Kartography #4 – Sonic R

Kartography is my regular series in which I look at licensed kart racers throughout gaming history, and figure out where they fit on my all-time karting game leaderboard.

For more information on my scoring policy for Kartography, check out this introductory article.

Sega / Traveller’s Tales
Sega Saturn, PC (Saturn version reviewed)

Not all karting games feature karts, you know.

While it’s clear that the majority do, it’s perfectly acceptable for a developer to ditch them in favour of something else.

What makes a game part of the karting genre isn’t the fact you’re using karts: it’s the idea of multiple characters – each with distinct personalities – racing against each other, often with items to collect.

After all, when you choose a bikes-only race in Mario Kart Wii, does it suddenly stop being a karting game? Does it balls.

Sonic R on the Sega Saturn was an early advocate of this idea: not only did it ditch the idea of using karts, many of its characters don’t even have vehicles at all, instead choosing to run across the course.

Does it work? Read on and find out.


The licence

In fairness, if you’re on a gaming website and you’ve never heard of Sonic the Hedgehog then you’re living some sort of elaborate lie and you should probably confess your true motives to your family.

Sega’s mascot has been on the go since 1991 and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Because… you know, he’s fast. That was a joke, you see.

The franchise is also interesting in that it’s managed to alienate some (though not all) of the now adult fans who used to adore Sonic as kids back in the ‘90s via such decisions as giving him a voice, making him lankier and more streamlined, giving him a million bloody animal pals and generally putting him in a load of shite.

Still, there’s something about even an average Sonic game that still provides enough charm to make them worth playing through.

Licence score – 5 out of 5

Regardless of what you think of him now, there’s no denying that when it comes to putting a popular character in a video game, Sonic the Hedgehog is about as big as it gets.


The racers

It may be hard for today’s young bucks to realise, but the Sonic series didn’t always have more characters than a keyboard like it does now.

By the time Sonic R launched, the main 16-bit platforming series only consisted of Sonic 1-3, Sonic & Knuckles and Sonic CD (we don’t talk about Knuckles’ Chaotix round these parts), so it’s not like Sega had zillions of potential racers to choose from here.

Still, that didn’t mean it had to go in quite as strange a direction as it did.

Sonic the Hedgehog

First appearance – Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)

Strengths: Top speed, jumping
Weaknesses: Acceleration, turning

Special moves: Double jump, spin dash, spin attack

The star of the show is different from the central character in most other racing games (particularly Mario in Mario Kart) in that he isn’t an all-rounder: that particular talent goes to Knuckles.

Instead, Sonic’s very much a speed-based racer, and is clearly faster than all the other standard characters in the game (before you start unlocking the weirder ones).

He isn’t without his issues, though: as in the 2D platformers, it can take a while for him to build up momentum so his acceleration is pretty low. He’s also terrible at turning corners: take on anything less than a mild bend and he’ll skid wide. Not the easiest for beginners to get to grips with, then.


Miles ‘Tails’ Prower

First appearance – Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992)

Strengths: Acceleration
Weaknesses: Top speed

Special moves: Flying, spin dash, spin attack

Fun fact: every time a bell rings, someone in the world finally gets the ‘Miles Prower’ pun.

Sonic’s two-tailed pal is actually a little easier to control, and a far better choice for those just starting out. He can take corners much better, for a start.

He’s also got his trademark flying move, which can be really useful for taking out huge chunks of the tracks. Which is probably just as well, because he’s generally quite slow otherwise.


Knuckles the Echidna

First appearance – Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (1994)

Strengths: All-rounder
Weaknesses: All-rounder

Special moves: Gliding, spin dash, spin attack

“You can call me Knuckles, unlike Sonic I don’t chuckle.” Words to live by… as long as you don’t mind people calling you Knuckles, obviously.

Knuckles is probably the best character for newcomers to choose, even more than Tails. As the game’s all-rounder, he may not necessarily excel in any field but he’s also pleasantly lacking in drawbacks.

