If you walked into my childhood home 20 years ago, you'd probably find six boys — my five brothers and me — huddled around a small Panasonic CRTV playing Star Wars: Episode 1 Racer. No, it isn't the best Star Wars game, and it doesn't even derive from the best movies, but what makes the 1999 cult classic so special is simple: it's a hell of a lot of fun.
Racing across planets as Anakin Skywalker or one of the strange alien drivers from the divisive-at-best The Phantom Menace film gives you the same white-knuckle, teeth-gritting excitement as nailing a hairpin turn in Dirt or slaloming down hills at the Nurburgring in Gran Turismo.
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The new Star Wars Episode 1: Racer, available on PS4 and Nintendo Switch, captures the thrill of the original game, but unfortunately, it's more of a faithful remaster of the Dreamcast version than a reinvention that takes advantages of the game's potential.
There are no difficulty settings, online multiplayer isn't an option, and the graphics are arcane — textures are flat, the presentation is fuzzy and there are notable frame drops in cutscenes. But those faults are instantly forgotten when the countdown hits zero and your pod racer shoots forward at a smooth 60 frames per second.
Star Wars Episode 1: Racer: Gameplay and modes
Star Wars Episode 1 is an arcade racer where fast reactions are needed to prevent your pod from crashing into a wall and exploding as you hit rocket-ship speeds. The controls are simple. On Switch, you accelerate with ZR and brake with ZL. The R button will repair your pod when it starts overheating. The only other mechanic is turbo, which can be done by holding the left joystick forwarding and pressing A when the bulb on the speed bar turns yellow.
If you can effectively use turbo, you'll easily win the majority of races. The key is to activate it on the straightaways and release just before a turn or when the speed bar almost maxes out. Wait too long and you'll crash or overheat. This remastered version simplifies turbo compared with the N64 version where you had to flick up on the joystick at the exact moment to activate the boost. By fixing those janky controls, the Switch version makes winning races much easier.
Which brings me to my biggest complaint with the remaster: there are no difficulty settings. I finished almost every tournament races in first place with a massive lead ahead of my closest competitor.
The three or four tricky tracks were the most fun, as they required me to learn the ins and outs of the course, find new shortcuts, and determine when to lean into and lay off boost. For those who played the original game, yes, the race where you have to stay on the upper platform is still darn-near impossible. I just wish there were more like it because it took me only 3 hours to complete the Tournament Mode.
If you're having more trouble than I did, you can visit Watto's junkyard and use your winnings to upgrade your pod. I never felt the need to, but I did anyway for nostalgia's sake (and to hear Watto mumble to himself) and for the thrill of driving Bullseye Navior's pod racer at max speed. Between the junkyard and parts store, upgrading your vehicle is never an issue. You can also buy pit droids to make faster repairs to damaged upgrade parts.
Star Wars Episode 1: Racer is at its best on the track. Flying across mysterious planets at breakneck speeds is more exhilarating than ever on the Switch. The controls feel extremely responsive, and the stable 60-fps refresh rate means your pod will glide smoothly across the screen as you dart past opponents.
The varied maps are all taken from the original game so you'll need to refamiliarize yourself with all the obstacles and shortcuts. The graphics in this "remastered version" are a bit sharper than before but nowhere near the standards of a current-gen game. On a positive note, the excellent soundtrack and voice acting returns to bring drama to these high-speed contests.
Once you've completed the tournament mode (again, it'll only take a few hours), there is not much else to do. You can try timed trials and solo races but neither offers much of a challenge. The most fun I had playing Episode 1: Racer was against my brothers in split-screen co-op, which remains an option on the Switch. But it's 2020 and this remake doesn't bring online multiplayer, so you've essentially finished the game once you've aced the Tournament Mode.
Star Wars Episode 1: Racer on Switch is a turbo boost of nostalgia for anyone who grew up playing the Dreamcast or Nintendo 64 versions. But instead of improving the game in any meaningful way, the new version is faithful to a fault, acting more as a 1:1 port than a recreation.
Those who were hoping to relive fond memories of playing on N64 or Dreamcast will have a blast with the Switch edition, and not regret spending the $15 asking price. As much as I'm one of those people, I can't help but dream of another game that brings modern-day graphics and an online multiplayer mode to pod racing — a game I don't put down after three hours only to hope for another revival.