If you remember ‘enjoying’ the Star Wars prequel trilogy in cinemas (some of us are very creaky and watched the originals in that format too) you’ll probably also recall a degree of disappointment with the three movies. The world-building and simmering galactic conflicts were all positioned reasonably well, the CGI and visual effects pushed the limits of what was possible at the time, the lightsaber battle choreography was often at another level from what we’d previously seen (who still wants more Darth Maul?), and the various John Williams helmed soundtracks remain spine-tingling to this day. Something was a bit off though; whether it was the stilted dialogue and direction by the creator, the contrived verboseness of the ‘talky’ scenes clunkily joining the action together, or the inevitability of the fall of Anakin Skywalker leading to the ‘birth’ of Darth Vader, the consensus remains that the trilogy missed the mark. Whether that mark was just skirted or missed by a mile depends on the individual’s fondness for the Star Wars universe, a critical eye for movie making, and / or their level of cynicism.
I’ll admit to still being able to ‘enjoy’ watching the prequels, albeit rarely and in small doses. As a somewhat lapsed but still unabashed fanboy, I enjoyed the time leading up to and during the release of the prequel trilogy. Lifelong friendships were forged with local fans, much disposable income was expended on
toys memorabilia, and numerous tie-in video games were released. Oh, how about those games…the many, many prequel-era games! Of the one hundred or so Star Wars games in my collection, a fair proportion were set amongst and released during the prequel-era. The only issue with that is quite a number of them were average at best, with many being almost instantly forgettable. I had a lot of fun with Star Wars: Bounty Hunter and Star Wars: The Clone Wars on the GameCube and found some satisfaction with Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Star Wars: Starfighter on the Xbox. Some of the other games? Not so much. I’ll admit to finding a reasonable degree of enjoyment with over half of the prequel-era games, but one title stands out more than others in my mind: Star Wars Episode 1: Racer. Overall, it generally seems to be the most fondly remembered of the prequel-era games, with some even declaring it the best thing to emerge from The Phantom Menace. It’s now available for purchase on the Nintendo Switch for $20.55AU, with a simultaneous release on PlayStation 4 for $22.95, and also previously published on PC with releases on Steam for $14.50 and GOG for $15.29. The Internet might remember Racer with affection, but how how does it fare twenty years after its original release?
Sure, I own physical copies on the N64, PC, and Dreamcast (Racer is often overlooked and underrated on SEGA’s last console), so why would I or anyone bother purchasing yet another version of the same game? What immediately drew me to the Switch version on its release day was the obvious and irresistible portability of Nintendo’s little console that could. Sure, it looks and plays in essentially the same way on a 60″ TV as it does the 6.2″ LCD of the Switch, but the convenience and novelty of playing ‘classic’ games on the go is undeniable. Shy of playing the PC, N64, or DC version on a small laptop or emulation device (with all associated configuration kerfuffles and murky legalities that go hand-in-hand with doing so), this is the best and smoothest way to play Racer on the bus, in the backyard, in bed, or wherever else (ahem!) you prefer to play games untethered from your TV.
Beyond the portable aspect, if you’ve played the game on any other platform previously or now, you’re playing the same thing here. There’s some modern conveniences and a few tweaks, but beyond that it’s simply a solid but somewhat bare-bones port. The pre-rendered cut scenes introducing the game and each race are included from the PC and Dreamcast ports which is a nice touch, but in 2020 it’s somewhat quaint as they run at a marginally slower framerate than the upscaled in-game graphics. The in-game textures look (unsurprisingly) more than a little smeary, which should be expected from a twenty year old game. Despite some conflicting information online, Racer appears to be a port of the Dreamcast version of the game with very little changed beyond upscaling for the Switch LCD or your TV (check out this video comparing the pair on YouTube). This isn’t a big deal in practice as the game seems to run at a mostly solid 60fps; once my pod is zooming along and I’m in-the-zone, I don’t really notice the lack of definition in the in-game models. Not too different than when playing the game with the N64 Expansion Pak, right? To be frank though, Racer on the Switch is not a particularly visually attractive game. Audio wise, the John Williams soundtrack is as rousing as ever, the voice acting as grating as it always was, and the various other sound effects more than appropriate and serviceable. I’ve read of sound-mixing issues, but nothing has been particularly noticeable except for the occasional dropped or missing sample (e.g. for taunts) which could reasonably be expected to hopefully be fixed with updates. Whether on Tatooine or any of the eight worlds, the immersion and sense of place still draws the player in.
