Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

4_1A long time ago, in a dopey third-person shooter based on the Star Wars license…

It doesn’t take much play time to realize that Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was a console game that got ported on the computer. It was supposedly developed as a dual platform title, but it’s apparent that the Playstation’s relatively meager power and simple controls were the major driving force behind the game’s development. That wouldn’t necessarily be a terrible thing if the game didn’t just stink outright.

Reasons for this are multiple, but it mainly boils down to crappy controls and the god-awful level design. Some levels are linear action romps where you whack the attack button a lot and replay jumping puzzles ad nauseum. The lightsaber battles are simple, as are the woefully simplistic shooting bits. There are moments when, if the levels aren’t annoying you to into rage-quitting, they are boring you to tears. It was a tie vote between the jumping puzzles and sitting through a Jar Jar Binks/Fran Drescher production of Waiting for Godot. For instance, be prepared to spend the better part of an evening hopping across sinking platforms in one insidious room of Naboo’s undersea city, then enjoying the long cutscenes which you cannot skip.

As if to make up for forcing you to endure jumping puzzles, the game offers lightsaber battles as a distraction. However cinematic and nicely animated they might be, lightsaber combat is hampered by the goofy controls and inability to dodge fire effectively, making it unavoidable that your character slowly bleeds hit points. The gunplay is even more dull, although there are some nifty bombs and a non-lethal “Force push” to stun your enemies. Other times the game plays like a crappy RPG, like when you drill through dialogue trees and run little quests like you’re Jedi FedEx.

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Phantom Menace marches in lockstep with the movie, plot point for plot point. Although there are no real surprises if you’ve seen the movie (and who hasn’t?), there are some moderately engaging detours along the way. You get to run around Coruscant (which looks suspiciously like The Fifth Element’s New York City), strike a deal with Jabba the Hutt, talk to everyone and their uncle in Mos Espa, and float around in some of those Gungan fishbowl globes.

7_1The graphics are a mix of cool and meh, particularly the low-poly character animations, but they get the job done and they’re PlayStation friendly. Hands down, the explosions seen as droids fall into a hundred pieces are very satisfying the first few times. The particle effects are great, and also the sound, from the music to the ambient noise to the voicework. Curiously enough, the most grating characters from the movie are voiced by their actual actors: Jar Jar, Watto, and Anakin will all sound familiar. But neither Liam Neeson nor Ewan MacGregor sound anything like the real deal.

In the first two thirds of the game, you play one of the Jedi (always conveniently separated from each other) for long stretches at a time. But there are some curious narrative shifts later in the game which are pretty jarring. For instance, it’s not particularly exciting to play Panaka, especially since this is one of the escort levels in which you have to defend a character who wanders around as oblivious as Mr. Magoo. The simple combat interface makes the climactic Darth Maul battle merely tedious, although it certainly looks good enough that you won’t mind having to replay it the first twenty times.

System Requirements: Pentium II 233 MHz, 32 MB RAM, Win95

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