Developer: Sonic Team
Release Date: February 21, 2006
Would you play a fighting game without learning how the game works, or finding out how to execute each character's special techniques? How about Gran Turismo without learning how each specific car handles? Would you take on a new game by playing it exactly like one that is distantly related to it at best? If you found out that if the game didn't truly play that way, wouldn't you do your best to research?
Of course you would.
Unfortunately, lots of people apparently have not, and I'm seeing a great many misperceptions about Sonic Riders, the first 3D Sonic game that's actually struck a chord with me since Sonic Adventure 1 (and to a lesser extent, Sonic Heroes). Normally, I'd leave this alone, but every bit of negativity I've seen thus far contains gripes with the gameplay that can easily be resolved by reading the instruction booklet, watching the tutorial video, and practicing what you've just seen.
Honestly. You wouldn't believe how easy it is. I helped someone out just yesterday. With the game. One look at the tutorial video, and they'd gone from consistent fifth places to consistent firsts.
On top of this, they complain that this game doesn't play like any other game they've encountered. Of course it doesn't. That was Sonic Team's intention.
A message to my fellow gamers out there, whatever position they may be in; please, do your homework. It's really bad when the instruction booklet undoes your arguments.
At any rate, welcome to the last leg of WorthPlaying's Sonic Riders coverage. For those of you looking for game specifics such as story and gameplay tips (the latter of which has been outdone by the game's manual), take a look at our two previews here, and a multiplayer-specific one here.
A quick primer once you're done; this is Sonic Team's first entry into the racing market starring their core properties (the Saturn's Sonic R was handled by Traveller's Tales, the people who brought you Lego Star Wars and, uh, Sonic 3D Blast). The difference is apparent the moment you boot up the game; it's undeniably Sonic in its get-up-and-go feel. While he may not be running around, he's doing something he's done in previous games: 'boarding his way to victory. A nice twist in the game's premise is that he's the underdog this time around; sure, he's shredded a few times, but it's easy to believe that there are others out there better than him at it. That airboards can manage to be faster than him is a little tougher to swallow, but let's suspend some disbelief for the sake of fun, shall we?
The presentation is somewhat bare-bones. More to the point, it's like a miniature rendition of your average 3D Sonic game, mainly in terms of the shortened story mode. Of course, that's what happens when you try to fit a traditional Sonic plot into the confines of a racing game. There are only so many situations one can use.
The paper-thin story, however, is more than made up for by the incredible unlockables this game sports. The word's already out by now; you've got cameos from Aiai of Super Monkey Ball fame, NiGHTS from his self-titled masterpiece, and Ulala from Space Channel 5 as secret racers. There are unlockable tracks, two of which are fangasms aimed directly at longtime Sega fans. There are also over 30 Extreme Gears with different effects to unlock (some of which are blasts to the past), and other things I won't spoil.
It's not easy to get to these cool unlocks, but it is worth it. Just barely.
You see, should you undergo the task of unlocking the full extent of Sonic Riders's awesomeness, you should be prepared to be here for quite a while. The game is great, but it's not perfect in the slightest. Its biggest fault is that it's hard as heck.
"But isn't challenge a good thing?" you say. "Look at F-Zero GX! That game was way hard, and it was great! People are too soft on their games nowadays!" Oh, and I'd certainly agree with you. The computer is incredibly difficult to race against, for reasons which will be detailed soon; however, Sonic Team's unlockable requirements are ... well, sort of nuts.
Take the Sega-themed tracks, for example, which are the jump-off points for the game's uber-unlockables (they also unlock missions required to get the three super-secret characters). To get them, you have to place first in Grand Prix Mode. Unfortunately, first place isn't gauged by how well you do relative to the other computer racers. You can come in first out of the entire series of races in ranking points, and still get a bronze medal. Why? Because Sonic Team made it so that you have to get roughly two points away from a perfect ranking score for an overall gold medal. There are five races in Grand Prix; you must get first place in four of them, and on the last, get at least second place. Even to the most jaded gamer, after seeing the game's mad difficulty, that strikes as somewhat ... unfair, you know?
Add this to the fact that there are about 100 missions you must tackle in order to land the three super-secret characters, all with increasing difficulty, and, it's easy to just say "screw it" to a game where it's possible to fail so, so much. In a way, it's more discouraging than F-Zero GX's story mode. At least in there, you could pick your goals and get faster results with bite-sized challanges. If you get lower than a second place in a Grand Prix race, that's a good 20 minutes down the drain in a flash due to one honest mistake.
