Much as I love Mario Kart, it’s not perfect, and I feel that SEGA’s Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing has overall managed to surpass it as a more enjoyable, more competitive, and overall more skill-based experience. The sequel, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, is coming in November, and looks like it will have the unique position of beating whatever Nintendo comes up with next to the Wii U.

Some are saying that the “transformed” system is a “rip-off” of what we saw of gliders and underwater movement in Mario Kart 7, though the differences should be very clear. In volume 282 of Nintendo Power magazine, Sumo Digital Executive Producer Steve Lycett stated that they felt they had an “excellent foundation” with Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing, but could do more than merely racing on land.

“We’d already sort of touched on planes with the hovering vehicles in [ASR], so once we decided to expand that into flight, racing on water was a natural extension,” he says. Lycett has also noted on occasion that Sumo had already been at work on this game for over a year when Mario Kart 7 was shown at E3 last year. “Oh, the cursing you’d have heard if you’d been in the office when we saw that E3 conference!” he recalled.

“However,” he points out, “I think when people play the game they’ll see there is a big difference between our flight and Mario Kart 7‘s gliding, plus driving underwater isn’t really the same as bouncing over the waves. I’d say we’ve got much more of a racing-game feel, too; we’re in more realistic cars with weight and we’re more about speed. It’s more OutRun than kart racer. So yes, it was annoying, but when you play the game it’s clear we had very different goals. I think people will appreciate that.”

Without Mario Kart on the Wii U, if Sumo Digital can keep up the quality of the last title, Mario Kart may have a tougher go of it this time out (though honestly, I expect a lot of sales will be there for the Mario Kart name alone). As a result, I think some tweaks could stand to be made to improve the overall experience and keep Mario Kart in the game, rather than risk idling.

Keep in mind, I’m not trying to get Nintendo to change their game in any super-drastic ways, though between tag teams, motorcycles, gliders, and so on, they do a good job of that themselves. Rather, these are ideas for other changes which would further enhance the overall experience.

"This is how I like to ride!"

Options: This goes a very long way, and is something where Masahiro Sakurai’s games, the Super Smash Bros. series especially, truly excel at, but Mario Kart seems to fall behind in. In SSB, you can fine-tune nearly every element of your matches in countless ways, from the items used to the rules for winning/losing to the music you hear during the match.

Mario Kart… well, it’s better than say, New Super Mario Bros. Wii or Donkey Kong Country Returns, where you’re generally forced to play a certain way. Mario Kart Wii and Mario Kart 7 gave options for controls, but not quite enough of them.

In both cases, being able to assign buttons as you wish would be vastly preferable to the preset configurations they have now. I recently played ModNation Racers on the PlayStation Vita, and was amazed by how much more comfortable it was, thanks in no small part to being able to use the shoulder button to accelerate (something ASR does, too). And I really wish I could do that in Mario Kart 7, because the configuration as it is now, with the need to accelerate, hop/drift, fire, and especially hold weapons behind my kart… it’s just uncomfortable, and I can’t play it for too long before my hand begins to cramp up.

In the case of Mario Kart Wii, the non-Wii Remote/Wii Wheel controls are even set up in such a way that if you want a boost on the motorcycles or to perform a stunt in any vehicle, you have to take your thumb off the analog stick in order to do so. And in a game which requires split-second timing, it seems this would have been a better use of the X and Y buttons than a second hop or a rear-view camera.

Other options would be for items. Super Smash Bros. allows you to toggle every single item on or off, while Mario Kart does this in odd half-measures. For example, say you hate the Blue Shell; you can turn it off, but in the process, you’re getting rid of all shells. Or in Mario Kart Wii, you can turn off other sets of weapons by some strangely-defined classes (“Balanced,” “Aggressive,” “Strategic,” and none).

Unfortunately, you can’t set this (nor the CPU’s difficulty) in the regular Grand Prix mode, only in Vs. So if you’re out to play as a character you really like, well, you’ll just have to hope you’ll be lucky enough to survive the torrent of crap in order to do so. On that note…

"No number of Mario games will help you unlock me this time!"

