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'Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed' Review: nostalgia at high speed (iOS)

by Miguel Concepcion

January 9 2014

Sumo Digital makes kart racing and console-to-mobile porting look easy. (4 out of 5 stars)

Arcade racers on mobile have been around as long as the platform itself, but the genre still has a lot of room for improvement. Now veteran racing game studio Sumo Digital has ambitiously tried to tighten the gap between their accomplishments on gaming consoles and what they've been able to port to smartphones and tablets. As the developer of many racing games based on Sega licenses, Sumo's latest effort on mobile is an impressive on-the-go version of Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. And while it comes with an understandable degree of content trimmings over the console versions, you might be surprised what this latest version pulls off.

As sad as it is that Sega hasn't been churning out new IPs  and characters like they did in the 80's and 90's, this Sonic-helmed kart racing series has proven to be fertile ground to reintroduce classic faces to younger consumers and pull the nostalgia heart strings of older players. It's unfortunate that we haven't had a Panzer Dragoon game in a decade, but at least Sumo's put in a lot of imagination into the racetrack themed on that cult hit. Same goes for the inventive design of the Afterburner track, which appropriately starts on an aircraft carriers and takes the player to the nearby sea and air.

This racer is called "Transformed" due to the racetracks' modular designs and how each racer's vehicle adapts to the morphing road. Aside from tearing up pavement, every racer can fly and traverse water, and it's entertaining to see what each character's vehicle transforms into to suit the situation. Kart racers inherently demand your full attention at all times, and the ever-changing landscapes of the console versions of Transformed became another variable to keep you on your toes. While mobile phones don't have the capacity to fully replicate these same dynamic set pieces on consoles, the changing environments in this game still enhance the challenge.

This content-cutting unsurprisingly extends to the game's roster of characters. The small bright side is that this cast of 14 represents a wide generational spectrum of Sega characters, the oldest being Joe Musashi, originally from 1987's Shinobi. Gum from the Dreamcast's Jet Set Radio is another classic old school character. Rounding out this roster are the more recent Ralph from Disney's Wreck-It-Ralph as well as the new mascot AGES (spell it backwards—get it?). This curious character's default form is a Dreamcast accessory.

Sonic & All-Stars should definitely appeal to kart racing fans who aren't necessarily Sega fans. That said, this mobile version manages to be the ultimate tease for Sega die-hards due to the simple inclusion of a beloved character joining this series for the first time: Shenmue's Ryo Hazuki. He makes quite an impression, making the most of the vehicle transformation options. Some of the best distractions in Shenmue were the near-perfect ports of classic Sega arcade games like Out Run, After Burner, and Hang-On. These arcade cabinets are Ryo's vehicles in the game and they'll resonate with older players to the point that these vehicles will feel like characters themselves. Ryo's inclusion is also a tease because the Out Run cabinet's license plate reads "SHEN 3", and given Yu Suzuki's panel at this year's GDC, you can't blame Sega conspiracy theorists for being restless for a third game in the series.

The in-app purchase structure is quite reasonable. While some character, track, and booster packs are pricey, there's nothing you can buy that you can't simply earn through continuous playing. In my opinion, the play progression is rewarding, identical to the console versions as well as many other well-designed arcade racers with unlockables. In other words, any reasonably skilled player can rely on the classic mantra for success in this genre: after you know a given racetrack like the back of your hand, first place should not be a problem.

To the series' credit, I've never been able to figure out the AI opponents' behaviors and I have lost a number of races due to last-minute comebacks, but that's the beauty of kart racing games. Timing drifts and triggering weapons in this genre is an art, and sometimes it just comes down to saving that one game-changing attack for the race's home stretch. Placing well always feels rewarding, complemented by the game's responsive controls. You can tilt to steer, but I prefer the virtual controls. It's also compatible with physical controller accessories. Whatever your preference, it's easy to get a handle on the drifting as well as using weapons.

Sumo even managed to add replay value in tracks you've already mastered. Free daily and weekly missions give you an opportunity to try out new characters before you've properly unlocked them. On the flipside, it's unfortunate that the game does not include a quick race mode.

Maybe I'm cutting the mobile games market too much slack, but even in 2014, I still find functional synchronous online multiplayer to be a luxury, especially when it's with fast-paced "twitch" gameplay like in Sonic & All-Stars Racing. Supported via Game Center, my dozen four-player-supported races were fluid with minimal lag.

For all that's been trimmed from the console versions, this mobile take on Transformed is still a good value. When it only takes a couple dozen laps to master a track, repeated playthroughs never feel like grinding, making in-app purchases moot for most players. For really hardcore Sega fans who've unlocked everything in the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 versions, Ryo Hazuki's inclusion may be more than enough incentive to pick it up again, especially if he doesn't appear as DLC in the console versions. And since Nintendo doesn't have any plans to take Mario kart beyond their handheld systems, it's not that unreasonable to say that Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is the best kart racer you can find on tablets.

  • Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed
  • Developer: Sumo Digital
  • Publisher: Sega
  • Platform: iOS
  • In-App Purchases: Yes
  • Price: $4.99

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