There’s no doubt about it: Mario Kart Wii was a great game, and non-Wii owners missed out on it. So, it’s not surprising to see SEGA make a shameless (and we do mean shameless) copy of it for the PS3 and Xbox 360. It is a little surprising to see the game released on the Wii itself, where it will have to compete with the real deal, though. It’s even more surprising to find that Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing holds up pretty well with a white plastic steering wheel in hand.
Before we compliment the game further, though, let’s dwell on SEGA’s pure (say it again) shamelessness. It’s not just that Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing is a kart racer with cartoonish characters taken from a company’s various franchises. It’s not even that this game’s creative and zany track design takes lots of cues from the kart racers that came before. It’s that this is a near-perfect replica of Mario Kart Wii.
Steering your vehicle, whether done with the Wii Wheel, the Nunchuk, or the Classic Controller (there’s no Gamecube controller support), feels exactly the same as it did before. The drifting technique seems eerily familiar. You even get speed boosts for long drifts, doing stunts in the air, and timing your acceleration at the beginning of the race correctly. Almost all the items are re-skinned Mario Kart weapons (red shells become red rockets, green shells become green boxing gloves, mushrooms become Sonic shoes, etc.). There’s even a multiplayer arena-based battle mode. In all but name, this is nothing more than a track pack for Mario Kart Wii.
That doesn’t get in the way of the fun, though. Mario Kart titles usually come around only once per console, and in the two years since Mario Kart Wii released, plenty of fans have mastered the tracks and set the game aside. SEGA has given these fans a chance to get back in the driver’s seat, learn some new courses, and relive Sonic-themed stages instead of Mario-themed ones for a change. A game this derivative can never be great, but Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing manages to be very, very good.
In a few small ways, the game even improves on its inspiration. As the Mario Kart franchise has progressed, Nintendo has added more and more randomness in the form of powerful weapons (the POW block, for example), and in Mario Kart Wii this sometimes felt remarkably unfair and frustrating. In this game, that tendency is scaled back quite a bit. There are a few truly devastating tools in racers’ arsenals, and even when you’re hit, spinning out isn’t as big a setback as you might expect. The developers make up for this with “catch-up” power-ups, which often catapult the last-place racer into first, but there’s an option to turn this off. With or without catch-up, Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing feels like a racer first and a random-item competition second. The game also features “missions,” which aren’t exactly groundbreaking (collect a certain number of coins, drift as much as you can, win a race against a single opponent, win an eliminator-style race, etc.) but add some variety to spice up the gameplay.
In most other ways, the game doesn’t top Mario Kart Wii, but it gets close. The track design here is marvelous, with the kinds of amusing, challenging, short-cut-friendly mazes one might expect from Nintendo. Sonic-themed tracks (especially casino ones) are a little overrepresented, but that doesn’t break the game, and it’s a lot of fun to race through a zombie-infested House of the Dead track when the opportunity presents itself. The graphics are quite good, with each of the 24 colorful tracks rendered in a fair amount of detail. Owners of high-definition consoles who care a lot about visuals might want to stick to the more powerful versions of the game, though. The multiplayer modes run smoothly, and in single-player, the difficulty ramps up nicely. Mario Kart fans won’t have any problem winning the six cups in Beginner mode, but Advanced will take some work, and Expert is downright tough.
There are lots of characters and tracks to unlock, which you do by accumulating “miles” and spending them. You can play all the tracks just by working through the Grand Prix mode, but you need to unlock them to use them in single and split-screen races. Like the tracks, the available characters are a little Sonic-heavy, but other franchises are represented too: Super Monkey Ball, Jet Set Radio, Virtua Fighter, Banjo-Kazooie, among others, all make appearances. If you’re particularly egotistical, you can even drive as your favorite Mii. The racers also have a good range of styles, so however you drive, you can find a character to match.
We do have some complaints, however. One is that while the Wii Wheel controls are handled well, the game does nothing to reward you for using the peripheral the way Mario Kart Wii did. Given, Mario Kart Wii’s reward was just a gold wheel, but still. Another is the aforementioned lack of Gamecube pad support, and yet another is that you can’t steer with the Classic Controller’s D-pad (to be fair, you couldn’t in Mario Kart Wii, either). Finally, depending on when you play, there aren’t always enough players online, meaning that the matchmaking system has to fill some slots with CPU racers. Another multiplayer problem is that you can’t play through the Grand Prix mode in split-screen. For those who buy the game primarily to play with friends, this can make unlocking all the Grand Prix cups a little bit of a drag.
Perhaps the biggest flaw, however, is the announcer. You can turn him off, but he’s on by default, rattling off gratingly obnoxious lines like “one lap in the bank; let’s deposit another!” mixed in with terrible jokes about the racers’ names and personalities. It’s hard to imagine what the developers, in the middle of such a polished and well-rounded production, were thinking when they approved these comments for inclusion. This reaches Burnout 3 levels of awful race announcing in a video game, and that’s not a charge we throw around lightly.
Despite its flaws, though, Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing will endear itself to Mario Kart Wii’s legions of fans. It’s not a must-buy on Nintendo’s console the way it might be on the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, but it’s a good purchase that will provide kart-racing fanatics with hours of fun.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.3 Graphics
This is the Wii, so graphics fans who own other systems should buy the game there, but the visuals here are well-done, detailed, and polished. 4.2 Control
The same as Mario Kart Wii, without the Gamecube controller support. We wish you could steer with the Classic Controller’s D-pad. 3.2 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Everything’s great except the announcer, who ruins the game until you turn him off. 3.9
A game this derivative can never be great, but it’s really, really good.
3.9 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.