Imagine how different things would be if it had been Sonic and not Mario thrust into that kingmaking kart; if SEGA and Nintendo "swapped" driving stuffs. Instead of cursing stupid Princess Peach/Daisy/WHICH-IS-IT we'd be cursing stupid Amy, instead of invincibility stars we'd have invincibility sparkly-firework-boxes, instead of pushing your friend in the lava we'd have smacking Tails' stupid head against the cobbles over and over and over and over and over and over and over ten out of ten.
S'probably best this way. After all, the other side doesn't bear thinking about. OutRun by Nintendo? Where you have to "impress" Princess or, worse, Toad?
Anyway, SEGA's had a pretty bad time of it with these character-driven racing games. The one that immediately leaps to mind (largely thanks to the inimitable caterwauling of the lady-vocalist on all the Richard Jacques stuff that accompanies it) is Sonic R, which took the rubbish idea of "a running game" and made it even worse by adding the important feature of "where you can't turn". But that's entirely forgetting Sonic Drift, a game that didn't so much "soil" the Sonic name as "squat over it following an eight-hour binge on laxative vindaloo".
So then, Sonic Riders is a chance to try and make up for this, and crucially doesn't involve either running or soiling (or karts). Instead it's about "air boards". You take control of one of the usual SEGA gang - Sonic, Tails (gnnrnrngh), Robotnik, Amy, etc. - and speed around levels based on familiar SEGA game environments on a sort of hover-board, picking up stocks of "air" fuel at F-Zero-style pitstops and through power-ups. Run out of air and you have to run. Simple enough.
To make things a bit more interesting, cornering at speed is a bit trickier than simply turning; like Mario Kart, you're using a shoulder button to manage the arc, releasing it at a particular point to take advantage of a boost. Again a bit like F-Zero, you have the option of boosting using your air - banking on getting power-ups later on to replenish it. And, er, again a bit like Mario Kart, there's the tactic of riding turbulence (perhaps SEGA and Nintendo needn't swap after all). Whenever you or one of your opponents hits a particular speed, it kicks up a wake which forms a lengthy half-pipe on the track, and given a bit of feathery analogue manoeuvring you can land right in it and navigate your way right up to the speedy chap up front - providing you can adjust to his attempts to shake you - and bonk him on the head.
All of which makes for a pretty interesting set-up, lumped upon which you have the added considerations of character type, individual performance stats, tricks, attacks, and trying to kill Tails who must be killed seriously I'll pay you. Tricks go by familiar names (things like 'indies'), and include the usual front and back flip stuff - the former allowing you to jump a considerable distance forward, and the latter allowing for what the Sonic R singing lady always wanted to do: going so HIGH you can touch the SKY. Which is handy, because like all good character-driven racing game this one has shortcuts littered about. Plus, tricks are graded - landing them properly matters in that sense, and in the sense of preserving speed.
Character classes also play a part in shortcuts' accessibility, splitting you off at points depending on whether you're a speed, fly or power type. Speed types like Sonic get to grind along rails, picking up air stocks for as long as they hang on. Fly types can ride along through gates in the air - similar to the way characters in Sonic Adventure games zoom along flightpaths made up of rings by hitting a particular button - and pick up air for as long as they last there. Power types, meanwhile, clobber their way through obstacles, picking up bonus stocks of air for multiple clobbers.
Riders has support for four players (although no online modes), and in addition to the standard Free Race, Time Attack and World Grand Prix options, there's a Story Mode that gives you particular objectives to complete on certain levels, like finishing ahead of a particular character or in a certain position, by which we mean "podium position", obviously, and not "doing scissors" or something foul and depraved like that. You can obviously expect to unlock things depending on your skills - collecting a certain number of rings helps with this, for example - and the bonuses for doing so include various new characters. I'm not allowed to tell you who they are, but if you take a look at SEGA's track record of gathering its far-flung little creations together you can probably hazard a reasonable guess.
But are you likely to want to play it if there isn't a special "kill Tails" mode? A good question, and one that we'll have to wait until mid March to answer. However, early impressions are that it's a solid, easy to pick up game that is at least 47 times better than Sonic R, and possibly 47 to the power of 47 times better than Sonic Drift 2 on Game Gear, which is to say it has more than one frame of animation for turning. Check back closer to release to see just how many it does have (I'll be counting).
Sonic Riders is due out on PS2, Xbox and GameCube from March 17th.