While Sumo Digital is currently working on the upcoming Forza Horizon 2 for Xbox One, and while we’re all certainly eagerly awaiting that game (yaaaaaaaaawn!), it’s very likely that a follow-up to Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed could be in our racing future.
And so, in the interest of journalistic integrity and objectivism, we here at SEGA Nerds are obligated to “switch gears” and examine the situation in reverse. So, is there anything that this next Sonic Racing title could learn from Mario Kart 8? IndeEd with a capital “E” in the middle… Think about it…
You french-fried when you should have pizza’ed!
Mario Kart 8’s gameplay is sleek, intuitive and remarkably approachable. The courses, weapons, tricks, drifting, hang-gliding and even the coin-collecting mechanic (which I don’t care for, but I understand that is a matter of personal taste) are all easy to understand, which makes for a game that gamers of all ages and experience levels can pick up and enjoy.
SASRT, while finding effective ways to distinguish itself from other kart racers, sacrifices a great deal of approachability in the process. The menus are a bit daunting and require quite a bit of explaining for beginning players. For instance, while playing with my wife recently, I tried to explain the kart and mod selection menu. She has been navigating and understanding the respective Mario Kart 8 menu with relative ease, but while I was explaining Sonic’s menu, I realized how convoluted it really was.
“Okay honey. Pick your character. Cool.
Now, pick a modification to balance out the kart’s attributes. You know, like max speed, handling, all that.
Oh, those stat bars are the circular ones right there.
Well, honey, I have more mod options than you because I picked Beat and you picked Tails. You only have three choices because I haven’t unlocked all of the mods for Tails, yet.
That’s because I haven’t played as him enough to unlock his other mods, and I haven’t unlocked the Genesis mod in the World Tour mode.
What’s the World Tour mode…?”
That’s kind of how it went.
Once you do start up the game, the learning curve is measurably steeper than Mario Kart 8’s. Going from burning rubber on the road to taking flight in the air to setting sail (meh, it works) on the water is cool and offers some well-appreciated variation. However, each transformation requires mastery of a separate set of physics, and sometimes the abrupt transitions between these states results in some confusing adjustments. Mario Kart 8 admittedly changes the racing up a bit with the hang-gliding and anti-gravity, but these don’t drastically change the physics of the driving itself and rarely cause problems transitioning from one to the other.
Let’s also take a look at the trick systems in each game. In Mario Kart 8, a single, well-timed button press results in your racer doing a trick off a ramp and benefitting from a subsequent speed boost. If you miss the timing, there is no penalty, you just keep on karting.
In SASRT, the trick system is tied to the right analog stick. When you jump or are in free fall, tapping either up, down, left or right executes a different trick, which also yields a speed boost when successfully executed. However, failing to complete it properly results in a serious speed penalty along with the announcer calling out “Trick failed!” as though your resulting snail’s pace didn’t clue you in enough.
Tricks are just a bit awkward and can feel imprecise at times, almost like a QTE within a kart racer, while Mario Kart 8’s tricks feel more like a seamless part of the race that exists more as a bonus than a task.
There are more examples of how Sonic’s racing titles are a bit more convoluted. None of them are game breakers, far from it, and I’m sure many gamers might suggest that Sonic’s more in-depth mechanics helps to elevate the true masters of the game over those who might get lucky with a blue shell at the end of the third lap. I personally feel like Mario Kart does a better job giving every player a fighting chance, and that the next Sonic Racing game would do well to dial the learning curve down a bit.
I’ve got coins in my eyes! They’re in MY EYES!
I have to say, I love how intricately detailed the stages are in SASRT. There’s always a fanboy pleasing set piece to soak in, like the dragons in the Panzer Dragoon stage, the dolphin tank in the Burning Rangers stage, the ongoing airship battle in the Skies of Arcadia stage … my only question is regarding The House of the Dead stage: Where’s the Magician?
Honestly though, while this attention to detail is one of the game’s greatest boons, it’s also part of its biggest detriments. Sometimes it is genuinely hard to tell what exactly is going on, and, more importantly, where the heck you’re supposed to go. These problems are even more noticeable in Transformed when you’re on water or in the air, and you can find yourself canting about aimlessly, all the while enduring the announcer telling you and the entire Sonic Racing world that you’re going the wrong way.
Yes, you will eventually gain a mastery of the levels through practice, trial and error, blah blah blah, but I don’t think that I ever had an issue in Mario Kart 8 with not knowing where to go. All of the stages open up exactly when they need to, markers telling you which turns are coming up are abundant and appear with enough advance warning for you to make necessary adjustments, and the camera is almost never to blame for your failure to make a tight turn.
From a broader standpoint, Sumo would do well to open up some of those tighter corridors, direct air and sea traffic with a little bit heavier a hand and de-clutter the tracks a bit. I’d start by losing the star coins altogether; they exist almost solely as something extraneous to collect just for the sake of collecting something, and offer no gameplay advantage outside of your throwing them away using them in the slot machine between matches (this also could apply to the above arguments for simplifying the overall experience).
