Platform reviewed on: Nintendo DS (Also available on: Nintendo Wii)
Rather than skirting around the obvious, I'm going to start off by addressing the elephant in the room. Nintendo's Mario Kart series pretty much defined an entire genre of games that has since been populated by clones which try pretty hard but never quite reach the lofty peaks of the original.
On paper, Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing for DS looks like it could just be another one to add to the pile - putting well-known gaming characters into go-karts and hurtling them around a track.
Fortunately, it's actually not that simple. Sega come to the party well-prepared, with characters we know and love (hello, Ryu from Shenmue!), and a collection of music and courses based on their extensive back catalogue of hit releases (see: House of the Dead EX, Jet Set Radio Future...).
They've also packed in 55 Challenge mode missions, plus six four-race cups to compete in, a whole bunch of single races, time trials and the inevitable multiplayer, either with friends in the same room or via WFC (although from what we've seen, it's not quite as good as the competition's).
That said, there's still a certain something lacking from this handheld racer. It just didn't grab
me as much as I wanted it to, and I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's just that we already have a Mario Kart for DS and we don't need another one...
The racing itelf is pretty standard and kinda familiar: powerslides and powerups abound, and special attention is given to drifting (the longer you drift the faster you go). While there's a variety of vehicles on offer (including cars, bikes and hovercrafts), there's not really that much difference between them in terms of handling, which is a bit disappointing.
But! As a standalone release, the game does score some big wins. The soundtrack is perfect. Different vehicle engines all have their own unique sounds, and the character voices sound identical to their appearances in other games (except for maybe Alex Kidd and the House of the Dead zombies, who never spoke in their original appearances). While it's a pity you have to unlock two-thirds of the music to enjoy it fully, this one might be worth it, otherwise you're stuck with the same eight tunes for 24 courses.
The game also looks gorgeous, with Sumo Digital deserving a big pat on the back for pushing the limits of the handheld. The artwork for each racer (even the tiny ones) is great, with a full complement of animations for wins, losses, various attacks and mid-air tricks. The backdrops are more complex and detailed than most other racing titles on the platform, ranging from complex cityscapes to lush jungles full of vegetation (now, if only those explosions were 3D...).
There are some interesting tweaks which manage to improve on the Nintendo original over and above the obvious cosmetic changes. Firstly, no more blue shells! They've been replaced by a finely-balanced homing rocket, which will cruise along the track seeking out the leader of the pack. Of course, you can also prompt it to explode on your own terms, if that's how you roll.
Bullet Bills have also been revamped for their Sega incarnation, appearing this time around as character-specific all-star moves. Triggering this move will see Sonic and Shadow turning into their super forms, knocking out everyone in their way. Jacky Bryant will kick over to super speed, Dr. Eggman will squish everybody in his way, and Ulala bucks the trend by actually slowing down
everything she passes. Sure, it serves the same sort of purpose, but it's just "different", which makes it good.
The rest of the game probably isn't quite 'different' enough to be worth it, unless your franchise allegiances lie squarely in the SEGA camp. There's definitely something to be said for revisiting a classic, but on the other hand, the original is often still the best.