Sonic the Hedgehog has a long history with spin-off titles; I have been putting off an article going into the multiple adaptations of Sonic the Hedgehog: Spinball (SEGA Technical Institute, 1993), which really emphasised the pinball-like gameplay mechanics of Sonic the Hedgehog (Sonic Team, 1991) and its sequel, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (SEGA Technical Institute, 1992). However, the most frequently revisited sub-genre for SEGA’s speedy mascot has to be racing games; Sonic first took to racing against his friend and rivals in Sonic Drift (SEGA/Arc System Works, 1994), a kart racer exclusive to both SEGA’s handheld Game Gear and the Japan and clearly created as an alternative to Super Mario Kart (Nintendo EAD, 1992). Perhaps the most well-known Sonic racing title, however, was Sonic R (Sonic Team/Traveller’s Tales, 1997), Sonic’s first foray in 3D videogames and something of a cult classic to this day thanks, largely, to its iconic and cheesy soundtrack.
Sonic R stands out amongst other Sonic racers because it was the first title of its kind to have all characters (with the exception of Amy Rose and Doctor Eggman) racing on foot. While they briefly revisited this gameplay troupe in the Sonic Rivals videogames (Backbone Entertainment/SEGA Studio USA, 2006 to 2007), SEGA have since abandoned this gameplay feature entirely in favour of attempting to reap some of the success of Nintendo’s Mario Kart series (Nintendo EAD, et al, 1992 to present). Indeed, so influential was the original Mario Kart that virtually every videogame mascot (and those from other media) have featured in go-kart racers but, of them all, the most consistent rival to Nintendo’s portly plumber has, as always, been Sonic the Hedgehog. After a brief stint experimenting with airboards in the Sonic Riders series (Sonic Team/Now Production, 2006 to 2010), SEGA, most likely inspired by the success of Mario Kart Wii (Nintendo EAD, 2008), released Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing (Sumo Digital, 2010), which saw Sonic and his friends race against other iconic SEGA mascots in what was, for me, quite an enjoyable little title.
The follow-up, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (ibid, 2012) introduced a unique gameplay mechanic where the karts would transform into planes or boats, which mixed things up a bit, but locking additional characters and content behind stars rather than allowing players to buy them with points made this entry lag a little behind its predecessor, for me. Then, SEGA brought out their finest marketing trolls when it came to advertising their newest racing title, dusting off the old font style to tease the release of Team Sonic Racing (ibid, 2019), which did away with all of the other SEGA characters and additional bonus racers like Danica Patrick and focused solely on fifteen members of Sonic’s expansive cast. Team Sonic Racing also did away with the transforming gimmick so, immediately, seems like quite a step back from its predecessors; however, there are some other options available in the title that help to make it an enjoyable romp.
First of all, Team Sonic Racing is built entirely around the concept of racing as a (you guessed it) team; the team-focused gameplay and storyline is thrust so much to the forefront that it almost feels like a quasi follow-up to Sonic Heroes (Sonic Team USA, 2003). Anyway, the basic idea is that you get to pick from one of five teams (Team Sonic, Team Rose, Team Vector, Team Dark, and Team Eggman), each of which is made up of a ‘speed’, ‘technique’, and ‘power’ character; each racing class has different advantages that affect the way you race (‘technique’ karts can drive off the course without slowing down, for example). You’ll race as the character and racing class you selected but, as you race, must be mindful of the progress of your teammates; if they’re lagging behind, you can create a slipstream for them to coast along for a boost or send them weapons or items (SEGA once again revisits the concepts of Wisps for this) to help get them to the front. The goal is to finish the race as a team, which will increase your score, awarded points, and standing in GP races.
Before going into Team Sonic Racing, this team-based mechanic bothered me; I thought you’d have to swap between racers or would be forced to always race as a team or would be unfairly judged if your teammates ended up too fair behind. Luckily, these fears were largely abated once I started racing; not only is there an option outside of the Team Adventure story mode to race solo like in the All-Star racers, it isn’t massively difficult to boost your teammates up to your level, especially if you send any Wisps you don’t need or accept any item boxes when they’re sent to you.
