SEGA may no longer be the same company that bloodied Nintendo’s nose during the glorious days of the 16-bit console wars, but it still has a keen fan base and a truly amazing legacy within the games industry. Even so, there have been numerous occasions over the past few years where it's struggled to emerge from Nintendo’s shadow, even choosing to slavishly ape the ideas of its Kyoto-based rival.
For example, Super Mario Kart was followed by Sonic Drift on the Game Gear. Mario Tennis was emulated by SEGA Superstars Tennis, and in 2010 this pattern seemed to come to a head as Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing attempted to capitalise on Mario Kart Wii’s runaway success. However, this time around SEGA’s offering - coded by super-talented UK studio Sumo Digital - seemed to offer an alternative rather than a clone. It was excellent rather than derivative, but even so, it was impossible to shake the impression that it was merely treading on ground already broken by The House That Mario Built.
Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing was popular enough to ensure a sequel, but this time around it would seem that SEGA and Sumo have finally been able to assert their own unique take on the racing genre. Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed may have a tongue-twisting title, but it’s arguably one of the best kart-style racers we’ve played since Mario Kart Wii.
As the title suggests, the karts you pilot in this outing don’t remain in one static form; when you pass through blue gates on the course your vehicle magically morphs into either a car, boat or plane. Initially it feels like a gimmick, but when you realise that all three modes handle entirely differently and are subjected to totally contrasting physics, you realise what a master-stroke it is.
Cars handle as you might expect, but boats are at the mercy of massive waves and are generally slower than the other two forms. Planes can rise and fall as well as turn, opening up the game in a way that’s reminiscent of the race sections in Pilotwings Resort. It’s not just the modes of transportation which transform in this game, either; the courses on which you race are constantly changing from lap to lap. A good example of this is the Skies of Arcadia track, which begins as a mixture of solid ground and mid-air racing, but by the final lap is totally confined to the air as the Blue Rogues’ floating island base is pummelled to bits by hulking Valuan aerial battleships.
Drift control is at the heart of the Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed control system. Tapping the RZ trigger will activate your brake, but if you push either left or right then your vehicle will go into a slide. Like Mario Kart, the longer the drift the more powerful the boost you receive upon its conclusion; holding a drift for the full length of a corner can give you a massive burst of speed, creating a risk versus reward mechanic which encourages players to drive as creatively as possible. There are other methods of scoring boost power, too; whenever your car or boat is in mid-air, tapping the right analogue stick will spin it, charging up a stunt boost bonus when you eventually land. When you’re in plane mode, the right stick executes fast evasive manoeuvres, and pulling these off to avoid danger triggers a Risk Boost. Finding ways to link together these boosts forms a major part of the game’s addictive framework.
Graphically, the Wii U of Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed maintains parity with its Xbox 360 and PS3 counterparts, and offers a real visual feast. During some of the busier tracks there’s a slight drop in smoothness as the frame rate fluctuates. It never comes close to infringing on your enjoyment, but it’s noticeable all the same. Given the complexity of the courses it’s amazing Sumo Digital managed to achieve an agreeable level of performance in the first place; the ever-changing landscape and incredible designs make these some of the best circuits we’ve ever seen in this type of game.
Right from the moment you hear the opening “SEGA” chant (which was first uttered in Sonic the Hedgehog way back in 1991), you know that Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is going to be packed with delicious fan-service. It doesn’t disappoint, either; Sumo clearly knows its SEGA history and has included some obscure faces among the obvious candidates of Sonic, Tails and AiAi the monkey. Vyse from the aforementioned Dreamcast/GameCube RPG Skies of Arcadia is not someone that will be instantly familiar to most casual players, while Gilius Thunderhead is a character who has been largely reduced to cameo roles since making his arcade debut in the original Golden Axe way back in 1989. There are also some oddball non-SEGA inclusions such as Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph and the most successful female in the history of American open-wheel racing, Danica Patrick. While Ralph’s addition just about makes sense - SEGA characters are featured in his recent movie outing, which focuses on the world of video games - Patrick’s appearance feels jarring and utterly out-of-place. Predictably, there’s a commercial reason for this - Patrick’s car in Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is based on her range of Hot Wheels toys. Mercifully, it’s the only misstep made in the character roster, and is relatively easy to ignore.
The selection of racers is sure to fill Sega fans with joy, but it’s arguably the tracks themselves which most successfully channel the spirit of past glories. The usual suspects lifted from series such as Sonic the Hedgehog, Jet Set Radio and Samba de Amigo are packed with detail and provide thrilling racing action, but die-hard Sega aficionados will positively lose their minds when playing tracks based on franchises such as Afterburner, Shinobi and Burning Rangers. The Shinobi stage in particular - with its amazing remix of the second stage music for Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master (Super Shinobi II in Japan) - is sure to give fans goose bumps. Now seems as good a time as any to mention the game’s superb pumping soundtrack, composed by long-time SEGA contributor Richard Jacques. It’s upbeat and incredibly infections, supplying the perfect background accompaniment to the on-screen carnage.
And carnage is a suitable word to describe many of the races in this title; the single-player Career mode (which can be played solely using the GamePad by swiping down on the touch screen to "pull" the image from the TV to the controller) mixes together traditional races with unique modes, such as Traffic Attack (where you’re dodging cars), Pursuit (no other racers, but you have to destroy a tank with missiles) and Battle Race (which gives each racer three lives and the last one standing is the winner). These fresh modes add incredible variety to the experience, but that’s not to say that the bog-standard contests are boring - far from it. Just like Mario Kart, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed’s competitions require a mixture of incredible pace, accomplished drifting control and - possibly most important of all - an itchy trigger finger. The weapons on offer include heat-seeking explosive RC cars, swarms of wasps, inflatable puffer fishes and fiendish hurricanes which spin the victim 360 degrees, forcing them to temporarily drive backwards with reversed controls. The selection of items is balanced almost perfectly, with the only criticism we can level being that they don’t have two decades of familiarity behind them, like Mario Kart’s iconic shells and banana skins. This means it takes a few races before you finally understand how each weapon works and how best to deploy it.
Predictably, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed really comes to life when there’s more than one player involved. Up to five racers can participate locally, with one on the GamePad and the remaining four on a combination of Wii Remote/Nunchuks, Classic Controllers and Pro Controllers. The constantly evolving circuits, potential for slick driving and - most importantly - the plethora of weapons on offer make this title a perfect party starter; it’s also surprising how much difference it makes having five players instead of four. Online, 10 player matches are up for grabs, with the option to contest basic races or take part in more aggressive arena-based courses. Sumo’s net code seems to be pretty robust; in the races we participated in, lag wasn’t an issue, although finding a suitable number of players sadly was. This will no doubt change over the next few months as Wii U sales rise and more people come online.
It shouldn’t really come as a surprise to discover that Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a top-quality product; Sumo Digital’s track record speaks for itself, and the studio was recently bolstered by an influx of staff from recently-defunct racing experts Bizarre Creations (Project Gotham Racing, Blur) and Black Rock Studio (Split Second, Pure). The result is a game which is far more focused and entertaining than the original Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing.
The game’s solo mode is surprisingly deep and varied, and if you want to level-up all of the characters and unlock all of the available mods then you’ll need to invest an awful lot of time. Add to this an equally captivating local and online multiplayer segment and you’ve got a game which could enjoy the same remarkable stamina as Mario Kart Wii, which is still a firm favourite with Nintendo fans despite being almost five years old. Sega finally has a racer which not only does justice to the company’s legacy as the creator of some of the best driving games in history, but also celebrates its eclectic and colourful history.