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Sonic R  (Sega Saturn) Review

Hey O everyone out there, I want to start this review by just letting you know that I am a Sega fan, I am also unashamedly a Sonic fan. Sonic the Hedgehog for the Megadrive was the game that I can categorically say got me into gaming. I’m telling you this because I feel it’s right to arm you with the knowledge of my biases when it comes to reviewing Sonic based Sega games. I could tell you, not to worry about it, as even I get that Sonic has been a joke for some time in modern gaming history but this still doesn’t mean I don’t write this review without my nostalgia goggles. So without further ado let’s dive into the Sega Saturns only original Sonic title for the system. 



Ok, let’s begin!

Sonic R (SR) was made by Sonic Team in collaboration with Traveller’s Tales for the Sega Saturn in 1997 and published by Sega themselves. SR is the 3rd sonic racing game in the series, the first being Sonic Drift for the Game Gear. I’ll admit that racing games are in general like most sports games a bit of anathema for me. I just have trouble with the logic of it. If I want to play football, for instance, I wouldn’t buy a game to play football. I'd either join a club or kick a ball about with friends. The same goes for racing, I'd buy a session on a test track or go to a truck derby and have a show. So when I do get a sports-based game they usually have something more cathartic going on in them like Carmageddon, this is the same for SR. I'm not really interested in the competitive nature of the game but I am interested in the world surrounding it and the characters within it. It is also worth telling you that yes this is the only original Sonic title on the Sega Saturn. There are only three games in the Sega Saturn library that have Sonic in it as more than just a cameo appearance or bonus feature and they are SR, Sonic Jam and Sonic 3D Blast. Sonic Jam is a compilation game come museum gallery of the16bit era of Sonic and is quite nicely put together with all its bonus features including a 3D hub world but isn’t actually an original game made for the Sega Saturn. Sonic 3D Blast, on the other hand, was an improved port of a game that originally was scheduled to only be released for the now ageing Megadrive but when Sonic X-treme got cancelled it was decided that a port be made for the Sega Saturn with graphical improvements. What is worth noting as well is that Sonic 3D Blast was developed by Traveller’s Tales, the same people who would co-develop SR. This was apparently due to the Sonic Team being tied up with Nights into Dreams. SR, probably not too coincidentally, is also compatible with the Nights into Dreams analogue control. If you are wondering, yes I do recommend using it if you have one available as it controls far better then the standard D-pad controller.   



Plot


Believe it or not, SR does have a plot although you’ll find no mention of it in the game. There is however a single page dedicated to it in the manual. The plot is, for the most part, the same as all the Sonic game plots of the ’90s. Dr Robotnik has found the whereabouts of the Chaos Emeralds and seeks to take over the world. I do like the set up though in the manual it reminds me of the kind of scenes you’d see in the old “Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog” cartoon series.


“Tails Spots a huge sign alongside the road they are currently travelling on. It is a recruiting advertisement for the World Grand Prix.


“Sonic! Sonic! Look, there’s going to be a huge race with all the best racers in the world. What a great opportunity for you to show your speed and compete with the other great runners!”


Sonic thinks for a moment. He’s the world's fastest runner, but participating in races is not really his interest. Something on the sign, however, catches Sonic’s Eye, and he races off into the distance.”


It’s at this point I choose to believe that Scratch and Grounder were still in the area making a pigs breakfast out of stealthily observing the hedgehog. Resulting in Sonic probably spotting Grounder’s green robotic butt, because despite Grounder being the smaller of the dimwitted duo, that butt seemed to stick out everywhere. If you don’t believe me then watch the show, that butt gets oddly more screen time then it really should. Anyway moving on the scene pans up to a spy satellite where Dr Robotnik is chuckling with glee.


““Now that you have fallen into my trap, Sonic, I will finally have the Chaos Emeralds, and beat you at the same time. With my new hover machine, and these…” Dr. Robotnik looks to his left, and a row of gleaming eyes gaze back at him. “Nothing can go wrong! Hahahahahahaha…..””


Knuckles is described in the manual as Sonic’s rival, though I don't know exactly how canon that is; they have had a number of standoffish/competitive moments in most media portrayals and it seems that Knuckles is basically joining in the races because he’s heard that Sonic’s competing.  Amy, however, has a more interesting and I’d argue rather lacking in context reason for entering the races as it raises more questions.


