Sonic R wasn’t Sonic’s first foray into the racing genre. However, it might as well have been, given how little people remember of the Sonic Drift games on Game Gear. Besides, where those games were essentially vanilla racing games with Sonic characters dropped in, Sonic R tries to bring the Sonic series’ platforming sensibilities to the world of racing games. Unfortunately, this is why the game fails. The two genres only ever pull away at each other, as neither one figures out how to accommodate the other. What should be an elegant mix of two game types is instead a clumsy mess of a game.
On first inspection, it’s easy to mistake Sonic R for another kart racer. It came out right when the genre was starting to take off, and it has all the familiar features of a kart racer: mechanically distinct racers, power-ups, a kid-friendly tone, etc. However, I see something a little more sophisticated going on here. Rather than being a straightforward racing game, the game plays a lot more like a blend between a racing game and a platformer. Courses place just as much emphasis on tight jumps, secret paths, and collectibles as they do on speed. This is especially clear in Reactive Factory, where some of the more interesting shortcuts involve quick hops across water and up through buildings. Given the Sonic franchise’s love-affair with speed, this fusion should theoretically work
I say “theoretically” because it fails in practice. Much of that is because Sonic R doesn’t understand either genre it’s working with. While both racing games and platformers emphasize exploration, they do so for completely different reasons. The former stresses it for efficiency’s sake; finding the best route and getting through the course as quickly as possible. The latter, however, sees exploration as an end in itself. Platformers strew hidden goodies about their maps for this very reason. Mainline Sonic games understood this. That’s why they typically don’t punish the player for giving up on speed. Yes, the games focused quite a bit on speed, but they designed their levels in such a way that you didn’t lose anything by ignoring speed and searching after secrets. That way, it never felt like you were losing anything by going after that extra life or that giant ring.
Sonic R is an entirely different case. It’s a racing game, with opponents whom you must outpace. Speed is everything here, so why on earth would you want to sacrifice that for minor secrets? True, one of those secrets could be a shortcut, but more often, these secrets noticeably take time away from racing. Special coins and Chaos Emeralds, the game’s strongest connection to previous platforms, make this especially apparent. While some coins segue into a nice shortcut, more of them actually make your journey longer than it needs to be. Yet none are as bad as the Chaos Emeralds, which require you to wait a few precious seconds before they land on the ground, ripe for collecting.
It’s almost as though the game is punishing you for bothering to hunt out these trinkets. The feeling becomes even more palpable when the game takes away your hard-earned Emerald because you didn’t finish in first place with it. Don’t get me wrong. I understand why Sega thought to add that caveat: to make the game more challenging, and thus more engaging. Yet it’s all for naught when this particular form of challenge detracts from the game’s core appeal.
In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize that many of the game’s faults come from its inability to control its platformer elements. The course design makes this especially apparent. Almost all shortcuts that involve platforming aren’t shortcuts, but exploits. Instead of being purposeful elements of the design, they end up as gaps in that design. Examples include jumping across lakes to avoid curves and taking a turn so tight that you skip the iconic Sonic loop-de-loop that would just slow you down. One particularly bad one in Radical City involves skipping significant portions of the track by veering left into deep water. So going through these shortcuts feels less like you’ve found a fun discovery that the designers hid for you, and more like you’re ignoring their design in the dumbest ways imaginable. It’s not like Sega doesn’t know how to avoid these kinds of mistakes, either. The shortcuts work well when they emphasize verticality. Yet by not controlling for that as tightly as it should, Sonic R ends up all the worse for it.
However, it would be an exaggeration to call Sonic R one of the worst Sonic games made, as I’m sure a lot of people have. To do so would ignore all the things the game gets right. For example, each character has meaningful mechanical depth. Quirks like Sonic’s double jump or Robotnik’s missiles change how you play through a course. With some routes opened and others closed off, each racer becomes a new game for the player to try out. That certainly makes up for the small number of tracks Sonic R boasts.
Likewise, the game’s aesthetic understands what makes Sonic the Hedgehog so great. The visuals sport the typical Sonic art style, with loud designs and gaudy primary colors. And just like any other Sonic game, that translates to memorable, very well defined areas. Adorning these areas is a smooth, uplifting soundtrack. Admittedly, that’s a very strange choice for a game like this. Songs that preach remaining optimistic throughout life’s troubles don’t have a place in a fast, cartoony racing game. But that might be the secret to their success. The optimism doesn’t contradict anything, and the themes are corny enough to take in stride.
Even the racing sometimes attains this level of greatness. I can remember a few tense moments in this game; when I’d been matched up with a tough opponent or four and narrowly beat them all. When I’d memorized all the ins and outs of a given course, and somehow stringed them all together into that one perfect run. But as soon as I remember any of that, I also remember all the crap that led up to this point. All the slow, plodding, clumsy racing that eventually led to it. Juxtaposing the two memories, I can’t tell myself that level of investment is worth it.