A worrying and terrifying fact I realised the other day is that those of us who grew up playing the original Sonic the Hedgehog are now more than old enough - in age, if not maturity - to be raising children. These blue-blooded progenies could quite conceivably be at the age where they fancy a kart racer, and both parent and child (in my hypothetical world, at least) could connect over UK developer Sumo Digital's second attempt at the genre. This is actually possible.
I'm not so sure SEGA is as confident in its rich and glorious legacy as I am, however, and much of its attempts at garnering popularity here are spent riding the coattails of Disney's Wreck-It Ralph, with the upcoming film's titular character taking a starring role here alongside Sonic, Tails and 19 other racers. But Ralph is a positively seamless fit compared to the roster addition of NASCAR star Danica Patrick, who no doubt has nurtured a lifelong passion to go bumper-to-bumper with Gilius Thunderhead in a digital version of a not-cynical-at-all car she helped design for toy maker Mattel. Ahem.
I know what you're thinking and, yes, I'm gutted too: Danica Patrick gets to feature and neither Vectorman nor Sketch Turner get a look in. But, hey, at least Ristar is the flagman, and the game's finale has you racing as a floating Dreamcast controller. I'd buy a copy for that fact alone, but then I'm a bit weird and often wear a Sonic the Hedgehog t-shirt to bed. And despite SEGA's attempts to bring in a wider audience than those who fondly write poems to their old Mega Drive, there still remains plenty of loving fanservice devoted to the publisher's lifelong fans. Like I said, floating Dreamcast controller.
Still, and I will admit this opinion comes from someone who believes that food tastes better when eaten off a Sonic the Hedgehog plate, this is actually an extremely formidable kart racer that lifts itself above the rest of the genre with a buoyant charm, deft handling and a string of rich, vibrant courses which light up in a way that only SEGA knows how.
There's only so much excitement to be had from such a well-worn and exhausted genre, but Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed often manages to be impressively adventurous, conjuring up courses that twist and contort around the game's central conceit that its vehicles can cover land, sea and air at scripted points during each race. We saw a similar idea in Mario Kart 7, but here the cars actually inherit different mechanics and controls when they turn into boats and planes. SEGA also cheerily nicks the robotic converting sound of the Transformers, modifying the noise just enough to avoid any legal ramifications from Hasbro.
The expectedly drift-heavy steering model feels like a slightly springier version of Mario Kart, and while the game doesn't fascinate in concept it manages to impress in its execution and lavish, luscious visuals. This is a zippy, detailed experience, easily the most visually sumptuous kart racer on the market, but one that's occasionally marred by some pretty unpleasant frame-rate hiccups in some of its most packed areas and a depressing loss of fidelity when played split-screen.
Noticeable effort has also been spent sprucing up the ornate tracks. Even the game's bread-and-butter Sonic stages manage to thrill in their construction, and plenty of other SEGA titles - including Panzer Dragoon, Skies of Arcadia and Jet Set Radio - get their chance to shine with lovingly designed courses. One slight problem, however, is that power-ups and boost pads tend to blend in with the environments; perhaps the art team were too worried about unsightly track markings ruining their pristine environments.
The power-ups themselves are also a particular delight, including controller-reversing whirlwinds, time-sensitive speed boosts and attack-catching baseball gloves. Then there's a swarm of wasps, an attack which homes in on the leader of the pack but affects multiple players and can be dodged with skilled driving or tactical weapon usage. I'm not sure why it's wasps exactly, but it makes Mario Kart's contentious Blue Shell seem archaic by comparison.
This is a smart and engaging kart racer, then, but it makes a particularly dumbfounded choice by locking many of its characters and courses into the lengthy Career mode, with players knocking off multiple event types as they progress across a series of worlds and branching pathways. It's a standard and moderately entertaining bit of single-player racing, but it's a shame to see such an innately multiplayer game require a tricked-out save file before it can be fully appreciated by a group of people huddled around a sofa.
That flaw isn't nearly enough to put a serious dent into Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, however, which mixes some wonderfully loving nostalgia and ambitious design to create the first credible Mario Kart alternative since Crash Team Racing in 1999. Fact.
Version Tested: PlayStation 3
This review was written after spending 6 hours with a retail version of the game provided by SEGA, and the author has always believed Sonic to be a million times cooler than Mario.