Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing
How on earth did this not happen sooner? Super Mario Kart made its debut on the SNES way back in 1992, initiating a whole slew of inferior pretenders to the throne while Sonic remained on the sidelines and firmly out of the kart's driving seat.
The Mario Kart series has continued to retain its kart racing crown through multiple iterations across every Nintendo console since the SNES version with only Crash Team Racing coming anywhere close to offering up any sort of rivalry.
For years now developers have attempted to wheel out their own characters, usually in a cynical attempt to cash-in on the runaway success the moustachioed plumber and his erstwhile buddies have had with their own inimitable brand of cartoon racing. Everyone except Sega that is.
So, presumably feeling that the time is finally right for their own entry into the kart racing genre Sega has enlisted the help of the ever-reliable team at Sumo Digital to do what they did so well on Sega Superstars Tennis. Their task? Round up a cast of classic Sega characters, pop them behind the wheel of a quirky racer and voila - a colourful kart racing game full of character.
During a visit to Sega's UK offices in London, we got to spend a few hours with the game and was pleasantly surprised to find that Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing isn't just another hastily assembled cutesy kart crash. Quite the opposite as it happens, since Sumo has wisely opted to repurpose their brilliantly arcadey Out Run engine for the game.
Thanks to the tweaked Out Run handling model, seat-of-the-pants powersliding around corners is still very much the order of the day although the action has been exaggerated significantly, making for a fast and frenetic slice of arcade racing fun.
And even given the limited offering of just four tracks and a several characters to choose from, we still found plenty to enjoy in the demo and a more than adequate opportunity for us to get a feel for how the races play out. It is still very much like Mario Kart, but then that can't be seen as a bad thing, now can it?
But where Mario Kart put Nintendo's diverse universe of iconography to good use with different coloured Koopa Troopa shells, Starmen and Bullet Bills being blasted all over the track, Sonic & Sega All-Stars seems to be lacking the same level of attention among its weapon set. There's not a gold ring or Sonic-style item monitor in sight for instance.
What we do get is the green boxing gloves from Super Monkey Ball (which can be launched like a rocket), a Sonic bubble shield and red Sonic sneakers denoting speed boosts. Apart from this, the rest is made up of vision-obscuring rainbows, cartoon bombs and cone-shaped mines, which to our knowledge have no relevance to the Sega universe at all.
Each character has a special All-Star ability though, which goes some way towards making up for the absence of certain things we might have expected such as rings and the like. Pick of the bunch we've seen so far has to be Shenmue's Ryo who can conjure up his forklift truck.
Of the four circuits we got to sample during our hands-on, Billy Hatcher's Blizzard Castle and the Sonic The Hedgehog Casino Park stages stood out as the best, with striking, bold scenery, short-cuts and branching routes aplenty. Two other circuits based upon various Sonic levels rounded out our demo, with Seaside Hill and Final Fortress recalling the Green Hill Zone, with those trademark blue skies and verdant grass verges. Sadly, no loop the loops though as we recall.
Casino Park proved to be our ultimate favourite however, its twisting overhead loops sending you reeling through a neon-drenched pinball machine, turning you upside down before presenting you with forked routes over craps tables, strewn with falling chips. Corners are nice and wide, sending you sliding to the very edge, where a wall of those classic red and yellow star springs from every Sonic game ever catapult you back on track.
Being hit by the inversion weapon - which sees the screen turned upside-down - reverses your controls in the process and if followed up by a screen-obfuscating rainbow, Casino Park can be transformed into a frightening psychedelic trip, so bright and neon is the surrounding scenery. You might consider wearing sunglasses while you play.
No two races were ever the same during our relatively brief time playing, which definitely bodes well for the fully-featured, finished version, due out February 10th. We just hope the same will ring true after extended play with friends in multiplayer.
We're looking forward to trying out the remaining characters that were sadly absent from the code we were shown, but with Alex Kidd, Beat (from Jet Set Radio), Knuckles, Big the Cat and Banjo and Kazooie promised, there's an incredibly generous roster being prepared for the full game. We did get to try out Billy Hatcher Amigo, Ai-Ai, Ryo, Tails and Dr. Eggman though, who were all sufficiently different enough. Incidentally, Sonic would always end up in the bottom three while Shadow would often triumph in every race for some reason. Go figure. Maybe Sonic should just get out and run.
There are circuits based upon other Sega properties such as House of the Dead, Super Monkey Ball, Jet Set Radio and Samba De Amigo still being finalised, so were unavailable for us to look at on the day. There's certainly a lot being packed in, but we can't help thinking that Sumo are overlooking a lot of the less obvious Sega IPs.
We'd like to see Sumo draw upon more of Sega's massive back catalogue such as Shinobi, Streets of Rage, Altered Beast, Phantasy Star, Kid Chameleon, Ecco or Golden Axe (Gilius Thunderhead - the dwarf from Golden Axe - was considered as a playable character riding a Chickenleg, at one time) for extra character inclusions. It would be a huge shame to pass up such a great opportunity for Sumo to exploit such a rich and illustrious cannon of videogame icons.
Until the completed product falls into our lap, the jury's still out on whether Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing will do for Sega what Mario Kart did for Nintendo. Based upon what we've played so far, Sumo is definitely on the right track with enough frenetic energy and powersliding fun to make launching bombs at your rivals every bit as gleefully satisfying as it should be.
Now if Sumo could just use their remaining development time to delve deeper into the Sega vault and throw in more unpredictable character choices (Ryo is a definite step in the right direction), then this has real potential to be really rather good. Maybe all we need is a hefty dose of bright colour and a beautiful, azure sky to put a smile on our face and on that front, Sumo may well have already done their job.