Star Wars Episode l: Racer

Platform(s): Nintendo 64, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4
Genre: Racing
Publisher: Aspyr
Release Date: June 23, 2020


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Switch Review - 'Star Wars Episode I: Racer'

by Cody Medellin on Aug. 10, 2020 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

In Star Wars Episode l: Racer you take control of a podracer speeding through flaming methane lakes, Tusken Raider assaults, anti-gravity tunnels, and much more in a pulse-pounding, do-or-die fight to the finish line.

Back in 1999, with the tremendous hype surrounding the "Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace" movie, there were two different video game adaptations, depending on which console you owned. If you owned a PlayStation, there was an action/adventure title that was mostly faithful to the source material but a below-average effort that has largely been forgotten unless you're into speedrunning. If you owned a Nintendo 64, you had Star Wars: Episode I: Racer. Based solely on the film's podracing sequence, it turned out to be a wildly enjoyable title that was later ported to both PC and Dreamcast. As Aspyr has done with Jedi Outcast and Jedi Academy, it has also ported Racer to the Switch, and the reception to this iteration will vary quite a bit.

Racer features three single-player modes, and while the time attacks and single races work well for short sessions, they're hampered by the old design mentality of having a majority of the racer and track roster locked away by the campaign mode. In campaign mode, you choose a racer then go through several races in each of the four given cups, all of which take you through various planets in the Star Wars universe. Coming in first in each race grants the unlocks, but placement of any sort will award cash, which can be spent in Watto's shop for new parts or to repair droids. Conversely, you can spend the cash for old parts that cost less but are still viable once you repair them.

The good news is that the game's design has aged quite gracefully. Racer had a great sense of speed that rivaled that of contemporaries like F-Zero and WipeOut, but the frame rate bump from the low 20s on the N64 and 30fps on the Dreamcast to a solid locked 60fps emphasizes that sense of speed. Trying to thread the needle between some obstacles feels just as harrowing now as it did before, and readings upward of 500 miles an hour feels believable. To complement this, the track design is still solid, with lots of wide-open spaces amidst narrow track pieces, and a few areas even have you taking ramps to land on small floating platforms. There's enough here to keep you paying attention at all times, a great trait for a futuristic racer to have.

The trade-off for this great sense of speed and good track design is the difficulty, or lack thereof. For a huge chunk of the campaign, the competitors are almost nonexistent. Even longtime racing fans will note that once you break out of the starting gate, you never see another racer on the track unless you completely stand still and wait for them to arrive or lap them. The lack of difficulty in the campaign is present up until the final tournament, where it ramps up. Even then, by the time you get there, you'll have enough funds to buy your pod's best parts to outrace everyone all over again.

Beyond the single-player modes, Racer features split-screen play for up to two players. It is a nice feature from the old console versions, but it would have been cool to see that get bumped up to four players instead. Also, the game would have been more appealing if it featured online play, something the PC edition didn't explicitly have but could be mimicked since it did feature eight-player LAN play.

There's not much here in terms of Switch-exclusive features. The game supports HD Rumble, which is nice but since you're riding around in a vehicle that's supposed to hover over the ground, you'll only notice it when you're crashing into environmental objects or other racers. While this version of the game doesn't have the dual controller feature of the N64 iteration, where each stick controller each engine independently, it does feature motion controls. Each of the Joy-Cons acts the same way; tilting only the left or right one makes you turn in the given direction, and while it isn't as precise as the analog stick, it is a neat alternative if you want to spice things up a bit.

While this was never billed as a remaster, the presentation is quite eye-opening in both good and bad ways. On the audio side, the music is heavily inspired by the score of the franchise, while the decision to have it play all of the time as opposed to just the final lap is nice for those who hate silence, but it also takes away from the drama in the end. The silence in the main menu and whenever you're inspecting your ship gives the game an unfinished feel, while the sound effects have aged quite poorly due to their low quality.

Graphically, the aforementioned upgrade to a stable 60fps in both split-screen and solo modes on both docked and portable configurations is excellent, but the upgrade to 1080p and 720p, respectively, only highlights every other flaw in this category. While it doesn't have the immense fog of the N64 version, there's still enough of it present in the distance, and the game has noticeable object pop-up during races. The low resolution of the textures is unbearable when you're not actually racing, while the low polygon count for everything else ranges from not noticeable for the vehicles to laughable for the racers. The title screen is also rendered with a painfully low-resolution screenshot, while the cut scenes stutter during playback. It makes it hard to believe that this is a port of the Dreamcast version, since it featured smoother movie playback, making one realize that this is a port of the PC version instead.

As mentioned at the beginning of the review, your appreciation of Star Wars: Episode I: Racer appearing on the Switch will heavily depend on the rose tint of your glasses. On the one hand, the presentation is especially rough, and the lack of difficulty for most of the campaign makes the task of unlocking everything a chore — at least until the final few races become competitive. On the other hand, the sense of speed in races is still present, and the track design isn't bad when you consider how fast things are going. While those who have played the game before might get a kick out of being able to play it again on a modern, portable machine, others may be fine leaving this one alone.

Score: 6.5/10

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