Kart racing games are back, baby. By the time Team Sonic Racing launches on May 21, it will have been almost seven years since the last game in the series, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, graced our consoles. In that time, only one kart racing franchise of note has stuck around: Mario Kart.
Compare that with the glory days of the early 2000s and you can see the contrast: Looney Toons Racing, Toy Story Racer, Digimon Racing… I could go on, but you get the point. Around this time, every major franchise had a kart racing spinoff, and while these attempts persisted half-heartedly into the early 2010s–ModNation Racers and LittleBigPlanet Karting, we hardly knew ye–the genre has all but died off save for Nintendo’s frontrunner, which continues to dominate. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is the best-selling game on Nintendo Switch with nearly 17 million copies shifted. Mario Kart 8 was also the best-selling game on Wii U with 8.5 million units sold.
That’s all well and good, but it’s a five-year-old game, and there’s only so many times I can go round Mario Kart Stadium (and only so many times I can bear getting hit by a blue shell). I need some new challengers.
Luckily, Sumo Digital and Beenox are entering the fray with their own respective kart racers: Team Sonic Racing and Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled. They’re each their own experiences, of course, but it’s encouraging seeing more developers and publishers greenlight these kinds of projects. As Mario Kart’s success shows, there’s a huge audience for kart racing games out there.
Derek Littlewood, studio design director at Sumo, agrees. “I don’t think the market for great karting games has ever gone away,” he tells me. “I think part of the success we had with a game like [Sonic & All Stars Racing] Transformed was … because it was a cracking game, but it was also because those people were there, and they wanted that game. And they didn’t have Nintendo systems and they weren’t playing Mario Kart. [Transformed] did really well on Nintendo systems as well, which just says even those people who are playing Mario Kart are still saying, ‘I want more of this.'”
Still, it’s strange–though pleasing–to see two big names in the genre returning so close to one another: Crash Team Racing’s remaster will launch just exactly a month after Sonic’s new car-focused adventure. That’s before you get to Mario Kart Tour, Nintendo’s first mobile kart racer, which is also scheduled to launch this summer.
Of course, each game offers different flavours, and Team Sonic Racing’s distinguishing features offer a surprising amount of depth. The game is centered around team play–even if you play alone, you’re put into a team with two other Sonic heroes. Each team member contributes to a shared ultimate meter, which when filled can be activated to accelerate your team and sharpen up their handling. You fill the ult meter by performing team-oriented actions, such as helping them up when they spin out–passing close to them will get them back in the race more quickly–or slipstreaming behind teammates to gain a small boost.
This focus, Sumo says, was decided by Sonic Team head Takashi IIzuka, who wanted a game he could play with his kids where they could all contribute to a shared success. Littlewood, however, says Team Sonic Racing isn’t just family-friendly fodder: “I think the unique thing that the team play allows us to do is make the game more accessible for less skilled players, because you can play with someone who is better than you at the game, and they can help you be better at it, rather than you always competing with each other. But at the same time, we’ve added a lot of depth to the different team actions and team play in general that allow high-level players to get more out of it.”
Sumo clearly believes this is enough to set Team Sonic Racing apart from its competition. The inclusion of such iconic characters also helps, of course, but there’s no doubting TSR’s team play and kart customization, which allows you to tweak the stats of each character to make them quicker or easier to handle, for example, provide a decent amount of depth. The different classes–speed, technique, power–and their respective strengths of speed, handling, and offroading, do the same.
Tracks are a joy to race around, too, with some beautifully diverse styles and different optimal routes depending on which class you opt for. Sonic, for example, is best staying on smoother roads and racing in straight lines wherever possible. Tails, as a technique character, can slalom around obstacles, but Knuckles is best equipped to power straight through them.
However, at the preview stage at least, Sonic Team Racing lacks the shine of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Power-ups don’t feel quite as fun to play with, and handling is currently less satisfying thanks to a somewhat loose-feeling drift. There is a story mode–which is the justification for excluding non-Sonic characters after Transformed–but is a text-based narrative much of an attraction for players, or would they rather skip it and get back to the racing?
I’m skeptical the game can unseat Mario Kart as the reigning champion of the kart racing genre, but perhaps overtaking Nintendo isn’t the point. “For people who are fans of that kind of game, they each offer something different,” says Littlewood. “The moment-to-moment gameplay of our game is different enough from Crash or Mario Kart that we don’t really think about it in terms of competition. In my mind they have completely different pace and feel. We’re happy there’s more for fans to play.”