included.

Conclusion

Star Wars Episode I: Battle for Naboo is a work of technical wizardry: It sounds and looks fantastic for its era, to the point that it is clearly one of the Nintendo 64's visual tour de forces. Being able to use a variety of land, sea and air vehicles makes for an interesting gameplay experience, although there are a few issues when it comes to control. It may be short, but it approaches the source material in an intelligent manner, focusing on what makes Star Wars the space opera epic it is: the battles. The final product is a game that does justice to both the N64 and the franchise.