Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing: An opinion

Before I begin this entry, let me first say that I love Sonic, and love Sega. What I don’t like, are games that do their best to go out of their way to emulate another game. I think Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing (quite a mouthful, no?) is an example of this. Let me also say now that I’m basing all of the opinions here on the game’s demo. For all I know, the demo could be a dumbed-down version of an absolutely epic game. What’s I’ve seen, though, leads me to believe otherwise.

Mario Kart has been around for as long as I can remember, and has established itself as (arguably) one of the best multiplayer racing experiences around. I believe, like most titles under the ‘Mario’ banner, that this is because the series keeps it simple, like I’ve already expressed in a previous blog entry. You instantly know where everything is, what all the powerups do, how the majority of the characters play, and it all makes you feel wonderfully right at home. Because of this continuity, tactics are transferable, to a great extent, between games in the series. In short, Mario Kart is awesome.

Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing is a shot at the Mario Kart crown, and in my opinion at least, falls far short of it. Don’t get me wrong, the game is very pretty, and the characters seem faithfully recreated, but I just didn’t enjoy playing it.

Samba the monkey, and one of the Super Monkey Ball crew battle it out.

The game instantly hurls confusing design choices at you, right from the start. The opening trailer showcases the majority of the racers available to play as, but I was left wondering if some of the characters on the roster are Sega all-stars, or even all-stars at all. Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and Shadow make appearances, as would be expected, but they’re joined by a somewhat eclectic and questionable bunch of characters, from throughout Sega’s history. You’ve got Beat, from Jet Set Radio (later Jet Set Radio Future, on the Xbox), Billy Hatcher, from Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, which enjoyed fleeting success from a single Gamecube release. You’ve also got Ryu and Ken from Street Fighter, who are hardly Sega all-stars, and Amigo the monkey, from Samba de Amigo, a rhythm game for the Dreamcast which involved shaking maraca peripherals that were supplied with the game. Great fun, but it still enjoyed only a single Dreamcast release. Not what you’d call an all-star, then.

The one thing that got me most excited about this game is the inclusion of Ryo Hazuki, from the Shenmue series, as a playable character. For me, this is huge news, as the Shenmue games, whilst not commercially successful, gained a huge cult following. Unfortunately, the series was cut short after the release of Shenmue II on the Xbox, but that hasn’t stopped gamers speculating when, and if the final game in the series will ever appear. Hit up the link, and you’ll see the furore created by Ryo’s inclusion in S&SASR.

It’s a terrible thought, but I think it’s probable that the eclectic character roster is nothing more than a clever marketing gimmick. Hardcore fans, like me, willing to do anything to see characters from their most beloved games again, will most likely buy a game in which said characters are included. I know that Shenmue fans everywhere are wondering if Ryo’s appearance means the possibility of Shenmue III appearing soon, and in some cases, I’d guess, are launching campaigns to mass-buy the game to show Sega they’re still faithful to the Shenmue series. I’d imagine this is the same for hardcore followers of Jet Set Radio, Samba de Amigo, et. al.

My only complaint is that Ryo is not driving a forklift truck.

Back to Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, which certainly is an intriguing name. It appears that Sega are trying to boost the worth of the title with the inclusion of the Sonic moniker in the title. Call it co-branding, brand-dilution, or whatever you want, but it seems as if Sega are trying to boost the title through its association with the Sonic brand. This is not right, and I’d imagine is partly why Sonic the Hedgehog has fallen on tough times recently. You can’t expect one character to sell an entire game, and the fact that the game has been heavily discounted since release leads me to believe there’s some truth in this.

The game itself seems like an ordinary racer, with an emphasis on ‘drifting’ around corners, which gives you intermittent boosts when you do so successfully. The full game incorporates courses from many Sega titles such as Sonic, Samba de Amigo, Jet Set Radio Future, and House of the Dead, interestingly enough. The demo is restricted to one level: ‘Lost Palace’, which is from some Sonic game I haven’t played. I hate to say it’s uninspiring, but it felt a little unfulfilling. You drift around corners, boosting into corners that follow shortly after, you hit boost pads, and that’s about it. The most exciting part of the level was the choppers (remember the mechanised piranhas from just about every Sonic game ever?) that jump out at you as you hop over various jumps. The ironic thing is that you’ve got to avoid them, and the inherent nature of a racing game means that you can’t time your jumps. Clever.

The power-ups are confusing, too. You get some familiar Sonic staples, like his Speed Shoes to speed you up, but everything else is a bit of a mystery at first, including a cone-shaped proximity mine, a flying boxing glove, and a rainbow. In Sonic’s words (straight from the loading screens), “The Pocket Rainbow can be dropped to block a racer’s view with colorful [sic] goo.” If running into one results in a goo explosion across your screen, then why call it a rainbow? Surely something like ‘goo bomb’ or ‘gank mine’ would be more appropriate. Sort it out, Sega.

SONIC, LOOK OUT!

There are also ‘special attacks’ that when used, do something character-specific. Sonic’s transforms him in Super Sonic (which is admittedly very awesome) and Banjo-Kazooie’s (the other playable character on the demo, go figure) grants Kazooie the ability to wave around her voodoo wand from Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, and make giant jigsaw pieces, or ‘jiggies’ fall from the sky. This does seem a bit gimmicky, and I would have liked to see something more innovative than, say, Amigo’s ability to make GIANT MARACAS appear above his car, which don’t really seem to have any logical use, but seem to work nonetheless.

One thing that really bothered me is that instead of letting you win most of the time and making you feel awesome (indeed, I believe that the point of a demo is to sell a game), the demo’s default difficulty is set to ‘Expert’, which is extremely difficult! I didn’t finish above fourth place, before I gave up. I’ve also failed to mention, up until this point, the annoying announcer who insists on narrating everything as irritatingly as possible; especially the fact that you’re losing. I do hope there’s an option to turn him off (ala Burnout) in the full game.

Overall, I’m unimpressed, but I think the game itself raises some good questions about Sega and its franchises, and suggests plenty of improvements to this end. Such as not including all your most beloved characters in mediocre racing titles. Boom.

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