Better ways to unlock characters: As mentioned before, I’m not quite so good at Mario Kart. Sure, I can hold my own in a race against regular people (i.e. not people who snake constantly), but when it comes to racing the computer? Either I’m just not very good at it here, or I have terrible, rotten luck.

Regardless of which it is, I don’t get to see very many unlockable characters as a result of them being obtained primarily by beating the computer. The aforementioned difficulty levels would be useful here, but no, they aren’t allowing any of that. It’s a bit of a shame, as the series seems to draw both more dedicated players as well as those who hail a week with no new games as the end of the world, and I can’t imagine the former being able to get many of these characters very easily.

This would be a problem, given that the characters are one of the biggest draws of the game. If a person really wants to play as a gorilla wearing sunglasses, a star princess, or a turtle skeleton, should they really be denied that simple pleasure?

Sumo Digital is handling this in two ways. The first, in Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing, they have a sort of currency called “SEGA Miles” you earn just by racing and playing the game. The more you play, the more you earn– even if you come in last. Of course, if you play really well, then you receive Miles that much more quickly.

Incidentally, this extends to all unlockables: Characters, tracks, music, and more. Plus, among the downloadable content available for the game is a pack which unlocks everything. Ironically, while I would kill to even have the option of paying for something like that in Mario Kart, I never even needed it for ASR; a bit of patience and a lot of fun soon got me everything there was to have.

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, however, remains largely unknown in how everything will be unlocked. But Lycett did tell Nintendo Power that there would be a “World Tour” adventure mode in which most of the characters and content could be obtained, and that other goals will unlock the rest. “We’re also spending a lot of time balancing this to make sure all players can get to all the unlocks,” he notes, adding “it’s quite important to us, that.”

Wrenches: Not just for plumbing anymore.

Emphasize the Stats of the Karts, Not the Drivers: I think part of why some characters are so hard to unlock is due to the overwhelming stats they bring to the table. As I’ve mentioned previously, choosing R.O.B. seems to influence others (who have him) to do the same thing, and I’ve heard Funky Kong really is a beast to beat on the track.

Problem is, I don’t care about the racers’ stats– I just want to play as my 20-year old toy robot without shifting the entire dynamic of the game… or, in lieu of that, maybe a monkey in shades or a metallic doppelganger. Or even simply as myself– why must that be such a coveted prize that it needs to be hidden away? It certainly wasn’t in Wii Sports or Pilotwings Resort, but at least they toned down the difficulty for that one in Mario Kart 7.

Ever since Double Dash!!, the drivers have not been tied to their karts, so why must their personal stats so heavily influence the vehicles and game? Why not let us choose engines and upgrades or something which are the key changes in stats?

Mario Kart 7 did make some headway here, with the ability to choose different frames, wheels, and gliders. Still, the overall stats still seem to be influenced by who’s behind the wheel, which probably leads to some different advantages and disadvantages necessitating the locking-away of our favorite characters.

Of course, even if the difference is in car parts, it would still be nice to access certain vehicles without worrying about breaking the game as well.

GET THEM!!!

Don’t Let the CPU Gang Up on the Players: Sometimes it feels like everyone on the track isn’t racing one-another; rather, it feels like the CPU– all seven to eleven of them– are racing you, and working together to ensure you don’t cross that finish line with any sort of good rank. Ever been hit by a combo attack of a Blue Shell, Lightning Bolt, POW Block, and– to add insult to injury– a Blooper, thus dropping your rank from first to seventh mere inches from the finish line?

Let’s face it, those things never quite seem to happen as much when you’re racing against human opponents. Some combos, sure, but everything at once? It’s pretty rare.

"At least from the back, it's easier to watch everyone else burn!"

