Hedgehogs in shopping carts
It used to be that, for the most part, we had the time of our lives talking about games. You remember the first time you reached dizzying speeds with Sonic; that flurry of scenario, wildlife, yellow rings and blue skies all becoming a moment of pure motion. You remember the first headshot you inflicted, stopping for a split-second to stare in awe and despair at our victim before a few bullets to the back reminded you “kill or be killed” arenas are a bad place for sightseeing. You may remember that first descent into a tube in Mushroom Kingdom, the first time you cheated your back into a fighting game with the second controller, the first time you held a plastic gun and shot polygonal dudes or the peculiar dread of a Zerg Rush. We had the time of our lives because that’s how we lived our lives and because we talked with someone who lived theirs the same way.
Cue videogame globalization and you’re suddenly thrown into a cubbyhole of expression. No one understands you. Sure, you can share these vignettes with people you know; it could just be that some of them understand that “gaming culture” goes beyond wearing some T-Shirt heckling Mario or claiming they were cool because they played Pong. Mostly, you just keep to yourself because there’s something undeniably innocent and childlike to the whole thing, like a first crush that everyone knows you have but are fine without having to hear you talk about “feelings”. Once in a while you slip a reference or two, giggling to yourself for about the two seconds it takes you to realize you’re gonna have to explain that LittleBigPregnant comment to your female and soon-to-be-a-mother co-worker. But how many more times can you link Spinal Tap with that Killer Instinct character before people start avoiding small talk and eye contact with you?
Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing seems to understand you. It knows these dirty little secrets about you. It nods, winks, then presents a singularity point where your youth coalesces into a game about karts and furries.
Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing is, after all, about kart racing. It’s also part shopping catalogue, part nostalgia and part Sumo Digital’s love for the love of driving rather than the reality of driving. It owes as much to the arcade racer renaissance spearheaded by Yu Suzuki during the mid-1980′s as it does to WipEout‘s reverse engineering of F-Zero for a generation who couldn’t derive sheer joy out of Virtua Racing and Super Mario Kart.
Comparisons to Mario Kart are, in a way, unavoidable yet unecessary. While it also focuses on tight tracks, the use of weapons against other racers and booby trapped levels that ensured the success of Nintendo’s series, its setup should be familiar to anyone who has played Sumo’s stellar Outrun 2006: Coast to Coast. Except you’re not driving your girlfriend around in Ferraris: rather, it’s like the crazy UFO stages of that game multiplied tenfold. Examples come in track variety, with the likes of Roulette Road twisting and turning wildly while casino chips fall across the way and Sunshine Tour, with unbearably cute crowds and houses dancing to samba spliced with tubular, psychadelic corridors every few miles. It’s a cute game with an agressive underbelly: not so much about racing as it is about maximizing your speed boosts, using items to send opponents off their course and juggling between pushing racers off-track while avoiding Sonic trampolines that bounce you off walls and spin you around. Amidst the flowers and sunshine and orcas jumping out of the water and over race tracks, you start sweating at the very likely chance the friction between the narrow roads and the rock-paper-scissors combat will get to you at any given instant.
As a racer primarily focused on the nostalgia you may devote to its characters than their efficiency, you can tell Sonic’s past has perhaps influenced the roster too much. Robotnik is a given, sure, but one could do without the anthropomorphic mediocrity that parades alongside the rest of the cast. I suppose those who create communities to share dreams of matrimony with just about anything with a tail and fur in the Sonicverse are technically considered a “market”, which only serves to highlight the anatomy of the tragedy: while Outrun 2006′s Ferraris were an “why not?” in its celebration of the fantasy of driving, Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing’s cortege of hedgehogs is a “why?” in its imposing of fan service. As franchise fetichism decided by corporate suits this comes with the territory: looking at the game box, you instinctively know it’s a conceptual dead end. Still, there’s a feeling that someone at Sega made a conscious decision to not let it sink completely into franchise hubris. The PR nightmare of telling the target audience that, yes, Sonic would drive in a kart must’ve been less harrowing than dealing with “fans” asking for Sonic to have a gun and, in retrospect, Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing is saner market research than Shadow the Hedgehog or the Sonic the Hedgehog Joke Book ever were.
That bitter taste does go away after a while, if you give the game enough time to show its true colors. Sumo’s craftmanship and Suzuki’s legacy are apparent in nearly everything, from the economy of controls and sense of speed to the simple fact that it’s a game about joy, the unexpected pleasure that comes from realizing someone out there still enjoys making and playing games. Not people who had to learn to enjoy their jobs in the industry, but people who spent hours playing arcades with people cheering around them. Not people who smack themselves in the head after seeing the competition spellbound millions of players and asking themselves in board meetings, quite matter-of-factly, why they didn’t think of that; but of people who never once stopped creating a game that, at every turn, has gamers saying to themselves “these guys think like me”. Not people who waste their lives crying about the death of the Dreamcast, but people who keep its spirit alive.
TALKING ABOUT THE GAME AGAIN
When the game’s breathing down your neck, with other racers hunting you down at high speeds and shoving missiles up your exhaust pipe or sending boxing gloves against your chassis, you may bemoan that the likes of Amy and Big the Cat made it while Joe Musashi from Shinobi is absent; but the tangible, meaty controls provide a vigorous flux of speed and flow, and hugging a sharp turn only to let go of the accumulated speed boost like an asphalt fiend is gratifying as not many racers manage to be. Some tracks challenge you in different ways, subverting your expectations and one minute you may be dodging zombies from House of the Dead while launching bombs at a monstrosity prancing about the middle of an arena, or taking the lead with Mobo and Robo (from Bonanza Bros.) while throwing bombs at the cars chasing you. Crashing into something has as much kinetic force as a paper ball hitting a steel door, though, and it’s one thing in dire need of improvement.