Note: the above paragraph has been updated to reflect that the game IS a port of the Dreamcast version, albeit graphically and sonically, a somewhat uninspiring update.
The first release of the game baked in two control schemes; the basic one closely resembles that of the N64 style, with an additional updated scheme using the ZR button for acceleration and makes the assumption that you have more input appendages than Sebulba. Both work adequately and are mostly precise, albeit feeling a little awkward until my ageing muscle memory adapted to their respective foibles. Pressing forward to enable boost while turning remains awkward as ever, and doing still makes me prone to crashing two decades after the original release. The recent 1.01 update added motion controls that are superficially similar to those found in Star Wars Racer Arcade. Although I’ve not put a great deal of time into using this scheme, it’s serviceable and responsive. As to whether these controls will hold up on the more challenging tracks, I’ve yet to risk using them on higher levels (Note: I’ll update this review if I ever make it this far while using them). The update also welcomed a few other additions including lens flare, some minor bug fixes, and higher resolution UI elements which are welcome but probably not overtly noticeable unless you mostly play the game on a TV (I don’t) or have high acuity vision (I definitely don’t). These updates are appreciated, although I suspect any future additions to the game will be comparatively minor.
If you’ve made it one thousand words in, you’ll likely be pleased to hear the game structure and options remain well-rounded, relatively packed, and customisable as ever, albeit with no new additions. Twenty five tracks (most with a variety of shortcuts) across the eight worlds, six initial racers, seventeen unlockable characters, and local multiplayer give Racer plenty of longevity. The difficulty curve is fairly gentle and forgiving, which allows even the most accelerator-heavy and non-braking player (me!) a fair chance to progress. Although I’ve not yet completed all four circuits and unlocked many characters on the Switch (yet!), there’s a steady sense of progression. The game starts almost ridiculously easy for six of the seven tracks in the Amateur Podracing Circuit, and only really ramps up when reaching Semipro. The sense of achievement and progression, all the while knowing that it’s more than possible to progress with a modicum of skill and luck, keeps you pushing through without feeling frustrated. The upgrading system, allowing multiple aspects of the pod racing experience to be improved (in addition to trading damaged parts) is welcomed. What’s not so much fun, and borders on tedium and annoyance, are the numerous menu options that must be navigated to to buy and trade parts. It’s a minor quibble, but something I don’t remember the different ways of buying, trading, repairing, and back-pedalling between these sub-menus bothering me all those years ago. Luckily, the system can be exploited as in the original… (Nintendo Life’s review mentions how)
It could easily, and probably accurately, be argued that Star Wars Episode 1: Racer lacks the depth of some recent entries in the similarly speedy Wipeout and F-Zero series. But that would be missing the point; it remains a quality entry in the hold-onto-your-hats-this-is-gonna-be-fast genre of racing games. Racer might be somewhat dated and a little finicky in aspects of the game that would usually be more polished in modern releases, however it’s still very accessible and fun to dive into. The developers knew the target audience wouldn’t necessarily be ‘expert’ racing game players, and when a ‘quick go’ can easily turn into two hours immersed in the Star Wars universe in the blink of an eye (and the numbing of thumbs), for this ‘average’ racing game player it was $20 well spent. Star Wars Episode 1: Racer is definitely recommended…if you’re still able to tolerate and stomach anything to do with the prequel-era of course.