As far as spin-off games go, Nintendo’s Mario Kart must rank as the most successful – around 100 million in sales is a huge achievement for a franchise that began life as a plumber-less tech demo designed merely to explore two-player play.
Sega has attempted to do the same with Sonic many a time down the years, with Drift, Sonic R, Free Riders and the original Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing all offering character-based karting action, none of which possessed the same pizazz as their inspirations. Dull clones each and every one.
But at what point in a life does a new-born clone stop being a clone? Exactly how far does the DNA have to vary before it becomes its own unique entity?
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed may have begun life on Sumo Digital’s South Yorkshire drawing board with the frozen embryo of someone else’s idea, but a combination of environmental factors and neat design means that post-ligation, it now feels fresh and unique.
The idea to use flying vehicles and watercraft in addition to the traditional karts may have been gazumped by Mario Kart 7, but it has to be said they are far more effectively employed here, ensconced within the core gameplay as opposed to short, tacked-on sections.
Frequently a track will morph before your eyes as pathways fall away, canyons open up, spaceships join the fray, or dragons devastate the roads, meaning one lap of any given course may not be the same as the last.
With the wealth of retro Sega titles to draw upon for nostalgic goodwill, developers Sumo Digital have pulled out all the stops with regards to track design. There are nods to so many classics it’s hard to know where to begin, but the first thing that struck me was the Afterburner level on a giant aircraft carrier, as you quickly take to the skies and embark upon aerial dogfights. Flying through boost arrows and power-up clusters faithfully invokes the spirit of the game on which the level is based – a trick Sumo perform again and again.
Circuits based on Sega classics such as Burning Rangers, Shinobi, Golden Axe and Skies of Arcadia are thrilling, and perfectly pitched to evoke memories of the old games. My personal favourite was the Nights Into Dreams course – a dizzying psychedelic spectacle based around the old Spring Valley level, with a few of the old level bosses thrown in for good measure. It’s so eerily accurate, with the music, stunt rings, and a population composed of familiar characters that it’s hard to keep your eyes on where exactly you are supposed to be going.
Of course, all the nice design and graphical flair in the world is nothing without the game mechanics, and fortunately these have tried and tested antecedents. Drifting is the name of the game here, with the ubiquitous powerslide facilitating all kinds of speed boosts and, if you can hold it long enough, a massively effective ‘Sonic Drift’.
When added to the range of power-ups – the best of which is the titular ‘Allstar’ which accelerates you through the course as an invincible speed machine – all the ingredients combine to ensure there’s enough going on to keep you occupied, and that’s before the courses themselves start to twist and disintegrate.
Courses can be raced in a variety of traditional modes, and with five grand prix tournaments, five world tour events, and the ever-infuriating mirror mode alongside single race and time attack options there’s are plenty of options to mix things up – whether going solo or taking on your mates.
Many unlockable characters wait to be discovered via game progression, but the initial roster still contains a good mix of classic heroes and leftfield choices. The inclusion of Crazy Taxi’s B.D. Joe, as well as Beat from Jet Set Radio, AiAi and MeeMee from Super Monkey Ball, Samba of ‘De Amigo‘ fame, and even Ulala from Space Channel 5 are all particularly welcome.
Ristar shows up just to wave the chequered flag, and presumably remind everyone he ever existed. With this expansive guest list, I almost expected Vectorman to show up and say ‘Chicken, fight like a robot!’ while Sketch Turner swipes your kart with his swishing ponytail.
It’s this attention to detail that makes Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed such a worthwhile exercise; as Sega’s willingness to trade on their former glories allows it to escape from the sometimes suffocating pressure of being a spinoff while trying to live up to Mario Kart. But as the main Sonic games have slumped into a bit of a rut, at least in the public perception, Racing Transformed seems to drag his name back into the glittering lights.
Easily outclassing recent kart-based offerings like LittleBigPlanet Karting and F1 Race Stars, it’s an excellent racer draped in the fineries of over 25 years of gaming royalty that deserves attention on its own merits.
By Sam Gill
Format: Xbox 360 (tested), PS3, Wii U, PC
Developer: Sumo Digital