Sumo delivers a tribute to Sega that's as assured as the games it's in thrall to.
One of hip-hop's most famous shout-outs to video games got a cruel update earlier this month. "It used to be Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis," raps Scroobius Pip as he riffs off Biggie Small's Juicy, "but Sega went and choked man, I couldn't picture this."
The blue-sky dreams of the '90s may have faded to grey, but no one's taking those sweet memories away. Sega's holding tight to them, too, restoring the likes of Daytona, Jet Set Radio and most recently NiGHTS. Ryo Hazuki's probably never going to make his way out of that Guilin cave, but in so many other ways Sega's fans have been exceptionally well served.
Sumo Digital's karting game Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a little helping of silver service for those fans. This isn't just about Sonic, Tails and Robotnik; it's about Vyse, it's about Ulala and it's about Panzer Dragoon. Hell, it's even about Burning Rangers, an extended and note-perfect tribute to Sonic Team's masterful Saturn action game forming the basis of one of the more memorable tracks.
Sega's mascots and its cult figures are handled with an exquisite care: on seeing Sumo's recreation of Skies of Arcadia, the game's original producer was reportedly moved close to tears. When, on the third and final lap of a race within the world of Arcadia, the village crumbles away and all the racers take to the sky to dart between battling galleons, there may well be others who can't hold the waterworks back.
Other tributes are lavishly produced and just as heartfelt: there's a rush through lava and red stone that's pulled from Golden Axe, a run across an aircraft carrier that ends with players taking to the skies and a track culled from the opening of OutRun 2 SP that takes a detour into the choppy waters of the bay. The love-in runs so deep I was half-expecting Segata Sanshiro to make an appearance - I didn't spot him, sadly, but the final unlockable cameo that I'll leave you to discover yourself is perhaps even sweeter.
This isn't messy fan fiction, either. All-Stars Racing Transformed is never less than handsome. Ambition sometimes gets the better of it - the four-player splitscreen that sits across the campaign as well as its own handful of bespoke modes understandably takes a performance hit, but it's a shame that the same's true of some of the single-player offerings. The Burning Rangers level, for all the excitement it musters, suffers from a stuttering frame-rate that would make a Saturn blush.
Beneath those dense layers of fan service there's a lot more going on than simple nostalgia in All-Stars Racing Transformed, and it's the influence of some games outside of Sega's canon that make it really fly. Mario Kart, naturally, is one - the bare basics are lifted, with tracks littered with power-ups and boost pads, while Mario Kart 7's trinity of land, sea and air racing is also borrowed.
That's been pushed to the core here, spread out across minute-to-minute racing that shows Sumo is a proud graduate of the Sega school of long, languid powerslides. Drifting gets its own dedicated button, used to tease the tail out on the gentle, drawn-out corners that define the game's course design, inviting you to hold a slide sideways for as long as possible. The reward is a boost that's more powerful the longer you drift for, ensuring that the art of driving fast is a case of maintaining a carefully threaded string of drift, charge and thrust.
"On seeing Sumo's recreation of Skies of Arcadia, the game's original producer was reportedly moved close to tears."
It's a satisfying model, and the glue that holds the otherwise distinct disciplines of flying, driving and piloting a boat together - and it's here, and in a handful other areas, that All-Stars Racing Transformed manages to trump its inspiration. There's a tangible difference between the three different craft - boats bob merrily across undulating waters, planes zip freely through tightly plotted checkpoints while karts... Well, karts handle as well as you'd expect from the developer of OutRun 2's exquisite console ports.
And, like OutRun 2 Coast to Coast, a large part of All-Stars Racing Transformed's appeal is in how it teases out its simple, well-defined driving across a series of challenges in what's a relatively long career mode. There are flying-only Ring modes that require the dexterity of Pilotwings' crueler tasks and combat-focused Pursuit modes that are frenetic missile assaults on a single, well-armoured tank. It's an engaging journey for the solo player.
That's all thanks to a surprising amount of depth in what is traditionally a shallow genre, supported by several slightly concealed but nevertheless smart systems. There's a largely unseen seam of XP that's running underneath All-Stars Racing Transformed, and Sumo's modest enough to keep the numbers out of the action itself - instead, at the end of each race the points are totted up and allotted to your chosen racer, powering a level progression that unlocks character-specific mods. It's a shame to see it hidden away, but its presence is enough to give that little tug all the way through the solo tour.
It's that little tug of progress that's become a staple of the racing genre for much of the last 10 years; think of Project Gotham and take your pick from there. All-Stars Racing Transformed wields its rewards with a certain confidence, thanks no doubt to the presence of Gareth Wilson as a lead designer, a former Bizarre developer who previously worked on the 360's two PGR outings.
"All-Stars Racing Transformed is, by its nature, a cheery beast, but that's not to say it doesn't have teeth."
Blur, the ill-fated racer that's another of Wilson's games, makes an even bigger impression. Weapons interplay in a lattice that's easy to grasp and a pleasure to unwind: ice shots, superficially an alternative to standard green shells, can be used to pop the blow-fish that are All-Stars Racing Transformed's answer to bananas, while the glove that acts as a shield can catch incoming attacks before flinging them back. It's so gratifying to see the brilliant combat of Blur, sadly obscured by matters out of the game's own hands, finally finding a fitting home.
He's perhaps responsible for the hard edge that can be found within certain parts of the game as well. All-Stars Racing Transformed is, by its nature, a cheery beast, but that's not to say it doesn't have teeth: some of the challenges kick back on even the middle tier of the three initially available difficulty levels, and an unlockable fourth level provides the kind of nasty yet rewarding challenges that some of the best arcade racers are loved for.
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is one of those games now, too. It's managed to step out of Mario Kart's shadow, for sure, but the real achievement is one that's going to be much more thrilling for the Sega fans it so eagerly panders to. This manages to be more than just a tribute to the great and good of Sega's past - it does enough to earn its own place alongside them.