In the portable gaming space, no casual racer has been more revered than Mario Kart. The debut of the series on the Game Boy Advance with Mario Kart Advance marked the beginning of the reign with a racer that took the mechanics it learned from its SNES and N64 brethren and refined them, adding a limited multiplayer experience that didn't require multiple cartridges to enjoy. The formula was then perfected with Mario Kart DS, a game that took the best tracks from all of the games prior to that point, added eight-player multiplayer to the mix, and was one of the first titles to bring the Nintendo DS online. To this day, it remains a favorite multiplayer title for almost all DS owners. Many have tried to emulate the easy-to-pick-up controls, ingenious track design and memorable characters, but so far, no other kart racer on the portable systems has been able to put all of it together into a cohesive package. Sega, a company that once considered Nintendo as its closest rival, tried to emulate the formula in the past, but almost all of their efforts have resulted in miserable failure. This hasn't stopped them from trying, though, and that is a good thing for gamers everywhere. Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing is a remarkably well put-together kart racer, but can it stand a chance against Nintendo's king of kart racing?
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 staff 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 at least 55 different levels 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 certain that the developers were taking plenty of notes when they played Mario Kart DS. The handling of the cars, 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 were 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. Squid ink blots have transformed into psychedelic rainbow colors filling your screen. The 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 the feeling of familiarity with the title.
The developers did more than just copy the blueprint to Mario Kart and paste Sega characters in place of Mario and company. 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. 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. Finally, the game has an achievement system similar to its home console versions. Just like those versions, nothing is really gained by obtaining these achievements, but those who are now used to having them will find this to be a welcome, if superficial, addition.
Multiplayer is very good but not quite at the level of its competitor. There are three different multiplayer modes to partake in, but only two of them prove to be useful at all. Multicard play is a four-player affair where players can use any track and driver they've unlocked and participate in either standard races, battle arenas or knockout matches. Aside from players wishing that it would support up to eight players, the game runs smoothly with no problems to report on lag. The issue of lag also doesn't come up on Wi-Fi play, which still has the same player restrictions as multicard play but limits games to standard races, though with a random track selection instead of a manual one. Both modes do their jobs well and will get plenty of playtime from gamers, especially since it gives each player points just like the single-player game modes do.
The final mode, Single Card, won't get much use after players try it once. The mode seems to feature a bit more than others racers do, since it lets you choose which racers your opponents get to be, as opposed to having everyone be the same character. The mode is limited to two players and one track in standard race mode, and performance is fine despite a long initial load time. The real sticking point, though, is that at the end of the race, the opponent's DS will simply shut off. Without an option to even restart the race because all of the data still resides in the system memory, it becomes more of a bullet point than a useful mode, rendering it useless for players who want to get a taste of the game before fully committing to the title.
The controls are actually much easier than what Mario Kart DS offers up. This is still a non-touch screen affair, with the d-pad steering the car, the A button accelerating, the B button for brakes and the L shoulder button for item use. The R shoulder button initiates drifting, and as long as you accelerate while holding down R, you'll build up boost levels that are used when it's released. It's a much easier method than doing all of those and adding left and right toggling during that time, so players not so adept at that method will be drifting with ease here. While that may seem like a detriment to skill, the fact that a good number of courses have places where wayward drivers can fall means that players must still pay attention to where they're drifting. As an added bonus, players who still have those DS rumble paks will find them useful again since the game supports it. It's something that very few games, even Nintendo-produced ones, rarely support nowadays.
Graphically, Sumo Digital has done a great job in pushing what the portable system can do. All of the racers look great, and while some of them are on the small side, each one is packed with plenty of animations for wins, losses, successful and unsuccessful attacks, and mid-air tricks. The sense of speed is there, no matter which racer you choose. It moves at pretty much the same speed and frame rate as Mario Kart, but what makes this more impressive are the environments with which it has to contend. Each one is colorful and sports more detail than most racing titles. Lush jungles with plenty of vegetation, city spaces that retain a bit of neon glow and cel-shading, and tracks with lots of moving parts in the background all happen seamlessly without bothering the frame rate one bit. About the only real disappointment is the explosions from the various items dropped by players. The game goes for a 2-D cartoon explosion effect instead of a 3-D one, and while the change doesn't hurt the game immensely, the 3-D explosion effect would have nicely complemented the enhanced graphics.
The sounds here are excellent. The effects are exactly what you expect, with great consideration taken to ensure that a car engine, motorcycle engine and rocket engine never sound alike. It gets a bit difficult to hear what a rocket engine drifting would sound like the first time, but you tune in after a while and get used to its volume, or lack thereof. The voices are plentiful, and most of the characters sound exactly like they do in other games. The few exceptions would be characters who never had voices to begin with, like Alex Kidd and the House of the Dead zombies, and BD Joe, though he does match the redone voice from the Acclaim ports of Crazy Taxi instead of the original arcade build. Thankfully, unlike the home console version, there is no announcer spouting random comments to ruin everything. By far the most memorable part of the game has to be the music. Just about every level resonates with the original tunes from the classic Sega games or a high-quality MIDI version of the tune. Those same musical pieces also come through clearly whenever a racer activates his or her all-star move. The only problem with the music is that you have to unlock two-thirds of it to really enjoy it. Failing to do so will give you the same eight musical tracks playing for the duration of the 24 available courses.
Will Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing dethrone Mario Kart DS as the de facto kart racing title for the Nintendo DS? No. The multiplayer alone isn't as wide-reaching, with some strange limitations in place for most of the modes. Despite these shortcomings, the game is still fantastic. With great controls, gorgeous graphics, awesome sound, and a perfect sense of speed, Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing is a very exciting kart racer and the closest that anyone has come to matching Mario Kart on a portable Nintendo system. Sega fans should immediately pick up this title, as should racing fans in general. With a game this good, don't be surprised if you have it in regular rotation for quite some time.
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