So I’ve been playing a lot of N64 lately and that ultimately leads to me playing one of my favourite titles on the platform, Star Wars Episode 1: Racer. A lot of negative things could be said about the source material there – and I’d even take a swing at Star Wars in general if I was brave enough – but ultimately one great, brilliant, awesome thing came out of George Lucas’ second foray into a Star Wars trilogy: Episode 1: Racer.
It honestly is one of my faouvite racing games of all time and the best part is that it still stands up today. I loved Megarace 2 as a kid, thought it was amazing, the visuals, the between race cinematics. Playing it now is a massive disappointment; not so with Episode 1.
First things first, this game is fast. Easily up there with some of the other hi-speed racers throughout gaming history. It’s difficult to control and it’ll take you a while to get a feel for it, simply because you need to be thinking fast to succeed. And do so you must, because this game has some weird quirks within its single player “Tournament” mode. First up, once you’ve played on a track and received your monetary payout depending on what position you get, you can never earn money (the in-game currency is trunguts) on it again. This makes it even more puzzling because there are several options before a race for the payout at the end. Fair, Skilled and Winner takes all. While the first two give a small payout for 2nd and 3rd placements and less of a prize for first, with the last option, it all goes to the winner – as the name implies.
And this is exactly the option you have to pick when playing through this game. If you’re in a race and you’re not going to win, restart or try a different track, because you need all the money you can get so you can upgrade your already speedy pod racer.
However as fast as you are normally, you’re no way near as fast as when you boost. This is when you hold the joystick forward and wait for the boost guage to fill. When it does you release and hit A again and your speed increases by around 50 per cent, sending you careening forward with a fantastic blast of sound. Turning becomes awful and keeping on the track is hard, but nothing is cooler than passing your pal sitting next to you with a well timed boost.
Another big selling point for this game: as good as the racing is, the upgrade system isn’t far behind. There’s no visual tweaks to be made, but as well as each pod having certain characteristics that you can’t influence, like an overall leaning towards high speed or nippy turning, extra weight during impacts, or simply engines that are lower to the ground, you’ll find a host of upgradable options that you can play with. There’s traction, turning, acceleration, top speed, cooling, repair and more to worry about.
You’ll also need to make sure you have enough pit droids to keep your pod in good shape. If you crash more than a couple of times during a race – and when the corners get sharper and your pod gets faster, this will happen a lot – the quality of your race parts goes down and the only way to repair them is to give your pit droids time. Unfortunately this means racing perfectly without crashes and finishing the race with a pod that’s in good condition – and it has to be a race you haven’t already completed. This is fine for the majority of the game, but when you’re completing those last few tracks and you want your pod in as good condition as possible for time attack and 2 player races in the future, it’s incredibly frustrating to know that you can’t finish with any flaws.
Take my time with the game today for example. My pod – driven by the always speedy Mars Guo – was maxed out with every single possible upgrade. The highest level of each one and each of them in peak condition. My pod was fast – and so were all the others, since whenever you upgrade your pod, the others characters are also improved for multiplayer purposes. I had one race to go so I did it, everytime I crashed I restarted and after a few tries I beat the level with a couple of bumps and scrapes.
Unfortunately this still translated in damage to my high end parts – which because they are the best of the best, can’t be bought for new in the store, they have to be found in the junkyard and repaired to peak condition – which means at this point, I’m stuck with an imperfect pod because my droids won’t work any more.
Despite this annoying flaw however, this is still a hell of a game. It doesn’t look too great without the memory expansion pack, with blurry textures, but it looks good enough – and even with the pack, the frame rate dips, so it’s a tradeoff. Because of the speed of the game too, if you get a buddy who’s equally as skilled – or not – as you are, it can make for a very tense game.
There’s also plenty of different tracks and varied environments to race in. There’s dusty Tatooine, the always difficult Ord Ibanna and the jungle world of Baroonda as well as others. While not all of the tracks are stellar – especially the ones where you have to practically stop to make the turn – there are some fantastic ones in there that offer a good challenge, while still providing plenty of opportunity for boosting.
While you’ll probably have difficulty getting this game working on Windows 7 (or 8 I suppose), since the PC version was released back in the 1998 and ME days, the N64 version still runs perfectly. You can pick up a console, with controller and no doubt the game for around £20 at a retro store or on Ebay. If you haven’t played this, or remember it fondly, I really would urge you to dig this one out. It’s a great, great game, and even if it stops working, just give the contacts a blow and you’re off and running.
Just make sure you have a couple of decent controllers if you’re going to try multiplayer as this game does need accurate stick movements. If you’ve only got knackered ones, you can get replacement thumbsticks for about £5 each. For a game like this its an investment I’d recommend.