Friday, August 9, 2013

Very Fast, Very Dangerous

(Originally Written for Jedi News)

In around 1998, I fell in love with racing.

No, not what they sanction for racing nowadays, with people just taking left turns all day. I mean racing through an obstacle course. Traversing an obstacle course at high speeds avoiding hazards and the machinations of other racers.

Namely, Mario Kart.

I’ve always had an aversion to organized sports. The only ones I’ve ever liked have been fictional, such as Quidditch and Calvinball. When a friend of mine got a Nintendo 64 with the game “MarioKart64,” I took to it like a duck to water. To this day, Kart-Racers have become perhaps my favorite genre of video game. I thought to myself, “if only real racing was like this.”

I was not prepared.

When it came to Star Wars, I was always more into creatures than vehicles. I could care less about Millennium Falcons and X-Wing fighters. I was far more interested in Wookiees, Hutts, Tauntauns, Jawas, whatever the heck Yoda is, etc. Don’t get me wrong, the designs were innovative and cool for what they were, but they didn’t grab me like they grabbed a lot of the fanbase.

That changed in May of 1999.

For it seems that George Lucas also has a love of high velocity. Realizing that The Phantom Menace needed an action setpiece as well as a method by which Anakin could escape his slavery, he wrote in what was destined to become my absolute favorite part of the Star Wars Saga: The Podrace.

It blew me away. The speeds were fantastic. The track was grandiose and full of deathtraps for an unwary racer. The pilots were some of the best character designs in the Saga, weird and imaginative creatures, of which the Dug would become a personal favorite.

But for the first time as a Star Wars fan, I found myself drawn to the vehicle just as much as their pilots. I loved the myriad of colors and the unique affectation each driver gave to their Pod. I loved the overall shape of the machine. I loved the Power Couplings. I loved the noises they made, and no two racers sounded alike. I loved seeing them whip along the canyon passes at several hundred miles an hour.

It depresses me how Podracing has fallen out of favor. When the film was released, even the naysayers had something good to say about the race. The video game version sold amazingly well, and remains a favorite of many to this day, myself included. And yet, with everyone tearing apart this film, few remember it as fondly as they should. I’ve heard many strange arguments against the Pods themselves, the most ludicrous being that they’re an impractical and frankly stupid design. To that, I can say only this:

OF COURSE it’s impractical and stupidly designed! OF COURSE it stretches even the great suspension of disbelief we have going into a film like this! That’s the entire point! That’s the perverse beauty of the thing! It’s basically just a tiny cockpit strapped to a couple of massive jet engines by a thin little cable! There’s a reason Anakin’s the only human who can do it and survive. Heck, many species explicitly don’t survive! It’s one of the most dangerous underground sports in the entire Star Wars galaxy! In order to consider piloting one of these things, you need to either be ridiculously strong in the Force or be absolutely insane.

“When I first met him,” Obi-Wan Kenobi once said to Luke Skywalker, “Your father was already a great pilot.” With the introduction of Anakin as a nine-year-old boy, some folks wondered how this was possible. Thanks to Phantom Menace, now we know. Winning the Boonta Classic is nothing to sneeze at. You can keep your Corellian freighters and your All-Terrain Armored Transports. Give me a Collor Pondrat Mammoth F-Plug Split-X Racer (or a Radon Ulzer, or an Ord Pedrovia) any day of the week.

Now if I could only figure out a way to make it fire blue shells…

(Author’s Note: I wish I could get some more dynamic screenshots, but with the high speeds it was almost impossible to not catch giant blurs. Definitely a point in the animators’ favor)


  1. I also LOVE the N64 "Racer" game; God knows how many hours I spent white-knuckling that Nintendo controller back then! I still pull out the N64 every year or so to play it, it's still a blast.

    What's kind of baffling about people's current apathy (or worse)towards Podracing, specifically in TPM, is that it supplies a certain level of brutality that you'd think the "Han Shot First!" crowd would love...I mean, it has that same sense of danger as the Mos Eisley cantina did. Also present is that jagged aspect of Lucas' sense of humor where Mawhonic's and Ratts' deaths are pretty much played for laughs. I'd love to see more podracing in Ep.VII or beyond. Featuring it as being so central to the plot would feel like a retread, but it would be great to see it going on in the background or something.

    1. I thought Mawhonic survived (barely).

      How about Neva Kee, who didn't even get clear screentime and canonically was lost forever after getting knocked off-course during the second lap?

    2. Yeah, I love Neva Kee enough that I put him in my "Watto Loves Sebulba" tune last year! He doesn't get the respect he deserves. I fear that after we didn't see him as an action figure in 2012, we never will.

      And I guess Mawhonic did survive! The Star Wars EU apparently has the same powers over life and death that Darth Plagueis the Wise was said to have.

      I love imagining somebody conducting a really loose, free-wheeling interview with George Lucas where, at the end, they have him look at still photos of 10 secondary SW characters, and ask him what each of their fates are...and then contrast his answers against whatever's written on Wookieepedia... ;)

    3. Knowing George, he may say something different on purpose.

      Saw him recently at AFI's tribute to Mel Brooks, saying completely deadpan that Dark Helmet was always his true vision of Vader.

    4. If that's true then Darth Vader plays with his own dolls (action figures)

  2. In all honesty, I never cared for racing games in my life as I was never good at them (then again I don't play much video games), I was always more of an adventure and or fighting game person. They always had nice designs for the most part, but I don't have the best thumb dexterity. What turned me on to racing games was Wreck it Ralph because of how enchanting and creative the environment was. Why can't they release a Sugar Rush console game? For a vg based off of a movie,about said concept, the WIR game is lousy!

    1. To be fair, most of the racing games I'be played were enchanting and creative. But then again, I enjoy KART Racers: MarioKart, Crash Team Racing, Looney Tunes Racing, South Park Talley, Super Bombad Racing, etc.

      Even the podracing games, while devoid of powerups sans Sebulba's flamethrower, were still fantastically designed. What I can't abide are racers where you just drive real cars around real cities.

      And I too am appalled that the only Suger Rush games that came out was one woefully anemic browser game and one woefully anemic character challenge in Disney Infinity (it comes with Vanellope, though I think any character can play second player).

  3. Oh yeah, South Park rally is very cool! I think I saw a review of that a loosing time ago.

    I agree somewhat with the real racers, as it is more fun to see creativity put into levels. Plus a lot of those arcade racers always seem to feature women in bikinis when starting the race.