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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.20160507212103_1.jpg

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.

 

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Jet Moto: Do Futuristic Racers Have a Future

Jet Moto TitleJet Moto was one of my favorite games for the PSX. I recently manage to find my old CD of the game, and gave it a go. First thing I notice, man is it an ugly game. It is one of those PSX games that hasn’t aged so well in the looks department, with blurry, wobbly low-res textures spread everywhere. But I digress.  Somewhat similar to a futuristic version of Wave Race, Jet Moto is a racing league for off-road hoverbikes, with courses that traverse dirt, sand, swamp, water, and ice. It’s always felt a little unique to me in the genre of futuristic racers in the sense that, while most of these games (e.g. Wipeout, F-Zero, Extreme G, etc.) charge through sleek and synthetic landscapes at absurd speeds, Jet Moto is a little more grounded in rugged outdoor settings, mostly themed around swamps, beaches, and icy mountains. It may sound strange, but Jet Moto feels like it could be something you could actually see on a channel like ESPN, assuming of course hoverbikes were a real thing.

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The game also has a ton of personality to it. There are 20 racers in the game, each with a colorfully detailed backstory and hand drawn, comic book style avatar. These Jet Moto professionals range from cowboys and surfers to a jazz singer and a mad scientist. At the end of a circuit, the results screen shows the winning racer being bestowed with their trophy from a somewhat risqué member of the opposite sex. Male racers get rewarded by a scantily clad woman, usually showing lots of leg, and female racers get treated by an equally lascivious male. One exception though is a male racer called Rhino, who receives his trophy from the male variants, possibly indicating he is one of the first openly homosexual video game characters, so that’s something I guess.

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Jet Moto was the product of SingleTrac, the studio behind the original Warhawk and the excellent Twisted Metal 2. Originally working as a second party studio for Sony, the studio was eventually bought by GT Interactive and its Sony-owned franchises were given to 989 (who would later become Sony Bend). Jet Moto 2 would be created by the latter studio. While I think it is a perfectly fine game, it has always felt a little less interesting to me. Eschewing the realism of the original, Jet Moto 2 becomes a little more whimsical, with fantastical tracks such as a circus, an earthquake-demolished city, and a finale that crosses through both Olympus and Hades. There would eventually be a Jet Moto 3, which sold especially poorly, and the series has not been heard of since.

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Playing Jet Moto reminds me of how much I once enjoyed futuristic racing games. I’ve always enjoyed arcade racers as a whole, and futuristic racing games strike an especial chord of the imagination, with their extraordinary speeds and incredible settings. Almost all arcade racers are lenient with the laws of physics, but futuristic racers take an especially hostile stance to the Newtonian world. And it’s unfortunate that this sub-genre appears to be going extinct. Sony’s Wipeout is the only series that’s seen regular release, and with the close of the Liverpool studio, it appears that this last torch has blown out.

The disappearance of the futuristic racer is really more or less in line with the fall from grace the entire arcade racing genre has suffered. Need For Speed continues to see near yearly release, and Codemasters still produces, but their creations tend to lean toward the hardcore. It seems like the genre reached its climax with Spilt/Second and Blur. Both of these were excellent releases, Split/Second being my favorite racer from last-gen, but both launched in the same month against Red Dead Redemption and were abysmal failures from a commercial prospective. The failure of these excellent games seems to have deterred others, as there have been no real notable entrants in the genre afterwards.

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Maybe it’s a symptom of the times. In the age of the PSX and N64, racers were of extraordinary popularity as they lent themselves well to the split-screen multiplayer of these offline machines. Meanwhile, PCs of the time were dominated by FPS and RTS games, which were far more compatible with online multiplayer. Controllers in the pre-dual analog age were not especially suited to movement in FPS, and split-screen FPS has always suffered from the screen watching problem. The limitation to four players doesn’t help as well. With such few players, it’s easy for skill differentials to make the game frustrating for less skilled players and devoid of challenge for more skilled players. Bots can be used to expand the number of competitors, but the consoles of the time were not really capable of competent AI. Racing games on the other hand do not require high-level AI to fill out acceptable computer opponents. As consoles have tilted toward online-focused multiplayer, it’s easy to see why team-based FPS games have ascended in popularity, while racers have languished.

So is there any reason for arcade racing fans to hold hope? I don’t really know. I imagine if they make a resurgence, it will be amongst small-scale developers (i.e. indie), but there’s really been no movement on the front. Maybe in FTP games? I could see a FTP Jet Moto monetized with cosmetics as possibly being successful. I’m sorry, I know it’s really kind of downer I’m ending on here. At least we can take solace in the fact that our old favorites will always be there for us, if they don’t make our eyes melt first.

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