Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing DS
In this humble reviewer’s opinion, Mario Kart DS is the finest title the Nintendo DS has to offer. Why it has taken three years since its release for any developer to come anywhere close to its frenetic brilliance is indeed a shocker. That this competitor jostling for position features a certain Sonic the Hedgehog in its box-art is another near-miraculous feat. Sonic & SEGA All-Star Racing may initially appear as another in a long line of pale Kart clones (anyone for a round of Madagascar Kartz?) but it works hard to confound expectations, providing a dazzling experience that’s been lovingly sprinkled with high degrees of fan-service.
Much like developer’s Sumo Digital’s SEGA Superstar Tennis, All-Star Racing applies a Smash-Bros approach to its tracks and characters by digging deep into the companies back catalogue, rather than relying on Sonic’s ever-expanding cast of anthropomorphic cretins. Okay fine, I’ll admit Big the Cat does makes an appearance but who could moan at a racer that features the return of Shenmue’s finest sailor-questioning Ryo Hazuki? And when even Alex Kidd and Fantasy Zone’s Opa-Opa have shown up to race it’s clear this is a title that’s been designed through the wishes of SEGA fan boys first and developers second.
SEGA have also wisely chosen tracks from titles as varied and beloved as House of the Dead, Super Monkey Ball, Jet Set Radio Future and erm, Billy Catcher. It is a credit to Sumo Digital’s talents however that each track variation genuinely provides new challenges whilst adhering to many individual principles of their franchises e.g. Super Monkey Ball tracks can be frustratingly labyrinthine, with a noticeable lack of track barriers whilst the speedy, rollercoaster-like Sonic tracks recall the glory days of F-Zero GX. Sure certain franchises that might seem perfect fits are left out (Outrun) and most likely no SEGA fanboys demanded three Billy Hatcher tracks (three!) but in all, track design remains of an extremely high standard throughout.
Gameplay-wise, Mario Kart references are inescapable. Powersliding and item control are consigned to the DS button shoulder buttons, whilst correct powersliding even registers a slight speed boost for players. Item-wise, a red shell becomes a Rocket, bananas become Mines and mushrooms become Sonic’s own High Speed Shoes. It’s very familiar territory, shameless even, yet when your inspiration is one of the few gaming titles to have ever arrived fully-formed in its first instalment, imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery. Players can also utilise All Star Moves; hugely speedy items that transform the drivers, such as Sonic’s Super Sonic abilities and the fanboy-arousing return of Ryo Hazuki’s beloved Dobuita forklift. Thankfully races do not employ the oft-criticised rubber-band opponent AI of Mario Kart that punishes leaders constantly. In All-Star Racing, wins are earned and in the case of the unforgiving Super Monkey Ball courses, cherished.
Production values are of a sky-high standard throughout, with sharp, colourful visuals, recognisable tunes and full-voice acting. Sumo Digital hasn’t skimped on the details either. Aside from the requisite Grand Prix, Time Trial and Multiplayer options, All-Star Racing features Missions, WFC races and Sega Miles, which store your lifetime miles to be used as a currency to unlock new characters, courses and music. It’s a clever approach that encourages replay in a manner that deviates from the standard “beat a tournament/unlock a character” approach for handheld racers. Once you’ve collected the six Grand Prix cups there is still plenty of content to be acquired. Missions are also a surprisingly challenging and substantial investment, ranging from time-attack head-to-head races or solo item-collection challenges. With 55 missions, 24 tracks and a wealth of vehicle styles to master (truck, aeroplane, motorbike), substantial longevity is assured.
There’s probably no greater feeling in gaming than that of a welcome surprise. Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing works hard to surprise, enthral and thrill players, with a polished title that pays homage to its nostalgia with well-executed gameplay, rather than relying upon it. Ultimately Sumo Digital and SEGA are to be commended with a racer that is a perfect marriage of universally beloved fandom and universally appreciated core videogame mechanics. Whilst it wears its influences on its sleeve and won’t supersede Mario Kart DS as the handheld racer of choice, All-Stars Racing ensures a thrilling duel to the finish line.
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