Let’s take a trip down memory lane where Sega Saturn owners were Super Sonic Racing.
Although the Super Mario games were hugely popular in the mid 90’s, Nintendo decided to put the plumber and his Mushroom Kingdom pals in go-karts and make them race against each other. Enter the grandfather of the “kart racing genre” Super Mario Kart. It was everything that a normal Mario game wasn’t… it was FAST. And it would go on to be one of Nintendo’s most successful franchises.
Naturally, Sega had seen the popularity of Super Mario Kart, and with Mario Kart 64 already on the Nintendo 64, Sega looked to bring their very own Sonic-themed racing game to its Sega Saturn console in an attempt to crash the Mario Kart party. Thus, Sonic R was born.
Now, as a young boy who didn’t own a SNES or an N64 at the time, instead owning the Mega Drive and Saturn, I was always jealous of my friends telling me how great Mario Kart 64 was. So, when I heard about Sonic R I couldn’t wait to play it. Surely it HAD to be better. Sonic games were all about SPEED, so a racing game fits the bill perfectly, right? Well, let’s take a look back.
Developed by Traveller’s Tales and released in 1997 on the Sega Saturn (and then a year later on PC) Sonic R is less of a “Kart Racing” game and more of a platformer-meets-racing game where players not only have to complete laps around a race track but also have to jump on platforms, collect Rings and explore the area in which they are racing in (more on that a little later.) The game features a total of 10 playable characters, five of which are unlockable. So straight away you only get access to half of the roster: Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Amy Rose and Dr. Robotnik.
With the exception of Amy Rose who drives a car and Dr. Robotnik who rides in his Egg-O-Matic, every character you play as runs the race on foot, which is the most obvious idea for a Sonic racing game when you think about it. Sadly, the controls aren’t great. In order to accelerate (or run, as it were) you either have to hold down “Up” on the D-Pad or hold down the “B” button on the Saturn’s controller. Have you ever played a racing game where “Up” is the accelerator? Now imagine holding “Up” whilst trying to turn Left or Right at the same time! It’s not impossible by any means, but this control method tends to end with players zig-zagging on straight lines like a guy who’s had one too many beers as you’re trying to stay in control of your racer and accidently running off the track. Just stick to the “B” button, trust me.
There are only 5 tracks in total to race on, one of which has to be unlocked by finishing in 1st place on the other 4 tracks. That’s way below the 16 tracks found in Mario Kart 64. While the course selection may not be very big, the courses themselves have a fair bit of depth and variety to them. Each course has 5 Tokens to collect along with a Chaos Emerald, or two. This is where the Platforming and Exploration aspect of Sonic R comes into play as these collectables are hidden on the track and you’ll have to search high and low to find them. Collect all 5 Tokens whilst finishing in the Top 3 and you’ll get to face-off against one of the unlockable characters. Beat him in a one-on-one race and he’s yours. Collecting all the Chaos Emerald(s) in each stage will unlock Super Sonic, however once you’ve collected them you must finish the race in 1st place, otherwise you’ll lose the Emerald(s) and have to try again. The interesting part of these collectables is that it offers a risk/reward system. You need go out of your way in order to find them all, but you then run the risk of dropping down a few positions in the race, so you’ll have a lot of work to do if you want to catch up with the rest of the pack. The collectable side of Sonic R gives the game some much needed replay value considering how small the track selection is.
Mario Kart 64 was always praised for its multiplayer Race and Battle modes. Well, Sonic R has its own multiplayer modes too, but they aren’t quite as good even if they are a little bit different.
You have your standard head-to-head Race mode but you can also choose to play any track in reverse which is a neat idea; however, some tracks aren’t very suited when running in reverse and can be quite tricky to navigate around. Balloon mode (unlike Mario Kart 64’s Balloon Battle) has you finding as many balloons hidden on the track as quickly as you can before your opponent finds them first. The player with the most balloons found wins the match. And finally, there’s Tag mode where, just like on the playground at Primary School, you either have to chase down and “tag” your opponent, along with 3 computer characters, or you have to run away and hide from the one who’s “it.” Like I said, these modes are a bit different. Not terrible, but not great either.
The music in the pervious Mega Drive Sonic titles has always been memorable and catchy. Sonic R’s soundtrack is also very memorable, but for a different reason. For whatever reason Sonic R decided to go with a Brit Pop soundtrack by award-winning composer Richard Jacques and featuring the vocal stylings of TJ Davis. Every song on the soundtrack doesn’t seem like it belongs in a Sonic game, yet I honestly can’t imagine racing through Resort Island without listening to “Can You Feel the Sunshine” blasting out of my television. Every song is really cheesy but also really good at the same time. It only adds to this games charm and it takes me right back to the late 90’s. Seriously, do yourself a favour and listen to the soundtrack. It’s great!
So, we’ve talked about Sonic R’s poor controls, strange choice of soundtrack and its small character and track selection. By all accounts Sonic R is a game which under-delivers on almost everything and was WAY behind its main rival at the time, Mario Kart 64. But you know what? I really like Sonic R. I enjoy everything this game has to offer. I frequently revisit Sonic R every year, start the game from scratch and see how quickly I can unlock all the hidden characters and fully complete the game. (if you want to see that for yourself then check out this video of myself completing Sonic R.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eb6fJE0krbM
I love the Mario Kart series, it’s easily my favourite video game series out there; but there’s something about Sonic R that I find more endearing. I think a big factor is my nostalgia for Sonic R and the fact that I didn’t have Mario Kart in my life at that time, so Sonic R was the next best thing for me.
It goes to show that no matter how good or bad a game might be; it’s how you connect with that game and what memories you make and the experiences you have which ultimately make you decide whether you love it or not. That’s why I love Sonic R.
Have you ever played Sonic R, either on the Sega Saturn, PC or the re-releases on PS2 and GameCube? If so, what did you think? I’d love to hear you experiences with this game, so please let me know in the comments section below. In the meantime, keep it #PoweredOn.