He may not be able to fly around like Tails can, but his glide move is probably even more useful. Sadly, he doesn’t have the ability to climb like he does in the platformers.


Amy Rose

First appearance – Sonic the Hedgehog CD (1993)

Strengths: Acceleration
Weaknesses: Everything else, can’t jump

Special move: Speed boost

Sonic’s on-again off-again lady friend was still fulfilling the role of ‘slightly obsessed admirer’ at this point, meaning her character hadn’t yet been fully fleshed out to the level of ‘general pain in the arse’.

She’s the last of the four initial characters in the game, and easily the worst of the bunch. It’s a shame, because at least she bothered to bring a car, unlike anyone else. The problem is this car is massively underpowered.

Her sole special move is a little nitro boost for her car, the icon for which appears at the top of the screen every 15 seconds or so. This means you’re constantly having to trigger small turbos to compensate for the car’s general rubbishness.


Dr Robotnik

First appearance – Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)

Strengths: Turning, can float over water
Weaknesses: Top speed, can’t jump

Special move: Homing missile

To unlock – Finish 1st on Radiant Emerald

Yes, yes, I know, he’s Eggman, but not back in ‘97 he wasn’t. Well, he was, but only in Japan: in the west he was still very much known as Dr Robotnik.

Sadly for fans of pure evil, Sonic’s arch nemesis is a bit crap when it comes to racing. His floating ship does let you pass over water and rough surfaces without affecting your speed, but the fact he can’t jump undoes those benefits.

His homing missile move is also actual cat shit: each missile costs you 10 rings to fire and despite being ‘homing’ the number of times it misses your opponent is ridiculous. This is one bad egg.


Metal Sonic

First appearance – Sonic the Hedgehog CD (1993)

Strengths: Top speed, jumping
Weaknesses: Acceleration, turning

Special moves: None

To unlock – Collect all five gold tokens on Resort Island, finish 3rd or better, then beat Metal Sonic in a race

Not to be confused with the big robot Sonic you fight near the end of Sonic 2, this is a different (slightly smaller) robot Sonic who kidnaps Amy in Sonic CD.

Here he more or less acts like Sonic, with all the same strengths and weaknesses, but he doesn’t have a double jump.

As such, he’s a bit of a waste of time, even though he does undoubtedly look cooler than most of the roster, on account of him being all shiny and that.


Tails Doll

First appearance – Sonic R (1997)

Strengths: Acceleration, can float over water
Weaknesses: Top speed, jumping

Special move: Hover jump

To unlock – Collect all five gold tokens on Radical City, finish 3rd or better, then beat Tails Doll in a race

I mean… I have no idea.

It isn’t actually explained anywhere in the manual or the game itself why one of the unlockable characters in Sonic R is an apparently haunted plush doll of Tails.

It was created just for Sonic R and is extremely unsettling. It controls exactly like Tails does, only instead of Tails’s ability to fly, Tails Doll can just float really high.

It can also probably consume your soul, so probably best not to look at it for too long.


Metal Knuckles

First appearance – Sonic R (1997)

Strengths: Everything
Weaknesses: Nothing

Special move: Gliding

To unlock – Collect all five gold tokens on Reactive Factory, finish 3rd or better, then beat Metal Knuckles in a race

Another character created especially for Sonic R, Metal Knuckles is by far the best racer in the game (if you don’t count the very last, extra special one).

He’s fast, turns well, has good acceleration and has Knuckles’s excellent glide move too. Basically, once you unlock Metal Knuckles you’ll play as him from that point on.

That’s easier said than done, mind you, because you actually have to beat him in a race to unlock him. And in case you weren’t paying attention just now, he’s shit hot.


