*Review based on Sonic R’s release as part of Sonic Gems Collection on Nintendo GameCube*
Despite being the “fastest thing alive,” Sonic has always been playing a game of catch up with Super Mario since day one. Despite Sonic’s early titles and a handful of the blue blur’s other adventures over the years achieving their own sense of timelessness, Sonic never did catch up with Mario. If there is one genre that seemed like Sonic would, by default, have the upper hand on Mario, it would be the racing genre. Sonic is a character built around his speed. Taking the series and adapting it into a racing game seems like it should have had minimal bumps in the translation.
Which is why it’s both dumbfounding and hilarious that Sonic R – the first Sonic racing game on a home console – is an utter disaster, and one of the worst games Sonic has ever appeared in (and boy, is that saying something).
Depressingly, Sonic R was the only exclusive Sonic game released on the Sega Saturn, with the two other Saturn Sonics, Sonic 3D Blast and Sonic Jam, being a port and a compilation of the Genesis Sonic titles, respectively. Although the Saturn was otherwise a stellar and underrated console (possibly my personal favorite from Sega), the fact that Sega’s biggest franchise only managed to pop out this turd of a game on the Saturn may have had something to do with the console’s short lifespan in the midst of the Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64.
As stated, Sonic R was a racing game starring characters from the Sonic the Hedgehog series. Unlike other Sonic racing games that would follow, most of the characters run on foot. That may sound like it makes sense, since Sonic can run at the speed of light, and Knuckles and Tails are inexplicably just as fast (and, bizarrely, Dr. Robotnik has continuously outrun the blue hedgehog). But it ends up having disastrous results, as developer Traveller’s Tales apparently had no idea how to implement the traction and physics of running characters.
As soon as a race begins, it’s an absolute mess of game design. Your character reaches top speed instantly, while turning your character feels like a herculean feat of strength. As you can imagine, this makes Sonic R’s sense of control nothing short of abysmal. Amy Rose (who drives a car) and the unlockable Dr. Robotnik (who pilots his hovercraft…again, despite outrunning Sonic on numerous occasions) control marginally better, but that’s not saying much.
To make matters worse, the game as a whole just feels unfinished. You’ll often run through objects, get stuck in the scenery, or get magnetized to walls. The entire game feels like one big glitch. Combine that with the hellish controls, and Sonic R is downright agonizing to play.
Even the graphics are a drizzling mess. Okay, so most early 3D games aren’t exactly pretty to look at these days, but other Saturn titles – such as Nights Into Dreams or the 3D overworld of Sonic Jam – still have a lively look about them. Sonic R, by contrast, often looks like one massive blur of colors. It’s all too easy to go off track during a race because you can’t tell where you are and aren’t supposed to go.
It’s not just technical and graphical sins that Sonic R is guilty of, but even on a creative level, the game falls utterly flat. Sonic R boasts a grand total of five courses to race on, none of which are memorable. And the only modes to speak of are Grand Prix (which is a single race) and Time Trials (with Versus races just being two-player Grand Prix).
Compare that to Super Mario Kart on Super Nintendo. Released five year earlier on less advanced hardware, Super Mario Kart boasted twenty racetracks, five races in one or two player Grand Prix, one-on-one Versus races, and its iconic Battle Mode which featured four maps of its own. And while Sonic R may have more characters available than Super Mario Kart did – along with Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Amy and Robotnik, you can also unlock robot versions of each character (sans Amy) as well as Super Sonic – each race here can only have five participants at a time, as opposed to Super Mario Kart’s eight. And while the characters in Mario Kart had differences in things like weight and acceleration, the characters of Sonic R often have unfair advantages over others (Robotnik can simply hover over bodies of water, which are entirely detrimental to Sonic and friends). In both concepts and execution, Sonic R feels greatly underdeveloped.
If I had to give credit to any of Sonic R’s ideas, it’s that it had an interesting attempt at adding an exploration element into the mix. As in the classic Sonic games, rings are scattered about everywhere, with their purpose this time around being unlocking doors that lead to shortcuts and hidden items. Each of the four starting stages houses one or two Chaos Emeralds, and five Sonic Coins.
If you nab the Chaos Emeralds and claim first place, you get to keep the emeralds (which is much easier than it sounds, as the AI is so slow you can take your time hunting down these items and still end up lapping them). Collect every Chaos Emerald to unlock Super Sonic. Meanwhile, if you can collect all five coins on a stage in a single race, and get in at least third place, you’ll race one of the robot doppelgängers. Beat the metallic lookalike in their race and you unlock them. And for the curious, the fifth stage is unlocked simply by claiming first place in the four starting stages, with Robotnik being unlock upon victory in said secret stage.
But Diddy Kong Racing this is not. While these hidden goodies sound enticing in theory, the utterly chaotic, unfinished nature of the game itself makes their addition mean nothing. It’s like having sprinkles without the ice cream. And the implementation of these items is so half-assed anyway that you can unlock everything in about a half hour.
Some variety in the racetracks is attempted by means of having different aesthetic settings for the courses (such as nighttime or winter, the latter of which freezing water), but they ultimately have a minimal effect on the gameplay, and only serve as an outdated showcase of the Saturn’s graphical capabilities. Apparently there wasn’t enough time to design more levels or polish the gameplay, but at least the developers found time to add rain effects to the courses.
The one element of Sonic R that I will admit is enjoyable is the music. Now, it isn’t genuinely awesome music as in the Genesis Sonic games. Rather, Sonic R’s soundtrack is when the music of the series began to enter “so bad it’s good” territories. Each race track comes equipped with a cheesy theme song with surprisingly high production values (a la the early seasons of the Pokemon dub) that may give you a bit of earworm.
Sonic R was a bad game in its day, and its lack of quality has only been magnified in the years since its 1997 release. To say Sonic R failed at being a Mario Kart killer is a gross understatement. At the very least, Sonic can take solace knowing that he eventually found himself in one of the better Mario Kart clones in Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing and its sequel. But the damage done by Sonic R was so great that it took Sonic and friends a good, long while before they reached that point (and even when they did, they were still ultimately not Mario Kart).
It’s hard to imagine how a Sonic racing game could go wrong, let alone this wrong. But Sonic R is indeed one of the worst racing games of all time.