REVIEW | Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing [X360]

by Sean Evans

In the mind of a typically jaded videogame enthusiast, as soon as a beloved or once-revered franchise releases a kart racer, warning sirens blare out a lack of creativity on the developer’s end. It’s a crude industry joke that isn’t completely unjust in spite of its over-exaggeration. Halo Kart, Metal Gear Racers, etc. The list is as extensive as it is ridiculous. All the same, I’m amazed that Pokékart hasn’t actually been created by now.

Clearly, the mammoth success of the Mario Kart series is the first and best case in point for the quirky driving sub-genre. Crash Bandicoot and his entirely forgettable band of friends tried to usurp the king in the late 90s with Crash Team Racing on PS1 which, whilst a valiant effort at the time, evidently failed to cement a bright future for the retired Sony mascot.

In 2010, the throne still belongs to the chirpy plumber. Considering Mario has been drifting round the bends of Rainbow Road for almost two decades without any significant competition is indicative of not only Nintendo’s capability to continually make great games, but also the strength of their brand on the whole. No other games company is as commercially successful at divulging their characters into a chain of off-shoot titles.

And now, it’s Sega’s turn. Though a little late off the starting line, Sega and Sumo Digital’s own incarnation on the tried and tested karting formula borrows all of the archetypal elements of the Mario Kart games with very little shame. Copy-cat equivalents of power-ups are collected during races and chosen at random: red shells exist as red auto lock-on rockets and green shells live on as green boxing gloves that ‘punch’ in the same linear fashion as its forebearer. Several circuit events are also uniquely named after something Sega-related which, despite their best efforts, showcase the company’s less than stellar assets by comparison. Simply put, ‘Chao Cup’ just doesn’t sound quite as influential – and with good reason.

As easy it is to lay blame on the behalf of developer Sumo Digital for cribbing its inspiration so deliberately, it’s easy to understand why they would. For the most part, the core elements of Mario Kart work under a solid and enjoyable framework. It’s hard to imagine there being any team meetings during the game’s development where they instructed an active goal to avoid any comparisons to Nintendo’s stalwart racer. What else is there to learn from, Mad Dash Racing?

It helps, then, that the driving itself feels competent and pretty much what you’d expect from a game that blatantly rips from the very heart of Mario Kart. In a bid to mix things up a bit, the inclusion of individual ‘All-Star’ special moves specific to each character is a nice touch, which essentially grants the initiator a chance to blaze ahead of the track and slow down a few competitors along the way in vibrant spectacle.

Although by no means tied to the copious amounts of Sega lore on offer, my favourite All-Star move belongs to that of your own Xbox 360 Avatar (in his/her ‘Ava-car’, no less), who is lifted up by four other on-foot Avatars and body-surfed along as far as you can mash the A button. It’s a pretty cool feature that is also parodied with your own Miis in the Wii version of the game.

The wide appeal that Nintendo’s characters have is ostensibly a large reason why the Mario Kart series has proved to be so continually viable. As much as anyone with a functioning brain prefers playing as Mario, Luigi and Princess Peach to Sonic, Tails and Amy Rose, Sega posseses a history of characters and games that is arguably just as storied and divisive as Nintendo’s. Make no mistake, Sega’s catalogue has been well and truly reamed for the purpose of pleasing its dedicated hanger-ons and nostalgic fans alike.

For instance, maraca-shaking monkey Amigo from Samba de Amigo is well represented with a bright and colourful track that mimics the visual style of the Dreamcast rhythm game to great effect. Plus, more obscure unlockable characters like Opa-Opa from Fantasy Zone and Alex Kidd from Sega’s Master System days are given special fan service treatment. This is equally as appealing for fans of past Sega games that don’t star those painfully void of star-quality, such as the awful Big the Cat from Sonic Adventure and Sonic’s ‘edgy’ goth alternative, Shadow the Hedgehog.

Unlike Sega Superstars Tennis – Sumo Digital’s other Sega-laden clone of Virtua Tennis (which by extension felt more like Mario Tennis, unsurprisingly) – the nature of the track design and their relative environments allow for a more diverse and varied recreation of Sega’s old games. The Jet Set Radio track is especially standard in terms of its level design (as are the majority of tracks), but at the same time works as a creative parallel to the artistic style that was the defining aspect of the Jet Set series.

With that said, there are some unfortunate omissions from the overall roster of playable characters. Space Harrier and Afterburner would be perfect games to pay dividends to in this context, but instead we’re (mis)treated to revisiting Eggman’s dreary sky-ship that no one remembers from Sonic Adventure.

That’s also not taking into account some of the stranger deviations that you’d think would have been top priority, like replacing the iconic red Ferrari of OutRun fame with a generic red super-car seating Virtua Fighter stars Jacky and Akira as substitutes for a thrill-seeking dude and his hard-to-please lady friend. Considering Sumo Digital went so far as to add characters like Robo and Mobo from platformer Bonanza Bros., you have to wonder what stopped them from going all the way.

On top of functional online play and time trial modes are challenged-based missions that act as extensive and mostly laborious variations on the game’s general mechanics. Each mission grades your performance and will continue to unlock more as you progress onwards. Problem is,  none of them are particularly any fun, becoming so redundant in parts that certain missions are essentially just truncated grand prix races. They’re not that hard either, so going through the list is more about endurance for the sake of earning some achievement points than anything else. Four-player split-screen also features, which is a cool incentive that’s fairly rare nowadays.

As a kart racer, Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing is typical in form, but it’s the abundance of sincere Sega fan service that elevates the experience and makes it worth checking out. If you’re a nerd for all things Sega, then you’ll be happy with what’s on offer here. Adversely, if you’re purely in the market for an accessible kart racer and aren’t looking for any sailors, then there’s still enough here to satiate your red-rocketeering and kart-drifting needs.

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