When it comes to kart racing, it often seems like Mario Kart is the only game in town. I'm here to tell you that it's not. In fact, there's another, arguably better game that came out for Nintendo's Wii U console two years before Mario Kart 8 was even a thing people were playing.
I'm talking about Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. It's the rarest kind of Mario Kart imitator: one that many fans and players of both games insist improves upon its source material. And since the game preceded Mario Kart 8 by such a large margin, one could even argue that it ended up serving as an inspiration for some of that game's best features.
If you swap back and forth between the two, you'll quickly start to notice some major similarities between the two. But there are also many real differences.
Here is what I found when I pit the two against one another.
Since people are going to ask about these, here are a few important qualifications to consider before I start knocking heads:
-I'm going to refer to the mouthful that is Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed as Sonic Racing for the remainder of this piece.
- Mario Kart 8 is a Wii U exclusive. Sonic Racing is not. I played both on the Wii U in order to get the most direct comparison possible.
-I have not hundred-percented either of these games. I have played a lot more Mario Kart 8 than I have Sonic Racing, however.
- Mario Kart 8 has certain advantages for no better reason than it came out more recently and currently has a critical mass of gamers competing online.
-Partly because of the timing, I'm not going to focus on the online mutliplayer too much here. Tons of people are doing crazy things online in Mario Kart 8 every day. It's a trendy game, as it should be. Comparing this to a game that came out two years ago doesn't feel fair or appropriate.
Cool? Cool. Ok, let's do this.
A kart racing game is nothing without its characters. Since these games act as supergroups in which Nintendo and Sega's various proprietary characters can mingle under the watchful eyes of their respective parent companies, both bring a lot of good stuff to the table.
Mario Kart 8: The standard lineup of classic stars (Mario, Luigi, Donkey Kong, Bowser), princesses (Peach, Daisy, Rosalina), supporting characters (Yoshi, Toad), plus some quality B-List Nintendo celebrities that casual fans don't normally see otherwise (Shy Guy, Wario, Waluigi). These are divided into three main weight classes, with the lighter racers trading off speed and heft for increased maneuverability. The characters are, for the most part, Nintendo characters: cute, charming, and more than a little silly. The only real problem I have with Mario Kart 8's cast is that Nintendo chose to include all seven of the koopalings characters. That's just overkill. Their presence is overwhelming, and it means that Nintendo left out other characters that would have been a better fit.
Sonic Racing: Similar to Mario Kart, Racing Transformed has all the usual suspects: Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Dr. Eggman. The farther-flung characters in this game, such as Crazy Taxi's BD Joe, will trigger some very specific memories for some gamers, but probably won't be recognized at all by others who aren't as familiar with the Sega's glory days as a console developer on par with Nintendo. Also, there are random pop culture tie-ins like Wreck-It Ralph for some reason. My personal favorites are Tails and Metal Sonic, who looks like a character that was left out of the new Transformers for no good reason. I mean that as a compliment.
Edge: Toss-Up. Nintendo could have won this one if it hadn't crippled itself with the Koopalings. In general, I find the character mix in Sonic Racing to be less consistent, tonally and visually. That doesn't have to be a bad thing, but Sonic Racing doesn't handle it gracefully enough to make the occasional oddity of seeing Wreck-It Ralph or BD Joe next to Sonic and Tails work in the game's favor. Which raises an interesting challenge that I hope Nintendo considers for itself going forward: what if a Mario Kart game had Light and Dark Link? Or even—dare I say it, Solid Snake? They've made it work in Super Smash Bros.!
Just like the characters, the items are an essential ingredient in any kart racing game that's worth its weight it banana peels. If I'm not shooting comically oversized projectiles at my fellow gamers, I might as well be playing Need for Speed.
Mario Kart 8: All the classics are here: red shells, green shells, banana peels, lightning strikes...the list goes on and on. Most of the new items are surprisingly good, too. People were worried the super horn would ruin the blue shell, for instance, but it's become a fun melee-type weapon to use in its own right at this point.
