Time has not been kind to Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace. Initial hype levels were stratospheric, and I rode that hype well past any logical stopping point. I was 14 when I first saw it, and I spent much of my allowance during the summer of 1999 on Star Wars and Star Wars-related merchandise. I saw the film itself at least five or six times in theaters (a fact that the rest of my family couldn't comprehend). I bought the novelization (which was fine). I rented the movie tie-in video game (which was terrible). The amount of money I spent on The Phantom Menace was… regrettable. I'm not proud of it. But there was one game I bought that summer that stood apart from the sub-par space adventure and all of the transmedia pap surrounding it: Star Wars Episode One: Racer.
As a part of the film, the podrace scene is totally unnecessary and completely self-indulgent. The sequence itself lasts about ten minutes, but feels like it stretches on for an eternity, as it follows Anakin through three laborious laps around a Tatooine race track. The scene adds nothing to the film, and because we already know how the rest of the Star Wars saga turns out, there are absolutely zero stakes going into it.
Aside from all that, though, racing Star Wars vehicles on various Star Wars planets against a collection of Star Wars characters is pretty great. Remove The Phantom Menace's terrible pacing and acting, and what started out as a completely gratuitous sequence can now get enough room to breathe, developing into something much bigger and more important than it felt in the movie.
In Episode One: Racer, there's a whole galactic racing circuit, as humans and aliens from across the galaxy compete for fame and glory. Completing races gets you truguts, a Huttese currency found in the Outer Rim Territories (I am a nerd), which you can spend on additional components for your podracer, pit droids to help you out, or new tracks, vehicles, and characters. The best part is that you're not just stuck playing Anakin: all of the racers featured in The Phantom Menace plus a whole bunch more are included, and each one has their own set of stats and specialized vehicles to choose from.
This could've been a simple cash-grab for Lucasarts, as it banked off of Star Wars' immense popularity, but it's actually a perfectly competent racing game. The tracks are surprisingly intricate, filled with hidden paths and unique obstacles to overcome, like Tusken Raiders taking potshots at your pods on Tatooine. And the pods themselves have their own set of quirks to overcome that make them feel like more than just Star Wars cars. Individual parts of your pod can take damage, and you'll have to fix your engines as they flame out, or make sure your cockpit doesn't become completely detached from your engines.
There's even a mode in the N64 version that attempts to simulate how the pods act in the films. Plug in two controllers, take one in each hand, and attempt to control the individual thrust of each engine with both analog sticks to manage hairpin turns and overcome the other racers. It's really difficult to pull off, and it's not very practical, but its inclusion is daring, playful, and totally unexpected.
Episode One: Racer has a feeling of life to it that the movie it's based on totally lacks. A lot of that has to do with the return of the grit and grime found in the original trilogy. The prequels felt too clean and sterile in their attempt to show a pre-Empire galaxy, but Racer's tracks are mostly located in the Outer Rim Territories, where the law doesn't quite apply like it does closer to the galactic center. It's easy to imagine a bunch of Hutts organizing these events for a veritable hive of scum and villainy to bet on. Many of the tracks look like they're built out of scrap, featuring impossible jumps, precarious straightaways, factory cranes, and more hazardous obstacles. Everything about this game feels like you're taking part in an illegal, underground racing circuit, which is a far cry from the pristine environs of Naboo where most of The Phantom Menace takes place.
Even now, 16 years after its launch, Episode One: Racer continues to stand as one of the better things to come out of the prequel trilogy. It's a little rough around the edges, and the graphics haven't aged all that well, but it's a fresh take on a franchise that, for a while, seemed doomed to mediocrity. It's almost enough to forgive Jake Llyod's screaming "Yippee!" Almost.