Eggrobo

First appearance – Sonic & Knuckles (1994)

Strengths: Can drive on water for a limited time
Weaknesses: Everything else

Special move: Laser shot

To unlock – Collect all five gold tokens on Regal Ruins, finish 3rd or better, then beat Eggrobo in a race

This Badnik enemy may seem like a bit of an obscure choice unless you played through Sonic & Knuckles: and even then, only if you played it as Knuckles.

In Knuckles’s storyline, a specific Eggrobo enemy keeps turning up to cause hassle for him, and even replaces Robotnik in most of the boss fights.

This is all well and good, but it doesn’t make up for the fact that in Sonic R this particular Eggrobo is a bucket of balls: other than the ability to run on water for a short while, everything else about it is rubbish.


Super Sonic

First appearance – Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992)

Strengths: Everything
Weaknesses: Nothing

Special moves: Double jump, spin dash, spin attack

To unlock – Collect all seven Chaos Emeralds, then highlight Sonic on the character select screen and press Up

Given what you need to do to unlock him, chances are Super Sonic is the last character you’ll get in the game. It’s probably just as well, because as soon as you do it’s pretty much broken from that point on.

Super Sonic is so stupidly overpowered that the moment you see his big yellow head on the character select screen you may as well take out a Sharpie and draw big X’s on the other racers’ faces.

Yes, you’ll ruin your television doing this, but Super Sonic is here: all logic and balance is dead and only anarchy remains.

He’s good, is what I’m saying.

Racers score – 4 out of 5

It’s clear that by modern standards this isn’t the definitive Sonic roster: there’s no Big the Cat, after all.

But you can hardly blame Sega for not including a character who wouldn’t exist for another two years, and given how relatively young the series was at this point – only six years old – it probably did the best it could.

A point off for the terrifying Tails Doll though.


The vehicles

Um… that’s the thing. There aren’t any.

Okay, granted, Amy Rose drives a wee car, and Robotnik has his floating UFO ship thingy. But other than that, everyone’s either on foot or floats.

In a way I’m happy because this saves me a bit of time, but that’s just because I’m a massively selfish person and you should in no way look up to me for this.

Vehicles score – 1 out of 5

I know it’s harsh to hammer a game for not having vehicles when that’s sort of its main gimmick, but this is Kartography, not Runography, so have at it.


The tracks

There are only five courses in Sonic R, one of which is unlocked when you finish in first place in the other four.

Because it’s such a small number, I’m going to test out a new feature I want to implement for Kartography going forwards.

Karting games can sometimes have pretty intricate tracks, because rather than the lifelike locations in ‘serious’ racing games there are often all manner of weird and wonderful things going on.

As such, a short description and a single image sometimes isn’t enough to properly get across the vibe of a particular track.

For the below tracks, then, I’ll provide a brief description as usual but instead of a screenshot it’ll be accompanied by a short clip showing me playing through a full lap of that track.

That way you can get a much better sense of how it looks, the course layout, the music for that track and any other little quirks there may be.

This is the first time I’ve used the site’s embedded video player, so please do give feedback on the quality, how well it worked on your particular device and whether this is something you’d like to see more of in the future. Anyway, let’s get to it.

Resort Island

The first track is your expected Green Hill Zone style stage, with loads of grass and blue skies. Of course, it can’t be called the Green Hill Zone because of Sonic R’s odd gimmick: every track in the game begins with ‘R’.

This is a fairly straightforward track, with a trademark Sonic loop at the end. You can save time by just running past it, though.


Radical City

I’m assuming this is ‘radical’ in the cool ‘90s sense, not in the ‘religious war’ sense. That would certainly explain the twisting and interlocking bridges.

There are also two hefty shortcuts that involve smashing through a barrier and falling off the edge of a bridge: the latter of these drops you onto a big pinball table for no apparent reason.


Regal Ruin

As the name implies, this one is set in some ancient ruins. It starts fairly straightforward but it gets a little confusing near the end of the course and it’s easy to find yourself going the wrong way if you don’t look out for the arrow signs.

The main shortcut here is a small tunnel located behind the big ramp near the start of the track: you can see it in this video.