Outrun 2006′s system of Sega Miles (points earned at the end of each race) is back, and here these allow you to purchase new tracks, songs and racers, providing delightful winks at older characters in Sega’s portfolio, like Alex Kidd and Ryo Hazuki from Shenmue. As you take these for a test drive and use them in championships, it becomes clearer that it’s all about who is the best in your opinion, not in reality. Even if all three types of vehicles – cars, bikes and hovercrafts – sport differences this is the type of game where your favorite racer will win because you care about them; no innate attributes makes any of them top tier. Your perseverence does. Maybe that’s for the best since skill is still the most important aspect of games of this type and the triad of reflexes, memorization and item usage balances it out: if you can’t excel in one, optimal knowledge of the others will still win the day. Except at the higher difficulty levels where split-second place holding becomes a case of knowing your way around tracks and some faith in the slot machine nature of items. The klaxon that goes off once you’ve been targetted by the CPU only helps in letting you know you’re screwed, not in countering the screwing; fortunately, weapons at your disposal can be fired against enemies ahead of, and behind you which, while not always tipping the odds in your favor, at least results in cases where you can break even.
While not exactly a “tour de force” of all of Sega’s past characters and games, much of it seems to be looking straight at people who have been, at some point in their lives, a fan of Sega. Sure, Shenmue and Space Channel 5 were mostly critic darlings but they didn’t always struck a chord with the public. But some gamers know these characters, and loved these characters. Someone at Sega knows this; someone there, perhaps moved by a sense of preserving the impact the company once had (I’d like to imagine an old, wise executive who knows what gamers want having to be listened to by young, brash executives who try to guess what gamers want), went into the board meeting that preceeded the game’s planning and presented a lovingly scrawled notebook containing names and doodles of characters like Kid Chameleon, Sketch Turner and Toe Jam and Earl, whereafter everyone stopped caressing their lips with gold-plated Montblancs and admitted ignorance as to what the old man was mumbling about. They then spent the rest of the meeting ripping the pages away, only leaving a scant few for the concept artists to work with. The old man then cried but took solace in knowing some would make the cut. And really, when you see Ulala – whom you can “buy”, making one feel all kinds of dirty – temporarily leaving the driver’s seat only to get on top of her retro futuristic floating pod and swing her hips like she was still bringing you the news from outer space, it’s special in an intimate kind of way. A way that survived the corporate purge. A way Sega used to be.
Online options are surprisingly lacking where the PC version is concerned. That’s always been one of the platform’s strengths and that’s one option Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing almost screams for. This would be a plus because historically, there isn’t much of a strong tradition of kart racers on the PC like there is in, say, Nintendo platforms. Instead you’re treated to split-screen multiplayer challenges where first-person shooter tropes like Capture the Flag and Domination are given a makeover of vehicle combat and sugar, spice, and everything nice. Some of these include collecting the most gems and rings in an arena or passing through portals as fast as you can while doing stunts.
It could just be that you prefer a more technical racer, whether it’s the equivalent of car crash porn like Burnout Paradise or the grueling, backwards escapism of TOCA Race Driver, or that you’ve developed this monogamous expectation for ModNation Racers. It could be that, like me, you’d expect the racing genre to be a casual thing, like repeating a moderate thrill instead of perpetual bliss. It could be that sometimes, some tracks feel less like spaces where you drive and more like Sonic levels that were bombed to make way for cars passing through. It could just be you don’t like Sega games and the saccharine, antropomorphic likes of Tails: there’s something off puting for many gamers in a racer that, even its rainbow splashed race tracks and cheerful music, doesn’t quite prepare you for the fact you’ll drive a banana-shaped car with a monkey behind a wheel while listening to “Samba de Janeiro”. Or that it clashes naïve visuals with the seriousness of hard dudes from Virtua Fighter, doing their best to hide the fact they’re rejected drafts for Ken and Ryu.
Otherwise, there’s little excuse not to play the game.
In promoting Heavy Rain, Quantic Dream director David Cage tried to impose the notion that it’s not a videogame for critics. Whether he sees it as a way to shield his project from the proper, critical discussion that’s sorely missing in mainstream journalism or as a way to suggest that, even with all of its problems, it’s a game worthy of consideration, his words are misplaced. Heavy Rain should, and must, be exhalted and trashed and chewed and digested by as many people as possible. Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing, on the other hand, doesn’t need critics. It can’t be juxtaposed with a game about taking your girlfriend places, with a game about plumbers and dinosaurs driving in karts or with a game trying to gain legitimacy by virtue of its author seeing himself as a dramatist. It’s a game meant to stir people who had no idea that something inside them needed to be stirred in the first place, all the while taking in those blue skies that no one but Sega knows how to pull off.
And in this day and age of Generic Shooter XII: A Quest for Cover and Real Time Navel Gazing: A Study in Paper Thin Morality, we desperately need something that stirrs our insides. Except bowel movement, that is. Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing, then – not bowel movement. More like hyperventilating at the roller coaster of our youths.