Sonic R is the first true 3D Sonic game released, as well as being one of the earliest racing games in the series. Beyond the pretty visuals and flamboyant soundtrack is an underdeveloped concept that needed some serious fleshing out.
|Console||Sega Saturn, PC, Nintendo Gamecube (Gems Collection), PlayStation 2 (Gems Collection)|
|Developer||Traveller’s Tales, Sonic Team|
|Release Year||1997 – 1998|
|Purchase (Sonic Gems Collection for Gamecube)||Purchase from Amazon.|
|Purchase (Sega Saturn)||Purchase from Amazon.|
The Sonic the Hedgehog series is one of the most popular game series of all time, and for good reason. After a successful lineup of Sega Genesis games, the series was able to give Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. a run for its money, another majorly popular game series.
This rivalry between corporations, represented by Mario and Sonic competing against one another, is one of the best known in the world. But this rivalry seemed to come to an end in 2001, when Sega pulled out of the console market and restructured itself as a video game publisher. To see Sonic the Hedgehog pop up on Nintendo consoles was a surreal occurrence at the time. It may very well be a rut that the blue hedgehog will never get out of.
But of course, we still got the crossover Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games series today, as a reminder of the bygone days.
Despite Sega no longer being in the console market, the Sonic the Hedgehog series is still going strong today. But you probably already know all this if you’re willingly seeking out information on Sonic R of all titles.
So like with the Super Mario Bros. series, there was a number of obscure Sonic titles that you probably didn’t know about, usually released around the time of the series’ infancy (and still a few odd ducks today).
A game like Waku Waku Sonic Patrol Car, an arcade game where Sonic is a policeman chasing after a burglar version of Dr. Robotnik.
Or Sonic Athletics, a treadmill-based arcade game designed to get people to exercise more. No, seriously, this is an actual thing.
Of course, we also got Sonic R, the final game of the “Classic” era of Sonic games and the first Sonic game fully rendered in 3D polygons. No, really, this is the final game to be released before all of the characters get a redesign for Sonic Adventure.
Sonic R is known to be the only original Sonic title on the Sega Saturn, with the other Sonic games on the system being ports (Sonic Jam and Sonic 3D Blast). While there was originally going to be a main series Sonic game called Sonic X-Treme, it was unfortunately cancelled due to a multitude of behind-the-scenes problems. Just imagine if that game was actually completed. Early builds of the game even leaked to the Internet.
But alas, over twenty years have passed and it’s far too late for “what could’ve been.” All we got for the Sega Saturn was Sonic R.
So allow me to take you back in time to another world… a world of awkward steering and platforming.
I’m going to throw this out there. Sonic R is kind of a weird specimen. Instead of the 3D adventure game that people hoped for with Sonic X-Treme, Sonic R is a racing game where the majority of your favorite Sonic characters participate in a footrace (as opposed to the basic kart racing in the Sonic Drift games). You know how Sega tried to compete with Nintendo using their own mascot characters? Well, Sonic R was sort of the answer to Mario Kart at the time. While the Sonic Drift games existed, they were more like basic 8-bit racing games similar to Rad Racer.
A 3D footrace game was certainly a novel idea at the time, but this is not like a Sonic Adventure style of multiplayer races. It’s pretty different. In fact, some people consider Sonic R to be one of the worst Sonic games of all time.
“But how can that be?” you might ask. “You’re telling me the Classic era had its own version of Sonic ’06!?” Well, yes and no. And we’re going to see why.
So, I tried the original Sega Saturn release and found the controls to be… less than satisfactory. Trying to control characters in this version of Sonic R is like trying to calm down a pissed off warthog. I couldn’t properly steer my turns and I was crashing into everything in sight.
It might be a different experience for other people, but yeah. I couldn’t play the Saturn version in its current state, so I tried to get ahold of the PC version. I heard the PC version had some improvements to the game, so I was hoping I’d get a better experience from it.
Big shocker. Trying to work an antiquated Windows 95/98 game on newer operating systems comes with some difficulties. Difficulties that I couldn’t overcome became I seemed to be receiving errors that no one else managed to reproduce. That always sucks.
