If Mario can sneak his way into Gaming Sanctuary, you can bet that his long time rival, "The Blue Blur", wouldn't be too far behind. More specifically, that blue blur is none other than the world renowned "Sonic the Hedgehog", a character with a history as big as Sega. Most won't argue that while Sega has made many fine games over the years, their prominent blue speed demon has truly put Sega on the map. His emergence back in the early nineties gave Sega something they truly needed to compete: A definitive company mascot. While Sonic is often considered Sega's ace in the whole and answer to Nintendo's heroic plumber, Mario, it's also safe to say that Sega and Nintendo fans are at much greater odds than the two characters themselves! Regardless, it's truly amazing to see all of the tributes payed to both iconic gaming characters, though they have completely different stories to tell these days as opposed to their glory days.
As such, every dog has their day and every blue hedgehog occasionally takes a fall from grace. Actually, you'd be surprised how many subpar Sonic games actually exist. If it isn't games like Sonic Eraser (a rare and horrible Sonic puzzle game) or several of the Game Gear released Sonic games like Sonic Blast, it's many numerous other Sonic games of questionable quality. Somewhere between the spectrum lies Sonic R, which is one of several Sonic racing games. It's interesting that given Sonic's popularity in the gaming world, many people don't know about the two Sonic racing games before Sonic R, but it's for good reason. There were two released on the Game Gear simply known as Sonic Drift & Sonic Drift 2. While the first Sonic Drift was released in Japan (and was highly mediocre), the second game was released in other parts of the world but got little attention as it was released near the end of the bulky handheld's life. Naturally, Sega needed a sales pitch to sell their third Sonic entry to the genre, but what could it be?
Wait...I know! It's a racing game with ATTITUDE...well, that's what Sega wants you to believe, but there was a slightly more important reason why some people wanted this game. It was the only "truly" 3D Sonic game for the Sega Saturn. While Sonic 3D Blast was nice with its 3D bonus stages and Sonic Jam gave gamers an interesting glimpse of what a Saturn "Sonic Adventure" would play like, Sonic R is the only official full-length 3D Sonic game for this system. Saturn fans were starved to see the blue hedgehog in 3D, and Sega delivered in some form, but was it really worth the wait? Not if you ask me.
Sonic R has its moments, but more than its moments lie its faults. Made near the end of 1997, Sonic R sat in a strange transitional period for games of the racing genre of the time. While 3D racing games circa 94' to '96 were very simple in their design, usually not consisting of much more than three or four race tracks and not containing too much to write home about, racing games after this point quickly started offering more to the player: More cars, more customization, more tracks, more features, better graphics and more bang-for-your-buck. Why is it then, that Sonic R was designed to play like a launch Saturn or Playstation racing game? Your guess is probably as good as mine, but here is my humble opinion of this game.
The graphics of some things in Sonic R are colorful and fairly impressive, though the characters are a bit of an eyesore. Sega's blue hero and company are more polygonal than they should be. Sonic is a hedgehog, not the world's prickliest and hippest porcupine...so why does he look like it? The other character models aren't great, but they are more endurable, all things considered. Then you have the background elements and level design. The stages are actually quite nice, especially the final level, Radiant Emerald. Flames burning, Flickies flying, waterfalls streaming, all of these things help animate Sonic R's world. It should be noted however that getting near walls and certain obstacles causes them to flicker from view and the game is quite glitchy. You'd think Sega would take just a few more measures not to belittle their company mascot. The graphics as a whole are acceptable.
What decent Sonic game doesn't have some good tunes, right? Well, as crazy as this may sound, Sonic R's audio quality is a very "debated" subject on the net, but I'll speak for myself here; I can't see how anyone can put this game's audio down. It's got some of the greatest tunes you'll ever hear come out of your Sega Saturn! Sure, some of the tracks are almost hellishly saccharine in nature, but forget about that for a second. The composition and overall clarity is outstanding, and it's not everyday that you'll find a game with such compassionate tunes...when was the last time you heard a racing game where every track contained an ORIGINAL song made from the ground up? I'm not talking about modern games where you can just apply some song from one of your favorite artists and seamlessly intergrate it with your game...I'm talking about tunes that come from the heart. Simply put, the music in this game is so good that it almost makes you forget about all the other problems with this game, and by "other", I mean the gameplay.
Sonic R doesn't take long at all to master. The game has five race tracks and six hidden characters, not to mention mostly typical modes of the time such as Time Attack and racing on mirrored courses, though the option to find five blue balloons on the outskirts of stages and tagging characters for fun is a small plus. Each character also has different attributes and special skills, such as Knuckles being able to use his trademark gliding skills and Amy Rose being capable of driving on water, and other abilities. Additionally, you also have to collect medals and get in first place during the normal mode to get a chance to face one of the hidden characters. Should you beat them in a one-on-one race, you can play as them.
The only thing holding you back are appalling controls. You would think that a lot of the characters would have a certain level of maneuverability since the majority race by foot or glide across the levels, but they handle like a busted-up jalopy without cruise control. Despite this, it's even more ridiculous to think that the game is actually EASY, since the AI is a joke and the computer only gets serious when you're in first. Depending on the circumstance, the computer might use gaming's famous "rubberband physics" to spring into the lead. Otherwise, the computer practically waits for you to catch up, and you have access to speed bumpers which give you a bigger boost if you've collected more rings on the course.
Sonic R is a game that brims with potential, and it's not a terrible game, if only because of its soundtrack. If this game was exactly the same and it DIDN'T have an excellent soundtrack, I don't think nearly as many people would tolerate this otherwise second-rate racing game. You get to see the famous blue hedgehog star in a game of no major significance in 3D on the mighty Sega Saturn...nice. Sonic R has also been ported and upgraded a few times, such as on PCs and in Gamecube's "Sonic Gems Collection", so don't feel like you have to be pressured to buy this version of the game. This isn't Sonic's brightest moment and there are other racing games to be had for Sega Saturn.
- Written by Bel Cain The Eternal -