Sega Saturn Cover Art
|Series||Sonic the Hedgehog|
|Release date(s)||Sega Saturn
Sonic R (ソニックＲ Sonikku Āru?) is a racing video game developed by Traveller's Tales and Sonic Team and published by Sega for the Sega Saturn and Microsoft Windows. The game was released in North America on November 18, 1997, in Japan on December 4, Europe and Australia on December 11. It was re-released for the PlayStation 2 and Nintendo GameCube as part of the Sonic Gems Collection.
Sonic R is the third Sonic racing game and the last of two Sonic games to be co-developed by Traveller's Tales and Sonic Team. In the game, players can take control of one of ten Sonic series characters and participate in races on various Sonic-themed race tracks. The game's story focuses the characters' efforts to win a series of races and prevent Doctor Robotnik from stealing the Chaos Emeralds and enslaving the world.
Sonic R was praised by critics for its visuals, but was also criticised for its poor game controls and short length. Sonic R is the only original Sonic game to be released on the Sega Saturn, due to Sonic 3D Blast being ported from the Genesis and Sonic Jam being a compilation of the first four Sonic games.
Sonic R is a racing video game featuring single-player and multiplayer game modes. The players select one of ten different playable Sonic the Hedgehog characters and participate in a footrace in one of five available race tracks, competing for the fastest time ahead of the other racers. The ten playable characters all have unique attributes and abilities, which fall in line with the respective character's usual abilities, such as Sonic having the fastest speed, or Knuckles being able to glide. While the gameplay is considered similar to kart racing games such as the Mario Kart series, Sonic R places an emphasis on jumping and exploration as each race track has multiple paths and hidden areas. The race tracks, while original creations, are thematically based on the art style and environments of classic Sonic games such as Sonic the Hedgehog's "Green Hill Zone" and Sonic the Hedgehog 2's "Chemical Plant Zone."
During each race the player is able to collect items scattered in various areas on the tracks that bestow advantages. Rings, a staple Sonic series item, are abundant on tracks; the player can exchange a certain number of collected rings to gain a temporary boost of speed or open doors leading to short cuts or special items. "Item Panels" bestow a random advantage such as speed increase or shields that grant abilities such as being able to run across water or attract nearby rings. Collection of other special items, such as "Sonic Tokens" and the Chaos Emeralds, may lead to the unlocking of secret characters.
Sonic R allows the player to select the type of weather ("clear", "rain", and "snow") seen during races. While mostly aesthetic, the "snow" option causes bodies of water to freeze, allowing a character to run over it, rather than sinking to the bottom and slowing down its speed. The player can also configure the game to randomly select the weather for each race.
Sonic R features ten playable racers; four characters are initially available while the other six are secret characters that become available when the player completes certain in-game objectives. Each character has individual attributes and abilities. The title character, Sonic the Hedgehog, is the fastest and possesses the ability to "double jump" (being able to perform a second jump in mid-air). Tails is able to fly through the air for a short time, and Knuckles the Echidna can glide through the air upon jumping. The last initially available character Amy Rose operates a car, which allows her to hover over bodies of water and receive extra speed from driving over boost spaces. Secret characters include Sonic's archenemy Dr. Robotnik, who flies in a hovercraft and resists differences in terrain; robotic clones of Sonic (Metal Sonic), Tails (Tails Doll), and Knuckles (Metal Knuckles); EggRobo, Robotnik's robotic assistant; and Super Sonic, a faster version of Sonic powered by the Chaos Emeralds.
Sonic and Tails are about to take a vacation when Tails notices an advertisement for a "World Grand Prix". While not initially interested, Sonic notices that series antagonist Dr. Robotnik is also participating in the race, which persuades him to change his mind and participate. It is revealed that Dr. Robotnik has recently learned of the whereabouts of the rare and powerful Chaos Emeralds, with which he aspires to enslave the world, and the World Grand Prix is actually a trap used to distract Sonic. Sonic and Tails, as well as Knuckles and Amy (who overheard of the race and plan and decided to participate) must balance both winning races and obtaining the Chaos Emeralds to keep them out of Dr. Robotnik's reach.