Doing so, and performing successfully drifts and tricks, will fill up your ‘Ultimate’ meter; once full, you can execute ‘Ultimate Power’ at the push of a button to gain a massive speed boost and invincibility. This is very similar to the All-Star moves of the game’s predecessors but with one massive downgrade; all Ultimate moves look and feel the same, with the only real difference being the music the plays as you perform them. No longer does Sonic transform into Super Sonic or anything cool like that. While this was massively disappointing, the game slightly makes up for it with the variety in the weapons available. Previously, the All-Star racing games used quite generic items like missiles and the like; while I’m not fan of the Wisps (they really feel like they’ve outstayed their welcome at this point), their inclusion does help add some visual variety and a unique spin on traditional kart racing weapons.
Also in Team Sonic Racing’s favour is the ability to customise each kart; you can pick from different paint jobs, stickers, and horns in addition to attaching different Performance Parts that will modify the kart’s handling, acceleration, and top speed, amongst other attributes. Unfortunately, the best of these parts are the ‘Legendary’ Performance Parts, which turn your kart into a sexy all-gold style…meaning any paint jobs and aesthetic changes you made will be over-ridden. Another downside to the title is the lack of characters; Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed featured over twenty characters from across the entirety of SEGA’s legacy so stepping that down to just fifteen (one of which is, oddly, four Chaos stuffed into a massive Chao-themed kart rather than, oh, I don’t know, Cream the Rabbit!) is quite the downgrade. In addition, you cannot mix up the teams; you can’t pick Sonic as your speed racer, Rouge the Bat as your technique racer, and Vector the Crocodile as your power racer. If you pick Sonic, you’re stuck with Team Sonic, which seems like a massive missed opportunity that only really makes sense from a narrative perspective.
Speaking of which, one thing Team Sonic Racing has over the majority of Sonic racers is a full-on story mode; Sonic and his friends are drawn into an elaborate racing tournament organised by Dodon Pa, whom many of them suspect being Eggman in disguise. Through a series of races and working together ( not just within their teams but with the other teams in the spirit of friendly competition), they eventually uncover a plot by Eggman to manipulate the racer’s ‘power of teamwork’ into a doomsday weapon. Okay, so it’s not really the most original or well-told or engaging narrative and it’s told largely through obnoxious dialogue in barely-animated story sequences (I’m not going to call them cutscenes because…well, they’re not) but Team Adventure does provide just enough incentive to get you playing and earning points to buy Mod Pods and upgrade your karts.
While Team Adventure does offer a lot of gameplay variety, this is also to its detriment; you won’t just be racing against other characters, you’ll also have to break targets, collect Golden Rings, destroy Eggpawns, compete in GPs, and perform a variety of other in-race tasks to earn stars and keys that will both progress the story, unlock more of each map, allow access to other and better Performance Parts and, of course, earn you some Achievements. The problem is, however, that the error margin in some of these missions is extremely tight; you’re given just enough time to hit the required goal (a Silver medal) and I found myself having to play some missions over and over and over again trying to get reach the minimum requirement. I don’t think I’ve managed to get a single Platinum medal yet (and have no plans to attempt this, least of all for every damn mission!) and only lucked into a handful of Gold medals. Maybe I just suck (and that s most likely the case) but Sumo gave very little leeway when creating these missions; time just runs out way to fast, forcing you to start all over again, and there’s no indication when you’ve completed in-race objectives (like destroying five Eggpawns in a race; there’s no notification to let you know you’ve done this until after the race is over).
Outside of the story mode, there’s the usual racing affair; you can complete against others either locally or online (I’ve yet to do either) across a variety of game modes. There are also some really nice race tracks on offer here; once again, they’re largely pulled or inspired from Sonic Heroes (I’ll never fully understand why Sumo can’t seem to get past adapting levels from that game into race tracks…) but there’s some catchy tunes accompanying each race (featuring a title song by Crush 40 and tunes inspired by Sonic R), tracks can be mirrored to add a new twist and, while karts don’t transform, there are some alternative paths you can take by performing tricks off of ramps.
In the end, Team Sonic Racing is a decent racing title and certainly in the same spirit as its predecessors but, with a lacklustre roster, too few gameplay options, and very little incentive to play once you’ve blasted the story mode and unlocked a decent amount of Performance Parts, I struggle to really recommend this over the All-Star racing titles. I enjoyed it as it was simple to play, for the most part, and was a Sonic title but some frustrating mission requirements, the lack of real All-Star moves, and no additional characters to unlock or purchase really brought the whole experience down for me. I’d say it’s fun enough to waste a few hours on but it’s not going to keep you engaged much beyond that, which is a bit of a shame.