Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed: Toot Toot Sega Warrior
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is the sequel to Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing, which was released a few years prior. (I have a feeling these titles are going to make for a confusing post.) I liked the original Sega All-Stars Racing a lot. It was actually a pretty good kart racer for the Xbox and Playstation platforms, which have rarely put up much competition to the Mario Kart juggernaut. However, All-Stars Racing Transformed just completely stomps all over its predecessor. It outperforms it in nearly every aspect, and I feel it’s gone somewhat underappreciated. Not only is it an excellent racing game, it’s an incredible tour of Sega nostalgia that I think will excite and delight any fan of the company’s long and remarkable creative history.
Honestly, I hesitate to call All-Stars Racing Transformed a kart racing game. The series was obviously meant to combine Sega nostalgia with the Mario Kart formula, and I would easily consider the original All-Stars Racing a Mario Kart clone. But I would argue that Transformed is more of an arcade racer. The main reason is that the speed of the races are way higher than I think any Mario Kart has reached, not counting the 200cc DLC for Mario Kart 8. And to go along with the faster racers, the tracks often feel massive in scale. The game of course includes weapon pickups as well as a heavy emphasis on drifting around turns to gain speed boosts, and these features I think clearly tie it to the Mario Kart series. But otherwise, I feel like Transformed manages to break out of the template of Mario Kart that its predecessor was firmly crafted in.
As implied by the title, the big gimmick for All-Star Racing Transformed is transforming vehicles. In addition to land-based racing, the racers’ vehicles will transform to take to the water (like a jet ski) or to the sky (like a little airplane) during certain segments of each track. This initially draws similarities to the hang glider and submarine transformations that were introduced in Mario Kart 7. However, All-Stars Racing Transformed makes far more effective use of these alternative racing methods. While I felt like Mario Kart 7 and 8 only made very light, gimmicky use of the hang glider and submarine concepts, All-Stars Racing Transformed devotes substantial sections of each track to racing that doesn’t take place on land. And most importantly, aerial vehicles and watercraft are fun parts of the racing experience. Each of these modes are different enough to require reasonably different strategies for racing, but not so different that they feel confusing or bothersome to control.
My favorite aspect of All-Stars Racing Transformed is that it does an impressive job of creating tracks that cover the breadth of the Sega-verse. Tracks are themed around games pulled from the Genesis era up through the post-Dreamcast era. There are a few obligatory courses themed around Sega’s headliner Sonic, but otherwise the game culls from a diverse arrangement of classic titles such as Skies of Arcadia, Burning Rangers, Jet Set Radio, House of the Dead, Shinobi, etc. Each track feels giant and epic in scale, and they work well at evoking their namesake series. The size, scope, and variety of tracks is probably the biggest improvement that All-Star Racing Transformed makes over the original All-Stars Racing, which reused a lot of assets between courses and the tracks had settings that were heavily repeated. In the first game, for instance, there were three tracks based on the Casino Night zone from the Sonic series, three tracks that took place in Curien Mansion from House of the Dead, three tracks themed around Samba de Amigo, etc. Transformed, on the other hand, has no repeated settings, and each course feels distinct and exciting in its own way.
I will say that while the tracks do serve as an impressively broad tribute to Sega’s history, the racer selection is not quite as varied as I would have liked it to be. Several racers return from the original, like B.D. Joe, Beat, Amigo, Ulala, and the obligatory Sonic cast members. There are also a few absolutely excellent inclusions to Transformed that weren’t in its predecessor, like Vyse from Skies of Arcadia and Joe Musashi from Shinobi (I’m a big Shinobi fan). But there are some unfortunate absences that don’t make a return. The original All-Stars Racing included some off-beat characters like the Bonanza Bros., Opa-Opa (Fantasy Zone), and Zobio and Zobiko (House of the Dead EX). I know these aren’t super popular character in Sega fandom (well, maybe Opa-Opa is), but I really enjoyed geeking out over these obscure inclusions. In addition, the coolest characters in the original were Akira & Jackie (Virtua Fighter) who raced together in a red sports car that resembled the Ferrari in OutRun. What a badass idea that was! Unfortunately, they don’t make a return for Transformed. Ultimately, this game does have a good selection of characters, but I just felt that the original game really amazed me in that regard.
I also thought the game’s soundtrack was a great collection of uptempo remixes of classic Sega themes that played well at pumping me up for some high-speed racing. Particular standouts, I felt, were the remixes from Burning Rangers and Golden Axe. There’s also a good remix of “You Can Do Anything” from the Japanese and European Sonic CD soundtrack. (It is my great shame as a patriotic red-blooded American that I prefer this song to Sonic Boom. Please, no one reveal this dark secret to my family or Obama!) One big disappointment, however, was the lack of the iconic Samba de Janeiro from Samba de Amigo. It was present in the original All-Stars Racing, but in the sequel it’s been replaced with a more generic latin electronic track. I guess they just didn’t want to pay the royalties for that one.
All-Stars Racing Transformed is a lot of fun, but it’s one tinged with sadness and regret. The heyday of Sega and its creative prime have long since past. Things like this and the Sega 3D Classics Collection on 3DS always serve as a bittersweet reminder to me of that. They were always a restlessly creative company. Nintendo may be innovative and produce games of immense polish and attention to detail, but they were never quite as off-the-wall as Sega. Nintendo reached a point during the time of the SNES where it was mainly focused on evolving and refining its core series like Mario and Zelda, and they always relied on their well-established franchises to introduce new ideas and innovations. Meanwhile, even into the Dreamcast-era, Sega was constantly going out on a limb to deliver characters and games that were created entirely from a blank slate. They may never have been the best game designers out there, but there was just a coolness to Sega that I don’t think anyone else has quite been able to replicate. All-Stars Racing Transformed is a good reminder of those things. It’s a great game in its own right, but for a Sega fan, the full-on nostalgia blast is vindication of enthusiasm for a company that was always the underdog.