After the completion of Sonic 3D Blast in 1996, Sega approached Traveller's Tales about working on another Sonic game, this time being a racing game. Traveller's Tales, who coincidentally had been working on a 3D graphics engine without a purpose at the time, found this to be a logical progression, and accepted the project. Development started in February 1997 as a joint project between Sega's Sonic Team and Traveller's Tales. Sonic Team designed the race tracks and the game's general flow, while Traveller's Tales was responsible for the implementation and programming. A major goal of development was to maintain a consistent 30 frames per second frame rate during gameplay. A custom game engine was developed to take full advantage of the Sega Saturn hardware and a graphical technique, described as "12 layer transparency", was used to transparentise distant textures to conceal the Sega Saturn's limited draw distance. Game programmer Joe Burton claimed that Sonic R could not have been replicated on other consoles during the timeframe, such as the PlayStation console, due to the technique developed specifically for the Sega Saturn hardware.
An early build was unveiled at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Atlanta, Georgia on June 1997, with Sega releasing screenshots of a "40% complete build" to various magazines shortly afterwards. The builds would be largely the same as the final game, with the exception of minor tweaks, such as the ability to play the "Resort Island" level in a sunset setting, where as the final game only allowed to alter the weather, not time of day. The game's final release would be first in North America on November 18, 1997, with releases in other regions occurring in late 1997 for the Sega Saturn, and into 1998 for the PC version. The PC versions allowed the user to alter graphics details to get the game to run optimally on different computers. Options include allowing to change between software rendering and 3D acceleration, or adjusting the game's draw distance, affecting how soon objects in the distance are visible. Like many other previous Sonic games during this time period, a largely unrelated Sonic R game was released as a Tiger Electronics LCD handheld game around the same time in 1998.
The soundtrack for Sonic R was composed by British composer Richard Jacques of Sega Europe, who had also previously worked on the soundtrack of the Sega Saturn and PC versions of Sonic 3D Blast. Work on the soundtrack began in March 1997 when Jacques travelled to Japan to meet with Sonic creator Yuji Naka to discuss the musical approach to take for the game. The first song written was "Super Sonic Racing," which would be used for the game's reveal in June at E3. British singer TJ Davis provided the vocals for the song, which Naka liked so much that he requested that she be featured in all the game's songs. Jacques wrote all the lyrics for the songs with the intention that they would complement the on-screen action but still be appealing to someone who had never played the game. Tracks were recorded and programmed at Sega Digital Studios, and then worked on for two weeks at Metropolis Studios in London, where a week was spent on vocals, and a week was spent on producing, mixing, and finalising the tracks. Sonic R features two separate mixes of each song in its in-game soundtrack; ones with vocals and instrumental versions, giving the player the option to disable vocals (which can be done from the options menu via toggling the "vocals" option on or off).
The Saturn version of Sonic R received generally positive reviews from critics at the time of its release, although retrospective commentary on the title has been more negative.
The game's visuals were considered its strongest feature. Allgame's Shawn Sackenheim praised the "vibrant texture maps" with "no pop-up or glitching", while Kelly of Electronic Gaming Monthly made note of the "lush" environmental details. Kelly and Sega Saturn Magazine's Lee Nutter highlighted the consistent framerate (which rarely dropped below 30 frames per second) as a noteworthy achievement, with the latter favourably comparing Sonic R to the Saturn version of Sega Rally Championship. Next Generation hailed the game as "the most visually outstanding Saturn title" for its use of transparency effects and reflective surfaces, a sentiment echoed by EGM's Shawn. Nutter cited the "Radiant Emerald" level, which is "constructed entirely out of transparent polygons", as offering a "far superior" counterpart to Mario Kart 64's "Rainbow Road". GameSpot's Ryan MacDonald stated that the "cartoon look and feel of previous Sonic games comes across well in the 3D polygonal world", adding: "The sense of speed that you feel as the track goes zipping by ... makes the game look really cool." MacDonald, Shawn, and GamePro's Dan Elektro criticised the background's graphical "pop-up", with the latter opining that it "kill[s] the two-player mode outright". However, Nutter praised the two-player mode for maintaining the same speed and graphical detail as its single-player counterpart, with "the only visible difference being that the scenery mists into view slightly closer than in the standard game." Reiner of Game Informer asserted that "the way they hid the background pop through translucent melting is innovative", but he and Game Informer's Paul panned the "poor" quality of the character animation. Finally, Nutter complimented the replay mode's "dramatic camera angles".