So FINALLY, I got Sonic Gems Collection for the Nintendo Gamecube, which included a PC port of Sonic R. I had to go through all this shit just to play an obscure Sonic game that people kept saying is shitty. What a life this is.
I also found it odd that there’s no North American version of the PS2 release of Sonic Gems Collection. Only Japan and Europe, for some unexplained reason.
And contrary to my attempt at playing the original Saturn game, I had a much easier time with the controls. So finally, I can talk about this damn game!
Can You Feel the Sunshine?
So as you already know, Sonic R is a racing game where you play as your favorite Sonic characters. From the beginning, you can play as Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and Amy Rose.
Yeah, Amy Rose. This is her second playable appearance in the series, her first one being the arcade fighting game Sonic the Fighters.
Anyways, as soon as you start your first race, you will notice that this game feels off.
For one, the awkward controls, no matter which character you play as. The steering feels unresponsive at times and colliding with other objects in the environment is common. Even the act of just slowing down feels like a literal slog.
And whatever you do, as much as you’re tempted to, DO NOT STAND IN ONE PLACE AND TURN! THE ROTATION IS SO SLOW THAT IT’S NOT WORTH THE EFFORT!
So in a way, controlling the characters in Sonic R kinda feels like controlling slippery vehicles… that can jump. It’s a weird sensation, especially if you’re used to the controls of later 3D Sonic titles.
And then, there’s the soundtrack. It’s definitely not what you’d expect from a classic Sonic game. Keeping in mind that Sonic R came before Sonic Adventure, there isn’t going to be a ROCKIN’ soundtrack but something more akin to the funky Sega Genesis chiptunes.
Instead, we got some cheesy ’90s Europop songs, complete with vocals.
With lyrics like:
Can you feel the sunshine?
Does it brighten up your day?
Don’t you feel that sometimes
You just need to run away?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I actually really like this soundtrack composed by Richard Jacques and sung by TJ Davis. While definitely not something you would expect from a Sonic game, it is pretty refreshing to hear a bold new direction for the soundtrack. In fact, I’d say the soundtrack itself is the best thing about Sonic R, which seems to be the common theme with any Sonic game. Seems like most Sonic games, no matter how bad they get, always come through with a great soundtrack and Sonic R is certainly one of those titles.
It’s too bad the game itself is riddled with problems regarding antiquated game design choices and sloppy production.
Work It Out
As you might guess, each of the playable characters have some unique attributes. Sonic is one of the fastest, Tails can fly for a short time, Knuckles can glide, etc. Oh, and Amy Rose is one of the two characters who drives a vehicle instead of run by foot. And this vehicle is SLOW. While it has the ability of a temporary acceleration that would get you caught up with your rival participants, it causes the vehicle to have exceptionally poor handling in the process. So whatever you do, DO NOT USE THIS SPEED BOOST BEFORE A CURVE. Only a straight shot. Good luck finding one of those paths.
Oh, and Amy can’t jump. Because of these restrictions, Amy is easily one of the worst characters to play as in Sonic R. She will almost always trail behind most of the other racers. Even the AI-controlled Amy is so bad that she can’t place higher than 4th in races.
Also, you can unlock Dr. Robotnik if you place 1st in the final course. And he sucks.
Seriously, I don’t know who’s the worse character: Amy Rose or Dr. Robotnik. Both pilot a vehicle and move considerably slower than the other racers. While Amy had an accelerator and she has some traction over water, Dr. Robotnik can easily float over water and he has an attack.
However, this attack sucks echidna dicks (you know, the multi-headed dicks?) It’s incredibly unreliable, due to the fact that you can only shoot missiles at specific points during the race. And even then, these missiles have poor aim and are unlikely to hit your targets. Furthermore, even if they do hit, it doesn’t really slow your opponent down. It doesn’t even take their rings away!
There’s no point to this missile attack. Dr. Robotnik in Sonic R sucks. Unless you’re willing to challenge yourself, don’t play as him.
During the race, you can collect rings (which you can use for speed boosters and opening doors) and pass through item panels (those wing-shaped emblems). Item panels typically give you a set number of rings and sometimes a powerup such as a bubble shield to run across water, so they’re like the equivalent of Mario Kart’s question mark boxes where you can get random powerups.
