Revisiting The Best Thing That Came Out Of The Phantom Menace

Yes, I’m talking about Star Wars Episode I: Racer, the game that took one of the most pointless scenes in any Star Wars film and turned it into an incredibly successful racing game on PC and the Nintendo 64. With all the Star Wars excitement I recently decided to go back and watch the prequels again. They were just as bad as I remembered, though it did inspire me to dig out my dusty N64 and rediscover what made this game great.

Podracer (which is not actually in any part of the name yet has still always been what I’ve called the game) was one of the first games we had on the N64 — which was also our first console. To say it was formative would be an understatement. Of course I didn’t play it very well as a kid. I didn’t know how to boost or repair during a race, and I probably didn’t touch the brakes once. I wasted my money buying ‘upgrades’ that were actually worse parts than I already had installed, just in a better state of repair, and thought pit droids were only there to look cute. I was terrible at this game. I have all the noises that the various characters make when they explode etched into my mind. But still I loved it.

Who can forget the sound of Watto tunelessly humming the cantina music from A New Hope as you raked in your winnings and lorded it over the losers? Or the fanfare as you were awarded a shiny new podracer? But more than anything, I liked Star Wars Racer because you could go fast. With an upgraded speed stat and a well-timed boost these podracers can top out at over 1000mph — and it really did feel like you were going that fast. Collisions were immediate and dangerous at high speeds, and handling was incredibly difficult (especially with those punishing N64 analog sticks), though the challenge only made it more rewarding when you did manage to pull off a perfect hairpin turn at 600mph.

Despite getting the game out again a few times over the years — and learning how to play quite a bit better than my first attempte — this is one game that I’ve still never managed to finish. That’s all thanks to the particularly nasty track called “Abyss” in the final four-track ‘Invitational Podracing Circuit’ — remember the one where you had to stay on top of a narrow track that was barely wider than your racer if you even wanted to come in the top three?

I’ve started a new tournament and I’m working my way up to it all again — this time I can only hope that my Jedi reflexes have improved enough to get me through the tracks that I always thought were essentially impossible. I’m off to a great start, having been stuck at Grabvine Gateway for the last couple of days. Everyone remembers Grabvine Gateway. You know, the track with the hairpin turns through a sandy canyon followed by an impossible swamp full of trees and more hairpin turns. The worst thing about it is that the track favourite is Anakin (even though it’s doubtful he ever left Tatooine to race there) so every time you get overtaken you get to hear kid-Ani’s obnoxious taunts, just to rub salt in the wound.

Aside from the challenging gameplay, Star Wars: Racer was actually surprisingly good at expanding the world of the prequels. “They have podracing on Malastare. Very fast, very dangerous,” Qui-Gon Jin says at one point, and though Malastare — the home planet of Sebulba and the Dug race — is mentioned a number of times in The Phantom Menace, we never actually get to see it. Unless, of course, you play Podracer — in which case you get to participate in these “very fast, very dangerous” races yourself. Malastare is one of those planets that everyone will remember keenly — the greenish tint to everything, the creeping neon fog over some kind of oily slick, the pterodactyl-like creatures flying lurking around the jump ramp. Out of the eight planets visited in Star Wars: Racer, only Tatooine was a location seen in the movies, and each different planet had a totally unique flavour.

Are you a Star Wars: Racer fan? Are there any racers or tracks that have stuck with you to this day? Let us know in the comments!

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