This might not be that shocking of a statement anymore, but I actually like Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. It is clunky and unpolished, but also a fun journey with good action, a neat universe to get indulged in, and nice characters. Personally, I think it evens itself out since for every JarJar Binks that annoys you, there is a Qui-Gon Jinn to hook you right back in again. Though my favourite part has to be the podracing sequence! It is such an exciting rush with amazing sound effects that never gets boring, to the point that this alone inspired a video game adaptation! Now that this cult classic has gotten a modernised update, I am looking forward to see how well it holds up.
An adrenaline mess
Starting up this title, you are able to choose between multiple options, with the tournament being the main campaign. Here, you pick one of the drivers to play as, with them all having different stats in traction, turning, acceleration, top speed, air brake, cooling, and repair. None of them feels unbalanced, and thus this becomes more about your preference in how they handle or their visual style. After selecting your avatar, you are ready to take on one of the three leagues with seven stages that are each unlocked progressively.
Unlike other racers though, you do not take all of the tracks in one tournament in a single go, but rather pause in between. This is a strange concept due to how the courses are unlocked one at a time and clearly meant to be tackled in order. However, the stages do vary severely in length, so this might have been done to provide a bit of breathing room. Another factor favouring this design, is to let you enhance your ride!
Before starting any level, you are able to inspect your ship to simply admire it, repair droids to have them fix up your pod, and check the shop or junkyard to buy new parts. The latter two are nifty inclusions for making the reward money after each successful run meaningful for progression, offering upgrades to make the next competition easier. Not to mention, having to contemplate between getting lucky on what you find in the garbage field versus in the store that has a more stable selection, is an engaging element too.
When it comes to the repair droids, your ride will be damaged every time you smack into something or outright crash. After each course, your droids will fix one component each, which is going to be important since you cannot use the vandalised equipment to its fullest potential otherwise. You can also only have a maximum of four droids, so you being a reckless driver is going to cost you, especially seeing as the only way to get income is to win races! It is here though where Episode 1: Racer gets unnecessarily convoluted.
Basically, you can choose how much a reward offers. “Fair” lets all in the first four places get equal amounts of cash, “skilled” makes you gradually get more the higher spot you are in, and “winner takes it all” has only one getting the money. You cannot replay any tracks in order to gain more currency, which is good for neglecting grinding. Sadly, this makes only the last option valid, as you will need to upgrade your vehicle constantly.
Not to mention, since you can restart any level with no penalty, it is easy to attempt multiple times to take first place right from the start! Combine this with enhancing your ship, and it makes every competition a breeze due to your opponents not being able to catch up with you. Despite the rubber band AI, I personally only encountered two parts where I struggled because I had not yet understood the importance of braking for making harsh turns.
Luckily, the actual racing is exhilarating. Driving in one of the pods allows you to accelerate, brake, and steer obviously, but an interesting design is the slide manoeuvre. Being capable of moving your ride on the side, allows you to squeeze between areas as well as make tight swings while keeping the speed up. Breaking will help to clear the hardest ones, but this is a lovely addition that forces you to do your best to maintain a fast pace.
However, the results can be dire if you are not careful, as your two engines also have statuses to be aware of. They are broken into parts of three each; front, middle, and back, with clear colour codes for how their conditions are. Green means solid, yellow showcases weariness, and red equals dangerously vandalised. As you drive, you can hold in a button in order to fix the one in the worst condition, though at the consequence of becoming slower. This is a clever inclusion since not keeping up could cost you the first place, but losing one of the motors can be just as bad!
If this happens or you crash into an obstacle straight on, you will explode and use a ton of time to respawn, which can mean everything in a race. It is then fantastic that the controls are responsive and all actions are valuable, except for taunting. Because of this, every fault is clearly your own! Admittedly, the motion controls for the Switch version are nice for creating immersion by using both joy-cons for steering, but they cannot match the precision and comfort analogue sticks give.
Even boosting has a simple but great design! In order to do so, you have to hold the analogue stick for steering forward to fill up a bar before you press the correct button to blast off. Not only will this make going left or right difficult, but you have to make sure you have a direct and clear road ahead, as swinging or hitting other tractions than the main route will remove the boost and you have to redo the process. Furthermore, this can also lead to overheating your engines, which could eventually destroy them. However, the speed you get through this is incredible, making this a creative risk versus reward setup.
All of these mechanics should provide plenty of important aspects to consider while driving for making the races tense. Regrettably, it is not just the possibility to enhance your vehicle that mitigates these wonderful ideas, but also the layouts of the stages themselves. There are a ton of courses that focus on harsh swings, using boosts to clear gaps, offering dangerous shortcuts to take, and even unique concepts like antigravity.
What is then a huge shame, is that there is a tremendous amount of reused levels with the later ones having more and varied setups on top of the original ones. This presents a feeling of deja vu, with only a couple of the tracks being distinct and fun to revisit due to them being more engaging. In fact, half of these could have been cut because of this, especially when they can go from lasting barely two minutes to almost eight. This problem also affects the difficulty curve, as it becomes replaced with padding. In other words: the tournaments are not getting harder, just somewhat altered and longer.
