[Review] Star Wars Episode 1: Racer – Nintendo Switch

Written by Richard Strachan
  • Developer: Aspyr
  • Publisher: Aspyr
  • Release date: 23/6/2020
  • Price: £12.29/$14.99
  • Review code provided by Aspyr

Introducing: Star Wars Episode 1 Racer Switch Review

For those of a certain age, 1999 will forever remain scorched in our memories as the year Star Wars came back. Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace launched in cinemas and 13 year old Richard was bouncing off the walls with excitement. I absolutely loved the film and managed to see it three times in the local hell hole. I was well and truly bouncing when I managed to snag a copy of Episode 1 Racer for the N64 and have many happy memories of trying to beat that scumbag Sebulba! 

It’s only natural that in 2020 the N64 classic gets a HD spruce-up and a release on Nintendo’s hybrid. The question is, has father time been kind to the old dear?

A long time ago in a Galaxy far far away!

Many would argue that the podracing scene in Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace was the best part of the film. Some might even go as far as arguing it was the only good part! Either way it is fondly remembered and served as a great foundation for a game to be built on. In the movie the characters send a young Anakin Skywalker out to race as a gamble to obtain the money to fund parts for their ship. Episode 1 Racer took this concept and stretched it out to a full racing game with several cups taking place across many planets within the Star Wars universe, including several which had never been seen in film before.

This is Podracing now?

For better or worse, what you get here is an upscaled port of the original game, with very few bells and whistles. Thankfully the core gameplay itself was, and still is, tight and extremely satisfying.

Episode 1 Racer is an old-school futuristic arcade racer, on a similar vein to F-Zero X or the Wipeout series. You choose to race as one of several characters present in the podracing section of The Phantom Menace, notably including Anakin Skywalker and his nemesis, Sebulba. Each of the characters handle differently, but the overall gameplay feel is fast and responsive. The pods in the game are very grippy compared to the likes of the F-Zero series, which combined with the smooth frame rate afforded by this remaster, create a very slick experience.

The game includes a boost mode, whereby you need to hold up on the left stick to charge your turbo before pressing button to activate the boost. This carries a risk as it can lead to your ship overheating and eventually catching fire, but the speed boost is ridiculous. I actually managed to complete the entire game without understanding how the boost mode worked, as the game failed to explain the need to charge the boost before it can be used!

Between races you can upgrade your pod by purchasing different parts with currency earned from winning races. Different parts can affect your ship in different ways including improving handling, speed, acceleration and braking as well as your cooling system. Parts degrade over through use, so you need to keep on top of managing the wear and tear as well as slowly improving your ship to allow you to remain competitive.

The game plays really smoothly and benefits greatly from the power of the Switch to ensure it runs at a decent frame rate. The N64 version could at times get a little choppy, which was never ideal at these speeds!

There are three main cups in the game, each consisting of seven races, as well as four additional races which you can unlock as you complete the main cups. Some of the tracks are quite long, so you can end up spending up to eight minutes on a race. There is a good amount to do, but unfortunately no difficulty options, with the difficulty instead scaling as you progress through the cups.

Party like it’s 1999

The original game was a good looking game for the time, but (in the case of the N64 game) included some quite heavy fogging, as was customary in those days to reduce draw distances and help get the most from the console. The original took advantage of the N64 expansion pak to provide slightly sharper graphics, but this remaster really manages to sharpen those old graphics up when compared to that extra 4MB of memory!

There doesn’t seem to have been any graphical adjustments made in this remastered version. It’s possibly a bit of a divisive topic, but I really find the N64-era aesthetic beautiful. I may be slightly biased, as I do still have my original console set up under my living room TV.

The UI elements don’t seem to have fared too well with the upscaling and can often look very pixellated. This also translates to the CGI elements which introduce each race. These weren’t present in the N64 version and are, I assume a relic from the other versions. The game originally launched on PC where these kind of elements could be carried off much more easily.

The CGI scenes look a bit grubby these days, but may provide an added burst of nostaligia for those who played certain versions of the original.

The audio in the game seems to be sampled at a very low bitrate, which unfortunately makes everything sound a little distorted. The one thing I did notice however was that the music in each race plays the whole way through. In the original the music would kick in during the final lap adding some extra suspense, with the tradeoff being a pretty empty sounding first few laps. This is a strange thing to change, but in my eyes stops the game feeling so empty when compared with the original. It does however serve to really highlight the poor sound quality.

Mind tricks don’t work on me

The game runs extremely smoothly, but offers very little in the way of modern improvements. The higher resolution and improved framerate really help the game pop and ensure navigating some of the tight courses is as slick and easy as possible. It does feel like you’re finally getting to experience the vision of the developers without the restraints of consoles at the time. The game does include the same fogging and pop in as found in the original, which could either be argued as laziness or authenticity depending on which side of the fence you fall on.

Final Thoughts

I was initially a little shocked by how little had been changed in this remaster, but as I got into the groove I found that a lot of my fond memories were very much warranted. The game still plays very well and offers an amazing sense of speed. It manages to keep its place as one of the best Star Wars spin-off games and really crystallizes the short film segment from which it was inspired.

There are some small changes from the original, including the removal of a cool control option whereby you were once able to use two N64 controllers to represent the two sticks which control the pods in the Phantom Menace. This was always a cool way to play and is shame to see removed given the fact the Switch has two sticks and so many different control options. I can’t help but think that split joy-cons would have offered the natural evolution of that control method. The game includes two player split screen, but no online play or leaderboards unfortunately!

Pros

  • Slick and speedy racing
  • Expands on the best part of the film
  • Authentic version of the original (for better or worse)

Cons

  • Some UI elements are very low res
  • Sound quality is poor
  • Removed some content from original

Verdict
For better or worse, this is a very authentic representation of the original. Fans will enjoy the chance to return, but this is very much an up-scaled version of a game from 1999!

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