“And Amy too will be there. After secretly overhearing Dr. Robotniks’s plans, she also will be racing to find the Chaos Emeralds”


Okay, so Amy either regularly spies on Dr Robotnik and is such a master infiltrator that she’s managed to get into his orbital spy satellite whilst he was gloating to himself or Dr Robotinik literally loudly talks about his plans when he’s out an about like the mad nut job that he clearly is. I choose to believe that Amy overhead Dr Robotnink frustratingly shouting his plans at the dunderheaded morons, Scratch and Grounder, for failing to see the true brilliance in his clearly convoluted plan to destroy that pesky hedgehog once and for all! 



There you go, that's pretty much the plot. Sonic’s running into a trap that he clearly must know is a trap as why else would he go wandering into it after seeing something up with the sign. Knuckles is racing for competition's sake and is clueless to the true narrative like he’s portrayed a lot of the time in most Sonic stories. Amy joins to help Sonic in the races to find the Chaos Emeralds and Dr Robotnik is going to try and not only get the Chaos Emeralds but destroy Sonic at the same time, and he’s going to hamstring himself by hiding it all under the guise of a Grand Prix, genius!


Pros


SR’s levels are varied and unique and provide a great deal of exploration for what is essentially a race track. There are the hidden emerald locations, there are the unlockable shortcuts and if you get to know the levels well you’ll discover other shortcuts that are quite well hidden within the stages, giving you an edge over the AI and other players. In fact, I’d actually like to see SR reimagined today to see what extra features, colour and lighting they could achieve and add to these levels as there was a lot going on to opening pyramids, emerald launching yellow submarines, pinball cityscapes and crystal causeways. The levels themselves provide a good deal of entertainment with each one also being scored to songs composed by Ricard Jacques and sung wonderfully by Teresa Jane Davies. A lot of people at the time found this music split them somewhat with people feeling that it wasn't appropriate for the game and to them I say pish and tosh. The music is perfectly suited for the game, having plenty of speedy beats to get those feet tapping and to make those tense moments all the sweeter. Yes, it’s not your standard bit sound rhythm but this is the first fully 3D Sonic game and I for one am happy that they decided to utilise the Sega Saturns ability to have vocalised music. 



SR main characters are as followed; Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Amy and Dr Robotnik. Each of these characters has unique abilities to varying their play style. Sonic is obviously the fastest, he can perform a double jump and has his trademark spin dash, which knuckles and tails have both stolen, but he suffers difficulty in tight corners. Tails is slower but has better acceleration and he can fly allowing him to avoid areas of the track altogether. Knuckles is the most balanced in speed and manoeuvrability he can glide and he can apparently, according to the manual, climb but this, at least for the Sega Saturn version of the game, is a lie. I have extensively tested Knuckles on almost every surface in these levels and I can tell you now that he cannot climb in this game. Not to mention that there would be little point in him climbing in this game except for perhaps one or two brief sections where it would actually be an advantage. If someone out there can find evidence to the contrary on Knuckles non-climbing abilities then I would love to see it as most people when talking about the game have either a vague recollection of him climbing or are indeed certain that they’ve seen him climb, I for one have not. 

Amy is slow but her car transforms into a hovercraft on the water and she has a speed booster. Robotnik is similar to Amy except he has little to no friction and has an absolutely useless gun. Yeah, Robotnik's gun or missile attacks I’ll get back to that later on. In addition to these main characters, there are also the bonus characters Metal Sonic, The Tails Doll, Metal Knuckles, Eggrobo and Super Sonic. All of these unlockable characters have slightly different stats and ways in which they play with Super Sonic obviously trouncing everyone in speed. I have to also point out that it is perfectly possible to complete the game with each and every one of these characters getting first place. It is more difficult for some characters than others but a good player can defeat the AI with the worst of characters, namely the Eggrobo.



SR graphically for the time was pretty good and even looking back at it it’s not overly terrible. All characters are distinct and recognisable. The scenery of the track and other opponents fade into view rather than just popping into existence like in other racing games such as Daytona and it has reasonably interesting water effects to make the large bodies of water in the game look better than static sprites. SR is also built relatively well, only really having the odd collision glitch that can be performed to cause you to leave the boundaries of the course. These glitches though you'll have to work at in order for them to occur and aren't something you're just going to casually pull off if you're playing the game as intended. The controls of the game can be initially difficult to get used to but with practice and the understanding that you're playing a racing game and not your standard 3D platformer of the time and suddenly it all clicks together. You accelerate by holding B and the D-Pad is just used for steering with the bumpers giving you the option to drift around corners. If you need further assistance then it’s best you start off playing as knuckles as although he isn’t the fastest he’s far more forgiving around corners and is the most balanced of the first characters you can play.


