Included, the Big Test: Multiplayer with Mario Kart Fanboys
I remember the first time I picked up Sonic R for the Sega Saturn. It didn’t score that well with magazines and what few gaming websites there were, but for veterans like me, the game was memorable enough. Sonic R wasn’t the hedgehog’s first foray into the racing genre–that honor goes to the Sonic Drift franchise–but between its colorful environments and addictive (if not occasionally hokey) soundtrack, it holds a place in my heart as one of the last games I played regularly on my Saturn before the franchise was revitalized with the Dreamcast and Sonic Adventure. It wasn’t necessarily because I thought the game was perfect (I didn’t) or because I wanted to master each character’s traits and run the perfect race. Quite simply, it was because I loved racing games.
As a child and even into my young adulthood, I have a passion for Sega produced racing games, from OutRun to Daytona USA, Manx TT, and my still all-time favorite arcade romp, Super GT. In the arcade and at home when ported, these games weren’t just simulators for hardcore racers to spend time on. For amateur kids like me who didn’t know any better, they were also a blast to play.
With that in mind, you can imagine the high hopes I had with Sumo Digital, who’s been responsible for the ports of OutRun 2, most recently in the form of OutRun Online Arcade, and for a wide variety of other racers, developing a game capable of that same AM2 style universal appeal that just happened to have Sonic. On paper, it sounded perfect. Amid a wide variety of Sonic and Sega representation, unique stats and moves for each character, and tracks begging to be drifted on in a multiplayer free-for-all, what could go wrong?
As it turns out, maybe a tad too much. The ideas and spirit that had potential to make ASR the standard in kart racing are prevalent throughout the finished product, make no mistake about that. Where this game falters, especially on the Wii version and especially in multiplayer, are in elements of execution.
It is clear Sega and Sumo tried very hard to please all audiences by including most of the company’s major franchises of old and new. Even though there are nine stages from Sonic Heroes and three each for five other franchises, the diverse cast of characters more than makes up for the occasional track monotony. Great care was taken to ensure each racer is more than that, that he or she has personality. Sonic jumping in and out of his car or Opa-Opa using its wings to congratulate himself may be annoying to some, but it’s part of bridging the gap between what is racing and what’s outright fun. The detailed, colorful environments, especially in Seaside Hill, Tokyo-to, and Samba de Amigo only add to this experience. The little touches, such as offering Can You Feel the Sunshine or the Japanese Sonic CD’s Palmtree Panic for purchase via Sega Miles, only enhances the sensation. You should be enjoying yourself while playing through courses, as every opportunity is afforded to you to do so as you progress. I certainly did.
Seasoned arcade racers should have no problem unlocking all of what’s available, either. There are dozens of missions to perfect, but if that’s not your cup of tea, Sega Miles can be earned in Grand Prix, Time Trial and even multiplayer modes. If you touch something, you’re pretty much going to be rewarded. That allows some players who prefer jumping right in to know they’re not doing so in vain.
Meanwhile, those who want to fine tune their skills before tearing up the track will find merit in the Mission Mode. Many of those missions require near precision for the highest ratings–and the most Sega Miles. There are more cups to win and more light-hearted humor and references to enjoy. I enjoyed trying to maneuver through pots as Big the Cat, only to break them apart in the next mission. The rolling starts contained within a few more missions–a subtle wink to Daytona USA–were a nice touch. In all, the single player experience is very satisfying.
Credit should also be given to Sumo Digital for attempting to exactly replicate the product among all three home consoles. Though the PS3 was the base development system, nearly all the elements from it minus a few track obstacles were ported to the Wii, with an array of control options to boot. Don’t like the Wiimote or Wii Wheel? Use a Nunchuk. Can’t do that either? Use the Classic Controller. I would have preferred a GameCube controller option, but it is by no means a game breaker. Wii owners can take comfort in knowing they are getting about the same experience as HD console owners.
Unfortunately, that’s where the Wii version of ASR slows for a pit stop. I don’t fault Sumo for wanting identical products across the board, but I’m not sure the Wii can adequately handle what’s being thrown at it. It’s not just the obvious visual downgrade that’s be expected when going from an HD to an SD console–ASR, at times, looks worse than games released for the console one or even two years ago. Furthermore, framerates, even in single player mode, are not nearly as constant as they need to be in active situations. On occasion, the rate drops border on inexcusable. While XBOX360 and PS3 owners will likely see their framerate issues solved with a patch, Wii owners don’t have that luxury. I imagine Sega produced two different versions of Sonic Unleashed for exactly that reason; what looks beautiful on an HD console may not transfer well when ported to SD. If time permitted, it may have served Sumo Digital better to explore that possibility.
While visuals don’t make or break a game in this era anymore, other anomalies like tracks disappearing and elements that seem easy to fix will. Unfortunately, the Wii version of ASR suffers from several of these setbacks, particularly in multiplayer mode.
For this review, I spent a long evening with a few of my local friends getting acquainted to the game’s numerous multiplayer modes. Those who helped were well acquainted with the Mario Kart franchise, and essentially grew up bleeding Nintendo red. Most were not huge fans of Mario Kart Wii, but all love the Mario Kart legacy and know of Sega’s turbulent decade trying to find consistency with Sonic and the franchise as a whole.
On the surface, players won’t be disappointed with the options. Racers can compete either in regular or Knockout modes, while those wanting a bit of fighting and strategy mixed in can enjoy the Battle, Capture the Chao, King of the Hill, and Emerald modes.
The non-traditional race modes are fine, if not a bit repetitive across just three arenas. My friends wanted to race more than throw monkey punches at one another’s vehicles. That’s where the game’s faults began to show. Surprisingly, the framerate held up in multiplayer action, at least to the point that it was consistent.
What wasn’t consistent, however, was the presence of a track. On more than a few occasions, my friends and I were suddenly off the course and had our positions reset…even though we had never flown off the course. As it turns out, we had flown through pieces of the course, and though the bug happened at random, it more often than not happened at points where it cost position among the race pack. My friends were also occasionally stopped cold in some course objects, stuck and unable to move until the game reset their position.
Some of that I chalk up to inexperience, but other matters I simply can’t. Chief among this is the 30 second warning in multiplayer, the warning that flashes on each player’s screen once one player crosses the finish line. When you get to a 3 or 4 player battle royale, the amount of space the warning takes up, and where it sets up–right in the middle of the player’s screen–is distracting. At times it can prevent players from looking toward oncoming obstacles, and in my case, didn’t allow players to finish a couple races on time.
Afterward, my friends they told me design decisions like what’s cited above are little things that add up to a big problem: preventing them from enjoying the game as much as they could have. In short, they felt Sega didn’t know how to make a racing game. (Now that’s a scary thought!) That may be a bit extreme, but I see where they’re coming from. For a game that principally relies on its multiplayer components as a gauge for success, referring to such bugs as few and far between when it happened in our playthrough several times puzzles me and, again, borders on inexcusable.
All things considered, whether I recommend this particular version of ASR depends on your individual needs, because the game is that bipolar. If you mostly play by yourself, as I did, the game holds deep replay value–much more than comparable titles–and deserves to be in your library…that is, if you only own the Wii, and this is your only chance to experience it. If, however, you’re looking to use your Wii for multiplayer mayhem, you’ll get it…just not the good kind. My friends were left with a somewhat bitter taste in their mouths after rigorous multiplayer, and I’ll be honest…I sort of was, too. So, should you have a choice between HD and Wii, spend the extra money for an XBOX360 or PS3 copy–both can tackle the miles of tarmac in this game without constantly waving the yellow caution flag.