Adapting and expanding on the most intense scene of what's arguably the biggest film of the decade creates some big shoes for a game to fill, eh? If that draws a completely blank stare from you, know that the premise of Star Wars: Episode I Racer is this: you've entered the Podrace, a tournament that is much like the Ben Hur chariot race meets... Star Wars. In Racer, each contestant drives a vehicle made of a small cockpit that's literally dragged behind two or more huge starship engines. These vehicles speed upward of six hundred miles per hour and never go much higher than a few feet off of the ground.
When the LucasArts developers first read the film's script, the podrace scene must have been the unanimous choice to adapt for the introductory game of the "new franchise," and of course, much has been added to the ten-minute scene. Instead of simply racing the course on the desert world of Tatooine, you have seven additional planets and more than twenty tracks in all to race, as well as more than twenty pilots besides young Anakin Skywalker to race as.
The gameplay is much like other futuristic-style racing games out there (yes, I know it's set in a time "long, long ago," but bear with me), such as Psygnosis' Wipeout XL and Nintendo's F-Zero X, except that in this game there are no power-ups to acquire, and you can't use offensive weapons against your opponents, at least until you unlock the main boss as a playable character. You compete in a series of tournaments made up of four or more races each. If you place fourth or better, you can continue to the next race and earn money to buy upgrades to your Podracer, which you'll need to hold your own against the increasingly tough AI opponents.
The main feature that Racer offers over its competition is a feeling of speed beyond that of the few that actually meet its 60-frames-per-second framerate. You'll come upon obstacles such as boulders or large spacecraft so quickly that you'll be gasping at your skill or luck when you manage to avoid them. But what makes the speed fun is its combination of a fantastic physics engine and great controls. You use the analog joystick to steer your ship, the A button acts as the gas, the B is the brake, the Z-trigger creates a power-slide, and the right-shoulder button deploys the repair droids to fix damage. Incidentally, this button slows you down when in use. Leaning completely forward on the joystick will build up a turbo boost, which is offset by the fact that leaning back and side-to-side will give you tighter turns. It's a simple and elegant setup, really.Racer's graphics are great even without the use of the RAM Pak, with environments that are increasingly impressive-looking and well designed. The Oovo IV and the later Mon Gazza tracks are at times so stunning that they'll invariably make you crash because you'll look away from the course for a moment to take them in. Pop-up occurs from time to time, even with the RAM Pak in place, which doesn't necessarily make you wipe out, but due to the stress of the game's high speed, you'll want to see as far ahead as you can. The pop-up is not much worse in the two-player split-screen race (as it often is in other games), and the frame rate is still good, even if it doesn't quite seem to make it to sixty. Meanwhile, the sound effects in the game are very good, but the incidental music is far too incidental and sounds like it's being played somewhere far off in the background. Also worth noting is that the game starts off very easy and then suddenly get extremely challenging, to the point where you'll want to set the prize money to "winner take all" and restart the races until you master them completely. Without the vehicle upgrades that extra cash brings, you'll be left hopeless in the dust by the other drivers. Sound kind of underhanded? Well, since you can't go back and try to do better in completed races, it's the only way to succeed. "Cheating" or no, the game could use a few more tracks or a mirror-mode tournament to stretch it out a bit more. One nice feature that adds to its value though is the addition of up to four computer-controlled opponents in the multiplayer mode. If they're set to normal or easy AI, you'll likely not see them very often or at all, but on hard, they're great to play against.
Even with a few complaints lodged against it, Racer is an incredibly fast, super-fun game to play once you get a few levels into it. It's better than F-Zero X, its closest competition on the N64, and it even approaches the PlayStation uber-futuristic racer, Wipeout XL. To compare it with the movie, it's even better than the scene that inspired it, and that's a big compliment indeed.