But the item panels don’t always give you a powerup and there’s a limited selection of them. Part of what made Mario Kart so fun was its large variety of different weapons and utilities. Sonic R isn’t even close to having that amount of variety. In fact, there’s really no way for other racers to attack each other, except for a couple of characters (Dr. Robotnik and Eggman Robo).
One of the major disappointments of Sonic R is how incredibly short it is. There are only five courses in total, the final one being unlockable by completing the other courses in 1st place. But once you get used to the game’s controls and find multiple shortcuts, taking 1st place can be stupidly easy. This easily shortens the game’s replayability, as completing the courses with different characters doesn’t really matter. The original Mario Kart on SNES had eight courses with multiple tracks and gameplay options. In comparison, Sonic R is just lacking.
Oddly enough, Sonic R had some adventuring elements to it despite being a racing game. There are two other collectibles: Sonic Tokens and Chaos Emeralds. They’re often hidden in alternate routes and hidden paths, so you’d have to explore the racetracks to collect them. And because you’d have to find the collectibles and win the race in the same run, you’d be finding a lot of shortcuts.
The level designs of Sonic R’s courses are actually pretty good. However, there are no real obstacles in them. You can’t fall off of the racetracks to temporarily place you in a penalty—water only slows down certain characters. There are no enemy NPCs to attack you and slow you down, so the courses feel strangely lifeless. And your opponents can’t really do much to slow you down either. Honestly, the one thing slowing you down is how you handle the heavy, clunky controls and how you dodge environmental obstacles. And for a racing game of this era, it’s simply not enough.
And the worst offender is the final course, Radiant Emerald.
Really, Sega? You had to rip off Rainbow Road from Mario Kart, one of the subseries’ most famous race courses of all time?
If you think I’m stretching this out, think about it. Radiant Emerald is a multi-colored race course with a starry night sky and it happens to be the final course of the game. It’s fucking Rainbow Road. It’s a thinly veiled carbon copy. But that’s not even the worst part of the course. Radiant Emerald has very few alternate routes and extremely little variation in its level design. There are no hidden paths or even collectibles. You just make a few sharp turns here and there while getting a bunch of rings, and that’s it. This course sums up why the racetracks aren’t that interesting in general.
The Chaos Emeralds are behind the doors that require 50 rings to open, so finding all seven of them in the game is a very easy feat. However, you also have to take 1st place in the current race to keep them. Luckily, the Emeralds are shared between selectable characters so you only need to get each one once.
It might disappoint you to learn that the Chaos Emeralds don’t really have a plot-related purpose to finding them. However, collecting all seven Emeralds will unlock Super Sonic, WHO COMPLETELY BREAKS THIS GAME!
Seriously, he is the most overpowered character in the game. He moves fast, has great handling and can hover over water easily. And if you utilize all of a course’s shortcuts, you’re always guaranteed 1st place. So if by any chance you wanted to invite your friends to play with you (for whatever odd reason), you might want to set a house rule NOT TO USE SUPER SONIC.
There are five Sonic Tokens in each level, each located in fixed spots. Some of them are hidden behind doors that require 20 rings to open. Once you collect all of them in a course, you can race against a hidden unlockable character. Taking 1st place will unlock that character, further expanding your character roster.
And let me tell you, these unlockable characters are horribly unbalanced. They’re generally better than the default characters; in fact, they’re just better carbon copies. Metal Sonic is a faster version of Sonic who can float across water, Tails Doll is a version of Tails who can float across water, Metal Knuckles is a faster version of Knuckles with better handling and no gliding ability, and Eggman Robo is a generic robot that is strangely better than Dr. Robotnik (though it’s not saying much). And as I mentioned earlier, Super Sonic is just unfair.
There is just no character balance in Sonic R whatsoever, so there’s no real incentive to play competitively or play against friends who already know the game’s ins and outs.
And yes, you sissies. This is the game where the Tails Doll originated from, which people somehow turned into a creepypasta. I get some people have a phobia for lifeless dolls, but honestly… due to the game’s limited character animations, every character came across as stiff and lifeless to me. This is not necessarily the fault of the developer, mind you. Sonic R came out during a time when 3D animation was limited in possibilities in the gaming industry and was still making leaps and bounds. The days of the Sega Saturn, Sony PlayStation and Nintendo 64. So yeah, the Tails Doll never really creeped me out.
