Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace may have been panned by film critics and audiences alike when it released back in 1999, but not everything borne out of it was as big a disaster as Jar Jar Binks. One of these truly rare exceptions was Star Wars Episode I: Racer, a sci-fi racing game developed by by LucasArts. The game was a massive success for the developer, selling a whopping 3.12 million copies; its fortune no doubt boosted by the considerable hype for the film. To put that into perspective, that’s more than both the F-Zero and WipEout series — according to Guinness World Records 2011 - Gamer's Edition — although it’s worth noting that Star Wars Episode I: Racer did release on multiple formats.
Nevertheless, Star Wars Episode I: Racer isn’t a success just because it sold well; it’s more the fact that it’s actually a pretty good game that features nice visuals, tight controls and a well-nuanced difficulty curve. The game – unsurprisingly – is based on the iconic pod race from the film, featuring the movie's tracks plus a whole host of other courses set on various planets across the Star Wars galaxy. Players can choose from a number of different pilots, ranging from well-known characters such as Anakin Skywalker and Sebulba to the more obscure ones like Ben Quadinaros and Dud Bolt.
One of Star Wars Episode I: Racer’s most endearing features is its presentation. Each menu screen features its own unique 3D environments, such as the Mos Espa cantina and the pod race garage. The character models are a tad garish by today’s standards, looking rather blocky and lacking in detail, but it’s easily forgiven when you take into account just how good the rest of the game looks. Where Star Wars Episode I: Racer truly succeeds is in how it manages to superbly recreate the sense of speed, danger and authenticity of the pod race that features in the film. It’s not quite on par with F-Zero X in terms of pure speed, but it more than makes up for this with its stunning visuals; the amount of detail is impressive for a game of its type on systems at the time. Each planet has its own distinctive look and feel, and the pods remain true to their film form.
The game also utilises the N64’s 4MB Expansion Pak add-on, allowing for a high-resolution mode. This looks fantastic when playing the single-player Time Trial mode, but the quality clearly diminishes once you add other racers, or another player, to the mix. As is the case with many N64 games, the framerate has a habit for jumping up and down, but for the most part Star Wars Episode I: Racer is a very playable and visually appealing experience.
This is all augmented further by the great track design. Earlier courses are fairly simple in layout, with relatively few hazards to the player. However, as you progress through the game, tight corridors and unforgiving obstacles make for an incredibly challenging experience – on some tracks it just seems impossible not to crash. Thankfully, throwing your pod directly at a wall doesn't cause the race to end — you're just respawned a short distance back. Moreover, your pod’s engines can withstand a moderate amount of scrapes and bumps before being blown to smithereens. The game’s damage system is accurate and balanced, and you're also given the opportunity to repair your pod as you race. The downside is that you lose speed as you do this, but it’s a fair trade-off and one that surprisingly adds a strategic element to the game.
Competing in the many races on offer gives you the chance to win prize money with which you can buy upgrades for your pod to improve various aspects such as turning and acceleration. Performing well in the earlier races is, therefore, extremely beneficial, as the cost of these components does get pretty high as you progress. This isn't helped by the fact that the difficulty curve for the game is a tad steep in places, with some of the later courses being so hard that it borders on unfair. Computer players seemingly never crash, meaning that often just a single mistake is enough to cost you the race. On the plus side, Star Wars Episode I: Racer is very responsive and precise in the controls department, meaning that with a decent amount of practice, you can master most of the tracks.
The game does feature a multiplayer mode, but this is unfortunately where the game falls down a little. There's only a two-player option, and although you can have AI opponents in the race with you, you can't tackle the single-player mode together as per Mario Kart's Grand Prix mode. As a result, Star Wars Episode I: Racer has limited appeal beyond its single-player game, especially when you take into account that F-Zero X, Mario Kart 64 and even Diddy Kong Racing offer superior multiplayer modes.
Star Wars Episode I: Racer is a solid racing game, featuring tight game mechanics, great track design and impressive visuals. Despite being based on a film which most Star Wars fans would rather forget, the fast and frantic gameplay more than makes up for it, and LucasArts should be commended for having developed that fateful pod race into such a sizeable and varied experience. Unfortunately, the multiplayer is disappointing, especially in comparison to other N64 multiplayer hits, making this game more ideal for the single-player. Moreover, the rather harsh climb in difficulty may not be to everyone's taste. Nevertheless, if you're looking for an extensive single-player racing experience, then Star Wars Episode I: Racer is certainly worth a go.