The year 1991 saw the debut of what would become Sega’s mascot: Sonic the Hedgehog. With his cool, edgy attitude, his series resonated with the zeitgeist of the era and was almost single-handedly responsible for the sale of millions of Genesis/Mega Drive units as well as spawning a fierce rivalry with Nintendo, the other giant in the home console market. Nearing the end of the console’s lifespan, Sega collaborated with an up-and-coming British development team known as Traveller’s Tales to create Sonic 3D Blast in 1996. Although the quality of this game has been heavily debated, it pushed the dying console to its limits with its isometric presentation and pre-rendered graphics, easily becoming a hit just like its 2D, side-scrolling predecessors when it sold over 700,000 copies.
After several failed attempts to squeeze more life out of their dying console, culminating in the ill-fated 32X add-on, Sega had released the Saturn in 1994. Similar to the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer, the Sega Saturn was one of the first standalone consoles to make use of optic discs, significantly increasing the amount of storage space developers had to work with. In terms of sales, the Saturn did not reach the same level of popularity as the Genesis/Mega Drive, which is largely attributed to, among other factors, a subpar marketing campaign. Those who did purchase the console doubtlessly wondered why Sonic had such little presence on this new console. Once Sonic 3D Blast was completed, Sega approached Traveller’s Tales about working on a new project. Having coincidentally been working a 3D engine at the time, they accepted the proposal. Their collaboration with Sonic Team resulted in Sonic R, and was released in 1997 for the Sega Saturn, making its way onto PCs a year later.
Analyzing the Experience
Sonic R is a racing game. The rules are simple: you race against four other participants for three laps, and whoever comes in first is the winner. Sonic R differentiates itself from its peers in that a majority of the characters race on foot. As Sonic and his allies are known for their fast running speed, this makes a lot of sense; indeed, it’s reasonable to believe that they would be faster on foot than in a go-kart. Because of this, Sonic R features more platforming elements than the average racing title, allowing characters to jump across gaps or any other hazard should the need arise.
From the onset, there are four different characters to play as. The first is, naturally, the star of the series: Sonic the Hedgehog; he’s the quickest character and can jump a second time in midair. The second is his best friend, Tails, who can fly for a short duration and is better at turning corners. In exchange, he’s not as fast as Sonic. The third character in this lineup is Knuckles the Echidna, Sonic’s rival. He arguably has the best balance of the entire cast, and has the ability to glide while in the air. The final character is Amy Rose, who is known for her unrequited crush on Sonic. Unlike Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles, she drives a go-kart that allows her to circumvent certain obstacles they cannot such as bodies of water. The tradeoff is that she cannot jump, preventing her from being able to use certain shortcuts in each track. In addition to these four characters, Dr. Eggman, the series’ central antagonist joins the race as well, though he’s not playable right away. He commands his famous hover transport, and is able to shoot missiles at other racers at the cost of ten rings.
Rings are collectable items comparable to coins from the Mario franchise in that collecting one-hundred of them grants the player an extra life. They play a more of an active role in gameplay, however. Normally, Sonic and his allies cannot take a hit without dying. If they have at least one ring, they instead lose them all upon taking a hit, and it’s up to the player to recoup as many as they can to prevent their character from being defenseless.
Because there are no enemies to fight, they serve an entirely different purpose in Sonic R. Littered throughout each level are acceleration pads that give characters a boost in speed should the player have enough rings. During this boost, you don’t have to worry about falling off the track or running into walls. Furthermore, it quickly becomes apparent when playing this game that the racetracks have copious amounts of alternate paths and shortcuts. In front of some of these routes are gates on which a number is adorned. They can only be opened at the cost of the rings they collect while racing. These paths often house hidden items such as Sonic Coins and Chaos Emeralds. There are five Sonic Coins in each stage. Should the player collect all of them and place at least third, a one-on-one race will begin against a new character. Win and you will be able to play as this character yourself. The Chaos Emeralds are gemstones important to the series’ mythos that can create a miracle once they have all been gathered. Those who can collect every single emerald and come in first place will unlock Super Sonic, the title character’s ultimate form.
Considering Nintendo found success with their Mario Kart spinoff series and that Sonic the Hedgehog is famous among gaming enthusiasts for his super speed, it’s logical to think the genre was tailor-made for him. This wasn’t even the first attempt at a Sonic racing game, as Sega’s portable system, the Game Gear, featured two in its library: Sonic Drift and its sequel, both of which predate Sonic R by a few years. Even for their time, neither game was spectacular, as they were plagued with awful controls and boring map designs. It was to the point where, despite having been released twelve years before the original Sonic Drift and boasting a single course, Namco’s Pole Position comes across as a superior effort.
