The kart racing genre has long been dominated by Nintendo’s Mario Kart franchise. But in 2010, SEGA finally brought their mascot onto the racing scene effectively with Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing. So today we’ll be looking at each of their latest titles and deciding which of the two rivals, the red plumber or the blue speedster, has the best racing series. We’ll do this with a series of categories. This will not include multiplayer capabilities as Sonic All-Stars Racing Transformed (SASRT) is a four-year-old game while Mario Kart 8 came out in 2015. Also, no DLC (downloadable content) will be counted (Sorry Metal Sonic 😢) With all the formalities out of the way, let’s get right into the comparison. Starting with…
Mario Kart 8 boasts 30 characters, one of the largest Mario Kart rosters yet. While it sounds like a lot, that number quickly diminishes once we take into account that there are five baby clones, two metal clones, and seven koopalings. Once you do the math, that leaves only seventeen fully original characters in the roster. Plus, they’re all from the Mario Bros. franchise. Before anyone asks, no, Link, the Villagers, and Isabelle do not count because they are DLC. So overall, not the most impressive roster in the world.
SASRT, rather than remaining firmly in the Sonic franchise for characters (and trust me they have enough to pull it off with a roster almost as large), instead takes characters from all of SEGA’s hit games. You’ve got the usual roundup from Sonic: Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Dr. Eggman, etc. But we’ve also got two representatives from Super Monkey Ball, Jet Set Radio, NiGHTS, Space Channel Five, and even some reps from Shinobi, Golden Axe, and Samba de Amigo. Best of all we have SEGA’s original mascot Alex Kidd and some guests like Wreck-It-Ralph from the Disney movie and NASCAR’s Danica Patrick. Needless to say, it’s a varied and fun roster.
Mario Kart 8 had some pretty good characters, but the loss of DLC really hurt Mario in terms of character variety. I will admit the roster in SASRT isn’t perfect, but it holds up better than Mario for sure.
Mario Kart has been using the same general kart-racing formula since its origins, and I think the term goes, “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” There’s all the standard things you need, some solid, though not perfect, drifting, some very tight controls that respond on time, and a general sense of direction. Where Mario Kart 8 fails is in the items. I will give it credit that it finally introduced the Super Horn as a worthy counter to the Blue Shell, but more times than not, you won’t have the Super Horn when a Blue Shell hits you. The other items are half decent, with nothing really being useful when you’re in first, and your chances of getting a good item in that position go down drastically. With everything that everyone else gets to throw your way in the game when you’re in first, it feels like the game is punishing you for being skillful enough to be in first place, which is a big no-no. I understand the argument of a fluid family-friendly race, but it needs more balance so that skillful players can do well no matter what and are rewarded.
Mario Kart 8’s big new feature is the antigravity mechanics. While the transformation looks more interesting than a normal kart, it never really adds anything except visual flair, as the gameplay remains completely unchanged. It also brought back Mario Kart 7’s gliding mechanics, but that doesn’t add more than a few brief moments of airborne glory and changed gameplay before the racing resumes. Even worse, while gliding, you’re susceptible to homing items hitting you and knocking you out of the air and sending you into a bottomless pit. That’s never fun. The one other way to get boost is through tricking when you do a jump over something leaving your character in the air for a second. It’s small and easy to pull of for experienced players, but it’s a nice bonus.
