Would-be kart racers have always met with one particularly stiff piece of competition: Mario Kart. It’s hard to gain relevance in a genre where such a well-known household name already dominates. That’s part of the reason why it’s so significant that Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed managed to swoop onto the scene just as Wii U launched, before any word of an HD Mario Kart even began to leak out.

Sonic Racing Transformed manages to combine the wacky kart-racing mainstays like a palette of power-up items and boost pads with a control scheme that feels more like a traditional racer, and the result is quite powerful.

Sega Content Transformed

Every track and character in Sonic Racing Transformed is based on one of Sega’s popular names, from Sonic and his friends and foes to twists on classic locales – plus stuff from NiGHTS, Skies of Arcadia, Monkey Ball, and other popular franchises. For some of these characters, like Vyse, it’s their first time to grace the HD screen – and the characters and tracks all look spectacular.

sonic-allstars-gamescom-trailerMost of the tracks have a kind of story to tell. The Sonic track series actually goes in sequence, chronicling Sonic’s journey to Angel Island and his infiltration of the Death Egg. The Burning Rangers track is structured like a rescue mission. Dream Valley from NiGHTS takes players through a series of boss battle-themed dream worlds, ending with Wizeman’s void. It’s a loving tribute to Sega’s game worlds, and left me wondering what it’d be like if some of the classic locales and story arcs were given total reboots in HD for their home franchises – Sonic‘s Death Egg in particular.

This is Sega like you’ve never seen Sega before.

The soundtrack is also excellent. Unlike some of Sega’s other attempts at doing a “retro” soundtrack (Sonic 4), it doesn’t come off as cheap and backwards – instead, it comes off as faithful to the games that inspired it, while still sounding pretty darn appealing.

A Middle Ground Between Wacky Kart Racing and Traditional Driving

Of all the kart racers I’ve played over the years, Sonic Racing Transformed actually does the most to reach across the aisle and feel more like a traditional driving game. That’s not to say that it comes with particularly realistic driving physics or mechanics, just that the cars themselves carry a bit of a weightier feel and handle a bit differently than, say, Mario Kart.

Sonic-racing-wii-u-five-playerThe game also introduces vehicle transformations – at certain points in the track, your car will revert to a boat or a plane. It feels a bit like the transformation mechanic in Mario Kart 7, only the alternates are more “full vehicles” than temporary terrain-based setups. Entire tracks could be based around flight or the boat. In that way, the vehicles feel a bit like the alternate vehicles in Diddy Kong Racing as well. They also handle a bit differently, and certain tracks will have branching paths that let you shift between forms early – the plane’s faster than the others, so this can be a terrific boon!

At the same time, there’s still a wide palette of items to make use of. An ice ball power-up lets you fire snowball projectiles at your foes, which can freeze them with enough direct hits; a firework power-up will bounce around the stage until it explodes or hits something; a blowfish can be tossed ahead or dropped behind to slow down your fellow racers.

The powerups work all right, to be sure, but they don’t feel particularly iconic – none of the more recognizable Speed Shoes or bubble shield power-ups from this game’s predecessor make a return. In the end, most of the items actually feel out-of-place – an odd juxtaposition in a game that otherwise does a terrific job celebrating Sega’s history.

Drifting feels nice and gives you a speed boost if you manage to pull off a longer slide. Midair tricks can also offer boosts, and boost pads litter the stage and let you get the jump on anyone just ahead or catching up from behind. And special All-Star power-ups, tailored to each character, can bring you back even from the most hopeless brink of defeat.

It’s not quite as tried-and-true as other kart racers, but it does a good job injecting the traditional kart racer gameplay with a bit of extra “oomph” to provide a flavor that stands out from the rest.

sega-sonic-allstars-trailer-wiiuWii U owners get a few treats in the form of Off-TV Play, which works not only with the GamePad control scheme but with any other controller configuration – though the smaller screen makes it a little hard to see unless you’ve got it in your hands – and Wii Remote motion controls. While the motion controls work well for the most part, they get a bit finicky while drifting. I often wound up drifting in the opposite direction than I intended. The game also supports both the Pro Controller and the Wii Classic Controller, but if you own the older Classic Controller, take note that the game maps actions to ZL and ZR, not the analog L and R triggers.

Difficult Missions, Omnipresent Multiplayer

The game sports the usual Grand Prix, Time Trial, and multiplayer match modes (both online and offline), but the real star of the show is the World Tour mode, which pits players against a series of often supremely tough challenges. Ranking higher in these challenges earns more points, which you can spend to advance further in your World Tour career or unlock extra characters and vehicle mods.

Some of these challenges are kind of off-the-wall – some will have you fire missiles at a tank while avoiding its counterattacks, others will have you avoid traffic waves as you move through different zones within a time limit. They’re surprisingly tough – it took me about 15 or so hours to master the World Tour challenges on the higher difficulties.

The game also sports multiplayer functionality for basically every game mode, which is a spectacular touch. The Wii U version adds a few asymmetric multiplayer modes, which have the GamePad player take on a dramatically different role, like a giant ball that tries to bowl over other players. They’re worth checking out, but aren’t as addictive as the multiplayer modes Nintendo Land brings to the table.

I ran into a few problems with online multiplayer – namely, I finished a race in a comfortable 1st, the game telling me I got 2nd, and then seeing on the results screen that I was actually 3rd – and there were some delays with items hitting their targets, but by and large it works when you find people to play with.

8Out of 10

The Bottom Line

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed has earned its keep as a mainstay among the hallowed ranks of franchise-based kart racers. A few shortcomings hold it back from being the best of the best, but it delivers on the core of what makes a kart racer great: wacky fun, beloved tracks and characters, and bells and whistles that make it more than your usual driving game.

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