Sonic Drift was made in a time when the biggest draw of portable games wasn’t necessarily their quality, but rather the ability to enjoy them away from the house. Premier gaming experiences were still largely limited to home consoles and desktop computers. Keeping this in mind, one would assume that Sonic R would be a significant improvement over its Game Gear predecessors. As sound as that deduction may be, Sonic R really doesn’t fare much better in hindsight than Sonic Drift despite its superior graphical presentation. The aspect that sinks the experience from top to bottom is the bane of many terrible games: unpolished controls. Although they are a little better than they were in Sonic Drift, I still found myself running into walls all the time, and it seems as though only the slowest characters can turn corners with any degree of skill. One could make a case that, being an early 3D console game, it makes sense for the controls to have not aged well. This hypothetical person may have had a point, except for the small detail of Mario Kart 64 seeing its release earlier in the same year as Sonic R, and the controls in that game have held up with time – anyone used to modern control schemes would have little trouble adapting to it.
Then again, this might be a natural consequence of a majority of the characters racing on foot as opposed to in a vehicle. Traditional racing game controls where the buttons are meant to be analogous to a real car’s brake and gas pedals with the stick representing the steering wheel makes little sense when you’re not in control of one. Unfortunately, this just means that the people who made this game created an unnecessary problem for themselves, which was subsequently solved with a less-than-satisfactory solution.
The game’s problems don’t stop at the controls, however. Like RPGs, a good racing game should have balance. That is to say, every character should cater to a certain playstyle. For example, looking at Mario Kart 64, there three types of characters separated by their weight class. Lightweight characters accelerate quickly and don’t suffer as much as of a penalty as their peers when driving off-road. Conversely, heavyweight characters have a higher top speed and the ability to make lighter racers spin out upon colliding with them. Finally, middleweight characters are good all-around with no glaring weakness. What they all have in common is that anyone can achieve success regardless of who they choose. This isn’t the case with Sonic R. In this game, characters are effectively divided into tiers based on effectiveness with Amy and Dr. Eggman ranking low and Super Sonic utterly destroying any semblance of challenge the experience may have presented, being able to outpace everyone at the cost of being somewhat difficult to control. This would make for boring multiplayer sessions, as even if a group of friends were to disallow using Super Sonic, they would choose the same exact same characters every time, lest they get stuck with one that has no realistic hope of winning.
Chances are great that they would get bored quickly even if the characters were balanced better because this game only has five racetracks. One could argue that because each level features myriad paths with many secret items to find, the true challenge of the game lies not in simply winning, but being able to unlock all the bonus features. While I can respect this design choice on paper, in practice, it doesn’t work. In single-player sessions, races only take a few minutes to complete even if you’re looking for hidden items. By comparison, Mario Kart 64 had a respectable sixteen courses, some of which are actually longer than any level in Sonic R, making the latter title seem even more unimpressive.
Perhaps the worst aspect about Sonic R is the lack of incentive to succeed. A majority of racing games feature a Grand Prix mode that requires players to participate in multiple matches in succession. The higher the player ranks, the more points they’re awarded, and whoever has the largest number after a certain amount of races is declared the winner. It’s true that in Sonic R, there is technically a mode of play called Grand Prix, but each session only consists of a single race, taking away a significant amount of the challenge most of its contemporaries possess. When a game doesn’t properly motivate the player to succeed, it has officially failed at its job of being a compelling, interactive experience.
Drawing a Conclusion
In the grand scheme of things, Sonic R is one of those games that has nothing practical going for it. Although it hasn’t aged as poorly as Sonic Drift or its sequel, and I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s the worst racing game ever made, there’s no reason to recommend playing it. It’s not as though the ideas presented in this game are unsalvageable. For proof of this, one need not look further than the underrated 1999 Nintendo 64 title, Beetle Adventure Racing. Like Sonic R, this game featured ambitious levels with multiple hidden paths and creative shortcuts. Although there were a mere six tracks, each session lasted anywhere from six to ten minutes, eclipsing the length of an average video game race by a considerable margin. Moreover, it even featured a battle mode similar to that of Mario Kart 64, making it even more viable as a party game. Meanwhile, with its clunky controls and the inability to race without running into walls constantly, one might say that the only way in which Sonic R succeeded was serving as ominous foreshadowing for what the franchise would become shortly after the main series finally broke into the third dimension.
Final Score: 2/10