Star Wars: Racer

You can probably tell that I got a bunch of Star Wars games during the May the Fourth sale. It was like thirty dollars for eight of them.

Star Wars: Racer is a podracing game released around the same time as the Phantom Menace, and I have relatively little to say about it, partially because I don’t play racing games much and partially because, at least as far as I can tell, it’s just uncomplicatedly good so there isn’t a whole lot to be said. Criticism requires explanation, but praise is pretty much limited to “it is good at the things that it is doing.” In this case, Star Wars: Racer is a racing game set on many different planets in which you pilot floating space chariots at high speed through dangerous circuits and upgrade your pod between races, and it’s mostly just unambiguously good at that.

What criticisms I have are almost entirely about the upgrade and pit droid system, which is opaque and missing some critical features even after being explained. Your pod is made up of seven different parts which control attributes like acceleration, top speed, traction, and so forth. During the career mode, you use the credits you get from winning races to upgrade. The parts also take damage (randomly?) in each race, and need to be repaired. You start out with one pit droid which repairs one damaged part after each race, and you can buy up to three more, so four out of your seven parts will always be in top condition. You don’t get to choose which four, though, and your base parts are invincible (maximally damaged upgraded parts just reduce their performance down to the base, non-upgraded level) so the optimal strategy is to only ever upgrade four out of the seven stats. Doing this means you will run out of things to buy much faster than if you played intuitively. It’s never a good sign when the optimal strategy is to have less fun.

There are three ways to fix the problem. The first is the most straightforward: Allow the player to buy seven pit droids, thus preserving all seven parts against all damage.

The second requires a bit more doing, but is more interesting in the long run: Allow the player to assign pit droids to repair specific parts, so that they can rotate some of the droids between less important parts to prevent any of them from getting too damaged while keeping their most important parts (like top speed and acceleration) perpetually in top condition. You could remove some of the busywork from this by giving the pit droids two modes, one where they automatically repair the most damaged part, whatever it is, and another where they’re locked to a specific part, always repairing that one. If you want total control, you can keep all pit droids in locked mode and lock them to specific parts between each race, but you can also just pick two or three parts to keep in top condition always and let the leftover pit droid(s) repair whatever happens to be the most damaged.

The third takes a glitch in the game and just makes it a game mechanic. You can sell a damaged part back to Watto for a percentage based on how damaged it is (100% of the price if it’s at maximum durability, 1 credit if it’s so badly damaged it no longer provides any improvement over the base part). If you swap to a different racer, you can then rebuy a fully repaired version of the part you just sold to Watto. Upgrades are shared between racers, so you can then swap back to your original racer and keep the fully repaired part. This effectively allows you to pay some credits to repair a damaged part that your own pit droids aren’t fixing, which is a perfectly fine mechanic that could just be added to the game.

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