‘Star Wars Episode I: Racer’ review: a no-frills port that still offers throwback thrills

A PS4 and Nintendo Switch re-release of one of the more memorable products of ‘The Phantom Menace’, but little else

A long time ago in a galaxy far away – that is in the previous millennium before Star Wars came under the ownership of the Disney Empire – George Lucas decided to resurrect his beloved sci-fi opera with a prequel trilogy charting the origin story of Anakin Skywalker.

1999’s The Phantom Menace was met with a mixed reception, an annoying young Anakin played by Jake Lloyd was one of many criticisms it faced. Nonetheless, he has his moment to shine during one of the film’s most show-stopping sequences: podracing.

A sci-fi equivalent of Ben Hur’s chariot race, it’s a break-neck rollercoaster of a set piece that stands out from what you’d expect in the Star Wars universe – almost as if it was made for a video game. It’s probably why Star Wars Episode I: Racer is one of the more memorable tie-games released, an apt contender amongst other popular high-speed futuristic racers like Wipeout and F-Zero.

Over two decades on, the game has burst back onto modern platforms for a nostalgic rush thanks to publisher Aspyr, who has already ported Star Wars classics Jedi Outcast and Jedi Academy earlier this year. It should however be noted that this isn’t a modern remaster, but largely a no-frills HD re-release on PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch with all the same content and graphics as the original.

You may be able to get a 4K resolution on a PS4 Pro but that doesn’t really amount to much when it still uses the same pixelated textures and dated character models from the original game. Naturally, it’s better suited to Switch in handheld mode where the smaller screen draws less attention to a classic game’s aged looks.

Nonetheless, when you’re barrelling full-throttle down each track, the visuals come second to the sense of speed, and modern hardware means the performance never dips below the game’s smooth 60 frames per second. The podracing very much captures the simple thrills of the film as you compete in super-fast and deadly races for glory. But instead of just the deserts of Tatooine, there’s a total of 25 different tracks spread across eight different worlds in the galaxy, from the snowy surfaces of Ando Prime to the swamps of Baroonda.

Even if some of these planets seem to exist purely for this game, the best use of the licensing is having John Williams’ original score in the game, which makes these races sound all the more epic. By default, the volume mix is positively booming compared to other Switch games. Interestingly, the sound of the roaring engines at top volume is enough to send vibrations to your hands when you’re playing on a Switch Lite, a console that doesn’t even include HD rumble.

There’s a structure to the campaign Tournament mode as you win races before unlocking the next race or tier but nothing that approaches a story, certainly not one that would fit in the Star Wars canon. At most, it imagines how Anakin’s life might have been had he chosen to become a galaxy touring podracer instead of training to become a Jedi. You do however encounter some familiar faces, namely arch-rival racer Sebulba, who’s also unlockable – incidentally the only one of the 25 available racers who can also attack with a weapon, the filthy cheat.

There’s also junk dealer Watto who you can visit in between races to splash out your hard-earned prize money on new parts to soup up your vehicle. Upgrading your engine is key to progression as races gradually spike in difficulty both in terms of your rival racers as well as the track layouts – in the latter case you might find chasms you can’t jump over unless you can hit a high top speed.

Vehicle customisation and learning a track down to all its shortcuts is a staple part of any racer when you’re replaying to improve your position and time. But while you’re free to replay any race, you only receive a reward when you beat it the first time. Naturally first place is where the big prize money is at so if you only just scraped through at fourth (usually the bare minimum to unlock the next race), you only get a pittance of dough and nothing more, yet failing the race means you can retry again, and again.

It’s a frustrating progression system that means you can easily find yourself short of funds to get the part you need to really give your accelerator a much-needed boost. Otherwise, you can always just select a different vehicle and character, whose alien designs may not be that memorable but matter when it comes to stats, and more unlock as you win more races.

The lack of balance between racer attributes is probably why there hasn’t been an attempt to include an online multiplayer mode in this re-release, but you can still go for local competition with a two-player split-screen multiplayer. Otherwise, that’s really your lot once you finish the Tournament, with none of the hooks or incentives to really keep you replaying you might expect from a modern racer.

Ultimately, that no-frills experience is reflected in the budget price. So if you’ve been catching up on the old Star Wars films on Disney+ and have the appetite for a cheap and cheerful blast from the past, Episode I: Racer fits the bill as a brief but nonetheless exhilarating summer distraction.

Star Wars Episode I: Racer is available now on PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch.

Our Verdict

Star Wars Episode I: Racer was one of the better tie-in games of its time and the adrenaline rush of podracing remains intact in this re-release. That’s nonetheless a barebones port and package that, aside from the odd difficulty spikes, offers little to keep you playing once the burst of nostalgia is gone.

Pros

  • Fast exciting races at stable performance
  • Licensed score sounds as epic as it should
  • Still the best thing about The Phantom Menace

Cons

  • Same dated textures and character models
  • Rigid progression system
  • No new content to make replaying worthwhile
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