Otherwise, I’d say there isn’t really any one right way to streamline the visuals in the backgrounds so as not to overwhelm or distract. It could be done in overall track layout, aesthetically, or tweaks to the camera, but the point is that Mario Kart 8 does a better job than SASRT does, so there is definitely room for improvement.
Additionally, fixing both the approachability and track clutter issues will also probably help keep the online community’s healthy.
Remember, remember, this releases in November…
SEGA seems to have a very rigid development and release schedule when it comes to all Sonic titles, racing or otherwise. Holy God, it will release during the holiday season or else! Well, this can, and often does, lead to problems that could have easily been solved with a bit more quality assurance rather than releasing a patch weeks, maybe months later (if ever) after the paying consumer has tested your beta. How many times did the snake-head tunnel in the Golden Axe track screw you over before the patch was released?
Nintendo does seem to delay its games to a fault, sometimes, but how many Nintendo games have ever really needed patching? Mario Kart 8 certainly doesn’t need it… well, to correct for glitches, anyway (though if they want to remove the coins from the item boxes, I’d support that decision). As much pressure as I’m sure was on the developers of Mario Kart 8 to get the game out and herald in the second coming of the Wii U, Nintendo stuck to its guns and made sure it got it right.
Sure, SEGA got its game on the shelves amidst all the hullaballoo of the Christmas season, but SEGA’s overall brand has already taken quite a few hits, lately, resulting in a bit of an image problem. A very solid, polished run of great games is the only real way to correct for that. Correcting games post-release with patches is better than nothing. Heck, I’ve even heard that Aliens: Colonial Marines is downright average after the patches, but the damage in the public mind’s eye was done upon the initial release, and the only thing SEGA earned was the trepidation of a wary consumer. The Sonic & All-Stars Racing franchise at least has a bit of a good name going for it, so protecting and nurturing that would probably do well for SEGA’s ailing brand.
No One Likes a Slick Willie
Which leads directly into my next point: be confident in your product. Throwing all kinds of unnecessary systems and mechanics into the game (like the coins) to see what sticks exudes a lower sense of confidence in the game overall, as does the “Please buy our limited Bonus Edition that comes with free $3 DLC that you can just buy in three months.”
That’s gaming hustle speak, if you ask me, along the same lines as buying a season pass before knowing what is included. “But wait, there’s more! If you act RIGHT NOW you’ll also get…” you know the rest.
I would have paid to unlock Metal Sonic and the OutRun track. I’d still pay to get Ryo Hazuki in the Xbox 360 version. Hell, I’d even pay to unlock AGES at this point, as the challenges seem to be more than I can overcome. The Bonus Edition was more of a reason for pause than it was selling point. A good product that is properly marketed doesn’t need the added tactics of impulse buying. (Pssssst! SEGA! If you charge $100 for the Ryo Hazuki DLC and say that the proceeds will go to fund development of Shenmue 3, people will pay it!)
And finally the obvious, which may be more of a recommendation to the powers that be in SEGA proper rather than Sumo Digital as a development team. Still, savvy game consumers see the inclusion of characters like Wreck-it Ralph and Danica Patrick as gimmicky additions meant to cash in on trends and artificially attempt to expand the audience. It delegitimized the game overall, and was it worth it? Did anyone buy this game because Wreck-it Ralph was in it? How about Danica Patrick? Especially the latter did little more than anger the fan base and cause derision among circles that might have taken the game more seriously otherwise.
The Mario Kart series has never had this problem. Can you imagine tossing red shells as a Fast and the Furious-inspired Vin Diesel? No, because that’s dumb. Playing as Danica Patrick? Also dumb. (Yes, I am writing this knowing full well that the Mercedes DLC is coming to Mario Kart 8, and while silly, it’s far more minor of an annoyance)
These decisions emit the rank stink of a lack of confidence in the game, and that SEGA is grasping at straws to try and sell it. Not only that, but it also inspires internet rumors such as “You know ToeJam and Earl were going to be in this game until they were replaced with Danica Patrick…” even though the developers assert that this rumor isn’t true. I’m not a marketing genius, but I doubt that SEGA saw much benefit in sales as a result.
Sonic Got Through Act 2
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed represented SEGA’s second attempt to take on the kart racing genre (I’m not counting the Sonic Drift games because reasons). It’s a great game built upon a solid a core framework and truly amazing fan service.
However, quite a bit can be taken from Nintendo’s approach to its Mario Kart series to make Sumo Digital’s next go-around even better. Focus, take your time, be confident, and resist the interference of corporate nonsense (and P.R. lies!) that gave ToeJam and Earl the boot in favor of friggin’ Danica Patrick. (Ms. Patrick, if you’re reading this, call me).
Wow, so my last three SEGA Nerds articles all mentioned Danica Patrick in one way or another.
Seriously, though. Fuck Danica Patrick.