Release date: May 21, 2019
Developer: Sumo Digital
By its very nature, a Sonic racing game is a strange prospect. If Sonic can run around at the speed of sound, why would he even need to use a racecar to go fast in the first place? However, this discrepancy hasn’t stopped SEGA from pumping out Sonic-themed racing games over the years, from Sonic R all the way back on the ill-fated Sega Saturn to 2012’s acclaimed Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. Team Sonic Racing is the series’ latest motorsports effort, and while it certainly won’t challenge Mario Kart’s status as the supreme kart racer on the market, it still provides plenty of racing thrills for everyone to enjoy, as well as some special nods for longtime fans.
When you first boot up the game, you’ll want to head into the Adventure Mode, which not only explains the game’s bizarre premise but also does a good job of teaching its basic mechanics. The story begins when a brand-new character, a mustachioed tanuki called Dodon Pa, invites Sonic, Knuckles, Tails, and other members of the Sonic crew to participate in a special supercharged race. It’s not long before series antagonist Dr. Eggman and his henchmen reveal their involvement in Dodon Pa’s races, and conflict ensues.
There’s no denying that it’s an incredibly weak plot. The setup is frail at best, the twists are predictable, and its writing can be painfully cheesy – there’s lots of talk about “the power of teamwork.” It’s also disappointing that the story is told exclusively through visual novel-like story sequences with nary a cutscene in sight. Short animations to open or end the story would have gone a long way in making it more interesting. It’s also a shame that, as of this writing, the Switch version is missing the game’s opening movie, which is present on other platforms. While the story may not win any awards, the gameplay of the adventure mode is satisfying enough. It does a fine job providing a variety of activities, ranging from typical three-lap, elimination, or grand prix races to solo courses focused on collecting rings or taking out as many enemy races as possible, and more.
Of course, the racing itself is the main course of Team Sonic Racing, and what a simple, delectable dish it can be. Controls are your basic kart-racing affair: right trigger to accelerate, left trigger to drift, and face buttons to use Wisps, which are essentially the game’s items. What makes the racing unique is its team-based mechanics. You’re never racing alone – instead, you’re grouped into a team of three total racers, and cooperation is key to winning each race. There are a few ways that you and your team can work together. For instance, you can pass an unneeded Wisp in your possession over to a teammate, or you can follow the trail of a teammate in front of you to receive a speed boost. By performing these and other team actions, you can fill up your Team Ultimate meter, and once this is full, you’ll be able to blast through the race at hyper speed for a short time. These team mechanics can sound gimmicky on paper, but they’re fantastic in practice. They strike the perfect balance, being just deep enough to keep everything interesting but not so complex that they’re overwhelming. They keep every race interesting, making it about more than just finishing in first place.
That said, there are a few issues with the team racing mechanics. Due to the team setup, winning isn’t decided based on whether you came in first place or not; instead, it’s determined by adding up the total points earned by each team based on their placements at the end of the race. You could work your hardest and make it to first place, but if your teammates are dragging behind at 11th and 12th places, another team will likely take the win. Most of the time this isn’t an issue since the AI racers are pretty good at following you closely, but there were a few instances in which it felt like my efforts at taking first place were let down by shoddy AI not picking up the slack. That’s not to mention that the AI teammates can be pretty unhelpful as well – more than once my partners led an insurrection against me and shoved me off the stage. It should be noted that these troubles are generally the exception rather than the rule, and for the most part, the team racing mechanics were satisfying, strategic, and added another layer of engagement to the game that sets it apart from other racers on the market.
But these mechanics wouldn’t mean much if there weren’t an engaging helping of unique courses to race through, and thankfully Team Sonic Racing excels in this regard. Its 21 tracks are based on stages from all across the Sonic series, including iconic locales like Market Street from Sonic Unleashed, Sandopolis from Sonic 3, the Ocean Palace from Sonic Heroes, and many more. These tracks may not be as dynamic as those in previous Sonic racing games, but there’s still an engaging amount of secrets to be discovered throughout. They’re all lovingly designed, full of references to their games that are sure to please longtime fans. They’re absolutely gorgeous as well – the colors really pop, and there’s some very nice lighting effects at play as well.
Beyond the adventure content, there are a number of other gameplay modes to consider. Most prominently, split-screen local multiplayer and online multiplayer are included. Local multiplayer works flawlessly with perfect performance, although the same can’t be said of the online multiplayer. It can take a long time to find a full lobby of other players, and once you finally do end up in a match, there’s no guarantee that your race will perform smoothly. The frame rate can chug, and other racers can stutter across the screen. I lost more than one race because other racers choppily materialized in front of me out of thin air. The problems don’t end with the race, however: the game takes an agonizingly long time to list the results, making the entire process of getting in and out of races much more tedious than it needs to be.
In between the many races, Team Sonic Racing holds a massive amount of customization for you to personalize your cars however you see fit. You can make small cosmetic changes like adding decals or changing colors, but you can also make much larger changes such as switching out vehicle parts to improve specific aspects of your car’s handling. However, the vast majority of these modifications are locked behind the aptly named Mod Pods, which are small pods that each contain one random modifier, whether it be a car part, vinyl, or a new item. It’s a bit frustrating that the most exciting customization is locked behind the randomness of the Mod Pods, but it’s still an addictive loop to gain access to new customization options.
For the most part, Team Sonic Racing’s performance holds up decently enough. Unfortunately, the Switch version is locked at 30 frames per second whereas the other versions of the game can run at 60, which can make this version feel a bit sluggish by comparison. However, oddly enough, the Switch version is actually the most technically consistent version of the game. Whereas other versions feature a higher frame rate, they’re certainly not consistent as they can fluctuate well below their 60 FPS target, while the Switch version almost invariably maintains its 30 FPS. This Switch release may not be the fastest, but it’s also one of the most consistent versions of the game. Far fewer compromises are made when it comes to the visuals. The cars and tracks look beautiful on the TV, and they also hold up well in portable mode, although the resolution can dip quite low on the handheld screen with lots of jagged edges becoming apparent.
A special note should be made regarding the music. A dream team of musicians was brought on to create the soundtrack, including Jun Senoue of Crush 40, Sonic Mania composer Tee Lopes, and series veteran composer Tomoya Ohtani, among many others. The game’s soundtrack includes a mixture of original songs and remixes of classic tunes from across the whole series. Each composer puts their distinct stamp on each song – Senoue’s memorable rock guitar riffs, Lopes’ bright keyboards and horns, and Ohtani’s orchestral flourishes breathe new life into these fan-favorite themes. As a lifelong Sonic fan, the soundtrack felt like a loving tribute to the games I grew up playing, and I suspect that many other fans will feel the same.
Team Sonic Racing is an engaging, well-executed and easy to enjoy racer that offers plenty to love for fans of Sonic and racing alike. It’s no Mario Kart, but its well-executed gameplay and team-based mechanics add enough depth to create a unique and engaging take on the kart racing genre. Its story may not be particularly engrossing, and its online multiplayer can be frustratingly slow, but the game as a whole provides a solid racing experience that’s filled with plenty of high-speed thrills and loving fan service for longtime followers of the series. If you’ve had your time with Mario Kart and are looking for the next great kart racer on Switch, then Team Sonic Racing is a fine choice.
Team Sonic Racing review copy provided by SEGA for the purposes of this review.