But phobias can also blow out of proportion… with entertaining results.
Cuz You’re My Number One
So as much as I shat on the game, there are still some redeeming qualities to it. As I mentioned earlier, the soundtrack is well made. There’s a real charm to its cheesiness and the songs themselves are memorable and catchy.
And for the time, the game is visually pleasing with some decent 3D modeling work and nice pre-rendered backgrounds. The courses themselves are reminiscent of past Sonic Zones such as the Green Hill Zone and the Chemical Plant Zone. There are multiple versions of the same courses during different times of the day. And for the PC version. there were also weather effects: rain and snow. These courses do a great job in setting the mood, though they sadly don’t alter the gameplay that much. Sure, turns are harder to make in rainy weather and you can easily cross water during snowy weather, but that’s about as innovative as it gets.
But alas, the character models with their pointy polygons and limited animations never fail to amuse me. Especially the win/lose animations after each race.
And honestly, this stands out as odd to me. Let’s look at the box art again.
So strangely, the characters on the box art look much better than the actual in-game 3D models. And this is a bit of a headscratcher to me. The characters on the box art still look like 3D models to me, with reflective shaders for highlights on their bodies (noticeable on Sonic’s brows and shoes). If these were in fact 3D models, they were quite ahead of their time. But it’s also entirely possible that someone painted or even sculpted these characters. They just… made them resemble 3D models with a blinn/phong shader for some reason?
So reading a little deeper into Sonic R’s development cycle, Sega outsourced the development of this game to British developer Traveller’s Tales, the same team behind Sonic 3D Blast. Sega provided the level designs and concepts while Traveller’s Tales handled the creation. The game took one year to complete. From what I read from the Wikipedia page and the Sonic Retro page, there were some communication issues and quickly approaching deadlines that ultimately hurt the game’s potential. And seemingly, some performance issues with older versions of the game that needed to be fine-tuned.
So yeah. Sonic R could be another example of rushed development in Sega’s catalog. Who else is surprised.
While I don’t think Sonic R is a horrible game, it’s definitely mediocre at best and playable if you can get used to the controls. However, it’s also a game that completely missed out on its potential as a good racer. Not only is it an extremely short game (even by Sonic the Hedgehog standards), it missed out on what made some racing games at the time very fun to play. I made a few comparisons to Mario Kart already, but that’s because this game was clearly trying to compete with Mario Kart… with mixed results. But at the same time, I consider the game a guilty pleasure. While I don’t think Sonic R is a good game, I could still find some enjoyment in it.
A 3D footrace game with platforming elements is a nice proof of concept. But with the way with how Sonic R handled it, the game is in desperate need of expanding. It felt like an unfinished game that needed another year of development to really shine.
Honestly, I don’t think Sonic R is that close to the terribleness and infamous legacy of Sonic ’06. There are definitely worse Sonic games out there to gush about. But as far as the Classic era goes, it’s definitely one of the worst ones I played thus far.
But there seems to be a bright future ahead of us. Sonic racing games continued to be released to this day, with subseries like Sonic Riders, Sonic Rivals, and Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing. Some of them are actually pretty good, especially the likes of Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. Furthermore, something else is just on the horizon…
Yes, that letter R is from the Sonic R logo! Maybe there’s a Sonic R remake coming up, as a complete game for the latest game consoles. Or who knows, probably Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing 3 or something. Whatever it may be, I’m definitely interested in knowing what it will turn out. But hopefully, Sega learned from its past mistakes and will continue its momentum in providing some good racing games.
With that said, enjoy the credits.
Sonic RPrice Varies
- The platforming elements, which possess a lot of potential considering how uncommon footrace games are.
- Some good and interesting level designs.
- Some well made 3D models, pre-rendered backgrounds, day-night variations and weather effects for its time.
- Personally speaking, fantastic soundtrack, though it's not for everyone.
- Clunky, occasionally unresponsive controls.
- Poor character balance.
- Very short game, with only five courses in total.
- Quite a bit of missed potential; few level obstacles, small variety of powerups, no ways to deter your competitors, etc.