I Heart… Star Wars Episode 1: Racer
So, here’s the deal. You’ve been working your way through the rankings, winning race after race, time and time again. You’ve had a few crashes along the way, and those set you back, but you’ve pushed through and you’ve finally made your way to the top. This is the race, the big one that will see you known as the best there is. It’s not going to be easy of course, because you’re up against the best; the fastest men around. They’re lightning quick, they have reactions like a nest of vipers and they are completely ruthless. In fact, they’d much rather make sure you that you won’t race again than just beating you.
Lining up on the grid you can see all the rivals you’ve made over the course of your career, and all of them start in front of you. They are all legends in the business, the best of the best and you know each of them by sight: Gasgano, Dud Bolt and Sebulba. Even Ben Quadinaros is starting ahead of you, and he hasn’t placed first in years. The lights above the arena changed to green and you hit the accelerator, your pod leaping forward like a startled deer, pressing you backwards with the force of the acceleration. The race is on.
Welcome to the greatest racing game of them all: Star Wars Episode 1: Racer. Although Star Wars Episode 1 was one of the much maligned second trilogy, it did introduce us to one of my favourite things about the Star Wars Universe: Pod Racing. I’ve always loved going fast and although karting and rollercoasters were a fairly constant fixture in my youth, it was computers games that truly provided the thrill of speed that I so enjoyed. Burnout, Need for Speed, anything that let you drive fast had me hooked from the get go. Even so, there was one that held a special place in my heart, for no other game would let me rocket around the place in machines that were essentially a pair of jet engines attached to a cockpit and, as such, Star Wars Episode 1: Racer got played a lot.
The premise of Racer is a simple one: throw the player into the role of a Pod Pilot, one of the elite men and aliens that had the skill and reactions to deal with the fastest races on the planet. There is probably some sort of story that served to explain why you were one of these elite pilots and the motivations behind it all, but that’s not important and, as such, I don’t remember it at all. What I do remember is agonizing over who I wanted to race with, because although Anakin was the only human character, he had by far the stupidest looking pod racer. Obviously I would never be caught dead piloting that thing, so it would have to be someone else. I don’t even remember who I chose in the end, but I chose him because I liked the look of his pod.
Each of the characters that you could choose from were unique, and their podracers equally so. Some of them were huge hulking masses of engine, others were smaller and sleeker. All of them were breathtaking and capable of huge top speeds. For the most part they were fairly evenly matched, each of them balancing speed and manoeuvrability slightly differently, but all of them were more than capable of winning race after race.
You set out to do just that, starting with a race on an instantly recognisable Tatooine course. It wasn’t the Boonta Circuit that we saw in the film, but it bears enough resemblance to settle any player immediately. That first circuit was a learning experience, teaching through example all of the mechanics, from repairing damaged engines on the fly to flipping your pod on its side to slip through the slim opening in a wall of rock. It wasn’t easy either; the game was happy to make you work for your victories. Even when you had established a decent lead all it took was one little mistake and you had Sebulba right behind you again.
And it’s not like Sebulba wins every race either, as I was half expecting him to do. Competition between the AI characters is pretty fierce and each of the twenty something tracks has a track favourite, that one racer who always does well at that particular circuit. They’re the ones who hassle you hardest, pulling off the quickest lap times and generally showing why they’re the favourites, but even then it’s not always them who wins the race. I can still remember my shock at watching Ben Quadinaros pulling away from me on the last straight at the Boonta Classic – normally Sebulba’s hunting ground.
The circuits themselves were almost as varied as the racers duelling it out on their twists and turns. The locations spanned icy plateaus, cramped tunnels and I swear that I remember an underwater track as well. Some of them were open, with long straights and shallow corners, letting you really push your pod as hard as it could go. Others were tighter, with sharp corners and obstacles strewn about the place. Others still were simple at first glance, but if you were willing to look you’d find alternate routes that cut valuable seconds off your lap time. If you kept winning races you would begin to move through the ranks, starting off as an amateur racer and, as you improve, eventually qualifying for the next rung of the ladder. If you continued to win you continued to climb, reaching the point where you were invited to race in invitational events. All this was a pretext for drip-feeding you tracks over time, and if you wanted to be able to play all of the tracks at will then you had to work your way through the story mode (such as it is).
Your success also translated into monetary gain, and you could spend your spoils improving several facets of your pod and your stable. You could buy upgrades for your pod, which increased the attributes of your racer in any area that you chose, whether it be top speed, acceleration or handling. You could also spend your hard won credits to buy maintenance droids, which helped keep your pod looking and feeling sexy and jetting about like it was meant to.
As wonderful as Racer is though, the true magic of it is the stories that stemmed from it. It was a game that I played with my father, and it was one of the many ways that we connected. Some of my fondest memories are nights spent with my dad playing Racer on a projector while my mother was out. Beating my dad’s time around a track is one my proudest gaming achievements, though I now have reason to believe that he may have been letting me do so. It was also one of the few games that I could play alone and regale my dad with tales of my achievements – “Hey dad, I finally beat Sebulba at Boonta Classic” – and the time we spent with the game numbers among my fondest memories.
I haven’t played Racer in years. A while ago I tried to install it onto my PC, and though it happily installed it refused to boot up. Yet I have no doubt whatsoever that should I ever get it to play I would be able to sit down and race through the Aquilaris Classic or the Spice Mine Run and feel like I was seven years old again. I might even manage to win.
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