My final pro is short and stands alone but SR I believe is the first and only time that as a player you’ve been allowed to drive the epitomise Eggomatic Hovercraft. Dr Robotnik’s pride and joy, his personal transport vehicle and I for one get immense pleasure at driving this one of a kind vehicle around. Especially these days with my hairline receding, my beer belly protruding and a proclivity for growing varying forms of facial hair.


Cons


SR for want of a better word is lacking for a racing game although individual levels are quite rich and detailed there are only five separate stages. Yes, the treasure hunting side does give you some much needed extra play but clearly, this is somewhat sparse and it’s not too surprising as SR wasn’t even supposed to be SR, to begin with, but was initially going to be an F1 racing game. This was changed though with the cancellation of Sonic X-treme and Sega’s realisation that there would be no system-specific Sonic titles, which you have to admit is a bit of an oversight for the mascot that made your company such a big hit in the first place. What this ultimately meant though was that the Traveller’s Tales team had to construct a very different game with a shorter looming deadline and as such there were a number of features that didn't end up in the finished product. This as you can imagine probably explains the lack of an in-game story and indeed knuckles lack of climbing but there were going to be other features such as a mirror mode that would allow you to play the levels in flipped reverse but due to time constraints these were cancelled. In my mind as well I feel more could have been done with the unlockable characters although some of the Badniks do debut in this game they come off as basically evil clones of the original characters except for Amy who clearly wasn’t worth an evil clone. They could have brought back some of the forgotten characters of Sonic history such as Mighty the Armadillo, Bean the Dynamite and indeed the Chaotix team of characters. These characters would have probably had a more varied power base, for instance, I could see Bean leaving mines on the track to slow people down and Mighty could literally be invulnerable to all attacks but ultimately quite slow.  The Versus mode is also quite limited for a racing game with only two players being able to compete, at this point in time Playstation had made several games which utilised the multitap system allowing for many more players to join a game, Street Racer springs to my mind. 


That’s pretty much it except for Dr Robotnik's gun. What a useless pile of crap! The damn thing is never ready when you need it. It fires at a glacial pace and every time I used it it didn’t hinder my opponents but instead gave them a freaking speed boost. I don’t know whether I’m using it wrong or what, but there’s definitely something wrong with your ultimate weapon when it fires your opponent across the finish line effectively making you lose the race. It’s a good job the Eggomatic Hovercraft is awesome in other ways because that gun may as well not be there for all the help it gives me.


Nerd O Metre Rating

Low 4 out of 5... Probably a High 3 because I’m biased.

Final Thoughts

SR, in my opinion, is a good game that was hamstrung by the circumstances at the time. That being said though we’d have never got this game if those circumstances had never come about, instead, we’d all be talking about Sonic X-treme and how it was the greatest Sonic game ever created on the Sega Saturn. Taking this in mind Yes it’s lacking and it’s a shame that they really couldn’t do much more with the game. It’s major Con is this strapped for time emergency response but this game has so much in it for a five-level racing game it has great music, complex track designs, unlockable characters and emeralds to find. It’s a racing game that combines most of the elements you’d find in your 16bit era games. With power-ups like the lightning and bubble shields to badniks and because it’s a racing game, the focus is primarily on speed which was the great draw for people who bought the first Sonic games. SR may not be much, but it is 100% a Sonic game not a racing game with Sonic slapped on. The people making this game put real thought and effort into making it a success but sadly this game's existence is down to Sega having no back-up plan, is the game worth getting though. If you're a Sonic fan you’ll buy this game indeed I’d say it would probably be a must but I would argue that there is a case for buying an early PC port version of the game as it has the option to improve the poor port with mods. The other advantage is the price, if you're unsure about getting SR, as a PC copy is much cheaper to acquire then a Sega Saturn version. The PC version also has other gameplay elements involved in it such as variable weather conditions on all the maps except Radiant Emerald. Which can add an interesting element when all the water freezes over making it solid. That said I enjoy the original sound quality from the Sega Saturn and if you're a purist you’ll want to listen to the original. Racing fans though will probably find Sonic R lacking in relevant gameplay and I’d say you've probably got better options out there that you could spend your money on.

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