Review by Heatmiser

"A loving homage to Sega's golden era turns out to be the best kart racer since Mario Kart 64"

This game wasn't supposed to occupy an entire weekend- and then some.

Kart racing games are supposed to be a one-off, a lark, a little video gaming aside that doesn't so much capture your attention as it does kill a bit of time off the clock while you're waiting to do something more substantial. You know, like watching non-stop Olympic curling coverage. Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing (hereafter referred to as "SSASR") not only offers you more gaming value than you can shake a pointy stick at, but it may just be the best kart racing game without a "Mario" somewhere in the title that you've ever played.

Ah, kart racing games. From Mario's to Crash Bandicoot's to Sonic the Hedgehog's, you've probably played at least one of 'em, so I'll assume you're familiar with the overall design of the genre. I.E., you ride around in little super-deformed cars, cycles, go-karts, and various other tiny vehicles, shooting cute (yet deadly) weaponry at the competition in hopes of advancing through the ranks and scoring a victory. In this specific game's case, we hold down the right shoulder button to go, the left shoulder button to drift, and the A button to shoot. In fact, the racing style is so familiar (but never too derivative) that I kept flicking the analog control stick during turns like you had to in Mario Kart 64. Okay, yeah yeah, we've all been there, so what does SSASR offer that you couldn't get elsewhere? In a word? Tons. In several other words? Well, let me go into detail. This is a review after all.

What struck me first were the graphics. Absolute unrepentant eye-candy through and through, and I mean that as the utmost of compliments. The Sonic stages, which I'll use here as an example, leap off the screen with the 3D kart-racing equivalent of Blast Processing; wild colors and loop-de-loops and bouncy springs and fireworks and craaaziness abound at literally every turn, moreso than I could ever even hope to relate via mere words. The visual style on Sonic's racing tracks is like taking everything wonderful from the Sonic the Hedgehog games, putting them in a blender, rendering them with absolutely beautiful, state of the art precision (seriously, these are some of the best graphics the Xbox 360 has to offer, period), turning the mixer on Super High Speed, and then pouring out the wonderfully syrupy goo you're left with onto a stellar racing game's construct. The result? Pure, delicious visual stimuli each and every second the game is shown on a screen. But better yet, ALL the stages are this beautiful, in each of their own different ways. From the classic Sonic stages to the neo-Tokyo Jet Set Radio settings to the Cinco de Mayo look of the Samba de Amigo tracks, you will be saying "wow" (or more expletive-laden variants thereof in my case) with every twist and turn, with every jump and spin, with every cannon's fire or robot attack that the tracks have to offer.

And offer them they sure do. As I alluded to above, each and every track has a plethora of unique little oddities and secrets and other such interactive goodies that make every single one of them an experience unto themselves. And considering there are two DOZEN tracks, that's a lot of experiences to... experience. Trust me, words fail in comparison to seeing even a few seconds of Sonic zipping through a 360-degree looping pathway while a giant whale does a somersault flip over his head at the same time he's being knocked left to right to left by boinging roadside spring launchers, all while the beautiful coastal scenery flies by, and 4th of July-like explosive weapon effects are blasting non-stop all over the place- and considering there are guided missiles to shoot, bombs to hurl, giant punching gloves to launch, among many, many other weapons, you'll be hooked on the spot.

Graphics aren't your thing? How about, oh, dozens of fantastic tunes, many of which are legendary Sega holdovers from games past. My ears in particular were fond of some of the Jet Set Radio soundtrack goodies, classic Sonic songs, and even some tunes you may not even recognize, like various Billy Hatcher themes, Samba de Amigo salsas, and many, many more. I sound like a K-Tel or Sessions commercial, but it's true, they're all fantastic. I also just dated myself with those two references from well before when most of you reading this were born, so I'll quickly move on. Sort of like the kart racers quickly move on.

...and speaking of kart racers (now THAT is a segue!), the boys at Sumo Digital- who should be commended as highly as possible for doing as outstanding a job, far better really, on a Sonic game as any recent Sonic Team effort- have seen fit to grace Xbox 360 owners with 22 freakin' playable racers. That's right, including X360 exclusives Banjo & Kazooie and your very own Xbox Live Avatar, you get more than a score of participants from which to choose, and unlike SOME palette-swapping kart games that shall remain nameless, ALL of these Sega-centric speed demons are brimming with personality-- and with ways to smash the competition into a fine, gritty paste. From the legendary (Sonic! Knuckles!) to the old-school cool (Beat! Ulala!) to the... somewhat obscure (Opa-Opa? Robo & Mobo?!?), you'll be looking at a racing panoply of Sega's golden age, and have your pick of the litter... and Robo & Mobo.

Unlocking those racers, among other things, is a snap. Everytime you finish a race you earn "Sega Miles", the oddly-monickered coin of the realm that you can spend at the in-game shop, buying up the remaining characters, tracks, and songs for your racing pleasure. Since every character can only ride in his or her (or their) own vehicle, you'll want to purchase everyone you can so you can tailor your racing style to each individual track. For example: Big the Cat is great on the long straightaways of the Sonic tracks, but you'll want to use someone more like Shadow the Hedgehog when you have to navigate the tight turns in some of the Super Monkey Ball courses, or B.D. from Crazy Taxi when you want to skid around some of the more circular pathways of the Jet Set Radio areas. My word, just look at all that Sega goodness in that last sentence...

That leads me to a greater point, and my final one: the nostalgia factor. Sega wasn't always just a purveyor of bland Sonic & Mario mash-ups or terrible online Phantasy Star simulacrum as they are today. Sega used to be a leader. At one point THE leader. Half of my gamer's gaming heart was overjoyed to see the racing versions of characters from games like Crazy Taxi, Shenmue, or Chu Chu Rocket, but the other half was reflective, whimsical, plaintively full of memories of what was once a vidgame dynasty.

In a small way, and, I'll admit, a silly way, Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing is a vivid representation of the golden era of not just Sega, but of video games as a whole. Of what could have been for the once mighty video game giant, if only they'd launched the Saturn better, if only they'd kept releasing great 1st-party games for the Dreamcast, if only Sega had taken a chance and achieved what Microsoft and Sony were able to in the video game market long since past them. The $50 this game cost (yup, ten bucks less than your average game) was a bargain at twice the price for just the chance to see Alex Kidd in action again, or to see characters from Jet Set Radio take on those from Virtua Fighter. For old and old-school gaming nerds like me, it's a sort of kart race into our gaming past, and I was overjoyed to ride shotgun, taken blissfully along for the ride.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 03/01/10

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

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