The (good) kart racer is a sub-genre that seems to be missing from this console generation. Since the introduction of Super Mario Kart in the 16-bit era, every console generation has had a good kart racing game for just about every available console. Nintendo has always had Mario to fall back on while the PlayStation family and the Xbox had the Crash racers. In this console generation, however, only the Nintendo Wii has had a good kart racing title with Mario Kart Wii. With no other game on the market providing that magical spark to make them fun, PS3 owners without native backward compatibility on their systems for PS2 games have had to deal with the PSOne classics like Crash Team Racing or Speed Punks while waiting for ModNation Racers to arrive. Meanwhile, Xbox 360 owners who are still waiting for the XBLA release of Joy Ride have also had to dig back to their previous generation to play Crash Nitro Kart. Sega and Sumo Digital have seen the void left behind and taken it upon themselves to release a kart racer that they hope will finally be able to capture the same magic that Nintendo's series has had. With the release of Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing with Banjo-Kazooie for the Xbox 360, that hope is almost fully realized.
There are four single-player modes for the player to try. The Single Race mode lets you play against seven other CPU opponents with any character and track of your choosing. Every rule can be changed, such as how many laps the race will take and whether or not environmental hazards will become a factor in the contest. Time Trial mode has you trying to get the best overall time in each track, beating out both your previous best time and the times of the development team in the process. Grand Prix lets you go for six different championship cups, with each cup consisting of four tracks apiece. Scores are given out after each race depending on how well you did, and the racer with the highest score at the end of the series wins the cup. Finally, Mission mode has you tackling 64 different levels, ranging from target shooting to power sliding challenges to mini racing cups, to earn more cash and license miles.
The minute you enter your first race, you get the feeling that you've experienced all of this before, and once you complete that race, you know for sure that the developers were taking plenty of notes when they played Mario Kart Wii. The handling of the vehicles, the starting line boost, the power-ups and the overall track design: Everything feels like it was taken directly or heavily inspired by the Nintendo classic. There are cosmetic changes made, of course, particularly with the weaponry. Boost mushrooms are now Sonic's speed boost shoes. Banana peels look like explosive traffic cones. Turtle shells have been replaced with rockets and boxing gloves. The heavy inspiration isn't a bad thing at all, since it would be better to emulate a great game than come up with a mediocre original, but it would be folly to ignore that feeling of familiarity with the title.
The developers did more than just copy the blueprint from Mario Kart and paste Sega characters on top; the tweaks and changes actually improve on the formula just a bit. For weaponry, one huge tweak would be to the homing rocket. It is the equivalent of the dreaded blue shell, but it is more balanced. By default, it will go along the track and seek the leader of the pack, but if it doesn't reach that leader after some time, it will simply explode on its own. The player can also detonate the weapon himself, making it a more balanced version of the weapon that people dreaded in the Mario Kart series. The all-star move is another equivalent to the Bullet Bill, but the overall effect is different, depending on the racer. Both Sonic and Shadow will turn into their super forms and knock out anyone in their way while Ulala slows down everyone she passes. Dr. Eggman and BD Joe will squash anyone in their way into a flat pancake while Jacky Bryant maintains super speed for quite some time, thanks to Akira's powerful shoulder tackle. The varied nature of the item, while it still serves up the same purpose of helping the player gain some lost ground in the race, feels different enough that it makes it a more exciting weapon to use.
Outside of racing, the other big beneficial change is in the unlock method. Every activity you do earns you miles, which you then use to unlock other game elements such as tracks, songs and racers. It encourages you to play everything in the game but also gives you the option to only play the modes you want, and you can unlock what you want at your schedule. A word of warning, though: The game defaults to Beginner difficulty for the AI racers so unless you want to beat everything quickly, it would be best if you went to Options menu first and bumped up the difficulty to get a real challenge.
If the title alone didn't already tell you, this is a celebration of all things Sega, even more so than Sega Superstars Tennis. Most of the Sega franchises appearing in that game show up here as well. Sonic the Hedgehog, of course, is fully represented with six racers and about half of the total race courses and music tracks in the game. Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, The House of the Dead (referenced here as Curien's Mansion to keep things within the given ESRB ratings), Jet Set Radio Future, Samba de Amigo and Super Monkey Ball make up the rest of the track and music selection. Some of the racers also come from those games (one racer each), while the rest are made up of a combination of famous and obscure franchises. Ulala from Space Channel 5 and Alex Kidd carry over from the tennis game, but newcomers include characters from Bonanza Bros., Chu Chu Rocket, Crazy Taxi, Fantasy Zone, Shenmue and Virtua Fighter. Xbox 360 owners specifically also get to select between their own Xbox 360 Avatar or Banjo with Kazooie to race with.
