Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed Wii U Review

In early 2010, Sega surprised me with the rather good Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, a kart racer developed by Sumo Digital that was fast, great to play and full of quality fan service for Sega fans of any age. It’s also the only title that I can think of in this current console life cycle that came close to the behemoth of kart racing, Nintendo’s flagship Mario Kart series, and if you did not own the Wii, then this was your choice for THE kart racer on the market. Fast forward a couple of years and Sega’s with a sequel that loses the Sega in its title and adds transformed on the end, but can it build on the original and transform into a must have title for your shiny new Wii U?

Once again, Sumo Digital has tapped into Sega’s gaming history to pick 24 characters for this Wii U version. From the start, you only have access to 11 characters, but as you progress through the game you unlock more and eventually will have a cast of Sega superstars that covers the likes of Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, AiAi (Super Monkey Ball), Beat (Jet Set Radio), Vyse (Skies of Arcadia) and Amigo (Samba de Amigo) along with special guests Ralph, from the movie Wreck-it Ralph, and Danica Patrick, the American NASCAR race driver. The Wii U version also allows you to play as your Mii. Disappointingly, Sumo Digital has removed some of the characters from the first game, such as my favourite egg roller, Billy Hatcher, and martial artist turned sailor seeker, Ryo Hazuki. I can understand Billy Hatcher vanishing, but Ryo Hazuki seems a little mindboggling to delete from the history books. Hopefully he will be back as DLC, along with other missing characters.

No longer is the ground the limit, but instead you will be racing on water and flying through the air, with transformable karts that will shape shift into a boat or an aircraft automatically when in need. Some of you might be thinking “Mario Kart 7” right about now, but this is so much more than a simple hand gliding section or the ability to drive underwater. The “transformed” in the title is not just limited to the ability to change your ride, but it also includes the tracks as these scripted changes makes almost each track contain a mixture of ground, air and water racing. Each of the game’s 21 tracks will change up after a lap is completed. For example, the Skies of Arcadia track begins its first lap mostly on the ground. By the time the third lap has come around the entire track has been demolished and you are left with a lap that is set in the sky.

All the courses are based on famous Sega titles from past and present that serves up the fan service. Some tracks manage to portray classic games better than others, but none are horrible, and it’s hard to be disappointed in creative choices. Regardless of the track, the transformations keep the courses exhilarating to race. Despite 21 tracks seeming a little low compared to some other kart racers, the dynamic changes and race length in each of them make it more appealing than doing three laps of the same course. Tracks are alive with activity, that with so much going on it can – rarely I should add – cause problems. One example is when I was powering along the water in the Super Monkey Ball level, I somehow was pushed to the side and hit a rock that stopped me dead. Another was coming off a jump that made me hit the roof, again, stopping me dead in the tracks and causing me to restart as I was never going to get my first position back.

The handling of each vehicle transformations feels massively different. It can be a surprise at first when you switch from ground to sea and notice that the boats bob along the waves and the controls become much heavier compared to the cars. It actually turns into a boat racer. This is the same for the planes too, where you are given complete 3D space to raise and drop altitude rather than simply flying at a given height. Kart racers are usually easy to grasp so that anyone can play, but the depth offered here along with the unexpectedness of the track changes means you’ll have to teach your friends the game’s nuances or  you’ll just end up winning each time.

These deeper mechanics also means the game is challenging on the hardest difficulty settings. To become good, you’ll need to master how to gain boosts. Drifts can even be linked together when needing to turn corners, but linking them together to earn a level three boost takes time. Controlling drifts in boats, and especially planes, where you tilt on its side when initiating a drift, is more challenging and takes a skilled player to maximise the boosting chance. .

Weapon design is one thing Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed should be highly praised for. There are the obvious green and red shell weapons, but they come with their own unique identity, along with some great items that never feel as cheap as the dreaded blue shell in Mario Kart. Fireworks can be shot in front and bounce off the boundaries of the tracks, baseball gloves can catch weapons shot at you and then be used as a free power-up, and snowballs, which come in threes, can be shot individually or in one big group. I dig the hot rod power-up that adds an engine to the vehicles and gives you a constant boost, but – surprise – you have to keep an eye on a metre and avoid burning out your engine by overusing it. If I had problem with the power-ups, it’s that they are not very Sega themed in a game that celebrates Sega’s gaming and its heroes.

It just shows you how much I like the core gameplay of Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed that I’ve thus far ignored discussing the main modes of gameplay. Career is the biggest section and offers multiple ways to advance through the content. If you want to unlock everything, you’ll need to do every event and on the hardest difficulty to earn stars (rewarded for beating events, with hard offering more) used to unlock future events and new characters. Apart from the typical race, you’ll also take part in boost challenges (hit boost grids to keep the timer from counting down), ring challenges (go through all the rings before time runs out) and drift challenges (require you to drift between a specific space to keep the timer frozen) alongside many others. These all keep the career mode appealing to play.

Exhausting career mode still leaves you with Grand Prix, a collection of five cups to beat (with a surprise unlock), and time attack, where each track has multiple ghosts that range in difficulty. Good luck beating all of them, because – surprise – these developers are exceptional at their own game. Online multiplayer works wonderful on the Wii U, which is nice to hear, as we get to finally see Nintendo hardware that allows quality online gaming. If you have friends around, you can play up to five players offline thanks to the Wii U’s unique gamepad. You can even take all five online and play against others with up to 10 people in a race at one time. Added just for the Wii U version is party mode, a small section that includes two game modes. The gamepad user becomes the star as they either play as a monkey ball and must squish the other contestants, or as a shinobi ninja and turn players into ninjas by tagging people who are then required to help the player find the remaining survivors. These are fun side activates, but nothing more.

On the topic of the Wii U and its gamepad, the new device is used in multiple ways. If you’re playing single player, the screen on the pad is displayed with a map. If you touch a character’s icon, you’ll see a small box pop-up on the gamepad’s screen that shows the race from the selected character’s viewpoint. It’s neat, bu,t to be honest, I hardly used it because the visual quality on the pop-up window is smudged. In fact, if you play this on just the gamepad, you’ll see that the visuals are blurry. It’s still fine to play, but the quality of the video being streamed to the device is not the same as what Nintendo has shown with New Super Mario Bros U, so I would advise to play on the TV when you can.

Graphically, the game’s bright and rich colour palette makes for some very pleasing visuals. The game runs at 30 frames-per-second, and sticks to that for the most part. In multiplayer, the visuals are reduced to keep the frame rate as respectable as possible. Music features remixes of classic Sega tunes by Richard Jacques; most are decent, but likely won’t be remembered as much as some of his other work. Sadly, there are a couple of bugs that spoil the Wii U version of the game. One of the boost tracks seems impossible to beat as the checkpoint rings are not there. The other is that the arena mode does not always work correctly. Good news is that there is a version 1.1.1. patch coming soon, so it should be gone.

Kart racers have been recently absent, but suddenly November was flooded with three of them. Thankfully, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed blasts to the front of the pack with its own style and identity, making it the best of the three, and just because it’s Sega themed does not mean that this is for Sega fans; it’s for anyone who is a fan of the kart racing genre. If you like the genre, you should pay attention to Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. I’ll go on record and say that this is the best kart racer in some time (yes, even better than Mario Kart 7) – now that’s saying something.

8 out of 10