Critical reaction to the game's level design was also widely positive. Game Informer's Jon wrote that "The tracks are imaginative with the hidden tokens, emeralds and alternate paths", while EGM's Dan called them "some of the most well-designed tracks ever". Sackenheim, Kelly, EGM's John, and Game Informer's Andy thought similarly. Nutter compared the level design to that of the 16-bit Sonic titles and Sonic Team's Nights into Dreams..., noting that "far more fun is to be gleamed [sic] from the exploration element" than "the temptation ... to leg it through each of the levels in a time trial-like way". In a similar vein, Next Generation described Sonic R and N64 contemporary Diddy Kong Racing as "less of a racing title and more of a driving adventure game." Nutter commented on the replay play value provided by alternate modes, such as "Get 5 Balloons!", but conceded that "five tracks don't really suffice, even with the reverse mode." MacDonald, Dan, and Jon also expressed disappointment with the limited selection of levels.
The title's controls and overall gameplay were not as well-received, with certain critics questioning their accuracy and depth. MacDonald finished every level in first place within one hour using only one of the four initial characters. While acknowledging the game's hard mode, MacDonald concluded that "Sonic R has more in the personality department than in the depth department." MacDonald and Reiner cited finding the Chaos Emeralds and hidden coins as "difficult", but MacDonald argued that such optional tasks offered little in return, because the hidden characters "are mostly robot versions of the already playable ones". Moreover, Sackenheim noted that the game's controls initially "take some practice to get used to", but added: "Start sliding around corners and letting off the gas at the right times and you'll be finding all of the secrets that Sonic R conceals in no time." Likewise, Nutter called the controls "initially tricky ... but incredibly playable," Next Generation stated "the proper techniques, with time, can be learned," and John concluded "once you get used to it, you'll find a real solid game." The latter reviewer thought the game played better with the digital pad as opposed to Sega's analogue controller. Dan Elektro agreed that the controls were "responsive", but "to a fault": "At high speeds, it's nearly impossible to run in a straight line."
Sonic R's soundtrack was particularly divisive. Nutter described the "storm of controversy [that] surrounds the accompanying music", which "has come in for a bit of a slagging on the Internet recently for the addition of vocals." Although he was "not a particular fan of dance music", Nutter stated that the tracks were "better than most chart stuff", while the included instrumental versions were sufficient "to appease everyone." Sackenheim offered high praise for "One of the most inspired soundtracks I've ever heard", while MacDonald commented: "I think that a lot more games should have songs with vocals. It gives the game so much more personality." Conversely, Dan Elektro deplored the "unbelievably annoying music".
The ported version of the game available in Sonic Gems Collection was more negatively reviewed. Eurogamer's Tom Bramwell called the game "too awkward to play for any length of time", 1UP.com's Jeremy Parish stated "The grainy visuals make it hard to tell where you're going, and the frustrating controls make it difficult to get there," GameSpot's Ryan Davis described "its laughably bad soundtrack" as "the game's only redeeming quality", and GameSpy's Phil Theobald called Sonic R "a concept that works better in theory than in practice"—despite its "fantastic (if not bizarre) soundtrack". In a 2003 retrospective, Game Informer described the game as "decent, but unmemorable", while GamesRadar included Sonic R in a 2014 list of the top 50 Sega Saturn games, calling it "a technical tour de force." Game designer Hirokazu Yasuhara, who helped Traveler's Tales rework the game in response to concerns over the quality of a preview version, has maintained that "the final version of Sonic R is actually quite good ... However, I do admit that the base concept of Sonic R, in which a player 'drives' running characters, is not great."
Despite Sega releasing two Sonic racing games prior to Sonic R, Sonic Drift and Sonic Drift 2, for the Sega Game Gear, developer Takashi Yuda cited fans requesting more racing games in the vein of Sonic R would be Sega's actual inspiration for revisiting the genre in future years. This led to the development and release of the hoverboarding game Sonic Riders, although there are no connections between the two games other than both being racing games. Later Sonic racing games would include Sonic Riders sequels Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity and Sonic Free Riders, and kart racing games Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing and Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed.
Select songs from Sonic R's soundtrack were included in later games featuring Sonic in their original forms or as remixes. Super Smash Bros. Brawl, a fighting game for Nintendo's Wii console, features the song "Super Sonic Racing" as background music for its Green Hill Zone stage. Music was also featured in games such as Sonic Pinball Party and Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing.
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