Even in the grander scheme of racing games as a whole, Mario Kart demands serious respect. A lifetime of perfect controls and inventive stage designs put the plumber and his pals on a pedestal at the very beginning of the sub-category it created: the kart racer. But while, like any good godfather formula, Mario Kart has parodied year in and year out since the NES, the kart racer has long been considered the death knell of mascot-driven franchises that have seen better days. It’s no surprise then that we’ve seen Sonic in the realm several times, and once again crawling back in with his spiky tail between his legs. Attached to the larger Sega library that lays claim to a mediocre tennis game, Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing has all the makings of some serious shovelware for the ages…so why is it so good?
The simple reason for the Mario Kart’s oft-emulated, never replicated design is how deceptively simple it appears. Lay-out a pretty level and have funny-looking characters drive from point A to B with a couple weapons to throw in the meantime. But add in car physics, high-speed handling, stage designs that won’t cripple under motion blur, and the formula quickly becomes more complex than the average schlock-ware developer can handle. Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing avoids the common pitfalls by worshipfully recreating the best of the genre nearly pixel-by-pixel.
The routine is second nature, a selection of colorful mascots are selectable from the onset to place in a variety of play modes: including tournament and battle scenarios. Online play also comes in the anticipated varieties, with little shift in presentation or handling quality. Once on the track, players boost and drift their way past the competition, driving through and picking up a weapon when necessary. Cars handle with excellent precision and come equipped with a noticeable sense of speed, highlighted by the game’s presentation and level layout. Weapon variety is cut-and-paste, but with so little unexplored in that category, it’s a forgivable oversight. The ability to destroy Tails with any projectile is a joy that is not quick to diminish.
Roads may branch off into loops and twisty turns, and sport a variety of surfaces based on their weather and surroundings. The presentation as a whole is well above average, held back by some irritating background chopping during the more high-speed runs. While not effecting gameplay, it does hamper the overall sense of adrenaline, and is far more noticeable for doing so within a racing game context. The 360 version has the least of the issues in that regard, but no one console escapes it completely. The music is also extremely impressive, matching the stage variety and bounding about with the necessary energy and pulse to match the on-screen thrills.
The character roster is equally enjoyable. Playing as the good-game bereft hedgehog or that monkey thing from Samba di Amigo is easy enough motivation to draw you into the game, and the character’s occupying stages vary dramatically and boast a high level of polish and detail. The character worship bends highly in Sonic’s favor, with many stages replicating levels from the early genesis games, including the aforementioned loops. But if you can find a character to race with, chances are you won’t be dissatisfied with how their personality leaks into the stage and weapons. The Xbox 360 version contains the decidedly awesome Banjo and Kazooie, as well as a playable version of your avatar, with the Wii sporting the expected Mii integration.
What Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing boils down to is which console you own. Despite sporting the 4-controller (Wii Wheel, Wiimote and Nunchuck, Gamecube/classic controller) input on the Wii, only avid fans of the developer and their mascots will need to swap out Mario Kart for the Sonic skins. Both PS3 and 360 owners have a much shallower pool of good kart racers to draw from, and would be remiss to continue dismissing the genre by not giving it at least a rental. Xbox owners do get a decided character advantage, bolstered by a slightly smoother presentation. Regardless, it’s a major surprise to see such a seemingly-doomed property rise to the call of the race-track. We can’t repeat enough just how much fun it is to make Tails explode.