Reactive Factory

It wouldn’t be a Sonic game without a Chemical Plant / Scrap Brain style factory jobby, so here’s the Sonic R equivalent.

This one splits into two distinct parts near the end, so much like Regal Ruin there’s plenty of scope to get lost if you don’t pay attention.


Radiant Emerald

To unlock – Finish first in Grand Prix mode on the other four tracks

It may only have five tracks, but that doesn’t stop Sonic R making sure one of them is still a Rainbow Road knock-off.

Radiant Emerald is the longest circuit in the game and it’s probably the least interesting, though it is at least fun looking out for the brilliantly bad pop-up.

Tracks score – 2 out of 5

While the tracks themselves aren’t terrible, a couple of them can be a little messy to navigate and feel almost like open-world stages at times. More importantly, the fact there are only five in total simply can’t be allowed to go without heavy criticism.


The power-ups

Given that the main Sonic platformers contain little TV monitors you can destroy to earn power-ups, it stands to reason that Sonic R has… um, little emblem things instead.

The disappointment doesn’t end there: there are no fewer (or rather, no more) than four possible items hidden inside these emblems. They are:

Rings – earn you 5, 10 or 20 rings (which can be used to open locked doors or spent on boost panels on the track to give you a huge speed boost).

Fleet Feet – well, that’s what the manual calls them. It’s really just the sneakers power-up you usually get in Sonic games, which increase your speed for a limited time.

Water Shield – your character is surrounded by a blue sphere that lets you walk on water. Since a number of characters can already travel on water, it’s a little less important to them.

Lightning Shield – you’re surrounded by a yellow sphere of lightning that pulls all the nearby rings over to you. When you jump in water it disappears, but it doesn’t electrocute you. Just in case you thought the ‘R’ in Sonic R stood for realism.

Power-ups score – 1 out of 5

I mean, at least it actually has power-ups, so it gets a point for that. They’re all rubbish though.

The rings are boring, the speed shoes don’t make enough of a noticeable difference, the water shield is such a one-trick pony (and it’s a trick many characters can already pull off), and the lightning shield is so rare that while going through the hours of recorded footage I took for this article I couldn’t find a single instance of it.


How it plays

This section is a mini review of the game. It’s available in both video and written form, so you can choose how to enjoy it. My recommendation is the video, because you’ll get to see the game in action too. But if you’d rather read it, or can’t stand my bassy Scottish accent, the entire script from the video is underneath.

There’s a bit of debate as to whether Sonic R actually counts as a karting game, given that… well, there are no karts in it.

My response to that is a firm raspberry, because other than the vehicles in question Sonic R has all the other ingredients you’d expect from the genre.

It’s a racing game with multiple characters from a popular licence (which is obviously Sonic in this case), trying to beat each other on themed tracks complete with shortcuts and item boxes. And besides, Mario Kart has bikes in it now so shush.

That said, even though I’m counting Sonic R as a karting game, it could be argued that it only just manages to count as a game at all: it’s only got five tracks, which has to be one of the lowest totals in the history of karting.

That’s not to say these tracks aren’t interesting, mind you. Much like the stages in the main 2D Sonic platformers, each course has a bunch of different possible routes and shortcuts.

This at least means you’re unlikely to saunter in and win all five races at the first time of asking, since you’re going to have to take a little time to figure out the best route to take.

There’s something else that requires a bit of time and that’s the handling. Most of Sonic R’s characters either race on foot or float in the air (only Amy Rose has a car), and both result in a turning circle wider than a sumo wrestler’s waistline.

As a result, it can take longer to get to grips with Sonic R’s handling than it does with most other karting games, and even after many hours of playing it and unlocking everything it has to offer I still wouldn’t say I had it absolutely nailed.

