If you're trying to determine who the greatest Sega character of all time is, it's going to be pretty difficult to devise a competition in which Ulala and Sonic are on even ground. The Space Channel 5 star would win any dance-off (not even Michael Jackson stood a chance), and no one is stopping the blue hedgehog from grabbing golden rings. But if you put 20 characters from Sega's rich history into race-ready rides and equip them with all sorts of wacky weapons, then you might at least find out which of them is the best driver. Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing closely follows the formula of the genre-defining Mario Kart series, but this arcade racer is far from a cheap cash-in. With 24 well-designed courses and ultraprecise controls, swerving your way to victory is a joy. Your favorite character may not have made the cut, but All-Stars is a lot of fun even if you're stuck with Billy Hatcher.
The 20 Sega characters in All-Stars Racing are an odd bunch, to say the least. A whopping seven of them have been pulled from the well-worn Sonic universe, though some of the lesser known entrants could have easily been scrapped to allow a few more franchises to share the limelight. It makes sense that the lightning-fast blue hedgehog and his evil nemesis Dr. Eggman made the cut, but would anyone really have missed Amy or Big the Cat? The 13 non-Sonic characters run the gamut from ridiculously obscure (Zobio from House of the Dead: EX) to cult favorite (Ryo Hazuki from Shenmue) to long-forgotten 8-bit star (Opa-Opa from Fantasy Zone). It's an eclectic cast that stretches through Sega's entire history, which should please anyone who's been following Sega since the Master System days.
Once you make the difficult decision between driving as AiAi or Samba, it's time to get a taste of the racing. The controls are tightly honed, making it easy to weave through traffic, slide around corners, and drop a few landmines in front of your unsuspecting competitors. Everything in All-Stars Racing feels just right, so within seconds of starting your first race, you'll be able to focus on positioning rather than wrestling with your steering. The most exhilarating aspect of the racing experience is the boost system. By holding down the drift button when you enter turns, you slowly build up your boost ability. The longer you hold it, the faster your burst when you finally release it, which adds a bit of strategy as you see how far you can tempt fate. The only control issue is some iffy collision detection when slamming into the environment, but occasionally getting stuck on a rock doesn't hamper the overall fun of flying around these tracks.
The smooth controls would be for naught if the track design couldn't follow the same high standard, but there is no such problem here. Each of the 24 tracks is filled with tight turns, wild jumps, and even a few branching paths, which makes it a lot of fun to repeatedly play them. All-Stars Racing does a good job of easing you into the experience with the early tracks but doesn't make them so simple that veteran drivers will breeze through them. There are always enough tight turns and narrow pathways to ensure the racing stays intense. The only small problem with the tracks is that there isn't quite enough variety in their themes. Nine have been pulled from Sonic, and those only have three unique styles (casino, fortress, and green hill). The House of the Dead tracks are delightfully creepy, and the races through the brightly colored world of Super Monkey Ball are a trip, but it would have been more interesting to have a few more franchises thrown into the mix.
Of course, you'll be doing a lot more than just slamming through hairpin turns and trying to land ridiculous leaps of faith. You pick up items as you make your way around the track, although these aggressive power-ups are not as exciting as the core racing action. You have a standard array of forward-striking missiles and tailgate-halting mines, and though they are often the key to victory, they are the weakest aspect of this game. Having a chance to make up ground when you slip behind is always welcome, but the items are, for the most part, bland and unoriginal, so they feel more like a necessary evil than an integral part of the racing fun. The one interesting aspect is an All-Star pickup that is unique for every character. This is your uberweapon so you only have a chance of nabbing it if you're getting beaten soundly. Seeing Sonic turn into a chaos emerald-fueled Super Sonic or Ryo hop on board a forklift is pretty cool the first time, but most of these items are little more than glorified speed bursts.
The two main single-player modes are Grand Prix and Mission. Grand Prix comprises six different cups with four tracks each, and you test your mettle against five computer-controlled opponents. Easy difficulty isn't too hard, but medium and hard pose a much stiffer challenge. The computer is without mercy, so expect to be peppered by items, shoved off cliffs, and given the sort of respect usually reserved for the likes of Shadow. Mission mode is objective based and has you striving to complete bite-sized tasks. Being asked to perform a certain number of boosts within a lap or collect coins as quickly as possible isn't too difficult, but to really prove your worth as an all-star racer, you'll have to earn a 10-star rating. This takes a bit of practice, and getting top marks in the 55 missions can take a fair amount of time. There is no tangible reward for completing these modes, but you do earn Sega Miles every time you compete, and you use these to unlock new characters, tracks, and music.
Playing by your lonesome is all well and good, but All-Stars Racing really shines against friends. Online, you're restricted to just racing, but because that is the best element of the game, it doesn't feel too limiting. Unfortunately, only four players can compete at one time, but races are still fast and exciting. Local play is also limited to just four players, but you can compete in a battle mode as well as standard races. The tight controls make swerving around the arenas a lot of fun, but with only a few different weapon types available, it lacks the explosive unpredictability to make this a worthy alternative to the racing. Battle mode may be lacking, but racing against a few buddies is a blast. The courses are packed with enough crazy turns and cover-your-eyes leaps to keep this hectic, and the handy weapons help to level the playing field. All-Stars Racing is at its best when you're striving for the checkered flag, and the competitive races do a great job of bringing this excitement to the forefront.
The final piece that ties this great experience together is the impressive visuals. The courses look sharp and colorful, transforming many of Sega's beloved franchises into eye-catching raceways. The Monkey Ball-themed stages are particularly impressive. The vibrant trees and idyllic lakes are a nice backdrop for intense kart racing. Every course follows a similar mindset, packing the environment with so many little touches and nostalgic imagery that longtime Sega fans will swoon with delight. Unfortunately, all of these details come with a small price. All-Stars Racing is so colorful and moves so fast that it can be difficult to spot hazards in the road. Missiles and mines often blend right into the environment, resulting in a number of unforeseen accidents. If you keep your eyes peeled, you should be able to pick out these obstacles before it's too late, but it can be frustrating if you lose the checkered flag because of a nearly invisible trap.
Although the core of Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing is obviously pulled straight out of Mario Kart, this wacky racer can stand on its own four wheels. The tight controls and excellent track design ensure that head-to-head competition is always exciting, but it's so fun just to play around with these karts that it’s easy to lose hours climbing the online leaderboards in Time Trial mode. All-Star Racing may not push the genre forward in any meaningful way, but it builds so well on established themes that it doesn't even matter.