Why is it that the better Sonic games to come out this side of the 128-Bit generation have been spinoff games (not including Shadow, of course)? It seems that SONICTEAM have a knack for making entertaining spinoffs of their key character, yet when it comes to the canon games… well, we all still live in hope.
It’s no surprise either that Sonic Riders was developed by the side of the studio formerly known as United Game Artists (Space Channel 5, Rez, Rub Rabbits). Making the hedgehog a cool badass once again, Riders has a lot of charisma and flair that had been lacking in past Sonic titles. Dr. Eggman has launched his own racing tournament called the EX World Grand Prix, and a band of thieves called the Babylon Rogues are taking part. This catches Sonic’s eye, as the previous evening Team Sonic were chasing these crooks throughout Metal City after they had stolen a Chaos Emerald.
The graphics during the opening cutscenes are absolutely superb, and with each game it shows that SEGA’s FMV team are only getting better. Standard graphics are better than past efforts from Sonic Heroes and Shadow, and are very characteristic of each character. It’s quite cool to see Sonic snarl and bare his teeth. Like a proper metalhead. Wonder if he headbangs… The best thing about the presentation has to be the return of the atmosphere that was probably last seen in such vivid colour and character in the Mega Drive Sonic titles. Sonic was never about doom and gloom. It’s about good versus evil, in a lighthearted and comical manner. Riders delivers this character in droves, from the bizarre attacks right down to the extremely likeable storyline.
The 4Kids voice overs don’t do that bad a job in this game, with Knuckles sounding much better, Tails sounding his best since Sonic Adventure and Mike Pollock excelling as Eggman once again. Jason Griffith is about the only person to sound rusty with his Sonic voice over, but with him having few lines it doesn’t detract too much from the experience. The music is slightly dull when listened to on their own, but suit the stages well and keep you on your toes during a race. The sound effects actually do co-ordinate well with the beats of the BGM, and the opening and closing themes just goes to show you don’t always need Crush 40.
Playing Sonic Riders is a tale of two halves – one of frustration, one of entertainment. In just about that order. Upon playing for the first time you will notice just how advanced this game is – there is no accelerate button as you go at a constant speed. You race on levitating hoverboards with ‘air’ as your fuel. This fuel depletes constantly, so you will need to keep filling it up via tricks, Pit Stops or obtaining item boxes with air inside. As you blast through the first few tracks on Story Mode, you will likely appreciate the gameplay and the graphics – advanced skills aren’t exactly necessary until the very last few stages in Babylon’s Story.
Once you get there though, inexperienced players will find the game too tough. There is a reliance later in the game on good use of techniques – such as the front and back flips, along with reaching distant and high shortcuts – to succeed. This can really frustrate younger gamers, or those still getting to grips on the controls. When you start playing a few tracks for fun and finally get the hang of tricking effectively, it all clicks into place, and suddenly playing Sonic Riders becomes much more entertaining.
Courses are varied, although there are fewer than we thought. There are six base tracks, with an alternative format based on Hero or Babylon Story modes. The differences in each are only just enough to warrant them to be fresh spins on familiar tracks though. While Sonic R was truly innovative in open courses with multiple routes, Riders still applies some funky gimmicks despite not going quite to the same extreme. Depending on what character you pick, you can access specific shortcuts on each track. Pick a Speed character like Sonic and you’ll be able to grind along rails. Fly characters like Tails can zoom through speed rings in the air, while Power characters are able to smash through obstacles with ease. Doing these skills will get you air while offering a quick shortcut.
The offering of modes in Sonic Riders is most impressive too. While 1P options such as Story Mode and Mission Modes will keep you busy for a bit, it’s ultimately the multiplayer modes that will keep you and your mates coming back for more. This game, unlike any other Sonic game created, was developed with multiplayer action well within the frame rather than a simple afterthought. Which is admirable, because mates can choose between straight races, Grand Prix challenges, battle modes or even team up to play Tag races. The Grand Prix and a few other modes are significantly harder than the Story Mode, so you have to be well tooled up!
It’s most fun to play with friends when you’re all around the same skill level. Sonic Riders is one of those titles that, because it demands your understanding and learning to get good, becomes no fun if you’re racing with inexperienced mates. They’ll likely get frustrated at being unable to play the game properly while you perform ‘X’ rating tricks. That’s ultimately the downfall of the multiplayer mode, yet there are various tricks to downplay this. When racers break 180km/h, a half-pipe of turbulence will be left behind them. This allows players lagging behind to catch up to their opponents quicker while using no air at all. It’s more fun taking advantage of this with mates rather than without, as CPU racers usually go so far ahead in a race the only way to catch up is to use your repetoire of self-taught shortcut tricks.
Alongside the additional features of racing – like being able to Level up during a race – and the mutliplayer, Sonic Riders has great replayability value in its Shop. You collect rings after each game and can use these to buy new vehicles and other special items. There are a few nice gems in there, trust us.
While the appeal of the game wears thin after a few weeks, like many Sonic games, Riders will be one of those you can pull from the list months down the line and load up with some mates and a few cans. This isn’t a Mario Kart beater, and certainly isn’t refined to the same level, nor is it anywhere near as accessible. But Sonic the Hedgehog was never the same as Super Mario World now, was it? An interesting, fresh and mostly entertaining alternative to Nintendo’s mascot racer.