Though not without its flaws, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is far from just another Mario Kart wannabe. Coincidentally released within days of Sony’s similarly nostalgia-inducing fighter PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, the game thrives because of its highly marketable cast of playable characters and, surprisingly, for managing to hold its own as a competent take on a popular genre. The game’s racing mechanics are exponentially improved from 2010’s mediocre Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, as well as virtually every Sonic the Hedgehog-branded foray into competitive computerized speeding and its various derivatives. Transformed should be praised for nailing down the essentials of what makes a cartoon racer successful: Track construction, basic controls, background music, modes of play, and the progressive unlockables are all generally quenching, but most commendable is the aforementioned group of selectable drivers, emanating from some of Sega’s most beloved franchises. It’s unfortunate, however, that the game’s vehicle-transformation concept isn’t executed nearly as well as it could have been, prompting occasional frustration whenever your roadster happens to shift into a zippy seaworthy vessel or a rocket-boosted jet, both of which lack the finesse of the wheeled options.
Falling somewhere between the adventurous quirk of Diddy Kong Racing’s pre-race transport-selection approach and Mario Kart 7’s automatic switching method, Transformed’s gameplay style does a solid job of efficiently converting your car into a boat or a plane; the accompanying metal-on-metal grinding sound effects recall something out of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, and the entire process feels smooth and intuitive. Additionally, the air and water area textures are beautifully rendered; they’re typically the best-looking sections of a level. Sadly, controlling the boats and planes pales in comparison to the ease of the game’s roadsters, which is easily on par with classics from series like Gran Turismo, Need for Speed, and Burnout. The experience of playing through one of the game’s most experimental and visually stunning stages, inspired by Sega’s arcade classic aerial shooter After Burner, is oftentimes marred by clumsy aeronautical maneuvering and an intermittent slowdown that sometimes occurs mid-flight. Correspondingly, the handsomeness of the game’s water environments can only be savored momentarily, as the handling of Transformed’s seafaring crafts comes off as underdeveloped and unwieldy; there’s a certain awkward tightness that arises when attempting to cut close corners or swiftly sneak ahead of your opponents.
Yet, these issues are far from unforgivable. For the most part, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed gets plenty of other key details right, causing minor issues like over-sensitive path hazards and some sketchy shortcuts to eventually fade into inconsequential afterthoughts. The game boasts one of the most respectably niche all-stars rosters this side of Sonic the Fighters, throwing in a heap of Sega’s cult favorites for good measure to surely delight those who still remember the day they first clutched their Genesis and Dreamcast boxes securely. To name-drop just a few as an appetite-whetter: AiAi and MeeMee from Super Monkey Ball, Amigo from Samba de Amigo (yeah, add it up, that’s three playable monkeys), Beat and Gum from Jet Set Radio, B.D. Joe from Crazy Taxi, Joe Mushashi from Shinobi, Vyse from Skies of Arcadia, and Nights and Reala from NiGHTS into Dreams, all of which posses three vehicles that appropriately suit their specific visage. There’s also the completely oddball appearance of Wreck-It Ralph’s titular villain turned hero (hooray for cross-licensing?), as well as real-life open-wheel racing champion Danica Patrick, and, most unusually, a Sega VMU unit called AGES that uses an actual Dreamcast controller as one of its methods of travel. Additionally, the game’s 16 courses pile on the fan service as thick as possible, implementing decently workable navigation designs while adequately maintaining the spirit of the original source materials.
From a satisfactory career mode and assorted drifting mini-games to combat-intensive settings like Battle and Pursuit that focus on the game’s above-average arsenal of projectile weaponry, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed will keep completionists occupied for a significant stretch. Multiplayer situations, whether online or local split screen, deliver approximately the same amount of flexibility as regular play without diminishing the variable fun factor. Determinately, though it’s true to say that Sega’s Sonic racer series still has a ways to go before it can eclipse Mario Kart’s impeccable track layouts and choice controls, this latest entry into the company’s digital garage, at the very least, provides lifelong Sega fans with something to proudly compare to Nintendo’s reigning kart-driven nobility.