The only way these mistakes can be avoided is to have total mastery of the racing system. While the system is novel, it can take weeks for someone to be ready to take on the Grand Prix challenge. There are just that many nuances that must be overcome, shortcuts that must be researched, and even then, sometimes you still have to just depend on plain ol' good luck. The game system isn't perfect, and the sometimes loose control can lead to mistakes.
I've had this game since a month before it came out, and I'm still struggling to unlock things. I've made up curse words to spit at this game. Yet, I know that it's always due to a lack of my personal perfection; the computer never does anything I can't. Heck, it even knows how to fall off of the track at the worst possible times.
Despite its insane difficulty and unfamiliar feel, the racing system in Sonic Riders actually manages to straddle a balance between arcade racing and skill requirements. It's almost more strategy than racing: you'll have to manage your air meter all the time, pick your boost spots, know when and when not to ride turbulence, take certain shortcuts, play defensively with tornado attacks, make use of your ring enhancements, and plan almost an entire lap in advance for some races if you ever hope to cross the finish line with gold around your neck.
This is not a game that plays itself. You have to give it your all 100% of the time, because the computer, while not equipped with rubberband AI, knows every inch of the track and will spare no expense to stop you. If you see it constantly getting ahead of you, odds are you're missing a shortcut somewhere. It knows them all.
Do all of this, and breakneck speed is yours. Fail, and, well, controller goes through television.
The good news is that you'll have to deal with fewer AI gripes if you play with friends. The multiplayer, however, is a mixed bag. The free races and World Grand Prix hold up well gameplay-wise, and can lead to tons of great competition, especially in the "Hey, you, stop riding my turbulence!" category. Unfortunately, the tracks that bustle with activity are hard to see in split-screen mode past two players, unless you have a huge TV or sit right in front of the screen. LAN play for this title would have been a godsend. The mere thought of eight players gliding along through currents of air, even now, is enough to make me giddy.
As for the specialized modes, the fun in them is what you make of it. The Chaos Emerald tag is arguably the more fun of the two presented, because the pace is faster than even normal races, but sometimes it feels futile. Once you get the emerald in your position, your air depletes at far too quickly a rate for the average player to make much progress. If you're conservative with your air and don't boost much, you should be relatively fine.
The battle mode, unfortunately, pretty much falls on its face. Imagine Mario Kart's battle mode, where the only way to attack your opponent is by kamikaze ramming. Factor in the fact that control of vehicles in Riders is nowhere near as hard-and-fast as in our favorite plumber-racer, and you have an exercise in pointlessness to the Nth degree.
When it all comes down to it straight-up, racing is the best way to have fun with Sonic and your friends. Just try to have it on as large a screen as possible.
The game actually looks better than your usual 3D Sonic game fare. The CG sequences are made by the same team which gave us the gorgeous movies in Shadow the Hedgehog, and the in-game engine gives graphics that are a cross between Sonic Heroes and F-Zero. Each stage is vibrant, detailed, and has lots of things going on – it's almost as if each stage has a life of its own. This isn't the glitziest game in the world, but what it lacks in style (which isn't much, believe me), it makes up for in substance.
With such good looks, it's disappointing that the sound wasn't given quite the same care. Generic techno tunes are used for the tracks, and they're hit-or-miss; sometimes they're quite nice, while other times, they can get annoying. The voices, once again done by 4Kids, are sort of grating, and using Omochao as the screechy announcer is one of the worst aural mistakes any Sonic game's ever made. The theme songs, however, are a keeper. Team Babylon's "Catch Me If You Can" song, in particular, is strange, yet grows on you.
For those of you wondering which version to get, don't worry too much. All three play nigh-identically, and even the PS2 version has a consistent framerate. The GameCube version strikes a nice middle ground, PS2 reportedly contains Japanese voices, and the Xbox version looks the best, has the most precise control, and has the fastest loading of the three. It's your call.
Just don't believe the hate. Sonic Riders is a game well worth your money. Just remember that it's also worth your time as well. Take the game home, reset your mind, read the instruction book, watch the tutorial video, and then just practice. The secrets of the game will open up to you, and you'll see for yourself that Sonic Team is bordering on genius with the play system. It's not completely realized yet, but it's almost there, and the sequel… oh, that should be something special.
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