Quite a few video game mascots got swept up in the kart racing craze of the 90's, and the world's fastest hedgehog was no exception. Sonic and racing have always seemed like a good fit, and after the success of Super Mario Kart in 1992, SEGA gave the Blue Blur some well-deserved time on the track with Sonic Drift for the Game Gear. That title never made the trip overseas from Japan, but a few years later, eager Western audiences were treated to its much-improved sequel. Now available on the 3DS Virtual Console, Sonic Drift 2 proves that good ideas are timeless; it feels just as fast and fun today as it did back in 1995.
It's worth noting that Sonic Drift 2 is among the last of a bygone genre of faux-3D arcade racers, calling to mind classics like Namco's Pole Position and SEGA's own OutRun, and gamers raised on fully 3D worlds might need a moment to adjust. If Super Mario Kart is Mode 7, this is Mode 3.5. Trust us when we say it's worth sticking with, however — even held up against today's titles, the 2D presentation works surprisingly well.
The relatively shallow field of vision is never a problem, thanks to the roadside signs warning of upcoming turns, and the overhead map that takes up the top half of the screen. It's useful to glance up at the map to get an idea of the road ahead, but you'll never have to drive by it — the turns are well marked and the controls tight enough that flying by the seat of your pants is just as viable (and much more fun).
There are seven characters to choose from in your race for the Chaos Emeralds; each one handles differently, and has a unique special ability activated by pressing up on the Circle or D-Pad after picking up two rings. Sonic has a speed boost, Tails can jump over obstacles, Amy blows debilitating kisses, Knuckles can punch his opponents, Eggman drops mines, Fang (of Sonic Triple Trouble fame) throws oil slicks, and Metal Sonic gets a super-speedy boost for three rings instead of the normal two.
These abilities are in addition to the power-ups found in the item boxes littered around the courses. By running into the familiar monitors, you can pick up boosts, weapons, temporary invincibility, and jump springs (which also helpfully auto-steer you around tight corners) to use at any time with a quick press of the Up button.
The race for the emeralds takes place over three Chaos GP's of increasing difficulty: Purple, White, and Blue. There are six tracks in each, for a total of eighteen altogether, and while many of the courses are based on fan-favourite zones from the Sonic platformers (like Casino Night and Ice Cap), the majority are set in all new locations. The differences go much deeper than their visual themes, of course, and the incredible variety of the tracks is a big part of what makes this such a fun little racer.
Nearly every course has a unique mechanic: a lightning storm in Rainy Savanna whites out the screen with every flash, Balloon Panic replaces item boxes with balloons, Dark Valley has crosswinds that can whip you into the canyon below, Hill Top features ramps that give you a boost when hit head on, but slow you down from the sides, and the race across Emerald Ocean takes place on the water's surface itself - slow down too much and you'll sink!
While in most courses going out-of-bounds simply results in a severe speed drop, on more precariously positioned paths it means falling off the edge and waiting to be rescued by a Lakitu-like crane. However they're laid out, all the tracks are well-designed and great fun to speed through; from the wide open road of Emerald Hill to the close corners of Death Egg, there really isn't a bad one in the bunch.
Good controls are crucial for a racing game built around speed and tight turns, and these are top-notch. Steering is quick and responsive with both the Circle Pad and the D-Pad, and drifting around corners really does feel great. The default layout of 'A' for acceleration and 'B' for braking and drifting works well, but the customizable controls give this Virtual Console version a leg-up over the original; mirroring the drift button to 'R' will save your poor thumb some wear and tear, and make Mario Kart 7 junkies feel right at home.
Released relatively late into the Game Gear's lifespan, this is a great showcase for the graphical abilities of SEGA's portable powerhouse. The characters are large and well animated, glancing over their shoulders as they toss items or spot incoming rivals, and the fast-moving track gives a fantastic sense of speed. And even though the backdrops are mostly static, they're bright, colourful, and beautiful — the water-world of Emerald Ocean is a knockout, as is the transparent Milky Way course, which gives Rainbow Road an 8-bit run for its money.
Likewise, the soundtrack is a treat, and just what you'd hope for: it's melodically similar to the 8-bit Sonic platformers, but with an arcade touch and energy that's a perfect fit for the racing. The sound effects are standard Game Gear Sonic beeps and bloops — lo-fi audio comfort food — though the fact that only one can play at once means you'll miss certain audio clues (like ring pickups) when there's a lot going on. Mercifully, there's no engine noise.
Racing through all three Chaos GPs won't take you more than an hour, but there's plenty to keep you coming back to the track. As in most Sonic games, collecting the Chaos Emeralds adds quite a bit of replay value, and here that means racking up first-place finishes in all six tracks of a GP. Nabbing them all in the Blue Chaos GP will unlock a final showdown with either Eggman or Sonic, depending on your chosen character. There's also a Hard option which ramps up the enemy AI, and a Free Run mode that lets you time attack each course, saving the top three times and your best lap for bragging rights.
Even better, this Virtual Console release keeps the two-player, six-track Versus mode of the original intact - it was one of the best reasons to own a Game Gear link cable, and it's just as fun in Local Play on the 3DS. The AI is plenty competent, but there's really no substitute for racing a fellow sentient being - if you've got a friend with a 3DS and a copy of the game, Sonic Drift 2 could last you a very long time.
It might look dated at first, but give it a chance and you'll find that Sonic Drift 2 transcends its outmoded presentation and is a total blast to play. Tight controls and a great sense of speed make for thrilling races, a wonderful set of visually and mechanically diverse tracks keeps things interesting, and a two-player mode is the icing on top. This is one of the Game Gear's finest; speed freaks and Sonic fans, don't pass this one up.