Okay, embarrassing admission: I am not a driver. I don't have a driver's license. I could chalk it up to gas prices, environmental concern, generously offered rides from my parents, the gainful exercise of biking to work, or the many interesting social opportunities offered via public transit, but these are justifications. I … I've just never been a car guy. The driving bug never bit me like it bit my friends back in the early 2000s.
The same goes for racing games — beyond the charming Midtown Madness series, a few Burnout titles, and general Mario Karting, racing games never had lasting appeal for me. The major exception to this can be found via another bug, one that bit me just as hard as it did my friends: namely, the Star Wars bug, and LucasArts' greatest driving video game, Star Wars Episode I: Racer.
That podracing scene from Episode I has always been, to my mind, the sole redeeming quality of Episodes I-III. Or, if redemption is too strong, at least the one gem to be gleaned from a quagmire of okay acting and vile writing. Back in the early 2000s, my enjoying it can be understood. A colossal race for futuristic space vehicles ridden by an array of unique alien racers … how could a 12-year-old boy not go for that? The mechanical engine sounds, the contestants' Star Wars-y names, the wild racing terrain, the sheer mind-numbing pulse-quickening speed of everything, the roar of noise punctuated by occasional moments of breath-stealing silence. I mean, look at them: it's as simple and majestic as a cockpit connected by cables to a pair of monstrous gaudy-colored turbines. It redefined the word “thrill.”
Does the video game capture the essence of podracing? Indeed it does, for better and for worse. Liam Neeson's character Qui-Gon Jinn mentions, “They have podracing on Malastare. Very fast, very dangerous.” The controls, as such, are apropos: thoroughly exciting for an experienced player, repeatedly lethal in the hands of a novice.
Beyond the racing basics of directions, acceleration, boost, and brakes, the game includes a “repair” function. Purchasable pit droids will fix your engine during a race if, say, you've scraped against too many cave walls or landed from service ramps with insufficient grace. Given the rate at which you're racing (usually upwards of 300 arbitrary units of speed, possibly mph) it's often faster just to crash your podracer and wait to respawn rather than to fix your pods' busted segments, for which you must coast at lower speeds. On the other hand, your opponents are increasingly tenacious roadsters; after the first tournament, you're better off mastering the precise art of hugging turns and timing your boost buttons … again, at hundreds upon hundreds of space-miles per hour.
Racer was originally released for the Nintendo 64 (though my brother and I played it on a Mac) — its graphics, by now, are mostly dated. The blocky 3D visualizations, which have always been endearing to Super Mario 64, look bizarre on George Lucas' many made-up species. The tracks themselves, however, are still amazing, mostly because you don't spend a lot of time staring at them. When you're keeping your eyes on the road / desert / swamp / aerial railway / spice mine / prison system, you only notice the environment as it blasts past you in a rush of multicolored, stylish sci-fi design … and it looks way cool from that angle.
Gameplay can be frustrating at times, given the difficulty of certain circuits (the maddening split track on “Abyss” and the sickening curves of “Grabvine Gateway” come to mind), but practice at this game makes especially perfect. Soon you'll be playing as new racers and earning truckloads of “truguts” for buying better pod parts. And while I wouldn't call it the richest in terms of replay value, there is a certain joy to unlocking Ben Quadinaros (the only character with a four-turbine vehicle), pumping his podracer full of top-notch upgrades, and roasting the other races in a victory lap across the tournaments. This second round mostly consisted of reckless speed boosts, ungainly leads in the race, smashing gloriously against a jutting piece of architecture, and then resuming my galling first place position, with Quadinaros' voice actor cackling wildly all the while.
Yes it's a nostalgia play, but it's a fun nostalgia play, populated with George Lucas' least-annoying creations and enough snippets of John Williams' brilliance to survive the timewarp with minimal glitchiness and most of its entertainment intact. Now, why can't real driving be this fun? Oh, right, no respawning in real life. Sorry.