Back in 1999, George Lucas expanded the Star Wars universe by releasing Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace, the first film in the prequel trilogy to one of the most well-known sci-fi franchises of all time. Although the film wasn’t exactly the revival that fans were hoping for, two things came from it which made its very existence worth it – the brilliant Jar Jar Binks and the 20+ minute podracing segment. Okay, so maybe I lied about Jar Jar, but the podracing was arguably the most exciting scene in the entire movie, a scene which led to the creation of the spin-off video game, Star Wars Episode I: Racer.
Star Wars Episode I: Racer launched on the same day as the film did in America, 18th May 1999. It originally released on the PC and the N64, which is where I played it many years ago, followed by a Game Boy Colour and Mac release later that year and a Dreamcast version in 2001. There was a sequel, named Star Wars: Racer Revenge, from a different developer, which only launched on the PS2 (and also ported to the PS3 and PS4), as well as a Mario Kart-esque title named Star Wars: Super Bombad Racing – which was also a PS2 exclusive.
I own both Star Wars Episode I: Racer and Star Wars: Racer Revenge and I’ve played a lot of both of them over the last few weeks – I’ve even got the platinum in Star Wars Episode I: Racer. So, let’s take a look at if it’s worth picking up the cult classic today and just how well the HD remaster worked out…
Star Wars Episode I: Racer is a very simple game in terms of the concept. You pick any of the racers from the lineup within the movie (depending on if you’ve unlocked them or not), then pick a tournament and a race. 1999 was during the era of racing games which got straight to the point, no long-winded stories, no open-world to drive around in, and no faffing about – pick a Pod Racer and try to come in first place.
However, that doesn’t mean that the game itself is basic and shallow, there’s a lot of depth and simulation to this classic racer if you want to beat the other drivers and show Sebulba who’s the best at podracing. As you complete the various races within the four tournaments, you’ll gain access to new Pods and their respective racers, allowing you to mix things up a little as you experiment and try out each one to find the one which speaks to you.
Star Wars Episode I: Racer isn’t a game in which the protagonist/racer you choose is important. You’re not here to necessarily play as Anakin Skywalker and lead him to victory as he wins enough money to pay off Watto and free his mother from being a slave, you’re here to pick any racer and win the track you choose. In a way, it’s more of a simulation as you’re picking one vessel and helping it win, you’re not following a story or trying to meet any kind of agenda. I miss the old days when racing games were all pick-up-and-play like this…
First things first, has the game aged well? Personally, I’d say yeah – ignoring the visuals for now. The draw for me, back in 1999 on the N64, was the feeling of speed which you got as you zoomed around the tracks at over 500 mph. Obviously, your Pod isn’t going that fast otherwise you wouldn’t see anything, but the game does a great job of making you feel like you’re moving much faster than your usual racing game – similar to how Wipeout makes you feel as you fly around the tracks in that series.
The game has two interesting and game-changing mechanics which also stand up really well today. First of all, you have access to a boost mechanic in which over-using it will result in one, or both, of your engines catching fire or blowing up. This results in you having to sparingly use the boost and knowing when to disable it – alternatively, you have to become accustomed to repairing your Pod on the fly at the expense of slowing down for a few seconds.
A while ago I reviewed FIA European Truck Racing Championship and that also had a mechanic in which you have to monitor the heat you’re generating to avoid the vehicle breaking down, it’s an interesting concept and it really adds to the intense gameplay.
The other mechanic is just how fragile your Pod Racer actually is. Not only can you set on fire and explode if you neglect the temperature as you use the boost, but you can also smash your engines if you hit the wall too hard or if other Pod Racers purposely ram into you. Star Wars: Racer Revenge takes advantage of this mechanic by rewarding you with bonus points depending on how many other racers you ‘kill’ via ramming them – ala Burnout-style – but Star Wars Episode I: Racer doesn’t really force you to get all aggressive on your fellow competitors. Although, if you’re feeling nasty, the option is there.
I want to be, the very best!
Remember how I said that the game is quite deep if you want to come first? Well, in order to do that you must manage your vehicle and upgrade it accordingly. Each racer has their own Pod Racer and each one can be fitted with new parts you can buy from Watto directly or by scavenging his Junk Yard and looking for slightly cheaper components. As you progress through the tournaments, your opposition will become faster, more advanced, and stronger, so you must counter this by ensuring your Pod Racer is kitted with the best parts you can afford.
