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SummaryRemember when Pod Racing was cool? I still think it is...
The GoodI have a confession to make. I have a tiny, just sitting there in the corner appreciation for Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. It isn't the best Star Wars movie, that's a given, but you can't say no to the cool stylings of Liam (fellow Irishman) Neeson, the horned devil Darth Maul and, of course, pod racing.
Many fans argue that the racing sequence half way through the film should have been its own movie, being as long as it is (the extended footage adds even more), and I do tend to agree with that statement, the pacing of the movie changes completely once that race gets under way. What you can't argue, however, is that Episode 1: Racer will forever stand as the one true game that defined that generation of Star Wars gamers. There were others, platform and puzzle among them, but Racer was the only one you could clearly say was beyond 'average.' Way beyond average, actually.
What sticks out the most in terms of its gameplay is how well it evolves the movie's concept, adding a good assortment of tracks with massive loops, long straights and tight turns mixed in with a story not unlike F-Zero in that sense. Unusual characters within a sense of history of a racing circuit that everyone wants to put a bet on. It's no work of art, but it makes sense.
Even compared to the standards set by today's racing games, the visuals hold up remarkably well. You could argue that LucasArts didn't go over the top graphics wise, but there's a decent amount of detail amongst each track and racer. What works better, however, is the sound. Much like the movie itself, the first two laps of each race builds on the momentum and soundscape of the race itself, crashing pods, screaming engines and the like, until the last lap when the musical score kicks in to ramp up the tempo and remind you you're close to home.
The BadUnfortunately when I wrote this review, MobyGames was still in its infancy, yet to include the console platforms in its database. If it had been there at the time, I would have reviewed this on the N64, a console with a respectable thumb stick and trigger system that is built for this kind of game. In this case, being a PC title, you've got two choices to make. You can stick with the keyboard (which I did) or use another form of input such as a 3rd party control pad.
For my method, the keyboard is hit and miss. You probably shouldn't play a racing game with a keyboard anyway, you have no real sense of direction with the four way arrow keys compared to a 360 degree stick. I did, being me, and found it .. well, not too bad I guess. Timing is everything in this game, especially at the speed you play at, and for the most part it worked well enough. But there are maps in this game that require an even higher level of accuracy with turning, braking and acceleration out of corners, and the keyboard just can't handle that.
The truth is, the PC platform isn't the best for racing, and the N64 edition of the title had a better overall appearance and the advantage of a quality control pad compared to this PC edition. To be fair though, with the right setup you can certainly improve that side of the game. Just trust me, control pad all the way on this one.
The Bottom LineSo let's backtrack a little. Episode 1 was an average movie with one key, dominant scene. The fact that the only good game to come from that movie stems from that very scene just goes to show you how effective that sequence was. The advantage, however, that Episode 1: Racer had at the time was a lack of competition. The hasn't been that many sci-fi styled racers in the past, and only a minor number of them have been effective enough to make a name for themselves (the previously mentioned F-Zero and the other key franchise, Wipeout).
It's a shame, then, that Racer didn't become a bigger franchise. There was only one sequel, the PS2's Star Wars: Racer Revenge and something about a grown-up soon to be Jedi Anakin Skywalker taking on Sebulba once more. They missed the boat though, I feel, with what could have been a far more entertaining and enjoyable series, especially on the bigger and brighter consoles with online multiplayer. Perhaps in the not too distant future, LucasArts may revisit the franchise once more, but I won't hold my breath for it.
So for the moment at least, Episode 1 will be fondly remembered for this reviewer by delivering a fast paced and entertaining racing title that served up plenty of enjoyable moments and fun characters ... even with keyboard in tow.