Theme parks are amazing. Disney World is the happiest place on Earth, Universal Studios allows you to live the movies, and even Six Flags lets you soar like Superman. In a world where technology is traditionally aimed at more mundane pursuits (“The greatest invention since sliced bread!” “But bread is boring!”) theme parks seem to be the last bastion of wonder in the adult world. Nobody is ever going to mistake The Matterhorn for actually skiing down the Alps, but it is a creative and entertaining way to get your adrenaline pumping. Theme Parks are fun, plain and simple.
Unfortunately, theme parks are also pretty stupid.
Look, the rides are fun, whimsical, and mostly just sitting in a chair while stuff happens. You can ride the Delorean from Back to the Future! You can glimpse the world of tomorrow! You can feel real thrills as you hurtle through the air like a magical and fairly speedy god! Or you don’t feel any thrills, because it’s all fake, prerecorded, pre-animated nonsense. The delightful children of It’s a Small World were designed and built by people that were recently buried by their great grandchildren. … Okay, I know It’s a Small World is not an exhilarating ride, but it is required, so I figure it merits a mention. It’s Mega Man 1. The point is that, no matter how theme parks try to simulate excitement, they’re all just pre-made tracks that are about as “real” and “adventurous” as Mario’s initial trip through World 1-1. No turning around, no investigating something unusual, just a ceaseless march forward, and you will have fun.
You readers are a smart bunch, so you’ve likely already noticed the obvious simile that many videogames, and particularly racing games, are much like theme park attractions. And you probably noticed the title of this article, so, yes, we’re inevitably going to compare the tracks of Sega and Nintendo’s top kart racers to theme parks. That much is obvious. But there has to be a twist, otherwise I’m just randomly tossing words at my computer and hoping for the best (oh God, I hope they don’t find out that that’s what this blog has been all along!), and the twist here is a simple one: Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a better Mario Kart game than Mario Kart 8 because Mario Kart 8 is a better game.
Let’s see if we can’t make that a little easier to understand.
Super Mario Kart started the mascot kart racing genre, but it also… kinda sucked. It was a great game, but it was more proof of concept than anything, and the existence of such tracks as Donut Plains 42 and Bowser Castle 3,214 did rather give the impression that unique course design wasn’t high on the priority list. But that was okay! Because all anyone wanted to play was Battle Mode, and all the AI ever wanted to do was use a starman to ruin your day. The tracks weren’t really the focus so much as they were just map delivery systems (come to think of it, not unlike the original Super Mario Bros. and its limited tileset). Super Mario Kart was, for all intents and purposes, a (time) trial run.
Mario Kart 64, though, that’s where Mario Kart as Mario Kart really started. You’d be hard pressed to find even the most ardent of Mario Kart fans that could properly immediately recall the ups and downs of Ghost Valley 3 (pop quiz: did I just make up that track?), but who could forget MK64’s Banshee Boardwalk? Or Toad’s Turnpike? And while Mario Kart 64 relied on more than its share of tracks that were excuses for interesting gimmicks (race the train!), Mario Kart: Double Dash really firmed up the whole “rollercoaster” concept for the Mario Kart franchise. If there was once ever any doubt, it was blasted into space the very moment racers launched themselves up a mountain as a natural part of DK Mountain. That entire track could have easily made sense as a downhill slalom, but, no, you had to “fly”, because that’s a hundred times more interesting than continuous kart-skiing.
But Mario Kart Wii was a change from all that. Mario Kart Wii kept the gimmicks going with aplomb, but the tracks were no longer the main focus. No, the heart of Mario Kart Wii was the appeal and bane of that system: motion controls. Mario Kart Wii was built for its “steering wheel” wiimote functionality, and it seemed to lose a lot of fun as a result. There were certainly amusing tracks in MKW, but the controls, AI, and weapon distribution seemed to exist for the sole purpose of creating a more technical, methodological experience. Mario Kart 8, despite by and large dropping the more procedural concepts from MKW, does appear to be a direct sequel in many respects. Dolphin Shoals is always going to be a great track, but that giant eel can’t touch Dino Dino Jungle for sheer “I am racing in Jurassic Park” spectacle, and we can blame MKW for that.
Meanwhile, there’s Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. The sequel to Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing (wait, why did they drop the “Sega” from the title? Was it because of Ralph?) did its best to improve on the original formula by adding planes (cool!) and hovercrafts (works for bards). But that’s a superficial reading of the new stunt du jour. What’s really important about the “transformed” franchise is that nearly every track morphs and transforms over the course of a race. Bridges collapse, lava floods caverns, and maybe Eggman blows up the moon at some point. … I think… I think he’s become addicted to the rush. Regardless, the tracks of S&ASRT change from lap to lap, so you’re never quite sure what you’re going to encounter.
And it is amazing!
It’s a theme park! It’s a roller coaster! It’s inevitable that the third lap will feature a dozen explosions, and it’s exhilarating! And, assuming you’re not grinding one particular track against a time trial or two, this rolling delight will keep up for an entire grand prix. Tracks are just short enough that they don’t overstay their welcome, and they’re long enough so it feels like there’s even spacing between rounds. I know Rogue’s Landing is going to decay into a flying course by the third lap, but it still winds up gripping every time. It’s a preset track with fixed obstacles and “events”, but it perfectly captures that feeling of wonder and excitement through every race.