I personally found myself picking one racer I enjoyed playing as (Anakin) and then using them for the entirety of the game. I know this goes against what I said before about experimenting and seeing which racer feels best, but I had invested so much money into his Pod Racer by the time I reached the third championship, I couldn’t really justify changing and losing all my upgrades. However, that changed once I unlocked Sebulba thanks to his additional ‘illegal’ special move which really turns up the heat on any nearby Pod Racer!
Due to your vehicle being prone to falling apart, you can also invest in ‘Pit Droids’ in order to quickly repair your broken parts and help maintain any damage you receive as you play the game.
If you’re a fan of The Phantom Menace, especially the very, very long podracing segment, you’re bound to love this game if you’ve never played it before. If you have played it previously, the nostalgia will hit you hard as you fly around the tracks at insane speeds, narrowly missing debris as you tilt to the side and skim through very small cracks in the mountains.
Aside from the tournament mode, which will take you around six-eight hours to complete, there are three other modes for you to enjoy at your leisure…
Free Play: Pick from any of the racers and tracks you’ve unlocked then choose whether to play in mirrored mode (the map is flipped), how many laps, how many AI racers, and what difficulty/speed you want them to be set as. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a mode named ‘Free Play’.
Time Attack: This is the same as the above apart from the lack of AI opponents as you’re competing against the clock instead of other aliens this time around. See if you can set a “New Lap Record!“
Two-player mode: Once again, this is also the same as the Free Play mode only you can bring a local friend along for the ride. Two-player split-screen action, a mode which was present in the original N64 release but not the PC version, meaning this whole HD ‘remaster’ has come from the console editions and not simply ported over from the PC – which is rather interesting.
There is no online mode nor any extra features or modes which weren’t included in the original release – this is a straight-up 1:1 ‘remaster’ of the original game. If it ain’t broke, why fix it, amirite?
One thing I found really fascinating is the fact that the original cheats for the game also work perfectly – albeit inputted with different buttons. Version 1.0 of the game even had two trophies dedicated to activating a cheat and using it – but these were re-purposed and changed so that it no longer requires you to enter the debug menu and effectively fudge your way to victory. That’s right, invincibility, adjusting all individual stats of your Pod Racer and the opponents, literally warping around the track at 2,000mph, and other adjustments are a few buttons away within the game, should you feel inclined to play with them. They also don’t disable achievements (as long as you don’t set it above Debug zero).
Comparison (PS4 Pro on the Left, PC re-release on the right)
The elephant in the room
If you’ve looked at the pictures within this review, you may be asking yourself “Rob, this doesn’t look like a remaster, it’s blurry, pixelated, and very muddy”. As such, and in order to prove to myself that the game has actually been ‘remastered’, I purchased the Steam re-release, set it to 1080p and took a few screenshots for comparison. It was very hard to get any like-for-like images as the static camera shots in the junkyard and the part upgrade menu have been altered, pulled back so you see more of the scene than you could in the original game, but I feel the above image shows the comparison well enough.
As you can see, despite the PS4 Pro version running at a higher resolution (I believe it’s 4k but don’t quote me on that), the actual textures and geometry of the environments and strangely-shaped creatures are identical. The Pod Racers are nice and sharp, but they are on the original PC version as well when you bump it up to 1080p. However, considering this is a port of the console version and not the PC one, I feel this is a ‘HD remaster’ as the visuals are on par with the PC release and far beyond that which Nintendo’s console could display (with or without the expansion PAK). Also, all in-game text and the HUD whilst racing is much clearer and sharper than ever before, making it easier to read it.
Despite the rather ‘ugly’ and dated aesthetic (which has its own charm but would have highly benefited from a full remaster or remake), the game is still really addictive and it plays great at a solid 60fps on the PS4 Pro (I’ve not tried the other systems). There was one update to the game, one which wasn’t in the original game – Aspyr has tweaked the controls and has given you the option of playing with a classic or ‘racing’ layout. the ‘classic’ mode has you pushing Cross to accelerate and the Triggers are sliding from left to right, ‘Racing’ sets accelerate to R2 and the boost to Cross. It’s a small change but it makes a massive difference for new gamers.
This or Star Wars: Racer Revenge?
