Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed turned the mascot racer into serious competition

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New Testaments is a monthly retrospective in which Amr Al-Aaser presents an overlooked modern game and champions its best ideas.

Sonic the Hedgehog might be fast, but he’s probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of top tier arcade racers. So it might catch you by surprise to find out that Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed manages to not only build on the legacy of games like Outrun 2, Split Second and Blur, but takes the mascot racer, a genre that often aggravates players with its random elements, and turns it into a serious competitive racer. All while being an absurdly fun celebration of all things SEGA.

The first game in the series, Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing, built on the sublime drift mechanics and challenge modes developer Sumo Digital brought to Outrun 2006. It also set the standard for SEGA fan-service, with offbeat choices like Fantasy Zone’s Opa Opa and the Bonanza Bros as unlockable racers. Still, Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing was a little too messy for serious competition: the powerups are uneven, and the track design isn’t quite there (it might be accurate to have 90° turns in the Monkey Ball stages, but it isn’t much fun to drive on them). That’s where the sequel comes in.

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Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed takes the drifting and structure of its predecessor to and seriously refines it. Thanks to the success of the first game, Sumo Digital was able to take in members of the shuttered Bizarre Creations and Black Rock Studio. The legacy of the aforementioned Blur and Split Second shows through here, with a competitive refocus on weapons and dynamic stages that change lap to lap. These stages tie into Sonic Racing Transformed’s headline feature–the ability to change between three different vehicle forms.

Each vehicle has its own set of nuances to master. Cars can hold drifts almost indefinitely, reversing the direction of a drift effortlessly, allowing you to trace the best racing line through the corners while hitting every boost pad. Hold a drift long enough and you’ll charge up to three drift boosts, with each charge granting longer and faster increases of speed. Crash or get shot, however, and you’ll lose your charge, making clean racing a must to reach top speeds.

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Boats handle similarly, but open up the track to compensate for the wider drift arcs, and allow you to take advantage of airtime granted by launching off ramps or cresting a wave to get small boosts granted by doing tricks. Airplanes are the most uneven, initially seeming to have a bit too much airspace, leaving a disconnect from the tight encounters of the other modes. Dig deeper and you’ll find you can gain more speed by diving and doing Risk Boosts–boosts granted by rolling or flipping out of the way of an incoming obstacle just in time–which turns static scenery into an obstacle course you can use to gain speed in between passing boost rings. It’s far from, say, the daredevil antics encouraged by a dedicated plane racer like Skydrift, but it adds a rewarding play between risk and reward.

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These different modes give you a lot to master and even allow you to sneak tricks in while transitioning between forms. They’re also integral to navigating the deformations of the the track that prevent the monotony of racing the same course for three laps. Unlike Split Second these changes aren’t player controlled, but nonetheless allow a ridiculous amount of chaos and spectacle to happen between courses. On the Panzer Dragoon stage a crashed craft causes the earth to slump into a river where sea creatures roam, and the bridge on the main path gives way when a dragon breaks through it. The House of the Dead stage takes you from the entrance of the Curien mansion into the torn up attic, draining into the waterways of the sewers, before passing through a concert stage on the final lap, inspired by the obscure dating game of the series, Loving Deads. The Skies of Arcadia race takes place during an air and sea battle, with the stage being set ablaze, and ships exploding alongside the docks, climaxing with the stage itself being torn completely apart, leaving you to navigate the chunks of it still suspended in the air. These events alter the path through the stages from lap to lap, or open up new paths, forcing you to adapt as your vehicle changes to suit the situation. And even after you learn the scripting behind those changes it keeps races feeling chaotic and alive. After nearly 40 hours with the game it still feels fresh, and I’m still noticing new details to appreciate.

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Of course none of this would matter if it couldn’t address the biggest complaints about mascot racers: the slot machine-like change of race position randomized weaponry can bring. Even in the best of the genre, it seems like there are endless complaints about how bad luck can squander the efforts of even the best drivers. To be clear, this is a legit design choice for racing games interested in narrowing the skill gap and providing a competitive chance to less experienced players, even if it is deeply frustrating. The cartoon weaponry might initially seem to put Sonic Racing Transformed into that group, but bump up the speed class and take a closer look at the weapon balance and you’ll find that a game much more interested in competition.

Sonic Racing Transformed doesn’t go as far Blur does to turn weapons into a tactical choice. Weapons are still dealt out at random from item boxes, and you can only carry one at a time in most cases. But look closer and you’ll see a lot of Bizarre’s philosophy towards weapon balance in Blur has carried over, to the point where some weapons feel like direct analogs. This is best illustrated by how Transformed handles its equivalent to the blue shell, the notorious Mario Kart weapon that cuts a path to the first place player and takes them out with little to no opportunity to retaliate. In Transformed this takes the form of the Swarm, a group of bees that set up as a series of obstacles for the leading players. They’re difficult to avoid, but can be with careful driving. A similar philosophy applies to the other weapons. You’ll almost always have an option to deal with incoming attacks, whether that’s countering one weapon with a well timed shot of your own, or simply using a boost or juking between track hazards to escape.

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There’s some nuance to weapon usage as well. Weapons sometimes come in threes, and you can make the choice to either fire them off one by one, or use them all at once, which is useful when you want to make a blockade of traffic cone mines, or turn a set of three boosts into one long one. You can also eke out a bit more from certain weapons, like the triple-firing snowballs, which add an additional freeze if you manage to land all three. Or my favorite, the hot rod, which attaches a massive engine to the back of your vehicle. It’ll keep boosting you forward for as long as you discharge it, but wait too long and it’ll explode, taking your momentum. Discharging it also acts as an AOE attack, so sometimes it’s more advantageous to pop it early and catch others around you. It’s all very well considered.