The Sega love also seems to extend with the Achievement/Trophy system being named after famous Sega games, characters or advertising slogans used worldwide. All of the references are great, but with this being the most Sega saturated title to date (not counting compilations), there's bound to be some complaints from the truly die-hard fans. Nights, for example, is reduced to being a flag waver while Gilius from Golden Axe isn't here at all. Considering both were playable in the tennis game, one has to wonder why they weren't playable here. Fans will also wonder if the Sonic characters and references could have been pared down just a bit to make room for other games like Kid Chameleon, Phantasy Star, Shinobi, Toe Jam & Earl, Virtua Racing and a few others instead. There is the promise of downloadable content coming down the pike, but because of the wealth of characters the company has made over the years, this may be something that could never be satisfied properly.
Multiplayer is very good, but it isn't as fully realized as it could have been. Local multiplayer is a split-screen affair for up to four players and runs rather nicely. You can partake in either single races or battle mode which, as you may have guessed, plays exactly like the mode found in most Mario Kart titles. Online is good for up to eight players but only features single races. In a few games played for the review, the experience was lag-free, and there were a good amount of people playing so finding an online match shouldn't be a problem. While these all sound good, it feels a bit incomplete due to what's missing. There is no Grand Prix mode for offline multiplayer, so if you want to race a succession of specific races with your friends, you have to make one up on the fly. This mode isn't in online multiplayer and neither is battle mode, and while single races are still fun, not having a complete set of available modes does hurt. Also, the full arsenal of items is available online except for the all-star moves. Developers have stated that the removal was due to lag and sync loss, but it still doesn't feel right that a seemingly essential move for racers in last place is removed from their repertoire.
The controls are very simple to grasp, just like a kart racer should be. Players can go with a completely analog setup using the left stick to steer, R to accelerate, and L to brake and initiate drift. They can also use the d-pad to steer, LB to brake and initiate drift, and RB to accelerate if they want a digital setup instead. They could also go with a combination of both if desired, while the A button in all instances uses items and the X button makes the player look back. The simplicity also extends toward the drift system; the player simply has to accelerate, hold the button to drift, and use directions to control steering. It's a system of drifting much easier to grasp than Mario Kart, and while this makes it so that everyone can start it and get boost from it, the track designs still make it so that drifting forever won't be an easy task. With a system this simple, players will have nothing to really complain about here.
The graphics are as good as, and sometimes better than, the duo's previous mash-up effort. The character models and their vehicles look and move well, with some pretty good details on some of them like the patchwork look of Banjo's truck. Character movements are the real highlight, though, as they get very animated when they win, lose, do tricks, or have their item attacks hit the mark. The race tracks look great, with a good number of them sporting lots of colors and moving objects that stay true to their respective games. Sonic's Casino Zone course looks magnificent, with tons of slot machines and bright neon lights adorning the stage while Samba de Amigo's first open track is purely psychedelic thanks to the bright rainbow colors and giant floating heads of the dancers. The particle effects from explosions and turbo boosts also look good, but what will disappoint is the somewhat fluctuating frame rate. For the most part, it holds steady at 30 frames per second, but during close-ups after the conclusion of the race, it'll jump to 60 fps. It's not as bad as what was seen in the demo, but the tease of the game being able to handle 60 fps makes you wish it really achieved that frame rate.
The audio is good and serves as a pretty good tribute to some Sega games. There are a few original compositions in regards to the music, but you'll mostly be hearing original Sega music from certain franchises. As stated before, the music only comes from the newer games, so don't expect old MIDI Sonic tunes or anything from other Sega games, which is a shame considering how much of a celebration the game has become for the company. Sound effects are as good as expected, but there are a few nice details present, such as the differences between racing on dirt to wooden bridges to sewer water. The voices are nice and, save for the voice of B.D. Joe, are all from the original voice actors. Their lines spoken when using all-star moves, getting hit, winning or losing don't vary too much, but it doesn't become annoying, even after multiple races. As for the announcer, who some fans have hated since he was introduced, he really isn't too bad. Though his lines may be corny, he is usually pretty good about putting out timely announcements on weapon use, players in first place dropping back to second, etc. Thankfully, if he does annoy you that much, he can be turned off.
Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing with Banjo-Kazooie isn't a perfect kart racing title, but it is very close and matches up well against Mario Kart Wii in that respect. Extremely die-hard Sega fans will complain about the lack of representation from other well-known Sega franchises, and the online multiplayer just isn't as strong as one expects. Everything else, however, works very well from both cosmetic and mechanical standpoints. Unless you absolutely hate kart racers, there's very little reason for you to not have this title in your gaming library.
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