The courses are generally enjoyable to tackle and test your skills, but the earlier ones feel at best like appetizers for the bigger versions since they are actually fulfilling. With this and the poor challenge in mind, why is this nonetheless an entertaining game? This is thanks to the stunning speed you can reach and the creative stages that utilize your capabilities. I just believe a better structure could have been made by cutting out some of the reused ones. Maybe even neglecting the idea of upgrading your ship would have offered a better balance, as it does make the races too easy. For a three hour campaign, this title overall provides a sweet adrenaline rush that could have used some polish by focusing on quality over quantity.
Gameplay Score: 5/10
Hitting instantly as you start each competition, is the insane audio this project packs. The sounds of pods flying through the air are amazing, giving a fantastic sense of their quick pace that even changes depending on if you are in a tight structure or out in the open, which is an impressive feat! With the number of explosions, engines screaming through the fields, and crashes offering harsh punches, you will get sucked in with every tournament. The different and adorable taunts from the characters also contribute to this, with those from Anakin being the only ones I can somewhat understand.
Speaking of, there is a surprising amount of voices included! All their directions and tones are great for giving the cast with some personalities, with the commentators creating wonderful hype upon introducing each new planet. A highlight for me is actually Watto’s constant barrage of comments towards you as a customer, which are fun and even contains cute nods to this product’s source material. Furthermore, it is all being complemented by John Williams’s score which is taken straight from the movie. His tense and symphonic tracks build up gorgeously and deliver exciting thrills, making it hard to call his work any less than superb. Even if these melodies are reused for multiple courses, they are so magnificent and consist of diverse notes, that they never provide a dull moment.
Admittedly, this can be said about the levels too. Despite the familiarity setting quickly in, they always evolve with more elements to them! Baroonda has you driving through jungles and a volcano, Andobi Mountain holds tight canyons and icy surfaces to traverse over, and even the neon city Mon Gaza will have construction sites to go past. There is a ton of variety in each stage, and while the repetition can be a problem, the later ones have a healthy mixture to make them engaging due to the tons of subtle details around. It is honestly pretty neat that a racer can showcase what a vast world the Star Wars franchise offers!
Enriching this creative universe onwards are the different competitors that all come from unique globes with imaginative forms of vehicles that are surreal and intriguing. These shapes and forms are easy to admire, and I love how the menu before entering each course is in Watto’s garage, providing a sense of immersion. Speaking off, you are even able to play this in an assortment of first- and third-person modes, which is a beautiful addition for getting you absorbed into this galaxy. If you also have a controller with HD rumbles, the atmosphere is even more incredible.
On a technical level, I am also shocked by how well Episode 1: Racer holds up! The textures are solid and diverse despite some blurry ones, metal screeching toward surfaces produces amazing sparks, and the lightning is dynamic to give each area its own tone! I also enjoy how the fog is often used as a clever way to mask the system’s shortcomings and how exploded ships always leave just some small combusted components behind. Not to mention, the CG cutscenes are outstanding and a gorgeous way to introduce you to each planet’s structure and environment.
It is hard to not notice how some of the contenders can look like triangles while driving, but everything is so mesmerising at high speed and obviously made with care, that it is hard to not get invested. Even if there is a repetition of the stages’ designs, the sheer thrills of going faster than anyone else while witnessing the breathtaking locations, bring a ton of magic and excitement other racers wish they could replicate.
Presentation Score: 9/10
Need some new assets
Besides the 21 main tracks to take on, you can also unlock four more unique ones that test your skills nicely. While not as compelling, the characters to acquire for finishing tournaments are also fascinating, with some even having special features! Unfortunately, the other modes are nothing to write home about for the solo gamer. Freeplay lets you choose the number of laps, competitors, and speed before tackling a course, time attack has you racing as fast as you can, and the unlockable mirror mode just flips the levels. That is it, making these bland options completely worthless.
The only one worth revisiting is the multiplayer! Despite that you can only compete against one other person, you have just as many choices as in the freeplay mode and with another human to go up against, it is an adrenaline rush of a challenge with the AI being surprisingly decent! It is truly a tragedy that this did not get updated to include online play or the opportunity for more people to join in, but due to the engaging stages and having someone who can be just as skilful as you, it makes for some tense matches! Really wish the campaign could replicate this.
Extra Score: 7/10
I think the best analogy to this game is actually the source material it is based on; The Phantom Menace. Sure, it has many faults and contains parts that are either too unpolish or should even have been removed for creating a better flow. However, it is severely entertaining thanks to the visuals and action, with more creative lore being offered that feels fitting to the Star Wars franchise. While far from the best of its genre, this racer still provides an enjoyable afternoon that I am glad I could share with at least one friend.