In my years of playing videogames, I've discovered one universal truth: games based directly upon movies are usually horrible -- unless they're related to Star Wars. Having never played a Star Wars game I didn't like, I inserted Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace into my CD-ROM drive with great anticipation. The result was the expected enjoyable 15 hours or so in front of my computer -- but not without a little disappointment.
Overall, The Phantom Menace is a game that should entertain any fan of the film. I've had few gaming moments more exhilarating than those as Obi-Wan Kenobi, slicing my way through Battle Droids as I jumped about with moves reminiscent of Ewan McGregor's in the movie. At times I would even give the mechanical soldiers a good Force push to disable them for a while.
The ability to play as four different characters was also nice, though the double jumps and lightsabers of the Jedi are missed when you're Queen Amidala or Captain Panaka. And I was especially impressed with the voice acting that, when it wasn't performed by an actual actor (i.e., Anakin Skywalker, Jar Jar Binks and Watto), often matched very well.
While the game is primarily action-oriented, adventure aspects such as puzzles and interacting with others offer a sense of variety. The main adventure-based levels are those with Qui-Gon on Tatooine. He must find parts for Anakin's Podracer and then somehow gather some money to bet with Watto for the hyperdrive generator and the boy's freedom. Along the way, rogues will attack you and you'll even confront a couple of very powerful enemies (one for Jabba the Hutt's "entertainment").
In a sadistic way, it's a blast to kill those you know you shouldn't. Does the "whoop-tee-dee" of Jawas get on your nerves? Do you ever wish you could go on a Gungan killing spree? You can in The Phantom Menace. Sure, you won't last much longer after doing so, but it's still fun. An especially ironic situation dealing with your bloodthirsty ways occurs when the future Darth Vader tells you that he won't help out a murderer.
Though it does have its bright spots, the rushed production of the game to coincide with the May 19, 1999 release date of the movie really shows with The Phantom Menace. Several little annoyances hinder an otherwise wonderful game.
About once per level, for instance, Big Ape felt obligated to insert a nigh impossible jump. When are designers going to learn that this is NOT fun? All the jumps succeed in doing is increase the time you spend playing the game and frustrate. Who enjoys this? I spent a considerable amount of time saving my game just before the jump, dying and then waiting a full minute for my game to load up again so that five seconds later I could die once more. This process would occasionally go on for as long as 30 minutes. Even the most Force-proficient being will have trouble.
Speaking of the Force, each Jedi's use of it seems extremely limited. Aside from the Force push, the Jedi mind trick, the double jump and the ability to wield a lightsaber, you wouldn't know that Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are any more powerful than Captain Panaka and Queen Amidala. Apparently, Obi-Wan doesn't even have the power to make himself a trail through Naboo's forest to ease his following of Jar Jar Binks. And those jumps sure would have been a lot less frustrating if they had the power to leap as high as Obi-Wan did in the movie.
Besides the frustrating leaps, many stages are not without other weaknesses in overall gameplay. One of the most common has to do with perspective, which often allows bad guys to attack from offscreen or at times when you can't even see yourself!
And then there's the companion factor. Occasionally, someone will tag along with you, often acting non-sensibly. Can anyone tell me how someone smart enough to be elected queen at the age of 14 could possibly be stupid enough to proceed in front of her Jedi escort into a brigade of trigger-happy Battle Droids? On top of that, she seems content to stand in the middle of the street and get drilled with laserfire the entire time. (However, she does often manage to survive since the point blank shots usually just "graze her shoulder.") And what was with Captain Panaka when I played as Amidala? While generally helpful, he seemed obsessed with running straight into a wall when I needed him most! I'd do whatever I could to make him budge but nothing was going to stop him from making his way through that solid marble.
My final gripe is with what the game lacks. There was great potential for a more varied style of gameplay with events that were often represented through FMV cut-scenes (beautiful as they may have been). Extra stages could have easily been based upon the swim down to Otoh Gunga, the trip through the planet core in a bongo, the Podrace, and escaping the blockade of Naboo in that sleek chrome ship. (Wouldn't a stage featuring R2-D2's ship-fixing escapade have been great?!)
The final battle between the Gungan and Droid armies is briefly mentioned, unlike the space battle which isn't even alluded to! Do you think it's any coincidence that LucasArts released Racer and codes to play as a Naboo Fighter in Rogue Squadron at about the same time? Funny that you should have to buy those if you want to indulge in some of the aspects missing from The Phantom Menace. . .
Though the game's faults abound, I couldn't begin to count the number of times I exclaimed, "This is SO cool!" That has to make up for some of them, but nothing can dispel at least some disappointment. What it all comes down to is that the Force is with The Phantom Menace -- but only as much as it is with the Jedi in the game.
Graphics: The FMV scenes and the the few moments of close-up action are spectacular (love that view from behind a cannon!), but the rest are just slightly above average.
Sound: Fantastic sound, especially in regards to John Williams' score and the voice acting.
Enjoyment: There's nothing more fun than destroying Battle Droid after Battle Droid with your lightsaber ... but then again, you can't get much more frustrating than the difficult jumps.
Replay Value: I'll go through those Obi-Wan levels again any day!
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