Conventional wisdom states that Mario Kart is the king of the character-driven racers. He’s been around the block more than a few times, and while progress might not be made with every iteration, each entry is a solid and enjoyable experience. The model has been emulated so many times, that I typically write off every other attempt to mimic Nintendo’s success. To be honest, that’s exactly what I did with Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed. The title was goofy, the formula familiar and the characters not nearly as lovable.

I was wrong.

I have had more fun with Sonic’s mutable motorsport title than I can recall having with the genre in quite some time. Sega and Sumo Digital should be beaming with pride over their accomplishment, because I would be amazed if Mario and company can match what’s on display here. And, yes, the characters are far more endearing than I expected they would be, especially since their are so many of them from Sega’s fantastic history.

At first glance, the “Transformed” moniker seems to warn of a gimmick. Sumo Digital has elevated the transformation among ground, water and air forms above that. It’s an integral part of entire affair, and without it, the tracks wouldn’t be so much damn fun to race. Throughout the core Career mode, you’ll encounter a number of different events with three difficulties each. Race, drift, boost, ring, traffic and versus events all help keep things fresh. Most of the time, there will be plenty of other characters on the track, but there are times where you’ll be against the clock while skidding around curves or hitting boost plates to get through checkpoints. This type of game play is ingrained deep in Sega’s bones and it shows.

Each of the 24 different characters (many of which are unlocked along the way), brings a different combination of strengths and weaknesses. They are rated on speed, acceleration, handling, boost and all-star. The latter seems to just relate to the potency of the identically-named pick-up. Unfortunately, the paper manual contains no information and there is no digital guide on the disk which I can reference. Yes, I am once again lamenting the slow, inevitable death of the instruction manual. Guidance is handled exclusively by loading screen tips. This is no replacement for even a concise instruction screen with a list of power-ups, Sega. Shame on you.

Once you’ve gotten your feet wet and had enough time to experiment with the different weapons like the leader-seeking swarm (more reasonable than a blue shell, as it can be avoided), fireworks, blowfish, ice, heat seeking drone car (just like a red shell) and twister, you can focus on the main attraction: the courses. Each of the tracks is ripped right out of Sega’s back catalog. The expected inclusions are here, including a number of Sonic-themed levels, Jet Set Radio’s Shibuya and Shinobi. My favorite tracks come from After Burner, Skies of Arcadia and Panzer Dragoon. They are an absolute thrill to race, largely because even though they are circuits, things change over the course of the event.

This is where the transforming mechanism comes in. Around the courses are blue rings. Many of these are placed such that they are unavoidable, forcing every racer into another mode. Boats handle poorly, sloshing around in the water and moving slower. Aircraft are lithe and fast, but it’s a bit harder to drift in them. These transformations often appear in logical locations, but they are far more interesting when triggered by the destruction of part of the road. Even better, there are shortcuts that can be found to allow conversions to faster forms before other racers. On the higher difficulties, these are almost mandatory to get a leg up.

In addition to the standard driving and pickup use to confound your opponents, Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed includes some neat features that set it apart. Drifting is a big part of how you’ll get ahead. As you skid around curves, you’ll trigger up to three levels of boost that is initiated once you let go. On winding tracks, if you quickly let go and start drifting in the opposite direction, you’ll achieve a chain which propels you even faster. The right stick is reserved for tricks and flips. These can be handy in avoiding incoming attacks and earning a boost.

As you progress through the career, you’ll need to earn enough stars to unlock characters and open gates to proceed. A star is earned for each difficulty level on an event, and you’ll likely need to level up each of your racers to earn the right mods to compete in A-Class. These bonuses are made available by earning experience with a racer and leveling up. They allow you to tweak stats just enough to mitigate some of your favorite racers’ weaknesses at the cost of some of their strongest stats. For instance, Sonic is (as expected), extremely fast. By equipping the Handling Mod, you can bump up that stat while reducing his speed. This allows players to stick with, and progress, their favorite character without necessarily being at a disadvantage in some situations.

There are online options, but they are restricted to racing and battling. There seem to be a lot of people interested in the former, but the latter felt a bit sparse. Those arena matches, which include a deathmatch and capture the flag variant are better off handled with friends on the couch. Trash talking is so much more enjoyable that way.

The presentation is wonderful. There is an arcade feel to the entire game, with a bold, cheery announcer narrating your moves. The characters don’t say much, but when they do speak, they sound about as I expected they would. The audio effects for explosions and track changes, while scripted, still put a smile on my face each and every time I hear them. The music will sound familiar to any Sega fan, as everything is remixed from the source material. All of this complements the bright visuals and slick, easy to navigate menus.

When Nintendo is ready to release Mario Kart for the Wii U, they are going to have a hard time delivering something as enjoyable as Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed. The track design, changing landscape throughout the race and branching paths make most of the courses winners. The challenge scales extremely well, and if there is rubberbanding to artificially keep things close, it isn’t terribly noticeable. This all comes together to create a thoroughly enjoyable experience for even those people that might not typically enjoy kart racers.

 

Here’s the Rundown:

+ Track design is superb
+ Presentation is bright and colorful, engaging players through visuals and sound
+ Lots of content and variety

+ The transformation mechanic is more than a gimmick, giving life to some of the best moments on every course
–  No manual and no description of weapon uses (including what All Star mode is)
–  Many of the characters are less iconic than in that other kart racer

 

9 and 9.5 represent the pinnacle of the genre, a game that defines what that genre should be about. These scores are for games that you not only feel would be worth your purchase, but you would actually try to convince your friends to buy them as well.

Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed was developed by Sumo Digital and published by Sega. It was released on November 18, 2012, at the MSRP of $59.99. A copy was provided by the publisher to RipTen for the purposes of review.