Remember Sonic Riders? No? That's probably because it was awful. It's the worst racing game I've ever had to play except Donkey Kong Jet Race. It was convoluted, impossible to control and inflated beyond all sane proportions by one of the most nonsensical stories in game history (even by mid-noughties Sonic spin-off standards), narrated by voice actors with the cadence of malfunctioning robots.
The only way to make it worse would have been to add dodgy motion control - and lo, that is exactly what SEGA did with Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity on the Wii. It was, as anyone could have predicted, even more awful. "A complete waste of time, effort and the planet's resources," said Ellie. "Please stop it."
Unfortunately, here it is, back yet again. Why SEGA has chosen this particular racing game to resurrect for Kinect is a question for the ages. Perhaps Sonic Team thinks that taking the controller away entirely will solve the series' congenital control problems.
Let's be honest: it's not looking hopeful. Racing games are supposed to be fast and precise, but Kinect has a bit of lag and prefers to use broad gestures rather than small movements. Sonic and friends (and far-fetched, barely recognisable acquaintances) are still stuck to those questionable hoverboards. But let's try to put the past behind us. Joined by fellow Friend of Eurogamer Jon Blyth, I stand in front of Sonic Free Riders with my negative preconceptions tucked away in a black box at the back of my mind.
It takes fully five minutes to get off the menu screen. Riders, like Kinect Sports and Adventures, requires you to select things on the menu by moving your hand back and forth across the screen to scroll through options, then holding your hand up in front of an icon to select it. We're supposed to drag our desired character icon to the 'Start' icon at the bottom of the screen.
Sweeping back and forth doesn't work. At all. After a few seconds of trying, we decide to go with the default course and characters to save ourselves the hassle. But then, when we try to drag them to the Start icon, the camera keeps losing our hands and the icon snaps back to its starting position. Occasionally the character wheel spins of its own accord, presumably reacting to some inadvertent gesture. It's not going well.
Eventually - eventually - we manage to select characters and boards, moving our hands very, very slowly to help the game understand what we're doing. Once we finally conquer the menu screen a short tutorial pops up to tell us how to steer the imaginary jetboard we're standing on. Stand straight on towards the screen, leaning left and right to steer? Stand side-on and bend the knees, like you would on a skateboard, snowboard or Wii balance board? Oh no - it wants to us stand sideways on and bend forward and backwards at the waist.
Not just a little bit, either, but really flinging your head and torso towards the floor in either direction. Jon immediately throws himself forwards and veers wildly away to the right; I try a more reserved interpretation and fail to turn at all. Neither of us touches any of the guide cones that we'resupposed to slalom through. It's still not going well.
This way of controlling the board doesn't just look deranged, it's also tremendously uncomfortable. Bending backwards at the waist is not a natural motion. Bending over in the other direction isn't exactly comfortable either, but at least it's physically possible.
Once we're into the race, the boards fly off in a straight line and it rarely feels as if there's any control at all going on. Jon has slightly better results with wild motions back and forth than I do with more snowboard-esque tilting, but if I were to bend forward with equal enthusiasm my face would be in precarious proximity to his backside, and nobody wants that.
Photos are being taken. This is not dignified. Kinect is never dignified, but this takes the biscuit. You can reach out to the sides to grab rings as you go past, but throwing your torso back and forth with arms outstretched is enough to make you topple over. I fly into an item box and pick up a missile, which the game tells me to fling at Knuckles, who's in front of me. I throw my arm forwards twice without success. Works the third time, though.
There's another ink-splotch item which you activate by clapping your hands together, and this one works first time. When a jump's coming up, you crouch down and then up again to fly off the ramp, pulling stunts that seem to fill up your boost meter. You can then activate a wicked-rad speed boost by turning so that you're face-on to the camera and pushing off with your foot like you're on a skateboard. So far it's the only thing about Sonic Free Riders that's fun and intuitive, until you have to turn sideways again because your character gets confused and flies into a wall, slowing himself back to a crawl.
I finish seventh. Jon is fifth. I ask him how he did it, but he has no idea. We resolve to give the other course a go, but are almost defeated again by the menu. Second time around, the relationship between the movements we're making and what's happening on-screen is sadly no clearer. Riding a jetboard is skittish anyway - if you've played either of the other two Sonic Riders games, you'll know just how skittish - and controlling it by moving your body makes it even more unpredictable. Getting whichever bastard child of the Sonic canon you're playing as to turn at all requires such an exaggerated motion that finesse is out of the question.
There is a possibility here that Sonic Free Riders will feel less entirely random when you get used to controlling it, but the whole point of motion control, particularly Kinect, is that it's supposed to be immediately obvious what you have to do and how you have to do it, and fun to carry it out. It's possible, too, that Kinect itself is having trouble tracking two people playing in a room with others moving around in the background, but that really doesn't reflect well on the device itself, which would be a much larger problem.
There are loads of reasons why games might be worse at preview stage than they are when they're ready to review. Sometimes the tech isn't working properly. Some games just make a bad first impression. Some games just need a little tightening up before they're released to go from broken to perfectly playable. Few undergo miraculous transformations two months before they're released. And going by the series' history, sadly we're not holding out much hope for this one.
Sonic Free Riders is due out for Xbox 360 this November.