In 2018, a little game called Team Sonic Racing is coming out. It’s a kart racer that is obviously based on the Sonic the Hedgehog series, and it has an intriguing co-op element to it. It’s also the third game in a series, technically. See, in the last generation, Sega hired Sumo Digital to create a kart racer based on Sega as a whole, with all kinds of wacky characters and race tracks based on Sega history. This third game is Sonic only, much to the dismay of some fans.
I say dismay, because unlike many bygone Mario Kart competitors, these games actually have a strong, growing fanbase. While nobody is ever going to take down the Nintendo behemoth, there is a momentum here, and Sumo Digital is not only making a name for itself with these games, but creating a space within the Sonic universe that is becoming a critical darling and a fan-favorite.
Sumo’s first outing was Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, and it was extremely a 7/10 kind of game. It was solid, but it had that late 2000s Sega vibe (cheap-ish, bright, fluffy). But it was cool, because it had a ton of characters in it. The Xbox 360 version even had Banjo and Kazooie! But it, along with a pretty medicore tennis game from around the same time, was an attempt by Sega to remind everyone that its history was full of some fun and kooky characters. It sold well enough to warrant a sequel however, and that’s when the magic happened.
Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed was a sleeper hit. It landed somewhat quietly, but thanks to being a Wii-U launch title, people noticed it. It was wild, and part of that was because of the central gimmick: the vehicles changed from cars to planes to water vehicles, in a way that was sort of similar to Diddy Kong Racing, but the transformation sequences happened in mid-race. The stages were also amazing, going even deeper in Sega history, diving as deep as games like Burning Rangers.
Finally, on the Wii U, the game not only supported way more than four players, but it had a really well-made, modular control system that let players play with all kinds of peripherals. It was accessible, well-polished, and gimmicky in a good way. A way that even predated similar mechanics that would land in Mario Kart 8, which is a legendary game.
I think that Team Sonic Racing is continuing that trend, by trying new things with the kart racing formula. It’s important to keep that core, the inherent fun of kart racing, but you always want to play around with the surface level to make it stand out. Here, it’s the co-op element. Most kart racers can be pretty free for all, even if players are on teams. But in Team Sonic Racing, there are “Team Mechanics,” that let players on the same team interact with each other, and help each other on the track. That’s wild! I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it.
There are several opportunities to give teammates a boost, swap items, and even work together to take out rivals. Each of these actions has a benefit, and there’s even like, a super meter that fills as you take these actions, that results in a massive boost for the whole team once it’s full. Racing games are so inherently competitive, and this key, core shift in the usual formula feels like a big deal. At least, that’s how it feels to me on paper.
I’m not framing this train of thought as “Will Sonic defeat Mario on the race track?” I think something similar is worth looking at. For such a long time, it seems like Mario Kart has been the only one. Competitors have tried, but they’ve never had what was necessary to hang. There was always less polish, less production, less quality. But Sumo Digital’s Sonic racers have only improved over time, and people have noticed. Now, Team Sonic Racing getting the red carpet treatment for E3 is met with hype and excitement from fans, instead of hesitation. That’s exciting stuff. I just hope there’s a decent roster without all the other Sega alumni.