Blue rinse speed freak, Sonic the Hedgehog, has been a closet petrol head since the mid-90s. Released only in Japan, Sonic Drift was a little-known kart racer for the Sega Game Gear, and provided the battery-hungry handheld with one of its better – if simplistic – racing experiences.
More than 15 years on, Sonic hops behind the wheel once again, and this time he’s joined by a rogue’s gallery of familiar faces from Sega’s history, including Billy Hatcher, Alex Kidd, Ryo Hazuki from Shenmue and, rather incongruously, Banjo and Kazooie.
If Sonic Drift served as a cut-down homage to SNES-era Super Mario Kart, then Sonic & Sega All-Stars plays like a straight high definition remake of Mario Kart Wii. The accessible, family-friendly racing, where drifts through bends are rewarded with a brief boost of speed, is extremely familiar, as are the little tricks you can perform while in mid-air. The various game-changing power-ups all have their analogues in Nintendo’s racer, from guided missiles to screen-obscuring rainbows. Vehicles come in a predictable variety of flavours, from slow but dependable cars to fast but skittish bikes.
But while Sega All-Stars borrows its mechanics from Mario Kart, its dynamics are subtly different. Where Mario Kart‘s race leaders shuffled constantly, and it was possible to slip from first place to last under a barrage of banana skins and dreaded red shells, developer Sumo Digital has chosen to make its power-ups a far less decisive factor; while theoretically possible, there are far fewer instances of an inferior driver winning a race through the strategic use of a flying boxing glove. The net result is a game that is slightly less forgiving for younger or less inexperienced players, but at the same time less frustrating for seasoned gamers.
There are frustrations to be found in some of the track designs, however. While the Sonic-themed stages – all flowing curves and forgiving bends – are joyously fast and entertaining, others are too dependent on chasms, bouncing enemies and other pitfalls to be any fun, and merely serve to break the flow of a race rather than add a further challenge. Still others, including the Casino level, are so needlessly chaotic and colourful that it’s often difficult to tell what’s going on.
Nevertheless, Sumo has done a good job of bringing Sega’s long catalogue of characters back to life. It’s always a pleasure to see Alex Kidd or Opa Opa again (though it’s a shame that, due to licensing problems, Toejam and Earl didn’t make the cut), and drifting around a psychedelic carnival as Samba the monkey has its own trippy appeal.
Sonic All-Stars‘ five on-or offline multiplayer modes are dependably entertaining (if somewhat lacking in options), and include deathmatches, a capture the flag derivation, and free race.
The missions, meanwhile, almost threaten to eclipse the main event. These brief challenges are one of the rare moments where Sumo breaks free from the Mario Kart template and offers something a little different. Whether it’s collecting rings in Sonic’s racing car, shooting down targets as Doctor Eggman or avoiding zombies in a House Of The Dead-themed level, these missions offer a compulsive diversion from the repetitive drift and boost core gameplay.
These challenges aside, Sega All-Stars is too content to work within the template already created by Mario Kart. While pretty and competently programmed – and the 360’s hi-def graphics really show Wii owners what they’re missing – Sumo’s arcade racer really doesn’t have enough ideas of its own to make it a bona fide classic.
Sega All-Stars gives Nintendo a run for its money, Super Mario retains the top spot on the kart racing podium.
Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.