I’m far from being a person who enjoys racing games. On the contrary, I tend to stay away from racing games. All the ones I’ve enjoyed in the genre without any reservations and continue to return to them time after time can be count with one hand. These games are F-Zero GX, OutRun, Super Hang-On! Burnout 3 and Star Wars Episode I Racer.
While I was intending to do a review on Holy Diver on the Famicom, I decided to push it back due to the Star Wars The Force Awakens teaser (where the hell is the moniker Episode VII?) and review Episode I Racer now that I managed to fix my Dreamcast on its 16th anniversary. That, and I need to spend some more quality time with Holy Diver.
First of all, for transparency I will say that playing Episode I Racer has been somewhat nostalgic experience, despite my first try at it being on the N64. It was a snowy day in sometime very early 2000’s, and I was visiting some family friends with my mother, and they had a spanking new N64, which of course we played. They didn’t have much on the game department, but I can vividly remember the sense of speed it gave me.
Forward some years later to mid-2000’s, and I found Star Wars Racer Arcade machine in an amusement park. The controls were rather insane, but something I would love to play again and again; you had two levers of control, just like from the movie and by moving them back and forth you controlled the craft on-screen. The one I played the game on was a single player cabinet with part of Skywalker’s pod as the seat, the Deluxe model. The game both looked, sounded and played extremely well, but alas I only the chance to play it for one whole day. Playing arcade games like this have certain excitement in there, a feeling and experience no home game could ever wish to replicate without special controls. My memories of it are rather strong. Later on I would learn that Racer Arcade was no a version of Episode I Racer, but a separate arcade game developed by SEGA with the Star Wars license.
Having experienced what was essentially the original version and the SEGA’s pumped arcade version, I initially went into the Dreamcast version of Episode I Racer in somewhat high hopes. See, I never played the Dreamcast version and for some form of mis/luck I completely had missed any sort of info on it.
So yes, I hate to admit it, but the Dreamcast version of Episode I Racer disappointed me. I had no real expectations for it, but somehow the game feels a bit hollow in the end.
Well, let’s get to the controls.
For all intents and purposes, the controls do their job just fine. A accelerates and X brakes, no surprises here. However, I can but shake the feeling that the Dremcast controller’s triggers could’ve been utilised in this a bit better, but that’s a moot point now. I automatically tend to use the triggers as I would in F-Zero GX due to muscle memory, but only the R Trigger is used to make the pod skid. B and Y are used to flip the repulsorlift engine upwards from either side, a thing barely has any use outside few key moments. However, while you’re skidding without acceleration, I do like how the pod just continues with its direction and how satisfying it is to feel the pull from the engines when you begin to accelerate again. It’s not an instant change where the pod is heading, but fast enough to make it feel more alive. This may be dependent on the pod’s acceleration, and if it is, then its implemented pretty damn well.
The game likes to abuse the thumb stick, as Boost Mode is entered by pressing it forwards, until the speed-o-meter hits max speed, which after releasing and quickly re-pressing the accelerator engages the mode. In this mode, the temperature of the engines keeps rising and the mode needs to be disengaged before they explode. Even without entering the Boost Mode, keeping the thumb stick forwards allows you to reach a bit higher max speed. Pressing the thumb stick back allows you to turn easier.
This is pretty involved method of controls, to be honest. It requires the player to think through where he wants to relinquish better steering in order to enter Boost Mode. However, despite this the Boost Mode is not the most intuitive method of super acceleration. Certainly its different from other games that often give you a button to do it, but being all too different is not necessarily a better option. There could have been a good compromise between more friendlier way of control and the risk/reward of keeping the thumb stick forwards in order to enter the mode. The thumb stick sees a lot of back and forth moving action in this game, and I’m afraid I may need to buy a separate, dedicated controller for this game just to be safe. I may be a bit paranoid, but you never know.
The pods don’t have too much difference in how they act and control, to a large extent. Their largest differences come from their repulorsolift engine sizes and different max speeds. Some of the pods in the game have incredibly high maximum speed compared e.g. Skywalker’s own junkyard built machine and I’m afraid sometimes that simply unbalances the game quite a bit. Then again, racing games and balance have rarely joined together in harmony.
The game does have an edge over the N64 in that I greatly prefer the Dreamcast controller over the N64’s spaceship one. It’s a subjective thing, and I simply find better comfort in control of the thumb stick on Dreamcast than I do on N64. This is in comparison to F-Zero X, mind you. Whether or not I will get N64 version for comparisons sake sometime in the future is an open question. Copies are cheap, especially the US ones.
From controls we get to track design, which more or less divides opinions. Generally speaking, they’re decent. Some are extremely good and have an excellent flow to it, rewarding both highly technical and bold racing, while others just are sort of bullshit turns that will make you crash unless you just learn the track first. I should say that I value flowing tracks in a racing game, and by that I mean the elements the track has have a some sort of logic behind them that allows a smooth, non-stop speed. Of course, after knowing any track by heart in any game will allow the player to have a constant flow in any of the racing games, but I digress.
