Since it was released in May of 1999, reams and reams of both real and internet paper have been spent analyzing the train wreck that was the Star Wars prequels. Perhaps the most hyped film of all time, The Phantom Menace—the first of the trilogy—was almost doomed to failure from the start. Still, none could predict just how awful the movies turned out to be. The addle-brained alien Jar Jar Binks, touted as a revolutionary advance in cinematic CGI, quickly became one of the most reviled characters in movie history. The moment that will stay with me, I think, was my high school friend Tom, moderately stoned and in total anguish, issuing his plea to the heavens: “Where were the fucking stormtroopers?”
The stormtroopers do eventually appear in the second movie, but by then, the terrible realization had sunk in: Stormtroopers or no, Star Wars was ruined forever. But did anything worthwhile emerge from the twisted wreckage? Surely something of value arose from the ashes of the nerd apocalypse, some elixir that could wash the acrid taste of “midi-chlorians” out of our mouths?
Like a breath of fresh, recycled Death Star air came Star Wars: Episode I Racer, which was released alongside the film. Based on the pod races seen in The Phantom Menace—fittingly, one of the least exciting alien death races you could ever hope to see, an anesthetized, medium-speed circuit populated with computer-generated Muppet rejects—the Nintendo 64 adaptation (plus later releases on other platforms) injected George Lucas’s should-be abortion in a galaxy far, far away with much-needed testicular fortitude. Episode I Racer is not just the best video game to come out of that mess. It’s the best thing to come out of that mess, period. And it’s one of the better racing games ever made.
Racer grades on steep curve, and it gives you a wide selection of characters, not limiting the player to fresh-faced desert grease monkey Anakin Skywalker. In the initial races, it doesn’t much matter who you pick, so long as you’re fairly proficient at racing games. The turns are gradual—no hairpins here—and the obstacles are less fearsome than they will soon become. Plus, your winnings can be used between races to buy parts from Watto, the diminutive black marketeer, so these gentler tracks provide an opportunity to improve your ride.
As the game progresses, though, your driving skill or affinity with the Force or alien reflexes will only get you so far. The game gets hard, fast, and you’ll need to jack up your pod if you want to win this thing. Your driver’s specific pods and abilities—the game features over two dozen distinct pilots and tracks—are suddenly the difference between winning and finishing last. Racer may resemble Star Wars, but in its DNA, where it matters, it’s more Paul Bartel than George Lucas.
Like all good racing games, Episode I Racer features responsive controls and varied environments, but there are elements that set it apart. For one thing, the parts you’re buying from Watto (at his outrageous prices) degrade more rapidly if you push them too hard. Spend all the money you want on a R-600 Repulsergrip, but if you keep scraping the paint and hitting the walls head on, you’ll soon find yourself back to square one, equipment-wise. You can purchase pit droids to maintain your investments, but the best way to care for your new gear is by learning to steer and not blowing up every hundred feet.
Driving a pod is dangerous. It’s essentially a hovering sled pulled by two gigantic rocket engines. These massive turbines have a tendency to overheat. Sometimes, during a race, one will catch on fire. In a normal race, you’d immediately pull over and make a pit stop. But the pod race waits for no conflagration, and there is no slowing down. The only choice is to extinguish it on the fly, and that’s the kind of high-speed hero shit and calm in the face of adversity that sets champions apart. The final circuit is extremely, sometimes unfairly difficult, even for a pod racer in their prime with a vehicle in fighting trim. Yoda’s time-worn adage comes to mind: “Do or do not. There is no try.” Or maybe it’s Quintus Arrias’ words to Ben-Hur: “Your eyes are full of hate, forty-one. That’s good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength.”
I think the lesson here is that there was really nothing intrinsically flawed in The Phantom Menace. It was all terrible, terrible execution. Stripping the film down into its components—much like Watto would scavenge a wrecked pod for parts—could produce quality entertainment, especially in the realm of video games. Knights Of The Old Republic and other games, for instance, included Darth Maul’s double-sided lightsaber as a playable option, immutable laws of physics be damned. Star Wars Battlefront used prequel settings to good effect. Star Wars: Super Bombad Racing was…well, mistakes were made.
What were the main problems with The Phantom Menace? In no particular order, I’d identify the main culprits as poor casting, the clunkiest dialogue imaginable, impossible expectations, godforsaken Jar Jar Binks, turning a movie for adults into one for kids, vaguely racist aliens, and George Lucas. Episode I Racer suffers from none of those things, and thus the foundation of the film’s world can be judged on its own merits, which are considerable. It’s a crying shame such a good game is forever associated with such a leprous film, that shouldn’t diminish the fact that Episode I Racer is a damn fine game. If Vader can be in some way redeemed, why can’t Episode I?