Sonic Racing: The game has mostly standard fare like rockets, ice shards that freeze opponents, and mines that can be peppered across the track. My favorite is the baseball glove, which is a defensive item that catches attack coming from behind. Also: this isn't necessarily an item, but one of my biggest pet peeves with this game is how tiny the item boxes are. They look like little fuzzy red dots on the track, even when you're right next to them. This means that they're unnecessarily difficult to pick up, which makes the whole combat system less intensive than it should be.
Edge: Mario Kart. Mario Kart has been considered best-in-class for much of its life for some very good reasons. The continued excellence of its in-games items is one of these reasons. Sonic Racing's are fine, I suppose, but they're nothing remarkable. The game would've had to really knock this out of the park to best Mario Kart, and it didn't.
Ok, here we go. To me, the vehicles are, by far, the biggest difference between the two games. For starters, the characters in Sonic Racing each have their own unique load-out. The ones in Mario Kart 8, meanwhile,can hop into any of that games many, many vehicle combinations. The choice that each game's developer made here has some interesting, unexpected consequences. Let's get to it.
Mario Kart 8: This game is all about variability and customization. Even the characters have different weight classes, which can have a profound impact on their performance. Many players who take the game's Time Trials seriously, for instance, swear by the heavier characters as the only way to achieve the speed necessary to be a serious contender. In other situations (such as Vs. races online), maneuverability has its own benefits as well, since combat can be a deciding factor in multiplayer races. The three main vehicle types (ATVs, Motorcycles, and Karts) work in a similar way. And god help you if you're trying to pick a set of wheels that's perfect for every single race in a given cup!
Anyway, the takeaway here is that Mario Kart 8's vehicle combinations are immense, even overwhelming when you first start playing. But constantly experimenting with different builds is a big part of what makes this game so much fun.
Sonic Racing: Each driver in this game is assigned their own vehicle. You're not just getting one vehicle here, however. The game is called Racing Transformed because each of the vehicles switches between three different modes—a car, a boat, and a plane. Your vehicle swaps between the three throughout the races depending on where you are in the level. It's like you're driving your very own tri-curious Sega-branded Autobot or Decepticon.
If that sounds amazing, it is—in theory. I mean, just look at how the game advertized the transforming mechanic:
As with many awesome-looking trailers, however, things aren't quite as exciting in practice. Here's how it works in practice:
The transformations are seamless, and give the game a fun little visual flourish. Plus, racing in each of the different modes really does feel different. When you're flying, for example, you can move up and down and even try to pull off barrel rolls. Racing with a boat, meanwhile, leaves you susceptible to the overall choppiness of the water.
Edge: Mario Kart. Sonic Racing had an amazing idea with the transforming vehicles. But I remain unconvinced that their actual function in the game rises completely above the level of being a gimmick. Mario Kart 8 might lack a certain kind of variety in comparison. But it more than makes up for that by flawlessly executing the core driving mechanics that it chose to focus on, however singular that focus may be. Also, the underwater, anti-gravity, and gliding portions of levels in Mario Kart 8 all offer similar mid-level twists to the ones in Sonic. In other words: Sonic Racing offers up three unique kinds of racing that are all very good. Mario Kart 8 only offers one, but it's truly great.
Also, since we're talking about the vehicles, it's worth noting that Sonic Racing has a much more intense difficulty spike throughout much of its gameplay than Mario Kart 8. As we noted in our original review in 2012, a large part of this is due to the incredible precision that's required to steer the game's vehicles. A high difficulty level doesn't have to be a bad thing, of course. But we're talking about a kart racing game. These are family-friendly games. They're meant to be played with friends who might not be seasoned gamers. Mario Kart 8 is fun from the very beginning, which is important because the beginning is all some people will see. It takes time to develop the requisite skills in Sonic Racing to actually enjoy the game, and I think it suffers because of that.
This is another hard one. The core racetracks in both these games are very, very good. We probably wouldn't be talking about either of these games if that wasn't the case.
Mario Kart 8: The game has 32 tracks, half of which are revamped versions of tracks that appeared in earlier Mario Kart games. Almost all of them have a standard 3-lap structure, the major exception being Mount Wario, which you race by descending the mountain in one go. Not coincidentally, that's also considered the best track by many players.
