I’m a pretty open-minded guy. I respect people’s opinions and their right to like things without shame or judgement—unless the thing they like happens to be the Star Wars prequels. That’s not to say these awful, boring, self-indulgent films don’t have some flashes of brilliance in them. The sun even shines on a dog’s ass some days, and The Phantom Menace is momentarily jolted out of its dreary fugue by the thrilling podrace sequence. It’s this scene that inspired Star Wars Episode I: Racer, a surprisingly decent racing game developed by LucasArts and released alongside the film in May, 1999. And you can easily play it on a modern gaming PC.
Podracers are basically sci-fi Roman chariots, except they’re pulled along by big, screeching jet engines instead of horses. It’s that bit at the end of Ben Hur viewed through a Star Wars lens, and arguably the most exciting 15 minutes in the prequel trilogy. The game captures this sense of speed and danger brilliantly, giving you a mercilessly small window to react to obstacles like rocks, rapidly closing doors, and narrow gaps. There’s a nice sense of weight and momentum to the handling too, and I love the way those little flaps open when you slam the airbrake. Despite the technical limitations of the era, and the fact LucasArts only had a few short clips from the movie to work with, I think they did a great job translating the podrace sequence into a game.(opens in new tab)
Tatooine is in there, of course, and is a decent approximation of the track Anakin races on in a bid to win his freedom. They even got Greg Proops in to reprise his role as race announcer Fodesinbeed Annodue, whose name I definitely didn’t have to look up on Wookieepedia. But outside of this, the game is extremely non-canon, imagining that Anakin’s career took him to a number of other planets including Mon Gazza, Ando Prime, and Malastare. There’s a nice variety of tracks in the game, including industrial hellscapes, frozen lakes, and jungle canyons. And as you advance through the tournaments, the tracks get significantly harder and make the racing more exciting as a result.
There's a nice upgrade system too, letting you spend your accumulated race winnings on parts from Watto's shop to improve your handling, acceleration, braking, and so on. And if you finish the last race in the Galactic Podracing Circuit tournament, the famous Boonta Eve Classic (opens in new tab), you’ll unlock notorious racer Sebulba, the Lewis Hamilton of the podracing scene. You know, the guy who almost kills himself trying desperately to beat a literal child. Sebulba that is, not Lewis Hamilton. You can play as other racers from the film too including Ben Quadinaros, Ody Mandrell, and Teemto Pagalies, whose names I also definitely didn’t have to look up on Wookieepedia. No, sir.
I just wish it wasn't so easy. In pretty much every tournament race I pull away from the pack in seconds and never see them again. If I badly screw up a turn they’ll creep up on me, but it doesn’t take any effort at all to shake them and regain pole position. It makes me wonder if the game was toned down so babies could enjoy it. It’s no secret that The Phantom Menace and the shameless merchandising machine attached to it was heavily marketed at children. Which is a shame, because with a bit more of a challenge this could have been a seriously satisfying racing game. As it stands, once you’ve finished all the tournaments, there isn’t much incentive to replay the thing.
But hey, it’s only 10 bucks, and I squeezed at least that much fun out of it. So many Star Wars games focus on lightsabers, X-Wings, and stormtroopers, so it’s refreshing to play one that gives you a different perspective on that universe. It’s super fast, feels great to play with a joystick, and the tougher courses are enormously exciting: especially if you switch to the first-person camera. I would love to see a podracing game with modern physics and visuals, but I think that’s about as likely as Dexter Jettster getting his own spin-off movie, so this will have to do for now. Episode I: Racer hasn’t aged as well as some Star Wars games, but it's an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours all the same.(opens in new tab)