As I said earlier, I’ve been playing a lot of Star Wars Episode I: Racer and it’s sequel over the last few weeks – I’ve actually owned the PS2 Classic on PS4 since launch but never played it until I felt the urge after getting the platinum in this game. Both games are similar in that there’s no actual narrative, you’re just trying to come first no matter what. However, the second game locks you into a character once you’ve made your choice, unlike this game where you can swap racers and vehicles at any time.
I think the big difference between the two games is that Star Wars: Racer Revenge has a bunch of annoying and almost impossible trophies to obtain, whereas Star Wars Episode I: Racer is very, very easy (especially if you abuse the Debug mode and don’t set it above Debug zero). Each race has a leaderboard for the fastest single lap, fastest three-lap race, and most Pod Racers taken out – ala Burnout-style. These are very hard to achieve as there’s no hidden menu this time and the AI is much more aggressive due to smashing the other person’s Pod Racer being part of the core mechanics.
Looking back over the progress I’ve made in both games, I really enjoyed them both for their unique qualities. Star Wars Episode I: Racer was much more casual and a nostalgic blast for me, allowing me to relive how I remembered it being back in 1999 (even though it was clearly much worse visually), but Star Wars: Racer Revenge was more of a challenge and brought more satisfaction once I placed first on one of the many leaderboards in the campaign. As such, I’d say buy them both if you have a PS4, as that’s the only place you can get both titles, but certainly start with Star Wars Episode I: Racer as that’s where it all began.
I’ve already mentioned it above, but I was a little disappointed with the effort put into this HD remaster. I was expecting new textures in the environments, re-designed models for the creatures and characters (Anakin looks like a half-deflated blow-up doll at times!), and possibly new FMV opening sequences to each track. However, despite feeling like the game is simply a hybrid of the original PC release that’s been merged with the menu and two-player split-screen of the N64 edition, the game still has a lot of charm and the gameplay was still solid after over twenty years.
Speaking of the FMV sequences – these are the most disappointing thing in the entire game. I know it’s not the fault of the developers as they can only work with what they have, but the short video clips which introduce you to the stage were running at around 15 fps or lower. These videos are all 90s pre-rendered CGI, so there’s no way to alter them other than fully remaking them from scratch, but when you go from that into a smooth race, it’s really jarring.
In the defence of the developers though, I have had a quick go of the original PC version and those videos were really small when being played, and they had the same low 15ish fps limit on them. For this remaster, the videos are now much bigger and look decent enough, not perfect, but decent.
One last thing which I have to mention is the music, it’s brilliant. The music is by John Williams and I believe it’s all been taken from the Star Wars Films – I could be wrong as there may be a few originals in there. Either way, the atmosphere is very ‘Star Wars’ all the way through, from the orchestrated score to the one-line insults you can yell at the other Pod Racers.
Star Wars Episode I: Racer may not be the prettiest game when you’re static, but you’ll be moving too fast to even notice! Presented as a hybrid of the original PC version but with the N64 local multiplayer and a boost in clarity with the HUD, this is the definitive way to play the 1999 classic racing game right now. Although not a very difficult game, you’ll easily sink around six to eight hours into the game as you tackle the four tournaments and strive to collect all of the additional racers by coming first in every race. If you’ve not played this game before, you’re in for a treat; if you have played it, time to get out those nostalgia goggles and take your Pod Racer for a spin!
Now THIS is podracing…
On a side note, if you’re into your physical games, LimitedRunGames.com is currently taking pre-orders for the PC (classic), Switch and PS4 physical editions. These won’t last long so if you want to pick them up, be sure to do it very soon.
You can see all the versions they have HERE – below is a picture of what you get in the ‘Premium’ editions. I kinda wish I had enough spare change to pick one up – maybe next time…
Star Wars Episode I: Racer£11.99
- - There's a strong feeling of speed, one you don't tend to get with racing games these days
- - Lots of unlockable racers, each with their own stats
- - Two-player local multiplayer
- - Runs with a very smooth 60fps framerate
- - It was exactly how I remembered the original being many years ago (via my nostalgic goggles)
- - Despite the framerate and core resolution upgrade, the textures are still the same as the original 1999 release
- - Due to keeping the debug menu within the game, I imagine many people will simply fudge their way to a platinum within minutes
- - The FMV sequences are very jarring. The developers did a good job making them bigger without losing too much quality, but the framerates are really low
- - I personally wished the game had received a full remake or an Outlast: Second Contact level of remastering