It has invaded Toys R Us, fast-food chains like Taco Bell, and book giant Barnes & Noble, so it's no shocker that the Star Wars merchandising monster has swooped into your local CompUSA, too.
Enter "Star Wars: Episode I -- Racer" and "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace," two new Lucas Arts games based on elements of the movie. Even if you haven't seen the film, or don't plan to, these two games can entertain.
Based on the pod-racing scene in the movie, "Racer" is a rarity in the PC gaming world these days: You can play it right out of the box with nary a glance at the instruction book.
You play the part of 9-year-old Anakin Skywalker (the brat who grows up to become Darth Vader) or one of several bizarre creatures. The goal is simple: Be the first to cross the finish line in one piece.
The operative words here are one piece. For those who haven't seen the movie, pod racers look like flimsy, plastic bobsleds tied to a pair of screeching Pratt & Whitney jet engines. Traveling a few feet above the ground, the craft top out at 600 mph. Not surprisingly, these loony engineering specs make for splatto wipeouts -- reason enough for 12-year-olds to race to the software store.
Racers select from 25 courses on eight different worlds -- from ice-covered Ando Prime to Aquilaris' beach. Each presents unique challenges and requires its own strategy.
What lifts this title above the digital dross of racer games is that you have to use your head as much as your thumbs to succeed. Although fast reflexes will get you to the finish line in early races, you'll need to conserve your prize money from each race and spend it judiciously on modifications to your pod racer to get a shot at Sebulba, the reigning champion of the Galactic Circuit, who looks like a cross between a skinless camel and a bat.
If that isn't a reason to live to see one more race, I don't know what is.
"The Phantom Menace" is a third-person adventure game whose plot parallels the movie. You begin on the Trade Federation Battleship above the planet Naboo and, as the game unfolds, play the parts of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn, Queen Amidala and Captain Panaka.
If these characters' names mean nothing to you, don't worry. They didn't to me and I've still stayed up well past my bedtime working my way through quests.
The thing I can't understand is this: Why? The puzzles are not that challenging -- often a matter of having your character push the right combination of buttons or levers. I hate these kinds of game because they make me feel like I'm taking part in some mad Psychology 101 experiment -- with me as the rat.
Yes, the 3-D graphics are sumptuous. Yes, the game's third-person perspective, with you peering down on the action, creates suspense, because you never know what's around the next corner. And, yes, I'll admit that I got a giddy buzz the first few times I flicked on the old light saber, heard it crackle like crossed high-voltage wires, and sliced through a squad of battle droids.
But even these classic Star Wars moments eventually wore thin.
In fact, I've decided that after I've stayed up a few more nights to finish the adventure, I'll never to play it again.
Star Wars: Episode I Racer requires Windows 95/98, a 166MHz CPU or faster, and 32MB RAM. $50.
Star Wars: Episode I Phantom Menace requires Windows 95/98, a 200 MHz CPU or faster and 32MB RAM. $50