Except… I quit Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed a long time ago, and have won every single trophy in Mario Kart 8. Twice.
And it all comes back to theme parks again. For a long time, people jubilantly exclaimed that Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed had successfully eaten Mario’s lunch, and the new king of the kart circuit was now Sonic being showered with trophies by a cheep cheep in the skies. And I understand that feeling, as I was one of them, still feeling the rush of steering Gilius Thunderhead through Graffiti City. But those accolades seem to have faded over time, because it’s too much like an amusement park ride. You ever notice how nobody really stays at Six Flags? How the people that live near one, people who could potentially go every day… don’t? It’s because adrenaline fades, and, eventually, even a rollercoaster can become boring.
So what’s left after that? All the technical mumbo jumbo. All the nonsense about powersliding and steering and scooting along a speed booster like you own the place. What’s left is where Mario Kart 8 excels. Even if you can randomly produce a glider, it’s not as interesting as NiGHTS transforming into a jet, but it’s still fun to soar over a pack of stacked goombas. It’s still entertaining, and “thrilling” or not, there is still a lot of meat on those Mario Kart bones. It might be the old reliable of the kart racing pantheon, but it’s one of the best Nintendo franchises out there for a reason.
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a rollercoaster ride from beginning to end. Mario Kart 8 is the gift shop where you know you can order the entire inventory online from the comfort of your home. And they’re both pretty great.
FGC #356 Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed
- System: Sega Genesis. Wait, no! It’s Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Nintendo Wii U. There are also Nintendo 3DS, Playstation Vita, and friggen iPhone ports, but I can’t speak to their collective authenticity. Let’s assume they’re all great?
- Number of players: Four sounds right.
- Other Advantages: S&ASRT has maybe the most robust single player experience in kart racing games with its Career Mode, which is basically the quest mode from Soulcalibur. There are all sorts of interesting challenges available as you fight your way toward finally unlocking a playable VMU. Unfortunately, the whole thing seems a little too stretched out and tiring, so maybe the extra content isn’t the best thing in the world.
- Say something mean: The powerup/weapons/whatever you want to call them in this game kind of suck. They’re mostly more boring rehashes of what you’d see in other kart games, and, really, Sega? You couldn’t do better with all of your franchises contributing characters and concepts? Mecha Bees are cool, but the generic twister could be replaced with, say, any damn thing.
- Favorite Track: Graveyard Gig, a House of the Dead house party, is everything you could ever want from this premise. After far too much media exposure, we’re back to zombies only being cool when they’re members of The Rolling Stones.
- Favorite Racer: Vyse, because I enjoy being reminded that we will never see Skies of Arcadia ever again. It hurts so good!
- Head Canon Corner: Sonic the Hedgehog, the fastest thing alive, is racing in a car as a handicap. He wants a nice, fair match.
- Did you know? Toejam & Earl were planned for original Sega All-Stars Racing, but there was some manner of snafu in actually contacting T&E’s creator. He claimed that he was interested, but the game was too far along by the time he found out. But, you know what? I don’t see the Funkotronians rocking around in the sequel, so I think everyone involved is crazy.
- Would I play again: Without a doubt. Sometimes you just want to roll around the Death Egg. But, you know, with wheels.
FGC #356 Mario Kart 8
- System: Nintendo WiiU and Nintendo Switch. The Switch version was used for this review, because I can’t get enough of those squid kids.
- Number of players: This time I know it’s four.
- I am a consumer whore: Yes, I purchased this game in its entirety, bonus tracks and all, for the WiiU. Then I bought it again for the Switch. I figured that, since I’m going to have the Switch for a while, and it’s portable, I may as well have an entire Mario Kart game available at all times. I have not regretted this decision.
- Favorite Track: Cloudtop Cruise is a fun track, features an airship, and reuses music from Super Mario Galaxy. Technically, one could claim this entire course was designed exclusively for me. Or, ya know, any other Mario fan.
- Favorite Racer: Princess Daisy deserves her own game. Read my newsletter to learn more! (There is no newsletter.)
- A shape of things to come: Now that Mario Odyssey features a food world and a decidedly Japanese castle, Sweet Sweet Canyon and Dragon Driftway seem almost prophetic. Or maybe the people behind Mario Odyssey actually played other Mario games. It could go either way.
- Did you know? This is one of the few games that requires Amiibo functionality only once, as Amiibos unlock new costumes, and are then never need be scanned again. This is in stark contrast to many other Amiibo-based games, like Breath of the Wild or Smash Bros 4, that require frequent visits from your favorite statues. Granted, the Amiibo functionality was kind of grandfathered in anyway, so I wouldn’t see too much into it.
- Would I play again: Until the Switch is retired, it’s kind of inevitable. And after that? Only the kart under Mario’s butt knows for sure.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Um Jammer Lammy for the Playstation! Rock out with your wool out! Please look forward to it!
Eat it, Beat. … No, not you.