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Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed review (Wii U): Quality kart racing

It’s unthinkable for a Nintendo platform to launch without a kart racer of some kind released in close proximity. That the Wii U’s launch kart racer stars Sonic the Hedgehog, Nintendo’s mortal enemy’s mascot from the ’90s, is insane. We’re many years removed now from the SNES/Genesis wars that raged throughout gaming’s fourth console generation, however, and Sega doesn’t have a console horse in the race anymore (R.I.P. Dreamcast). So Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a Wii U launch title, and the lone dedicated kart racer that launches alongside this first shot in the eighth console generation.

The verdict? Kart racing is still as fun as its ever been.

Sonic And His All-Stars

Sega goes pretty deep-cut with the assortment of familiar faces that fill out the race driver lineup. You’ve got the expected cast of Sonic characters, including the blue hedgehog himself, as well as Tails, Knuckles, Shadow, and others. Then there’s an assortment of characters pulled from other Sega franchises, including Golden AxeShinobi, Jet Set Radio, and Space Channel 5(!). Real-life racer Danica Patrick and Wreck-It Ralph‘s titular protagonist show up as well. You can even drop your Nintendo Mii behind the wheel of one of the game’s transforming karts.

Transformation is a fundamental component in just about any race you participate in. All-Stars‘ tracks transform in major ways over the course of a given race, with each lap serving up new routes for you to follow. This frequently sees you leaving the road completely, with your chosen ride transforming as you pass through clearly marked checkpoints into a boat or aircraft for these altered stretches of “track.” The changing conditions require constant adjustments to your play style since karts handle very differently on water and in the air.

It takes some getting used to, particularly the airborne sequences, but having this constant change of pace within a single race really adds to the fun. Not only are you constantly switching between vehicles, but you’re really never exactly sure of what the next lap will bring until you’ve played one race more than a few times. The course transformations are completely scripted, so you can still learn tracks with no problem. They really help cut down on the monotony of lap-based racing though; All-Stars‘ tracks feel much more like point-based endurance races. When you’re racing, that is.

A Grand Prix mode offers the familiar series of circuits that most kart racing enthusiasts know very well. There’s also an elaborate World Tour mode, which is built around competing at varying difficulties to earn stars. Your star count informs your ability to progress beyond certain points. Most of the races in World Tour simply unlock one after the other, but you’ll occasionally come to blocked-off locations that you can only pass through — to the next race, to a new car mod, or to an unlockable driver — if you’ve earned the required number of stars.

There are dangling carrots in the form individual character leveling that unlocks stat-tweaking vehicle mods, but the real winner here is the level of depth. All-Stars looks and acts a lot like a Mario Kart game with its scattered item boxes, diverse lineup, and drift-based boost capabilities, but it goes further. You’ll spend most of your time in World Tour racing, but some events will flip the script on you, requiring you to drift through stretches of track to add time to a countdown clock or keep boosting to keep a timer from reaching zero before you can cross the finish line. Some of these are easier to get the hang of than others — I’m still struggling with that latter “boost to stop the clock” match type — but if you fail any one event enough times, the game offers the option of skipping it. That might not help when you’re just reaching for more stars to get past the next unlock point, but it eases the pain of the occasionally steep challenge spike.

Second Fiddle For The Second Screen

The 10-player multiplayer modes seen in other versions of the game carry over to the Wii U — though the online crowd is very light and matches are difficult-to-impossible to find as of this writing — and the Nintendo console also allows up to five players to compete locally (one on the Wii U GamePad, four on more standard controllers). Tilt controls with the Wii Remote are less than ideal, but a Remote+Nunchuk or Pro Controller works great. In local five-player match-ups — which you can take advantage of in every game mode, including World Tour — the four non-GamePad users share splitscreen space on the TV while the fifth views the action directly on the GamePad.

That second screen isn’t really good for much else, though that’s hardly surprising. A real-time map is displayed on the GamePad’s screen while you race, but actually casting your attention down to it in a game where split-second reactions are necessary asks too much of the player. You can also swipe down on the GamePad at any point to shift the play entirely over to the second screen, a slick feature that for some reason is never actually explained in the game.

The Wii U also offers a couple of exclusive minigames built around Super Monkey Ball and Shinobi, though they appear to be… broken. My own experience in firing up either mode in local party play sees the match starting and then immediately ending, with one player declared the winner for reasons that aren’t clear. After poking around on the Internet, I’m seeing that the game’s day one patch seems to have created a few problems, but that also hopefully means we’ll be seeing a fix very soon. I’ll be sure to update this review accordingly when the situation changes, but for now it’s difficult to say much about the Wii U party games other than the fact that they exist.

Conclusion

It’s easy to look at Sonic & All-Stars Racing Trasnformed and call it a cheap cash-in. You’d be wrong about the “cheap” part, for one. And really, what’s wrong with Sega leveraging this killer lineup of memorable stars and mascots for a good, old-fashioned racing game? All-Stars is a deep and full-featured kart racer that embraces the familiar while offering new twists and fresh takes throughout. It’s not a must-own Wii U launch title, but it’s a great party game that also has the legs to give you a deeper experience, should you choose to pursue it. Definitely worth a look, for Wii U or for any other consoles that you might prefer to play it on.

Score: 8 out of 10

(This game was reviewed on the Wii U using a copy provided by the publisher)