When having a discussion about kart racing video games, it’s impossible not to bring up the Mario Kart series. Any new game in the genre will inevitably be compared to Nintendo’s long-running quirky racing franchise, and not one has been able to match Mario Kart’s impact and staying power in the gaming industry. Twenty years after Sega did what Nintendidn’t, Sonic is taking on Nintendo’s mascot once again with his own kart racing game, and bringing along some friends from not only the Sonic the Hedgehog series, but a variety of other Sega games both popular and obscure. The Sega license makes what would be just another average kart racer a nostalgia-inducing experience, but ultimately, Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing’s fun wears off after a few days of play.
Like other kart racing games, All-Stars Racing uses simple, intuitive controls, making it easy to jump into a race. The right trigger acts as the vehicle’s accelerator, while the left trigger is used to drift. Drifting is essentially to gameplay not just because it allows you to get around tight corners without slowing down, but because drifting for a certain amount of time gives you a turbo boost. Carefully timed drifts and boosts are essential to winning races, especially during the crowded Grand Prix challenges. The other major part of gameplay involves driving over question marked boxes on the racetrack, which randomly give you items to be used offensively or defensively. These include bombs, rockets, shields, and the “all star”, which is different for each character, allowing you to move quickly through the track while taking out anyone in the way. Again, it’s easiest to compare the gameplay to Mario Kart, though there are no objects comparable to the hated blue shell.
What makes All-Stars Racing different than other Mario Kart clones is the Sega license, which brings plenty of familiar (and not-so-familiar) characters and locations to the game. Most gamers will probably recognize Sonic and his cohorts, including Tails and Knuckles, but All-Stars also features characters from Super Monkey Ball, House of the Dead, Crazy Taxi, Samba de Amigo, and even the Alex Kidd series, just to name a few. Though the Sonic the Hedgehog universe seems to be the main focus, there is no shortage of Sega characters that both longtime fans and younger gamers will be able to enjoy. Older players may also appreciate the nod to Sega’s advertising campaigns from the Genesis era, such as Achievements called “To be this good takes AGES!” and “Now there are no limits”.
One of the highlights of the game is the presentation, with the characters, vehicles, and tracks all wonderfully designed as a homage to some of the most beloved series in gaming. The level design is great, making each track distinct and fun. Levels from the Sonic or Samba de Amigo series are colorful and quirky, while tracks from House of the Dead are dark, gloomy, and filled with slowly wandering zombies. The characters are also varied, not just in their source material, but vehicles as well. In addition to standard cars and motorcycles, Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing features hovercrafts as a third vehicle type, allowing Ulala and Tails to float through each race true to their characters. A handful of characters are available at the start of the game, with over a dozen more able to be unlocked. If you have ever been a Sega fan, there’s likely someone in the game for you.
Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing has several different single-player modes: Grand Prix, Time Trials, Missions, and Single Race. Single Race is fairly self-explanatory, while Grand Prix pits racers against seven computer-controlled characters in a four-race competition, again akin to Mario Kart. Players will need to place first, second, or third in each Grand Prix tournament to continue, but all of these competitions can be completed in just a few hours. Missions, on the other hand, offer much more variety, with each assignment assigning the player a character and specific goal. While some missions are just simple races, most of them have different objectives, such as bombing the rest of the players on a track, smashing as many pots as possible, or shooting targets. After each mission, the player is graded with a score of E to AAA, with at least an A needed to unlock a new mission. With 64 missions, these will probably take you longer to complete than all of the Grand Prix tournaments. Time Trials, as you might expect, simply have you racing to beat the game’s time, as well as the records set by other players.
All of these modes will allow you to earn Sega Miles, which are the game’s currency. Sega Miles can be used to buy new characters and courses in the store, and also determine the color of your license—the more miles you earn, the more you essentially “level up” your All-Stars Racing license that is created when you begin the game. Sega Miles give the player a reason to retry races or missions for better results, adding to the game’s overall replay value.
The multiplayer selections aren’t terribly original, but offer more gameplay options. Up to four players can enjoy the multiplayer modes together locally with split screen options, and the game also allows eight gamers to race together online. Local multiplayer options include King of the Hill, Arena (similar to Mario Kart’s battle mode), Collect the Emeralds, and Capture the Chao. While the extra multiplayer modes may offer some entertainment, the fun quickly wears off, which can be said for most of the game.
Despite all of its positive qualities, Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing’s gameplay isn’t enough to make this a true challenger in the genre. The heavy focus on drifting can be more annoying than fun, and the Grand Prix races can be frustrating thanks to cheap computer-controlled characters. The game never reaches the same level of unfairness as Mario Kart Wii, and you won’t feel constantly punished for being in first place, but there will be times when you’re hit with projectiles from other racers several times in a row, and can quickly fall from first to last place. Even if you make it through a race almost flawlessly, you might still find yourself finishing fifth or sixth, meaning you'll have to do the entire Grand Prix tournament over again. Spending some time to get used to the controls, particularly the appropriate places to drift, will improve your chances of winning, but this isn’t the most fun way to race.
Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing may have been Sega’s answer to Mario Kart’s dominance of the kart racing genre, but it’s not a contender quite yet. It’s easy to jump into, and has plenty of good aspects, particularly the presentation and throwbacks to older Sega games. However, the gameplay, while simple and familiar, is not quite enough to make anyone come back over and over again; if anything, it may serve to entertain for a few days, but will probably be forgotten pretty quickly. If Sega was to continue the series with some improvements, the publisher might have a solid franchise on its hands, but for now Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing remains in the shadow of Mario Kart.