The AI is decent, so to say. Episode I Racer doesn’t seem to be a rubberband AI, as you can go far in front of the pack or be left behind by the leader. However, the AI seems to be know the best possible lanes and will abuse them. This is balanced somewhat that the AI doesn’t use the Boost Mode all that often, or not that the player would see. Later races it’s not too uncommon to see you going in front of the pack, and with one slight loss of speed with some sort of collision, you AI will catch you outright and often pass you. Then it’s a fight to get to the pole position again, as the sizes of the vehicles can fill the whole track at times. At times it also feels like the AI knows which engine has gone to red and rams it to explode it. If so, then the computer is a cheating bastard. The player has no way of knowing at what level the computers’ engines are. Ramming in the game is awkward, awful and seems to only damage the player, thus not worth it at all. AI is also generic in that sense that no other pod racer is no more aggressive than the other, thou you’d expect Sebulba to use his flamethrowers and fellow racers as much as possible.
The tracks allow some variety of paths taken and I welcome this sort of additions every time. These changes may not be speedier in most cases, but it keeps the same track from becoming all too boring and sometimes they have elements that other players find more suitable to their play style than what the other route could’ve been. There’s some somewhat interesting bits thrown in there as well, like Oovo IV’s Vengeance, where a part of the track is done in zero G, but avoiding huge lumps of rocks floating in there is absolutely horrible. Some of the tracks are remixed in later races, and while this is just using the existing map with some routes locked and unlocked, it still makes it feel fresh.
There is a problem with the rehashed tracks that the multiple paths can’t really help, and that’s when the tracks are just lousy in the visual department. Malastare 100 comes right to my mind as a failure in terms of visuals with its bland as hell visuals, especially where there’s supposed to be something like a bog with green vapours rising from it. Nothing really stands out in a positive way, even thou the intent they had was somewhat nice. However, far too many planets suffers from having industrials as part of their theme somehow in form of vehicles or machines. It’s Star Wars racing, and you could create far more illustrious worlds with the same hardware than this.
That’s the crux in this game; it is painfully obvious how the Dreamcast version is a direct, fast port of the N64 version. There’s nothing to take use of the more powerful hardware, as the game is rather ugly even by 2000 Dreamcast standards. Every asset has been ported from the N64 version, which means textures and polygons are rather ugly in comparison other Dreamcast game of the time. The HUD simply looks awful. The PC version seems to have the edge over the Dreamcast version by a mile in this regard, as the games has vector graphics over whatever piece of garbage they ported from the N64 assets.
Now, despite all that, the game looks sharp via VGA, which I tend to use as a standard with my Dreamcast. As such, the game does look sharp and every positive and negative tidbit on the screen gets a boost. Comparing to PC version via Youtube, there’s not much difference between the two outside PC version having far sharper HUD and slight touches here and there. Music quality may be better, but you really want to put something more fitting in the background. It can be argued whether or not it’s good to make this game look sharp on either PC or Dreamcast, as it mainly shows the flaws one couldn’t really see on N64.
The sounds department suffers from the exact same problem as the visuals, so the same applies here. Everything sounds exactly like you’d expect the N64 sound like. It doesn’t help there’s no really any fitting music. Sure, it’s Star Wars and you have to have that John Williams styled orchestral score in there, but reusing essentially one and the same song in each race is jarring the moment you leave the training course on Tatooine. The yelling the characters have in the game add absolutely nothing of worth, and I’m afraid most of them just sound badly acted. Doing this would keep you from hearing the beeping of the engines, which would force you to keep an eye on the speed-o-meter due to the lack of audio cues.
In the end, because the Dreamcast version of Episode I Racer is a lazy port of the N64 game, there’s no really a reason to call it bad. Sure, the GD format adds standard lenght loading times in there, but a lazy port doesn’t mean this one is a bad port. On the contrary, the game does run well and I have met not a single problem while playing through the game during. If soundless Youtube comparison is to be believed, the Dreamcast versions seems to run smoother, but that should be of not surprise.
That’s from the hollow feeling comes from. It’s a game that’s by all means a good one, perhaps even great, and by license game standards even stellar, but knowing this is a port of a game released earlier on both N64, Windows PC and on the damn Macintosh and then finally released on the Dreamcast without any considerations of the better hardware, it just feels like the game is neglected. I assume the Windows, N64 and Mac versions were developed around the same time and Dreamcast was mostly an afterthought, but I’m not too eager to find this out.
If we were to take the Racer Arcade into notion, I can’t help but with that SEGA had the rights to port their own game to Dreamcast. From all of the versions that used Episode I as its basis, SEGA’s Racer Arcade is without a doubt the best one. This may be because SEGA has a long history as an arcade game provider, or because they just know how to handle racing games that well. I am in the crowd who regards F-Zero GX as the best in the series. Nevertheless, I implore you to give Racer Arcade a try. As it is an arcade only game, you may never be able to play it, and even if MAME would be able to perfectly emulate the Hikaru hardware, you would never have the true way of playing the game with the levers.
Oh the memories! I wish we had one of those still around here. And no, that’s not me.
In short, Episode I Racer is a fun game that is held back on the Dreamcast due to its roots on N64. It could have been so much more than its earlier versions.