SASRT has items that don’t really go with any of the franchises in the game, but it makes up for that with the balance of the items. Most of them require you to aim carefully if you want to hit your target, and the few homing items can actually be dodged! Can we get a Hallelujah chorus in here, please? Now, in terms of driving, SASRT holds up in normal steering, but it excels with the drift mechanic. Rather than forcing you to unleash your boost when you let go of the button a little, you can do an aptly named “Switch-Drift,” which conserves your drift but can allow you to drift the other way, leading to awesome advanced tactics. The driving is just as tight as the driving in Mario Kart 8 when it comes to basic steering, although in this game, appropriately, the vehicles move much faster even when comparing both games’ slowest modes. This leads into SASRT’s big gameplay claim to fame, the transformation mechanic. During the race, depending on the layout of the track, your car can change from a car to a boat to a plane back to a car in any order. Unlike the antigrav in Mario Kart 8, both different vehicle modes change the gameplay. Boats force you to adapt to the choppiness of the waves to pull off difficult tricks, and planes require spatial awareness and knowledge of inverted flight mechanics. This leads to breathtaking views and some interesting track design, but we’ll talk more about that in the Tracks section of this comparison. SASRT has a tricking mechanic too, but instead of pressing a button, you use the right analog stick and move it up, left, right, or down to perform either flips or rolls. However, if you hit the ground (or water) while doing a trick, you lose all boost power. It’s a really cool risk-reward system that enables confident players to pull off effective and more powerful boosts if they time them right. This ties in once more to SASRT’s balance system.
I won’t deny that Mario Kart’s gameplay and style are what have earned it its place in the racing hall of fame, but the unpredictability and luckiness factor of it all means that experienced players might lose to a total newbie due to the people behind getting really good items. SASRT presents a change to that formula that rewards players who actually learn the game by giving them their rightfully deserved ranking. If you aren’t good at the game, you won’t get first. Personally, that’s how I feel it should be. I don’t want a game taking pity on the newbie just because it’s his first time playing. This is coming from the standpoint of a serious gamer who is dedicated to his chosen games, so it frustrates me when my dedication is anything but rewarded, it’s just shrugged off for a “family-friendly” environment, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for experience to play a key role in standings except on higher-tier multiplayer.
Mario Kart 8, to its credit, is probably the best looking game on the Wii U. All of the environments look beautiful and realistic, the characters look almost like real people (well, the ones who are supposed to), the cars look great, and the game runs at a nice 60fps (frames per second). It may not be as nice as a PC’s frame rate, but for a kart racing game it’s at least consistent. The lighting and shading was also done beautifully, meaning that when you drive in a shadow, everything darkens. It’s almost like being in a car and then going under the bridge; you can just feel the difference. The game seems to come alive right in front of you, which is really special in this day and age.
SASRT retains a nice graphical style, with very interesting environments that allow the colors to pop. Again, more on that in the Tracks section. The issue comes with the overall quality of the graphics. Things can look objectively blocky at times, and some textures just aren’t as clear as they are in MK8. However, the two killers are the characters and the speed. First of all, the characters look questionable. It’s manageable while racing, but when they step out of the vehicle, it’s kinda cringey to look at. Now we’re not talking Sonic Chronicles level of bad-looking models, but it’s nowhere close to Mario Kart’s either. The other issue comes with the gameplay speed. When the game hits a boost, everything blurs and the graphical polish becomes almost unbearable. What’s worse is that on the ground if you’re a good player, you will be boosting almost the entire time. Worse, the frame rate is around 30 fps. I’m sorry, but that just isn’t good. It gets even worse in multiplayer where it can drop to 18. 18!
I apologize to SASRT, but there was no competition here. Next.
Mario Kart 8 has, appropriately, eight cup competitions, each with four tracks, leading to a total of 32 tracks. The DLC adds sixteen more, but again, we aren’t counting that. There are a lot of different kinds here, ranging from airports, to subway stations, to a mountain, to just a racing stadium, and they are mostly fun to play through. I do have to question why some things like an airport have areas for zero gravity, but it’s a game about an Italian plumber racing with his friends, including a gorilla wearing a tie and a space princess, so I can accept that. What I cannot accept is how unmemorable so many tracks are. They feel generic and don’t connect with anything, even within Mario itself. Some stand out, like the one inside a giant clock and the infamous Rainbow Road, but most just fall flat. Not to mention they’re all so short that they blaze by with me barely noticing. 1, 2, 3 laps and we’re done.
