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Game 41 of 52: Sonic R - 06/05/24


Ryannumber1gamer

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Next up on the Sonic marathon agenda is a oddball spinoff that's always been something of a guilty pleasure of mine, to be honest. Whereas Sonic the Fighters has gotten a bit more respect over the years for being a pretty good fighting game in it's own right, with it's own unique charm to it, also thanks to a remaster in 2012 and a surprise emulation inclusion in Lost Judgement, meaning it's never truly been lost to time.

Sonic R on the other hand is a entirely different story. Created to fill in the gap caused by the abrupt cancellation that was Sonic Xtreme, Traveller's Tales was tasked with knocking up a racing game that would there to be a 3D Sonic game that was a full-fledged game, and not a scrappy bonus like Sonic World. With about nine months to get the job done, we have...more or less what you'd expect for a 3D racing game from 1997. There's three major flaws as I see them.

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Yeah, unfortunately, as much as part of me wants to say otherwise, Sonic R is kind of a bad game. It's a dated racing game that uses tank controls. From that very basis alone, anyone can guess the problem there. In a racing game where you generally want good controls for navigating, making tight turns, and all of that, and just on a fundamental level, it's the game's most fatal flaw. The game just plainly doesn't feel that great to control. You'll run into things a lot, find it hard to make turns, and there's a complete pace-killer when you try to turn. 

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The secondary problem is pretty simple. The content in this game is lacking, to say the least. It's a game where if you were told it only had nine months of development behind it, it explains a whole ton, because the game is really pitiful in terms of what it offers. There's a total of five tracks, and a total of 10 characters. Which, speaking of - those ten characters also present our third issue.

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Put bluntly, the game's balancing is entirely out of whack, and Super Sonic there is just the ultimate embodiment of this problem. From the very start - Sonic, Tails and Knuckles all have unique abilities with double jumps, flying, and gliding. Amy and Eggman on the other hand get the ability to drive/hover on water, and shoot enemies. These abilities are not only worthless, but their speed and handling is terrible. Absolutely terrible. You will just plainly not win without great annoyance playing as them. 

But Super Sonic? The game is over as soon as he is unlocked. From that point on, you are screwed either way because the game's system is that it will use either only base characters, or only unlockable characters depending on who's picked. As soon as you unlock Super Sonic, who has all of the best stats as you'd imagine - if you try to use any of the other unlockable characters, the race is practically a guaranteed loss because Super Sonic is just that unbeatable. So you either use Super Sonic yourself, and curbstomp, or you get curbstomped if you use the others. Or you simply restrict yourself to only using the base roster. 


Buuut, ignoring these three major problems, I do think there's a lot to enjoy about Sonic R that more than brings it up to being an enjoyable guilty pleasure that's worth experiencing at least once (albeit, using Knuckles because his glide does offer better handling).

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For a start, I honestly think the game has a extremely charming visual style. It may be fairly primitive and blocky, but the R models really have this old school quality to them that makes them appealing to me personally. Same goes for all of the locales, which to the game's credit - is all pretty varied, all with unique dynamic weather conditions that can change up the courses, even having gameplay effects like making it possible to traverse frozen over water. Worlds like Reactive Factory, and Radical City really do feel like the fit absolutely perfectly into the Classic Sonic world, and that deserves praise in my opinion.

On top of that, Travellers Tales were just pretty insane for being able to squeeze SEGA consoles for as much horsepower as possible. If you've ever visited Jon Burton's Gamehut channel, you can see heaps of pre-release builds and programming tricks, both for 3D Blast and R that let them do insane nonsense you wouldn't think possible on these consoles. From a full blown FMV on 3D Blast to unique reflection techniques on R:

Which, considering the pretty damn short development time - is honestly impressive how they still went out of their way to do fairly ambitious things for the time, and the fact that it even works makes it all the more cooler.

However, that's not the coolest thing IMO. While there's only five courses in the game, it's also not quite that simple. Unlocking characters and the track isn't as easy as just finishing races in this game. Instead, what we get is honestly one of the best translations of a Sonic game to any spinoff IMO.

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You see, while Sonic R might not be the finest pure racing game - it is frankly one of the best Sonic spinoffs - period - in terms of just translating the absolute raw gameplay of Sonic into another genre. Every single character has unique traits - just like the Genesis games. Sonic can double jump, Tails can fly, Knuckles can glide, Eggman can shoot projectiles, etc, while the unlockable characters use combinations of these traits. On top of that, every single track  is big and expansive, with multiple pathways, usually just like a Classic Sonic game - rewarding reaction time and being able to remain on higher paths and finding shortcuts.

Collecting rings is used in a cool risk vs reward system where you can either save them up for a big dash pad that will give you a huge boost in the race speed-wise, or you can use them to unlock doorways that open shortcuts and reveal secret items. Which leads us to the biggest point in R's cap - the collectibles. In all of the races, there's five Sonic coins per race, as well as 1-2 Chaos Emeralds - where you need to explore the track, find where they're hidden, and collect them all for a new character. 

In terms of the Sonic coins, you only need to hit the top 3. But if you go for the emeralds, you must hit first. Which honestly leads to a cool dynamic that R has where you need to actively map out optimal routes to best find all of the coins and emeralds in one run, but still hit the 1st place spot. This in my opinion is a really cool way to bring back the exploration and optimisation of the classic era games, and translate them to a new genre, and I do think R deserves it's due props for that, especially with nine months development time. If you take it through the lens of trying to figure out the way to translate Sonic into another genre while still recapturing and baking in what made the original games so beloved, I think there's a lot to really like about Sonic R's gameplay, so much so that it counteracts all of the above flaws.

Also the soundtrack, the soundtrack absolutely slaps, I don't care what ScrewAttack says. One of my all-time favourite OSTs in the entire franchise:

Not forgetting my favourite in the entire game:

Really, at the end of the day, Sonic R really is a oddity of a game in my eyes. Yes, ever since I first played it, I have acknowledged it's not a particularly good game in terms of being a raw racing game. It's rather clunky, and there's a lot of balancing problems. But I think that between it being one of the first big 3D spinoff games, the development time the team had, the admirable and ambitious things the team tried to accomplish, and just how painstakingly faithful it is to trying to recapture and translate the gameplay of Classic Sonic to a whole other genre? I think there's honestly a lot to like about the game. I know it's enough for me to want to revisit this charming little entry every few years.

Do I think it's going to be some hidden gem of the franchise? Probably not, but I do think it's a pretty big shame that it's been lost to time at this point, outside of some minor teasing from Team Sonic Racing. There's a lot to enjoy with the game, and it deserves to be available for more people to play readily without resorting to emulation. When games like Sonic the Fighters and even the Game Gear titles are seeing more re-releases, I think it's more than time to bring Sonic R back. It's a vital stepping stone in the history of 3D Sonic, and the transition between the Classic era and the Adventure era.

...although, speaking of Sonic Adventure. Well...

 

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