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Thursday, 4 March 2010

'Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing' review: Hazuki All-Star Racing!

I mentioned last week that I was due to review Heavy Rain and Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing. Well, having met my commitment to the SONY title earlier in the week, I can now turn my attentions to this fun piece of SEGA fan service from Sumo Digital. Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing (with Banjo-Kazooie - on 360) is the latest in a long line of cartoony kart racing games inspired by the original 1992 game, Super Mario Kart. When I say Sonic & SEGA is “inspired” by Mario Kart, I mean it rips it off wholesale. The power-ups are more or less like for like, with red homing missiles instead of red homing shells, green boxing gloves instead of green shells and mines standing in for banana skins. It is unquestionably derivative and unoriginal, but it remains a lot of fun.

For a start a SEGA fan like me is treated to a range of playable characters from across SEGA history, with characters from every SEGA platform, as wide ranging as the Master System icon Alex Kidd and Opa-Opa (the star of the 1985 coin-op Fantasy Zone) to the Bananza Bros from the Mega Drive game of the same name and even including cult hero Ryo Hazuki, from the masterful Dreamcast game Shenmue. SEGA enthusiasts will also recognise much of the music used in Sonic & SEGA from games such as Sonic Adventure and Jet Set Radio Future. However, the game is less of a love letter to SEGA than Smash Brothers (the beat em' up which allows you to play as a range of Nintendo characters) is to Nintendo, as that title allows you to unlock far more (in terms of characters, stages and collectable items) than Sonic & SEGA does. It is disappointing that more time wasn’t spent adding unlockable character art (or something of that type) to the game, as once you’ve played Ryo Hazuki and gotten into his fork-lift truck, there aren’t really any more Shenmue references awaiting you as a hungry fan. A collectable model of an obscure Shenmue character (like Ine-San - pictured), in the way Smash Brothers does with Nintendo characters, would have provided that extra level of fan service the game needs to appeal to SEGA fans.

Indeed, Sonic & SEGA doesn’t try very hard to SEGAise every little detail in the same way Mario Kart and Smash Brothers do for Nintendo. Why are the power-ups red homing missiles and green boxing gloves? The shells and mushrooms in Mario Kart come from the Mario games. Whilst the Sonic & SEGA equivalent of the mushroom boost is a pair of Sonic’s speedy shoes, the other power-ups don’t seem to be SEGA-related at all, which is disappointing. How much effort would it have taken to turn the "confusion star" power-up into a picture of Mega Drive hero Ristar? A friend of mine at IQGamer told me that he thinks the game doesn’t have personality in the same way that Mario Kart does, and it’s hard to really disagree with that statement. There are some nice touches to be found, like the speech bubbles which indicate the objectives during mission mode, which are clearly stolen right out of SEGA’s OutRun arcade racing series, but they are few in number.

These gripes aside, I really enjoyed Sonic & SEGA as the Mario Kart rip-off it is. I played the 360 version, and it is great to have a colourful, fun game on that console in contrast to all the grim shooters. The courses look great, especially the Sonic-themed Ocean Ruin, which takes you through a translucent glass tube under the water. The slide mechanic, which again owes something to the slide and boost mechanism from the Mario Kart series (as well as SEGA’s own OutRun) works well and once you’re used to it you can naturally slide into the harshest bends and boost ahead of your rivals. The trick and boost mechanic is stolen wholesale from Mario Kart Wii to good effect, as performing a trick whilst airborne grants your an additional speed boost.

There is a pleasing variety to the games (60+) missions, a decent system for downloading pretty much anybody’s ghost on the time trials and the obligatory championship mode, with three difficulty settings (of course), is also pretty strong. Whilst I would have preferred there to have been more unlockables, there is still plenty to do in Sonic & SEGA. I’ve played it, across all the modes (including online and local multiplayer) for around seven hours now, and I still have half the missions to do, the majority of the time trials to attempt and I am yet to master the hardest difficulty in the cups. If you are looking for a fun racing game which offers 4-player split screen multiplayer (a rarity in this day and age) and an atmosphere of cartoony fun, then I would seriously recommend you play Sonic & SEGA.

Ultimately, how appealing Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing is will depend on which system you own. If you own a Wii and don’t already have Mario Kart Wii, than I’d suggest going for Nintendo’s more polished title instead. Similarly, whilst the DS version is surprisingly pretty and plays quite well, DS owners can play the excellent Mario Kart DS, as well as a perfect port of the classic N64 Kart-clone Diddy Kong Racing, which for my money is the best option. Sonic & SEGA really shines as a 360/PS3 game, where the only other option is DreamWorks Madagascar Kartz. Without Mario Kart on these systems, Sonic’s pretender is as good as you are going to get (although ModNation Racers may best it on PS3 later this year) and aside from the aforementioned Diddy Kong Racing (which was basically a re-skinned Mario Kart 64 anyway), it is by far the best Mario Kart clone that I have ever played.

However, it is with a curious sense of survivor guilt that I enjoy this game. The great studios behind the original games referenced in Sonic & SEGA either no longer exist (Smilebit, Hitmaker, United Game Artists) or are a shell of their former glory (Sonic Team, AM2) and it strikes me as cynical that SEGA have no interest in making new entries in many of these series (Shenmue, Crazy Taxi, Space Channel 5, Jet Set Radio) but are perfectly happy to pimp them for an easy buck here. What a slap in the face it must be to somebody like Yu Suzuki (creator of Afterburner, OutRun, Virtua Fighter) to hear that SEGA don’t want to conclude his Shenmue trilogy, but they would rather like to see Ryo racing Sonic on a motorbike! Gee, thanks SEGA. If you really want to please fans, this isn't going to be the way to do it. Sorry to end the review on that down note, but as much as I enjoyed Sonic & SEGA, I’d rather be playing a new entry in any of the classic series themselves rather than a derivative Kart-clone, however fun (and this game IS fun).

Check out footage from the German version running on a top-spec PC, below (thanks to the Fr3akDeluxe YouTube channel):

Sonic & SEGA All-Star Racing is out now on PC/Wii/DS/PS3/360 (not PSP?) and is rated '7' by PEGI. It really is a lot of fun.

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