Review: Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (3DS)

As smooth as a chili dog

Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed on 3DS has a tough job, as it's following up on what some may regard as a surprise commercial and critical success. The console versions of this title, including the one on Wii U, did a wonderful job of combining healthy portions of fan service with thrilling racing action. Yet the gulf in technology is such that re-creating the same experience on the 3DS should be considered a mistake, and a greater focus should go on utilising the handheld's strengths. Unfortunately, round pegs have been forced into square holes for this 3DS iteration, with disappointing results.

Aside from menu layouts, the similarities with the Wii U version are striking. We have a substantial range of single player modes and those thoroughly enjoyable tracks, where switching from car to boat to plane is an exciting idea that's — for the most part — excellently done. The track design truly is a triumph in most cases, with almost all being themed to classic — and occasionally more obscure — SEGA franchises, so that fans of the spiky-one's studio can rejoice in all of the loving references being thrown their way. When you include a broad range of characters — many to be unlocked in the World Tour — along with a couple of slightly peculiar cameos, you have the foundations of a terrific racer.

World Tour is perhaps where most single players will spend their time, an enjoyable progression along branched paths in the quest of completing challenges and earning stars. Three difficulty levels determine how many stars you win, and only those that master the hard difficulty on all tracks will ultimately collect every unlockable character — for those less-skilled, progress to the end of the 5th world can be made with a mix of normal and easy completions. While the sheer volume of rounds sees you revisiting tracks multiple times, the different requirements and adjustments to rules — from racing with single items to speed-boosting against a time limit — keep things fresh.

That'll take around half a dozen hours to blast through, and there's then the standard racing fare of five Grand Prix tournaments to defeat and unlock — for those that just want to race without any special rules — as well as Time Attack and Single Race modes; Time Attack picks up lessons from its peers, with staff ghosts to race and defeat. All of these activities, and various acts in races, earn XP for the character you're using, which in turn opens up new pre-sets to focus your racer on speed, handling, acceleration etc; the chase to the next level for your favourite character undoubtedly serves as motivation to ace all of these modes and options.

As would be expected of a title such as this, multiplayer is an important feature. Local multiplayer is included with a full mode for those that own the game, and a borderline pointless Download Play option — the latter only allows one track to be played over and over-again, with no choice of characters. While it's nice to include the option for those without the game to try it out, in this case it feels mean-spirited and rather irrelevant, especially as it won't even throw in some bots to fill out the roster.

Online multiplayer is key, of course, and it offers a distinctly mixed experience. On the one hand the small group of players hanging around the servers are matched up very quickly, which is particularly welcome on 3DS, yet the developers made the mistake of giving the gamers complete power over when the race starts. The "host" ultimately declares when the race will begin — at which point participants vote to choose between two random tracks — and in our experience they were incredibly impatient, irritating individuals.

As the game bizarrely assigns you a random character when you go online — rather than, say, the one you used most recently in single player — you have to select your character before the race starts. It wouldn't matter, but on multiple occasions we'd arrive in a room only for the host to start a 1 vs 1 race before we could even think about switching characters; this happened too many times to be considered funny. Most players seem keen to race right away — maybe just chasing XP — even if there are only two people in the room, so we never actually raced with the full contingent of eight players. When we were fortunate enough to host and wait for more players to join, other gamers would start dropping out within the maximum two minute waiting time, making the quest for a full race futile. The lesson to be learned? Don't let anonymous gamers call the shots in online lobbies.

Regardless of that irritation in the online arena, there's clearly a lot of content to enjoy, just like the home console versions. And yet before you rush out thinking this is Sonic's answer to Mario Kart 7, there's an important point to make — the performance of this title is well below par. We keep comparing this iteration to the Wii U version — favourably, in terms of content — as it seems to be a crudely downscaled version of that very game. We may not be professional game developers here at Nintendo Life, but the idea of taking a game engine designed for HD consoles and stripping it back for 3DS doesn't seem completely sensible; either that was the process, or someone went badly wrong designing this entry's graphics.

To begin with, the visuals are rather grainy and exceptionally low resolution, with polygons on environmental features that wouldn't look out of place in the Nintendo 64 era. The vehicles are also quite small on screen — which they wouldn't be on a 40-inch TV, naturally — due to a slightly zoomed out camera, while items and pink speed boosts on the road can often be hard to pick out due to the poor resolution, until you're right on top of them. In some of the boost challenges in World Tour, multiple attempts are needed to memorise the locations of boost strips, as on some tracks they can be particularly hard to see.

It's not a treat for the eyes then, which makes the juddering frame-rate a major disappointment. With mediocre graphics we should expect smooth racing, but this is an area that truly undermines and spoils the experience for most of the time. Some tracks — typically those less "busy" — run tolerably, and others are an exercise in frustration as the frames dip to aggravating levels. While frames-per-second aren't always the be-all and end-all in every game, they matter in the racing genre, and compared to the home console version and, particularly, Mario Kart 7, this title's performance is quite often borderline unacceptable. Sometimes switching off 3D seems to lead to a small improvement, sometimes it doesn't.

And that's the most important part of this game, as the whole concept of conquering different modes and leveling up characters is reliant on the racing action being fun; when the performance is this poor, fun is a rare commodity. When taking on a Time Trial on one of the smoother tracks you can get a glimpse of how this game should perform as a bare minimum, but you may find yourself gritting teeth and battling through most of your races.

There is a cursory effort with StreetPass, we feel we should mention, where you trade a license and challenges with other players, though we haven't had the opportunity to test it out. We'd be a little surprised if we do have the chance, as most will probably stick with a certain mascot kart racer already offering a sublime racing experience on 3DS — less modes and wacky track design, yes, but a far superior gaming experience to this.

Conclusion

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed on 3DS tries to emulate the terrific offering on Wii U, with what seems like a disregard of its platform. When it comes to fan-service and content it stands tall alongside its HD brethren, yet the positive comparisons end there. This is a classic example of good intentions being undermined by poor execution; muddy, rough visuals are accompanied by a shoddy frame rate, which is a combination to avoid. If you have a Wii U or alternative platform, get the home console version; if you only have a 3DS, we recommend digging out that trusty copy of Mario Kart 7.

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