Kart Racers are an endeavor in refinement, innovation and distinct individuality. No matter what the final product resembles, it will inevitably be compared to Mario Kart. Nintendo’s monolithic franchise casts a large shadow, reducing most competitors to wayward clones in its wake. Unlike many failed challengers, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed offers not just an alternative but a superior experience to Nintendo’s most recent iteration. Sumo Digital’s entry expands on the formulaic approach of the genre, opting to employ distinct modes of racing – air, land, and sea – a balanced repertoire of weapons, and challenge modes that serve as a fun reprieve rather than an afterthought. Coupling the expansive but appropriate adaptations of Sega’s history to fit the kart racer’s universe, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is not only fun, but nostalgic satiation for Sega fans.
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed succeeds because of variation. This variation, or chaos, is a key component that adds the “fun factor” into kart racers. More specifically, its gameplay triumphs due to the reactionary relationship between the player and the environment. As players race or battle, against each other or the AI, their karts will transform to better navigate the terrain. The transformations are smooth, well animated, and do not cause any delay in the heat of the moment. Rather, they offer the player an opportunity to boost, if executed properly. The different versions of a kart — air, land, and sea — handle differently but are never awkward.
The kart racing controls are refined from the original Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing, and a greater emphasis is placed on boosting and drifting. Every chance I got I was catching a boost pad while drifting because it would further increase my propulsion. The same was true in the boat mode but the handling was noticeably different. The water has less resistance than the roads so every movement would affect my overall positioning meaning that I had to be more measured as I progressed wave after wave. My only qualm arose when shifting from kart mode to flight mode during a decline. The vehicles occasionally jolt downward instead of naturally pulling upward into the air. Minor problems aside, the racing glory is further accentuated by the clever weapon design and the different modes of play.
Getting weapons right in a kart racer is something I have wanted for a long time. I hate clawing my way to the top of the pack just to be bombed by a blue shell (Why are those still in Mario Kart? Seriously.) or being stuck in fifth place because the algorithm for items keeps giving me road nails, or their equivalent, while everyone around me is getting invincibility items. Sumo Digital’s title limits the armory, focusing more on a player’s ability to use angles in stages to target, and likewise tasking players to use their drifting abilities to evade or to find cover. As impressive as the gameplay is, the attention Sumo Digital pays to adapting classic Sega franchises to race tracks is beyond superlatives.
Sumo Digital transforms classic game worlds, such as Skies of Arcadia, Panzer Dragoon, Shinobi, Golden Axe, and Jet Set Radio, into dynamic race tracks that evolve as players venture through them. As a player progresses from laps one through three, the layout of the track will change, as will the mode of kart required to complete the lap. Again, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed displays its central reactionary relationship between player and environment. The shift in track structure is exhilarating, and it keeps me honest. Several times I thought I figured out a shortcut or pattern, and several times I was burned.
The track designs are only outclassed by themes within them. As I mentioned earlier, Sonic All-Stars utilizes the nostalgia from Sega’s franchises to maximum effect. However, just stating that would be a disservice to what Sumo Digital has accomplished. Every stage has a unique twist. In Rogue’s Landing, the Skies of Arcadia track, floating warships and isles fill the sky as racers carefully navigate through. Chilly Castle remakes a snow mountain stage from Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg — an obscure Gamecube title — adding an extremely catchy remixed theme from the forest village. No two race tracks are the same, and that diversity, in addition to the challenge modes, keeps Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed fresh.
Challenges are simple, but fun. They offer respite from the racing and battling. Mixed in between races in the Grand Prix mode, challenges serve to train a particular skill in the game: drifting, overtaking, or aiming. I feel they are a quasi-tutorial that teaches players how to improve in an objective-based setting.
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is the best kart racer available. Besides minor issues with flight mode, the game is balanced and riveting. There was never a moment when I felt I lost because of a cheap hit. The environmental design is an exemplary ode to the days of Sega yore. There is no reason why anybody and everybody should not pick this up. Go out and race! Race to your heart’s content!
Review based on Wii U release.