Review by kobalobasileus

"Sega Copies Nintendo. Again."

Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing
“Sega Copies Nintendo. Again.”

Ever since they shamelessly cribbed off of Nintendo's success with the character-driven platformer in their creation of the “Sonic the Hedgehog” series, Sega has earned a bit of a reputation for being also-rans. Sonic never gained the popularity of Mario, and Sega's attempts at keeping the series relevant after the 16-bit era has been spotty, relegating Sonic to ‘just another platformer' status. With this background in mind, the prospect of Sega copying Nintendo's “Super Mario Kart” formula with any success becomes dubious. Their first attempt at a character-driven racer, “Sonic R” on the Saturn, was a very love-it-or-hate-it type of game that didn't really deliver any equivalency to the kart racing formula. So now, two generations later, Sega is at it again with “Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing” (“SASR”), a game that combines characters from most of Sega's franchises (not just Sonic) into a chaotic racing mashup.

“SASR” is a very nice-looking game. The character models look great and stay true to the original styles of the characters represented. The Sonic characters and their vehicles are appropriately cartoony, while characters from more realistic games look appropriately life-like. The racetracks are also very true-to-form for the games they represent, with tracks from the Sonic series, “Samba de Amigo,” “Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg,” “Super Monkeyball,” “Jet-Grind Radio,” and “House of the Dead” (mysteriously renamed ‘Curien Mansion') providing a lot of diversity.

The audio is not as strong as the graphics. The music is all typical Sega stuff, which means it ranges from ‘not very good' to ‘extremely annoying.' I was at least happy that the game includes two of the main themes from “Sonic R” despite sharing little else in common with that title. Character voices are all well-done and appropriate, though they do say some random and annoying things at times, like how Shadow the Hedgehog randomly yells ‘CHAOS!' out of the blue.

The game's worst presentational flaw is the horrible voice of the in-game Announcer (which can, thankfully, be turned off). He provides some very childish and inane commentary at the beginning of each race as well as cheesy and irritating play-by-play comments throughout. While I DO like the idea of play-by-play commentary during races (as it allows the player(s) to stay informed about what is happening far-ahead or far-behind them), the fact that the Announcer sounds like one of “The Wiggles” (the children's music group) makes it very difficult to listen to him.

The only other problem “SASR” has is the fact that it's using Sega intellectual properties as its mashup base. Almost every game represented among the unlockable racers is a Dreamcast title, and this slate of losers provides ample evidence as to why Sega dropped out of the console race and has been relatively unsuccessful in the software market as well. Bizarre games like “House of the Dead EX” (a Japanese arcade game), “Fantasy Zone,” and “Chu-Chu Rocket,” as well as cheesy things like “Crazy Taxi” and “Space Channel 5” lead to more facepalms and questions about Sega's sanity for ever producing them than they do fond memories. At least Alex Kidd, of Sega's original platforming series makes an appearance. I was also quite disappointed to see that no characters from Sega's stronger titles, such as “Skies of Arcadia,” Panzer Dragoon,” or “Valkyria Chronicles” were included, especially considering that each of those games features a main character who rides an interesting form of transportation (airship, dragon, and tank, respectively).

Some racing games go awry when the developers try to create a compelling story that involves driving in circles. Sega has long been developing a reputation for including horrific, fan-fiction quality stories in their games. Thankfully, the writing team took a pass on “SASR,” and the game features no story elements whatsoever. The player can go through the entire game with no objective other than winning. And it works.

While many kart racers have tried to capture the magic formula that made the Mario Kart series successful, few, if any, have succeeded. In a rare case of perfect lucidity combined with incredible inspiration, Sega has succeeded in creating a perfect clone of the original kart racing franchise.

The first sign that something has gone wonderfully right in this game is the fact that it has a huge variety of possible control layouts, including SIXAXIS steering for the non-gamers that like the Wii Wheel. While the default control setup is kind of strange and doesn't correlate to any other kart racer, Control Style B is absolutely perfect, with X accelerating, R1 drifting, L1 launching weapons, and the right stick or d-buttons for steering. It's a very simple control scheme that does exactly what I want in a kart racer. It also allowed me to carry-over my finely-honed “Mario Kart Wii” skills to a completely new and different game: Always a good thing!

The main kart racing mechanics of powersliding and item use are highly refined and balanced in “SASR.” Simply holding a drift for a period of time (which is specific to each character) causes a turbo boost to build. Turbo boosts can be built up to three levels, with each level increasing the duration of the boost. The item roster is absolutely wonderful, without a single broken item (like blue shells!) in sight. There are corollaries to most of the main Mario Kart weapons, with boxing gloves that fly in a straight line and bounce off walls, missiles that home in on the target immediately in front of the user, red shoes that give a brief burst of speed, and exploding traffic cones that can be dropped behind the user. However, there are also plenty of unique items that all work quite well, like a green shield that can absorb a single collision, a star that homes in on a target and flips their screen upside down, a rainbow that blinds characters who drive through it, and a giant missile that can be detonated in a strategic position by the user. Each character also has a special ‘All-Star' move that allows them to move incredibly fast, auto-steer, and unload an unlimited number of attacks for a brief period of time. I found that the All-Star moves were a bit under-utilized, as characters only get them when they are in 4th place or lower.

Each character has one specific vehicle (which is a bit of a step down from “Mario Kart Wii's” vehicle diversity), but each one is unique. Some characters ride motorcycles and gain the added ability to pop wheelies by quickly moving the left stick up and down. Two extra characters and one extra track are available as downloadable content, but they are extremely over-priced (at $8 and $4) compared to single characters in other games. The characters and tracks that are built into the game are all unlockable by purchasing them with ‘Sega Miles,' which are earned by playing in any mode (including multi-player).

The single-player game consists of three main game modes: Grand Prix, Missions, and Time Trials. While the Grand Prix and Time Trials are simply copies of the same modes from Mario Kart, Mission mode is completely original, providing the player with specific challenges, such as beating a character who has a head start, collecting gold rings, shooting targets, etc. Each Mission is graded between E and AAA, with a minimum grade of A required to unlock the next Mission (of which there are 64 total). Grand Prix mode has three difficulty levels and a very gradual learning curve. Time Trials include the ability to race against pre-recorded ‘ghosts,' including a default staff ghost, and records the player's fastest run as another ghost. It is also possible to race against leaderboard ghosts, as the game has a robust online ranking system.

Multi-player is just as much fun as single-player, with a large number of modes besides the classic ‘race' and ‘battle.' “SASR” supports up to 4-players locally via split screen and up to 8 players online. One tiny flaw I noticed in local multi-player is that when there are 3 or more players, many track obstacles get turned off (such as zombies, robots, and giant poker chips that players would normally need to avoid).

“Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing” is technically the best kart racing game I have ever played. The tight controls, balanced items, and huge variety of things to do make this a no-brainer purchase, especially considering that most places sell it for $20 or less. If it had some stronger IPs to back up the gameplay, this would be the new high water mark in the kart racing genre. Regardless, Nintendo needs to open their eyes and see what was done right in this game. It's their turn to copy Sega for once.

Presentation: 8/10
Story: -/10
Gameplay: 10/10
Overall (not an average): 9.5/10

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 12/03/10

Game Release: Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing (US, 02/23/10)

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