Sonic Racing: 21 tracks, four of which are spiffed up from the game's 2010 predecessor Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing. The game's transformation mechanic comes into play here in terms of the terrain you traverse. But, more interestingly, it also means that most of the tracks themselves "transform" (so to speak) as you play through them.
Edge: Mario Kart 8. Call me superficial, but I think this is a case where it comes down to the graphics. Mario Kart 8 is a gorgeous game. Racing through its levels is breathtaking. Sonic Racing looks good, too, and it holds up impressively well two years in. But it suffers from the logistical requirements of being optimized for a number of last-gen consoles. It looks choppy and outdated when compared to the visual splendor of Nintendo's game.
The one factor that could have left Mario Kart 8 in the dust is the transformation mechanic. But again, I'm not convinced that this transcends its fundamentally gimmicky nature. Seeing a track change from lap-to-lap is really cool at first. But once you've played through the same track as many times as many players have or will, it doesn't feel quite so revolutionary anymore.
Picking apart each individual gameplay mode in one game vs. the other is the perfect way to get lost in the weeds, for reasons I'll explain in a moment. So let's end with a more general question: which of these games offers a greater number of things to do that a) feel different enough from one another to be considered distinct categories and b) are actually fun to play?
Mario Kart 8: There are a number of different ways to race in Mario Kart. All of them are excellent. Off the top of my head, here are things I could jump into and start having a blast with immediately:
-Racing through one of the cups on my own, competing against bots
-Racing through one of the cups with up to three other friends huddled around my Wii U console, all of us competing against bots
-Racing through individual races alone or with up to three other friends, with bots
-Racing against other human beings online on my own
-Racing against other people online with another friend in meatspace with me
-Racing against the clock, without any bots, though occasionally against ghost characters if I want to (Time Trials)
Notice that this starts to sound repetitive fairly quickly. Unless you're playing competitively (online or with friends who are very, very good), the differences between these various kinds of racing aren't all that significant. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, mind you. But Mario Kart 8 is like a steak dinner: there's one giant hunk of meat at the center of this game. It tastes amazing to me, but I can see a time in my life when I'd rather step out to some fancy modern restaurant that serves me lots of ornamental-looking things on tiny plates instead.
What I've avoided saying so far is that the battle mode in Mario Kart 8 is awful. Just absolutely, completely terrible. Mike Fahey described it as "horribly tedious, borderline unplayable" in his review. He is correct. I have nothing more to add.
Now let us never speak of this again.
Sonic: Without a doubt, there's more variety to spice things up in Racing Transformed. There's a campaign mode, there are cups, there are nifty little challenges and mini-games sprinkled throughout to break up the monotony. In general, there are different paths on which you can embark and from which you can derive a genuine sense of progression.
Edge: Sonic. This is a tough one, because it's highly subjective. If I was just writing this in my personal journal, I would side with Mario Kart, because I consider that game's driving better than Sonic's in every conceivable way. It's so good, in fact, that I haven't even noticed myself getting bored with the game after essentially playing through the same set of racetracks over and over again in the same relentless way more times than I want to consider or admit.
Variety is its own asset, however. And since that's the fundamental question here, Sonic wins.
I enjoyed revisiting Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed to write this piece. Who knows, I may very well keep playing it! It's a great game.
But there's a reason that Mario Kart is synonymous with kart racing. Nintendo knows how to make these kinds of games like nobody else does. The company could certainly stand to learn a thing or two from Sonic, as I discussed above. And there might be some parts of this arbitrary competition I just put on that are unfair, especially factors like Mario Kart 8's vibrant online community and the game's impressive visual sheen.
But none of that changes the fact that Mario Kart 8, as it stands today, is the better game. It's more fun to play. And since the game only came out two months ago, it's only going to get better as its online community continues to evolve and Nintendo (hopefully) adds new content.
Sonic Racing had two years to prove itself the winner here. Mario Kart 8 already has.
Top image by Sam Woolley