There are a few games I remember exactly where I was when I first played them. Star Wars Episode I Racer is one of them. It was an N64 demo kiosk at a Toys 'R' Us in New Jersey. I stood there craning my neck up at the tiny CRT screen enraptured for probably 30 minutes as my family wandered around the store. I distinctly remember getting stuck on the Malastare level—there's a jump in the middle (Google tells me it's called the "Sketto Leap") that I could not hit fast enough to fly over.
Nearly 20 years later and Star Wars: Episode I Racer is available once again. It surprise-launched on GOG.com for $10 this week, and it turns out I still can't nail that jump to save my life. I had a great time trying though.
Use the force
For the uninitiated, or perhaps for the people too young to have played Star Wars: Episode I Racer, the game adapted one of the most polarizing aspects of the first prequel film: The podracing. LucasArts spun an entire racing game out of that 15-minute sequence, imagining an alternate reality where Anakin Skywalker disregarded the pull of The Force in order to pursue his dreams as a pro-circuit podracer.
Probably would've worked out better for him, eh?
The first level of the game is a short-form adaptation of the film's Tatooine course, and then it's off across the galaxy far, far away for something like 25 different tracks—some icy, some industrial, some underwater, some featuring zero-gravity sections and floating rocks.
Episode I Racer doesn't look great, admittedly. It didn't even look great at the time, and 19 years hasn't done it any favors. The textures are stretched to hell and back, the models are blocky and simplistic, and there are moments it's hard to even tell what you're looking at.
It was a compromise made for speed though, and speed is what makes Star Wars: Episode I Racer so fantastic even now. From the opening race, levels are designed to feel fast. The Boonta Eve Training Course, essentially the tutorial, still throws you through a switchback canyon at full tilt, the walls streaking past in a blur as you throw your delicate podracer back and forth. Graze the wall even once and you might lose one of your two engines, spiraling out of control and crashing headlong into the canyon.
Courses only get narrower and more tangled from there, and become even harder to navigate as you upgrade your podracer's speed. Detours sprout off to the left and right, tempting you to take a harder turn or dodge more obstacles or slip through a narrow doorway to shave a few seconds off your time.
It's a style we don't see much nowadays, especially on PC. Arcade racers are rare enough, and even those few we do get (like Forza Horizon 3) are heavily slanted towards realism. Nobody's even aiming for the exaggerated speed of a Burnout anymore, let alone something with the intensity of Episode I Racer. Wipeout was the last holdout, but it was restricted to the PlayStation—and there hasn't been a new Wipeout proper in 10 years.
That makes Episode I Racer easy to return to, graphics aside. It still feels remarkably fresh and exciting. As with many other lapsed genres (like isometric CRPGs prior to 2014), there's little-to-nothing to point to and say "This was Episode I Racer, but done better." No spiritual successor waits in the wings, and I can certainly hazard a guess that EA isn't working on a sequel. It stands on its own, a relic that somehow didn't accumulate much dust.
And sure, there are issues. It's been "updated for modern operating systems," for instance, but I still had a hell of a time getting it to run. There's apparently a conflict with any program that runs an overlay at the moment—meaning I had to shut down Steam, Discord, GeForce Experience, and GOG's own Galaxy software to get Episode I Racer to boot without crashing halfway.
The menus are also ugly and convoluted. You have to set your resolution from outside the game itself, and getting a gamepad to work requires going into the in-game options and clicking a button to "Enable Joysticks." Ah, 1999. What a strange and distant time.
I really enjoyed playing it again though, and I don't think it's just nostalgia. Sure, there's some of that—as I said, I remember playing Episode I Racer on a Toys 'R' Us demo kiosk. If that doesn't speak to some underlying attachment on my part, I don't know what would.
It's an excellent racing game though, maybe one of the finest ever made. Certainly one of the most unique. 19 years on, it's still thrilling to come up on a hairpin turn, throw your podracer into it at the last second, hear the whine of those creaky space-engines as you fight against momentum, then kick in the boost to fly around a switchback with pinpoint precision. It's enough to make your palms sweat, and when it comes to racing games that's one of the finest compliments I could pay. Grab it on GOG for $10.