Few developers have a large enough catalog of praised franchises that they can make entire games featuring a variety of their own iconic characters. Nintendo is obviously the leading company that has made a habit of doing this regularly, and Sony has just recently announced trying their hands at a mascot-riddled fighting game.
Since too many people claim that Sega remains a distant memory -- still holding them to the standards of its former glory -- it's easy for us to forget that this company, born of the 80s, has established a long record of familiar names and faces. A lot of those faces, to my own nostalgic surprise, make their way onto the tracks of Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed.
The great difference with this game is that racers are no longer restricted to the asphalt of the road, but will also take to the skies in planes and to the seas in boats. And here I thought people would never take inspiration from old goodies like Diddy Kong Racing.
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (3DS, PC, PlayStation 3 [previewed], PlayStation Vita, Xbox 360)
Upon selecting a racer, more than one moment saw me pointing to a character and saying aloud, "Oh yeah, I forgot Sega made that game!" Of course, the expected Sonic cast was present: Tails, Knuckles, Dr. Robotnik (I don't call him "Eggman," because this is America, goddamnit). Joining them, though, were characters whom I had forgotten even belonged to the Sega family: Amigo (Samba de Amigo), Beat (Jet Set Radio), and B.D. Joe (Crazy Taxi). It was at that point that I realized Sega actually had a shit-ton of variety and eclecticism within their body of work, and this little racing game was, in a lot of ways, a testament to that.
Now, even though I've had my fair share of Sega consoles (everything except for the Sega CD), I can't call myself a "Sega kid." I got my hands on every piece of hardware I could while growing up, no matter the company. Still, that didn't keep the warm feelings of my childhood from brewing in my gut, especially once I took to the roads of the Panzer Dragoon course.
While I did play the game in a relatively early state (alpha, to be exact), it was little snippets of nostalgia like these that made me realize that Sega fans were going to be in for a real treat. Considering how much of the company's history the previous All Stars Racing game encapsulated, I can only imagine this follow-up will provide more of that iconic imagery. "Shit yes," says my 13-year-old, malnourished inner-self.
So the nostalgia is a great hook, but how does it play? Well, the "Transformed" in the subtitle actually has significant meaning. During each race, courses will change their structure after every lap. So, naturally, each character's vehicle morphs into the appropriate form.
On the Panzer Dragoon course, the first lap had me clattering over a creaky wooden bridge -- a favorite in professional racing, of course. On the second lap, though, a fuckin' dragon burst out of the water and destroyed it! No worries, because B.D. Joe's cab flipped its wheels and presented a nice set of propellers for the water below. Upon reaching that area for the third time, instead of sloshing into the lake, Joe's Chevy Impala took to the skies like Doc Brown's DeLorean, but with less time traveling and more ... well, craziness, I suppose.
The elaborate changes in courses not only provided a fresh pace to the otherwise-bland genre of "kart racers," but they also quelled the boredom that can sometimes present itself after the third lap on the same track. Seeing as how I only got to try out two courses (the other being a downhill Super Monkey Ball-themed one), I'm anxious to see what other creative twists Sumo has added to the track selection.
Amidst all of this reverential Sega imagery and the nostalgic glow it emanated, I couldn't help but feel a bit of remorse in the end. Seeing the diversity of Sega's franchises under one roof (or skybox) sort of brought to light the tragic reality that, well, while the company has a quality portfolio, it has continued to face more and more hardship.
I mean, Transformed featured a roster of characters from games that had absolutely nothing to do with each other -- all of them great, to boot. It now makes less sense to me than it ever did why Sega has taken such a tumble down the staircase of this industry. Goddamned Nintendo has thrived on the same names and faces we've known since the late 80s, yet they have managed to accumulate an Olympic-sized pool of gold bullion.
Mascot-themed games provide a rather decent retrospective of a company's history. Super Smash Bros. showed us Nintendo's backstory, Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale will compile Sony's, and Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed does that very thing for Sega. The result is a relatively fun and robust experience that makes you think, "Wait a minute ... if they made that game, then what the hell is the problem?"
Oh well, perhaps I don't have the full picture. In fact, I know I don't. For all I know, the Sega execs of old might have blown all the company's money of cocaine and classy hookers. What matters is that, while Sega has taken hit after hit, despite all rules of logic and reality, games like Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed show that they can still make a fun and engaging title ... complimented by a cast from their own great games.
Sumo Digital has put a lot of care into making this game its own great experience, even going as far as building the engine from the ground up, as well as implementing their own physics into the gameplay. Transformed plus liquor is a combination that's bound to be worthy of a friendly, split-screen gathering ... err, I mean "fun for the whole family."
By the way, this preview taught me one important fact: Max Scoville is rather graceless at competitive racing games. So if you find yourself at a bar with him, and he's downed a few slippery nipples (yes, that's a real drink), the handheld version of Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a sure way to win a "wager of the pantsless variety" with him. You didn't hear that from me, though.