Can Sonic Riders propel the franchise out of the pit of mediocrity?
As many have pointed out, it is odd that racing games based on the speed demon that is Sonic never capitalize on his inherent ability to use that speed, either putting him in a go-kart, or just lacking speed (Sonic R). This time, Sonic and crew use Back to the Future-like hoverboards called Extreme Gears; however, this fact doesn’t detract from the idea behind the game itself. Think of it as a hoverboard racing game first and as a Sonic game second.
For those looking for a racing game such as F-Zero GX, this is not the game for you. This game is more along the lines of the SSX or 1080° series, though it still maintains the speed and spontaneity of F-Zero GX. In fact, in many respects, Sonic Riders isn’t that far from Kirby’s Air Ride.
The story begins with the Babylon Rogues’ theft of a chaos emerald from Sonic and friends. Again, Dr. Eggman is behind some unknown dastardly scheme, and Sonic joins the EX World Grand Prix in order to uncover the mysteries behind the Babylon Rogues and Dr. Eggman’s plans. Sonic Riders introduces three new characters to the Sonic universe. Jet the Hawk, Wave the Swallow, and Storm the Albatross comprise the mysterious Babylon Rogues and are experienced Extreme Gear riders, top ranking in Dr. Eggman’s EX World Grand Prix.
Gameplay revolves around the Air system. Air powers the Extreme Gear, and running out of air will result in the player having to run around the track on foot. Some tracks include air stations that can refill your tank at the cost of stopping completely. Air boosting is similar to F-Zero GX in that it generates a boost but uses up your air meter. Additionally, characters can perform attacks while air boosting.
Just like in a snowboarding game, stunts can be performed and are rated, though the stunt system is not as robust as a dedicated boarding game. Performing stunts adds air to the air meter, but failing a stunt reduces speed. It is not immediately obvious what constitutes a good stunt, and it is difficult to land smoothly.
The novel aspect of this game is turbulence. When exceeding a certain speed, riders leave a wake of turbulent air behind them, which can be ridden by other riders. Riding turbulent air increases your speed, and the vertical portions of the turbulence allow riders to spin off of them and perform tricks.
Cornering is very reminiscent of Kirby’s Air Ride. Holding down a shoulder trigger slows down your rider while charging him or her up for a speed boost after the trigger is released. This scheme makes turning a precise matter that is easy to mess up until you get used to it. Braking is also performed by the trigger buttons.
While the game tries out interesting new gameplay mechanics, it unfortunately doesn’t fully succeed. I can’t help but think that this game is a candidate for Nintendo’s ideal of simplified controls. The controls are what you would expect from a racing game, but the control itself doesn’t have the type of responsiveness that a casual or non-gamer can just pick up and enjoy. Sonic Riders takes a while to get used to, eventually moving from a flat-out bad game to an okay one, though still not great. Crossing standard racing with snowboarding looks fun in practice, and the game does have its fun moments. Overall the controls just aren’t as polished as they should be. The game's difficulty is due to poor design, rather than being intentional and integrated with the game (which would denote good design).
The speed of the game is excellent, nothing like the plodding of Sonic R. However, some of the course designs do not seem to have been designed with this speed in mind. The courses can be confusing to navigate until you have played them a few times, and that confusion can lead to frustration. Unfortunately, the AI knows the tracks very well, making it difficult to keep up with computer-controlled leaders.
Sonic Riders includes a handful of special items; most of them are related to the ring-containing TV screens common since the inception of Sonic, though some contain attacks. There are also plenty of shortcuts, which are accessible to various characters depending on their body types.
The game consists of several modes: free race, time attack, grand prix, story mode, mission mode, tag mode, survival race, and survival battle. While the first three modes are standard fare for a racing game, the inclusion of mission mode is a nice addition. Several special multiplayer modes are included, adding to replay value. In tag mode, the race is two-on-two and team members share an air tank. In survival race, players must carry a chaos emerald through a specified number of gates. In survival battle mode, players attack each other until only one racer remains.
Sonic fans are likely to enjoy the game despite the gameplay. Several unlockable characters are included, as well as a board shop to allow players to purchase new gear using rings they have collected during races.
I had high hopes for Sonic Riders. Even though it isn’t a 3D adventure game, I had hoped that it would pull Sonic console games out of their rut. My hopes were left unmet. Sonic Riders tries to do something new with racing but in the end doesn’t deliver a polished package. This game is definitely one to try out first before making a purchasing decision.