Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing

For the first time since Sonic Adventures shocked the world by actually being quite competent, Sonic has been making headlines again. Sega Senior VP, Jurgen Post recently made the – startlingly candid – announcement that certain installments of the blue hedgehog’s franchise were a source of embarrassment for the company, which they intend to solve by taking them off of shelves. As Post puts it: ‘any Sonic game with an average Metacritic [rating] has been delisted.’

Taking games off shelves based on critical response rather than commercial success is either highly inadvisable (around 9 titles with low to respectable sales would all be culled) or a smart way of rebranding Sonic as a franchise that recognises Metacritic as the new standard of quality and aims to keep to it.

While those wary of the big M’s already sizable influence on the industry will cringe at its power to dictate publisher policy, with Sega’s barrage of new Sonic releases on the horizon it’s not difficult to see why they’d want to be seen keeping up with the times, nor what other aging platforming protagonist Sega are taking crib notes from to achieve this. Whether it’s the basic-to-basics approach of Sonic 4 Episode 1 (New Sonic The Hedgehog, if you will), the power-up infused 3D/2D mixing action of Sonic Colours [Galaxy] or this year’s earlier release Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing another set of white-gloved hands are clearly resting on Sonic’s shoulders these days.

But on starting Sonic et al. Racing one thing is immediately apparent: I’m not in the Mushroom Kingdom anymore.

Clearly I’m supposed to feel like I am. The same four control schemes return untouched from Mario Kart Wii – including identical drift and boosting mechanics – happily allowing for out-of-the-box multiplayer with any remotely Kart-savvy friends. Unfortunately this immediately begins to work against it as incredulous friends question the largely unfamiliar cast of racers, the mandatory vehicle choices, and courses, weapons and game modes that imitate Kart well enough to evoke it but not better it.

In fact if you’ve played Kart to death and are looking for the same but different, Racing may entertain on games of borrowed-content spotting alone. Reminisce about repeated frustrating plays of Rainbow Road on Samba de Amigo’s first level, discover the power-ups that work ‘a bit like banana peels but worse’ or flat-out marvel at the dedication to imitation that produced Racing’s collection and battle levels that successfully recreate everything that was flawed about Kart’s versions. Like reading a foreign translation of your favourite book, it may be a novel experience to pick out the odd familiar phrase or proper noun but you won’t enjoy it on its own merits and ultimately it will just leave you wanting to revisit the original.

Nintendo have deftly crafted a canon of characters in the rosters of both Mario Kart and Super Smash Brothers, regardless of whether the have appeared outside of these games recently or even whether the person playing has ever seen them in their respective franchises. Smash Brothers’ nostalgia for games unplayed runs deep in its trophies and cameos but while this carefully errs on the endearing side of franchise promotion, Racing’s ham-fisted attempts to achieve the same plays out like a far more cynical demonstration in keeping dead IPs alive in the public consciousness (Nintendo obviously are playing the same game, they’re just doing it better).

Therefore I wouldn’t be surprised to see new instalments of Billy Hatcher, Samba de Amigo, Jet Set Radio simply because of the disproportionately high billing these titles get in playable characters and themed races. Meanwhile, classics like Alex the Kidd and Bonanza Bros. appear as shameful fan-service asides to satisfy the only people who were ever going to appreciate this walk down virtual memory lane – Sega fans. Apparently the development process was littered with discarded cameos from Toejam and Earl, Goldenaxe and even Mario (speaking volumes of the level of imagination at work here) but really the result is a missed opportunity from a studio that, at this point, has nothing but history to work from.

The finished product is therefore a real shame. The music of Racing is fantastic and visually it beats Kart at every turn. The voice-acting is criminal but that is par-for-the-course at this stage, and while the artificial attempt to breed longevity is blatant in the uninspired ‘mission’ mode (which plays out as randomly generated combinations with hastily written flavour text) the coin rewards accrued are effective incentives, unlocking races and racers and are mercifully also doled out in the multiplayer races where this game will live out most of its gamelife.

However, that gamelife will be a short one. The target audience must presumably be Wii owners who have played Mario Kart to death and non-Wii owners starved by a dearth of kart racers (a dire situation indeed), but the former would be better off looking for new multiplayer experiences (say, a frenetic Brawl-er) and the latter would surely be able to find a secondhand or family-member’s Wii to play (the ratio being approximately one Wii in every five homes in the UK).

Sonic… Racing is simply not a game worth playing. If Sega is looking to self-mythologise its back-catalogues it might be better off playing to said catalogues strengths, not stretching it to fit the model of the Mario series’ success. One hopes Sonic Colours will be a Sega game that does the developer and its mascot proud and not just another pained retread of the portly plumber’s footprints – especially since we all know so well how fast Sonic can take-off, given half the chance.

Time played: 54 minutes (Multiplayer)

1 hour 2 minutes (Single Player) Minus 5 minutes for loading screens and forced replays of that same first race.

Will you still love me tomorrow?

Already I feel like I could go for another quick go on Racing, if only for the unfamiliar aspect of the courses. But I know how well the game plays on the desire for more Mario Kart which this most decidedly isn’t. Would be worth having on your shelf for a rainy day, but that would require buying it.

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