Sonic Jam - "Sonic R" (1997)
Can you feel the sunshine?
Because I feel like, sometimes, this game just makes me need to run away.
Traveller's Tales is mainly known for being a Lego game factory these days. Not that I can blame them or anything; they've found a solid formula and have continued to put out reliably good games for around a decade at this point. But before they struck (plastic) gold, they were kind of all over the place. And by that, I mean both their output and the quality of said output was pretty random. They put out licensed games based on Disney properties, offbeat platformers, Muppet tie-ins, and all sorts of weirdness. They even did an F-1 racing title at one point.
So, then, it comes as no great surprise that they've cranked out a few Sonic games when Sega started outsourcing the franchise in hopes of retaining relevance.
In the mid-90's, Sega was starting to hurt pretty badly, especially in America. After the Saturn's surprise announcement at E3, which left retailers understocked and game publishers unprepared, everything kind of cascaded out of control. Our Lord and Savior Tom Kalinske left Sega after years of the Japanese branch treating him like garbage. A new CEO named Bernie Stoler actively blocked major titles from coming to the Saturn with his regressive and absurd "Five Star Game Policy." Not to mention that titles on the PlayStation and N64 were hitting store shelves and revolutionizing video games. Meanwhile, Sega was sitting in its own weird little corner of the sandbox. And while I actually like that sandbox better than anything else that happened with that generation of consoles, most consumers didn't.
|Because most consumers fucking suck.|
And what Sega decided to do with their most popular character didn't help one bit. Because on top of porting a garbage game to its new console and, canceling a promising new direction for the series (more on that later,) they decided that a kart racing game was the way to go. Only, karts weren't good enough for Sonic. They weren't fast enough, and if you'll recall, Sonic's signature character trait is, in fact, going fast. Of course, then, the only solution was to make a kart racing game that involved running... while still steering characters like cars.
Welcome to the beautiful trainwreck/meme factory that is Sonic R.
Now, before I start digging into how fundamentally broken this game is, I should preface it with the fact that... well... I do kind of like it. In fits and starts, anyway. There are some legitimately good ideas at play here, in my honest opinion. Some of the levels, like the city, or the Rainbow Road rip-off, are legitimately fun and clever. Everything has nice, vibrant colors and diverging track designs, which I like a lot. Also the core idea, despite being kind of stupid, has potential. The idea of Sonic and Co. using their speed to race is clever, and I think there's a reason we'd see it revisited a decade later on the PSP.
And it would be a crime to not mention the soundtrack. My lord, the soundtrack. It's perfect. Like, I can't lodge a single complaint. Richard Jacques and TJ Davis teamed up for some of the most brilliantly cheesy tracks in gaming history. "Can You Feel The Sunshine" and "Super Sonic Racing" are the most recognized, and for good reason: they're solid gold jams. But my personal faves would have to be "Livin' In The City" and "Number One," which, I kid you not, get stuck in my head almost every week. I mean...
Can you really blame me?
So, what's the big deal with Sonic R, then? I dig the concept. I'm a fan of the #aesthetic. I'm of the opinion that all other gaming music from that year can get the fuck off the stage (RIP Ocarina of Time, Final Fantasy VII, Tomb Raider II, Star Fox 64, et al.) If there are so many things to love about it, why did I open with an opening salvo of negativity?
You guessed it, folks. It's because literally everything else about Sonic R kind of sucks.
Let's start at the base level. The controls. They're bad. They're real bad. They're the kind of counterintutitive, borderline responsive, sluggish controls that haunted most early 3D games. The problem, then, is that in 1997, most developers had started getting a grasp on how to make 3D games work. Not Traveler's Tales, though. Too hard, your driver/runner/??? veers into the water. Too soft, you ram into a wall. In order to get anywhere, you have to hold the "B" button (yes, you press "B" to go forward,) then do an awkward hold-release-hold pattern that never feels anywhere close to good. Keep in mind that, for all it did right, the Saturn had some pretty rough controllers, and trying to steer Sonic like a goddamn car is a good way to get a fun case of carpal tunnel in an afternoon.
Considering that Mario Kart 64 came out the exact same year, it's even more embarrassing.
That's not to mention that the game has a significant spate of technical bugs. Aesthetic only takes you so far. It can't mask things like bad framerate drops, crooked textures, and some of the absolute worst pop-in I've ever seen in a game. That last one gets so bad on the ancient ruins map that it becomes legitimately difficult to figure out what's ahead. In a racing game, that's not exactly a pleasant feature. These issues combined with the sketchy controls make for a title that actively works against you trying to enjoy it.
Which isn't to say that you can't enjoy it. I know that I enjoy Sonic R in certain capacities. I also think some of it is grade-A gutter garbage. It's one of those diamonds in the rough, I'd say. Looking past the obvious issues can beget a pretty fun, solid time with some fun secrets and great music. But dear lord are those obvious issues hard to overlook. Whether or not you can really just depends, and considering how expensive a copy for the Saturn is these days, you might not want to risk the money to find out.
Sonic R is far from the worst Sonic title out there, but it was a marked decline for the series, and not anywhere close to the hit Sega needed. They needed something new and drastic, especially after Sonic X-Treme bit the dust (thanks, Yuji Naka!) Looking to the future, the ailing company started hedging its bets on what would be its last hoorah in the console wars. Putting all of its chips on the table, Sega Technical Institute was rebranded as Sonic Team.
What they produced would change the series forever.
Note: I had a whole piece drafted up on the cancelled Sonic X-Treme, but honestly, a lot of ink has been spilled on that game. It never really came out how it was intended to, and the sordid history behind it has been covered more in-depth by better writers.