This isn’t helped by the fact that the characters feel wildly different to control. Sonic’s strange skiddy turns and abrupt double-jump are at complete odds with Knuckles’s smooth gliding, for example. It’s not like things are properly balanced either: there are characters here who, with the best will in the world, are just utter shite and a complete waste of time to learn because you’ll never beat the other, more powerful racers consistently enough with them. I’m looking at you, Amy Rose.

There are a couple of little additions chucked in to make the game’s five courses seem a little busier, in the form of gold coins and Chaos Emeralds. There are five gold coins on each course: collecting them all and finishing in the top three earns you a head-to-head race with one of the game’s slightly strange hidden characters.

Win this face-off and you’ll unlock the character for good, meaning the likes of Metal Knuckles and… um, a seemingly haunted plush doll of Tails can infest your roster until the end of days.

The Chaos Emeralds, meanwhile, are the key to unlocking Super Sonic. Collect an emerald and finish the race and you’ll add it to your collection. Get them all and Super Sonic is unlocked, immediately rendering the game even less balanced than it was and essentially breaking it at that point.

He’s so fast that the other racers might as well not even bother: they’d be better meeting at the start line and signing a petition demanding he be subjected to a strict series of doping tests. But I’m pretty sure there aren’t any drug testing mini-games in Sonic R, so that would be pointless.

Special mention also has to go to the music, which is absolutely horrendous in the best way possible. Sonic R marks the start of the tradition of Sonic games having abysmal theme music – Sonic CD had a theme tune too but it was actually good – and while each of the crap ‘90s dance tracks here will undoubtedly put a smile on your face, it’s more likely to be because you’re stunned that at no point did anyone involved in the game say: “Hold on, this is a bit pish.”

On paper, Sonic R should go down in history as one of the worst karting games ever. It’s only got five tracks, most of the unlockable characters are bizarre, it handles like a canoe in a storm and the music couldn’t be more ‘90s if it kept opening the Saturn’s disc tray and spitting Pogs in your face.

And yet, despite all these clear drawbacks, it still somehow manages to become something that’s better than the sum of its parts, a game that – with enough patience and understanding – still has the potential to hold up 22 years later.

Review score – 9 out of 15


The verdict

22 out of 40

Sonic’s Saturn racer isn’t a terrible game by any means, but many elements of it are underwhelming enough to ensure it only gets a middling score in my Kartography leaderboard.

It could be argued that it’s been punished here for not having karts, and this is true to an extent (hence it getting a low score in the vehicles section).

However, other elements – the ridiculously small number of tracks, the rubbish power-ups, the unbalanced characters – would still be poor even if there were karts in the game, so I’d imagine it hasn’t affected things too much.

That said, despite all this it’s still far from the worst example of the genre, and the fact it continued to enjoy a cult following to this day is evidence of that (even if many of them only like it because of that so-bad-it’s-good music).

Of course, this wasn’t to be the only Sonic racing game. Watch this space…

Leaderboard

26 – Mickey’s Speedway USA
22 – Sonic R
20 – Garfield Kart
13 – Hello Kitty Kruisers


Sonic R was released on Saturn and PC, and is also available on Sonic Gems Collection on GameCube and PS2.

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2 comments

  1. Was honestly expecting a much lower score. Sonic R is by no means a good game but I have a lot of nostalgia for it. Figuring out the shortcuts, grabbing all the Chaos Emeralds and unlocking the rest of the characters was such a thrill at the time. I remember my mind being blown when I realised I could race Metal Sonic. Discovering the Tails Doll and Metal Knuckles was an experience too, but the best part was unlocking Super Sonic and realising that, if you played as him on the Radiant Emerald course, the music gets replaced with Super Sonic Racing, so I only ever did that whenever I replayed the game. Speaking of, Super Sonic Racing and Can You Feel the Sunshine are absolutely amazing music tracks and I will not hear a bad word said about them.

    Looking forward to the inevitable reviews of other Sonic titles (especially the All-Star ones since they’re legitimately really good Mario Kart contenders).

    Liked by 1 person

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