It was May 4 last week, which means there's no better time to talk about one of the best racing games ever: Star Wars Episode 1: Racer. Recently re-released for the PC, wannabe podracers and grizzled veterans can return to the tracks once more. Staff writers Heather Alexandra and Ethan Gach look back at what made the game so special.
Heather Alexandra: Star Wars Episode 1: Racer released this week on GOG, and a surprising amount of people reacted with elation at the chance to blast through Beggar's Canyon as Ben Quadrinaros again.
I think it's safe to say that both you and I were pretty excited for the game to finally get a proper release, but also it's been 17 years! Children have been born and grown into almost-adults by now and have no clue what the deal was with this game or why people cared about its return.
I want to start off by talking about how we first experienced it. I love Star Wars Episode 1: Racer and excitedly rented it from a hole in the wall shop called Video Thunder and thought it was super rad. What about you?
Ethan Gach: Shortly after the film came out, the neighbour kid down the street had a copy of the game because he was an only child and so was always mysteriously showing up with new games. He barely even cared, so he brought it over and the three of us took turns overheating our pod engines and arguing over which racer was the dopest. Did you have a favourite?
Alexandra: We all did! I think that's one of the wild things about this game: it made you a fan of some of Episode 1's most incidental characters. For me it was this gangly looking green dude named Mars Guo. His podracer had an absolutely massive engine — he's the dude that Sebulba throws a literal wrench at in the movie.
It gets sucked up into those huge arse engines. In this game, those engines meant he was really fast but a bit hard to control.
Let me guess for you: Bozzie Baranta?
Gach: Who could forget good old Bozzie Baranta, the weird dinosaur dad-bod mechanic whose podracer had creepy long claws coming out. No, I was 100% on team Teemto Pagalies. His cockpit always seemed cosy compared to the death traps everyone else sat in. Plus I had no real concept of the actual balance of each podracer.
The evolution of my racing game experience at that point was R.C. Pro-Am, Mario Kart, and then crashing a few times when my cousin showed me Gran Turismo the summer prior. For me it was 100 per cent just about having the feeling of being destitute on a desert planet seeing how hard I could boost without blowing up.
Alexandra: Right. I think the appeal of Racer comes down to a few things, and one of those is tapping something the movies have always been good at to, all the way up to The Last Jedi. They communicate this idea that anyone can be a hero or do exciting things. And yeah, we all knew Anakin was going to grow up into a *bad dude* but the idea of going off on an adventure is really appealing. Especially when you're young.
It's funny. Podracing in the film is kind of this huge tangent that works in retrospect, but the idea of being a racer and being able to blast around a track is super cool. Racer let player live out that fantasy the same way that Tie Fighter or X-Wing let you be a pilot.
Gach: Podracing is like George Lucas looking at a Roman Colosseum drenched in blood and going "How could I make this into Star Wars toys?" Or maybe he was just a really big fan of F-Zero. I think Episode 1 is about as close as we'll ever get to that game getting made into a movie, except with way better noises. God bless whoever did that sound design.
Alexandra: The important thing about this game is that the vroom vrooms go broom broom as well. I don't know if it ever feels as fast as F-Zero, but racing in this game is still really fast and loud.
Gach: The levels feel much more vast, not necessarily in length but just in the overall field of view. There are a lot more off-the-beaten-path sections to get lost in. Also, for a licensed game, it does a surprisingly good job of letting you get into the nuts and bolts of the pods' machinery. Star Wars has always done a good job, compared to say, Star Trek, of making its futuristic tech feel very greasy and combustible.
I'm not going to pretend to have any idea how the physics behind podracing are supposed to work, but I always loved being able to switch out weird masses of metal and wires like I was born in a Tatooine junkyard. Were you actually any good at the game? To be honest I don't think I ever actually won a tournament.
Alexandra: I might have won the amateur stuff, but I was young so I don't really recall besting semi pro or higher. I remember this one level in the amateur stuff called Vengeance. It was this sort of cityscape that had big tunnels in the middle with anti-grav and floating junk you could get through. That kind of stuff always threw me off my game. This isn't necessarily the hardest racer, but it does like throwing tricks at you.
Gach: I remember that one — it was like tearing through a giant Borg ship. Something's come over me recently and I've really fallen back in love with the N64 aesthetic. Maybe it's just watching speedruns of those old games or I'm simply getting to the age where the late 90s has more purchase on my nostalgia than the 80s, but some of these maps were pretty damn gorgeous.
The draw distances were terrible, but I think that actually makes them look better now. I still have a vivid image in my head of the looming red haze from the Spice Mine Run. What petition do I sign to bring back podracing for Episode IX?
Alexandra: We had weird future horse derby/dog racing in The Last Jedi but I don't think that would be good. To segway a bit about aesthetic and design, we should talk about the arcade version of this game. Because that's something with its own bold design that has also seemed to fade away.
Gach: Where was your first time climbing into that hydraulic chassis?
Alexandra: I think it was a movie theatre? My town also had a very large arcade with a cabinet. For those not in the know: the arcade version had you sit in a podracer cockpit. There were these two large levers that you pushed or pulled back on to accelerate or turn. Like, if you want to turn right you have to push right forward but pull left back. You'd slam them both up for a big burst of speed. It was awesome and almost felt like a theme park ride.
Gach: Star Wars has had some intense arcade games, like the very aptly-named Star Wars Trilogy Arcade, but while my friends were mostly intent on dueling Darth Vader I was always drawn to the podracer cockpit. I like arcade racing games in general, even though I'm terrible at them, but the podracing simulator was actually decent.
Unlike a Pole Position clone where you're just slamming the wheel back and forth, the dual sticks actually gave you a lot more control over your movements. It was like one of those coin-operated supermarket rides you could actually control.
Alexandra: Getting games like Racer or X-Wing Alliance again feels like bringing a small piece of these really unique experience back. We don't get the arcade pod but we get the speed, the crashes, and the excitement.
Gach: Unless you're extremely fortunate like me and the comic book store inside the nearby mall still inexplicably has one of the arcade pods still in it. For now. Until I steal it and set it up in my garage so I can scream "Now this is podracing!" at the crack of dawn on a Saturday.
Alexandra: It's a new lap record!