SASRT had a lot fewer tracks with only twenty unique ones across five cups. The other five cups are mirror tracks. Mario Kart’s has a mirror mode as well, but you have to go 150cc to get it. The upside to SASRT’s twenty though, is their memorability. This comes not only from the fact that they’re based on individual SEGA games, including some that didn’t even get driveable characters in the game like Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg and Burning Rangers, but the memorable soundtrack composed primarily by Richard Jacques with remixes of songs from the games themselves. For my personal favorite just look up Burning Depths on YouTube. The tracks themselves are set anywhere from city rooftops to the middle of a naval battle. Additionally, in accordance with the transformation mechanic, the tracks can transform mid-race. For example, in the first race you’re driving for the first two laps, but in the third lap part of the stage falls away and you change into a boat. Not all tracks do this, but every track has a potential transformation mechanic, be it optional or mandatory.
The tracks in SASRT have a distinct identity and stick in your memory quickly due to the connections you can make and their fluid nature. They take time to connect with you and create quick gameplay changes to make you remember what you saw as you raced by in your souped up vehicles. Sadly, Mario Kart 8 has no such memorability. However, speaking of vehicles…
Mario Kart 8 takes the customization of vehicles from its predecessor and expands on it even more. With 26 vehicles, 17 types of wheels, and 12 types of gliders, there’s definitely something there to suit your playstyle. All of these affect your five stats: speed, acceleration, weight, traction, and handling. You should really try out all the vehicles until you find a combination that suits you. Just be warned, it might take a while. The problem, though, is that because there are so many karts, all of which can be customized to suit a character, almost none feel memorable. I can’t even remember 90% of the vehicles in MK8, which is really sad.
SASRT’s vehicles aren’t quite as wide or varied as the Mario Kart ones. For one, each character has their own vehicle, which you can’t change. Each of these vehicles also has three forms, one for each type of race. If you don’t like how a vehicle and character play but want to play as that character or vehicle, Sumo Digital put in a modification system where you can modify vehicles to your preferences. It’s not quite as precise customization compared to Mario in that regard, but at least it salvages what otherwise could have been frustrating for children wanting to play as their favorites. These vehicles, though, have a ton of personality, from Sonic’s sleek Blue Star to Gilius’ bronze statue animals. I remember them all with fondness (Well, minus MeMe’s Pink banana vehicle. Seriously, who thought that was a good idea?).
While yes, Sonic’s vehicles were rather limited because they were attached to a specific character, they were able to be customized to fit that character in ways the Mario Kart 8 vehicles never could. And before anyone brings up Link’s bike in MK8, let me remind you, NO DLC!
Mario Kart 8 went for full orchestral music as Mario has been doing for the past few years starting with Galaxy in 2007. All of the tracks sound beautiful to listen to and complete the game experience…on the first lap. After that, the music speeds up drastically. While it does get your blood pumping, it loses all of the majesty it had before. The other downside is the main problem I’ve had with MK8 overall. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the game is not memorable! I don’t remember any of the music I listened to during most of the races because I either couldn’t hear it over the race noises and my cries of blue shell frustration or I just never heard anything special! Why is nothing memorable?
I will admit that SASRT’s musical roster is…small, to say the least. You have only twenty songs for the tracks, a main theme, a title theme, and a handful of character themes. But the truth is that the songs themselves are incredibly fun to listen to even outside of the game itself. And they don’t make the mistake of speeding up like MK8; it just lets you enjoy the song. There are a few tunes that just make my ears want to fall off, but otherwise it all sounds great and fits the areas you’re racing in. Not to mention that the constant pace of the music helps make not only the music itself memorable, but also the tracks themselves.
The music I couldn’t remember versus the music that helped me fall in love. How could I not choose Sonic’s? Besides, that’s one of Sonic’s constant good qualities–the music!
AND THE OVERALL WINNER IS…
Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed
If you didn’t see it coming, you skimmed the entire review just to see this. Mario Kart 8 deserves respect for how it brought the Mario Kart series forward and pushed the graphical boundaries of the Wii U. However, Sonic just has the far better racing game here. Everything in the game came together to allow the blue blur to speed past his plump Italian rival. So if you’re looking for a good racing game and you own a Wii U, XBox 360, PS3, or even just a good PC, pick up Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed. Who knows? Maybe you’ll join its fans and we’ll finally get a sequel to this gem of a racer. Thank you all for reading, and keep coming back to In the Middle for more content.