Between the combat, driving, and different modes, there’s an astounding amount to master. Despite initially seeming like another entry in the crowded space of mascot racers, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed manages to synthesize the legacy of other arcade racers into its own unique form. It manages to stay competitive while still providing opportunity for more chilled sessions when needed. Plus you can ride a vehicle that changes into different SEGA arcade machines and gun down mascots from Football Manager and Shogun Total War. That alone is worth giving it a chance.

19 Comments

  1. GameCat says:

    Probably the best kart racer (sorry Mario) ever made.
    I wish SEGA would hire Sumo Digital again for sequel (and Outrun! World needs more Outrun!). :(

    Also Skies of Arcadia track is the best track ever made, period.

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      Oakreef says:

      They’ve been teasing a new Sonic racing game link to polygon.com

      Not sure if Sumo is involved though.

      • titanomaquis says:

        I believe that they are. Probably we’ll get some info at e3.

      • SaintAn says:

        Anywhere reliable say it though? Polygon is not a good source.

        • April March says:

          Uh, they link to a video posted by SEGA. Can’t get a better source than that to say SEGA are teasing a new game.

          • Catterbatter says:

            Back in January (I think), Sumo said they were working on “a kart racer with a global IP,” which kicked up rumors of a new SART game. Sega then specifically said there was no new SART game in the works. After that, we got that teaser trailer from Sega with a partial logo suggesting a Sonic R game, but with engine noises. It’s not that clear-cut, unless I’ve missed something. But whatever that new Sumo kart racer turns out to be, I’m playing that.

    • Mugbot says:

      No local grand prix totally killed it for me. It’s like they hadn’t ever played a good old mario kart split screen session.

  2. beleester says:

    The drifting in this game was the absolute best I’ve played. You have ridiculous amounts of control while drifting, so you can pull off all sorts of slick maneuvers without ever losing the chance for an extra boost.

  3. Titler says:

    Yup, this is an astounding game, easily the best Mario Kart on the PC, and I’d lean towards saying “Of all time too”. There’s still a small, but dedicated community online too, so you’ll always get matches, if not in the wider game modes, like Capture The Chao unfortunately; however even with that said, there’s so much single player content, you’ll be playing for over a hundred hours even in that… I’ve STILL not beaten Sumo at their own game on every track in the Ghost mode yet!

    And one thing this review doesn’t mention, which puts Transformed into World Class standard… THERE’S 4 PLAYER LOCAL SPLIT SCREEN.

    Yes, there is. And you can take all 4 players online as a group too. God bless you, Sumo Digitial!

    I was about to say there’s one small negative, but in fact, checking the Steam store, that’s not even true; the mentioned character riding the arcade machines used to be one of the 3 small extra DLCs, namely Ryo Hazuki from Shenmue. But in fact that, and the Outrun/Metal Sonic pack (which comes with an extra course based on Outrun 2) is now included in the pack on Steam too.

    The only extra DLC left then is the Yogscast one, as that separately supports charity. The Yogscast character is annoying as all heck, and must EAT FISH RELATED DEATH every time I see him in game.

    So get All Stars Racing Transformed. It’s not just an incredible Kart racer, it remembers how generous and fun gaming used to be!

  4. Cederic says:

    The racing game I’m interested in at the moment is Ultimate Racing 2D. The screenshots look like the Super Sprint remake I’ve been awaiting for thirty years!

    Hopefully someone in RPS Towers is reviewing it as I type..

  5. Phantom_Renegade says:

    Firstly, it’d be real cool if you guys fixed your log-in system which is probably the worst in existence.

    Secondly, I disagree with your statement that this is a celebration of all things Sega. I mean, where is Michael Thorton?

  6. mitrovarr says:

    I kinda wish it didn’t have Sonic in it. I got it ages ago in a bundle and wanted to try it, but… Sonic. Maybe if he hadn’t been in a hundred terrible games and a ton of cringey fanart and stuff, he’d be tolerable, but he was, and now stands with Duke Nukem as a character who can only make the thing he’s in worse by association.

    I mean, the presence of Sonic makes the game actively embarrassing to talk about, play, or try to get someone else to play with you.

    • April March says:

      Man, it’s easy to forget the game has any Sonic in it at all. About a quarter of the characters are from Sonic when they’re all unlocked.

      Plus, if someone judges a thing because its main character is in cringey fanart, I regret to inform them that they are not allowed to like anything ever again.

      • mitrovarr says:

        Well, the problem is, he’s in the title. And when you try to get people to play it with you, they want to know what it’s called. And when you start the sentence with “Sonic”, it doesn’t really matter what the rest of it contains, or how you talk it up. The other person just knows that you invited them to play a Sonic game. And that’s really not good.

  7. April March says:

    Yes. Good perspective. Great game. Thanks for posting this.

    The thing about the sky tigers bee swarm is that it’s about as effective as the blue shell, while feeling more fair. Even if the player in first place avoids it, they’ve likely had to swerve and dodge, keeping them from having a perfect racing line. It also affects every player, to the extent that they are doing well (because the better they are doing, the less likely it is that someone will pop one of the bees before them). It’s an incredibly equalitarian weapon.

  8. UltimaShayra says:

    I liked this game BUT I hated the weapons. Am I the only one ?

  9. Kitsunin says:

    I wouldn’t really consider it arguable whether this is the best kart racer of all time, but I suppose I do see how one could prefer Mario Kart. What is not arguable is that it has by far the best implementation of land/sea/air racing in any game ever. Most notably, the fly-racing feels good instead of like hot garbage, and the boat-racing feels like racing but on water, instead of racing but with frustratingly loose controls, like Mario Kart (and I guess Diddy Kong Racing if you want to go back that far).

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