Better Items for First: Being in first place kind of sucks. Sure, you might be winning the race– at least until something like the above happens– but you never get any of the fun items. Typically, you wind up with a lame banana peel, or three banana peels, or a fake item box that only fools people who aren’t looking at the screen. Of course, they did away with that last one in Mario Kart 7 altogether…

Once upon a time, you could get other items while in first, but it seems all the cool stuff comes the further behind you are, and the stuff you get in first can be obtained by people in any other spot, too. First needs some exclusive weaponry, stuff to allow you to keep and defend that position.

Some people say you can defend against a Blue Shell by using a Mushroom, but Mushrooms don’t typically tend to come when you’re in first. Plus, holding on to one for long enough to use it in that situation is tough in itself, but more on that in a bit. The point is that realistically, you’re more likely to be a sitting duck.

Even items already in the game would be useful, such as shells. And why not let first have Blue Shells? Instead of making them always home in on first, how about letting first use them to take out a gaining second place racer? How about a shield of some sort, one which is temporary or absorbs one hit?

Sumo is changing how their All-Star moves work as a result of a similar problem, too; they typically come to those in the rear of the pack, so good racers rarely saw them– unless they were being used by someone else. So in Transformed, the move will be provided by filling a gauge instead.

I mentioned that the fake Item Box was done away with in Mario Kart 7, and in truth, it has actually improved the item variety of first place significantly. I just gave it a test run, and in addition to a banana peel, I also got a red and green shell, as well as the Super Leaf, whose Raccoon Tail works terrifically as both an offensive and defensive force at the same time. You can swat both drivers and their weapons away with it… save for the Blue Shell and the “big” items, of course.

Still, it’s a good step and I applaud the developers for it. Let’s just hope they don’t forget it the next time out, and perhaps even build on it.

Use it or lose it!

Let Us Keep Our Items: One of the most irritating parts of the series’ progression has been how easy it is to lose your items. For a time, it seemed that nearly any sort of fumble, mistake, or hit would cause you to lose your item(s); Mario Kart 7 again improved this a bit, but when you’re going to lose your items for any reason at all, from hitting an obstacle to falling off a cliff, it gives little reason to hold on to them for very long.

As a result, you’re inclined to use it before you lose it, and it removes a bit of strategy from the game. The aforementioned Mushroom vs. Blue Shell trick? Again, try holding on to your Mushroom for that long– odds are, most people won’t be able to do it, whether it’s falling off a cliff or being hit by a POW Block, a Lightning Bolt, or whatever else.

Seriously, the heavy-duty items like the POW Block do enough damage on their own– item loss is just a bit overkill. Mario Kart 7 did away with the POW Block, which is good, except I liked the item… I just didn’t like losing my own items because of it. Even then, if other items and such didn’t have the same effect, it might be more reasonable.

"...that can't be good."

Don’t Bring Us to a Stop: In a racing game, the worst possible feeling is that of standing still. Sure, when you’re dangling off the end of Lakitu’s line, it makes sense that you can’t move, but when you’re hit by something, you come to a complete stop before being able to move again. And of course, a repeated bombardment of items (like the kind the CPU seems to like throwing at you, especially on higher CCs) makes the whole race come to a grinding halt for you.

I noticed in ASR that when hit, you would be slowed tremendously and knocked around a bit, but could still move, if even just a little bit. Trust me, it does a lot– you still feel like you can get back into it, and less like a sitting duck. Sitting still essentially removes control from the player, and that’s not really a good thing.

It took 15 years, but the Kalimari Express finally made it through.

Let Us Play in More Retro Courses: Mario Kart: Super Circuit brought one great advancement for the series: It doubled the number of courses available for players by including the entirety of Super Mario Kart‘s 16 courses on top of its own, totaling 32.

That’s been the norm ever since, but in each installment, the number of tracks remains the same. This means that while we have a total of 112 courses (not counting the Arcade GP games) so far, we only ever get to experience 32 at a time. The total stays the same as 16 new courses are added with each game, with the overall percentage shrinking upon each new release.

In Mario Kart 7, they did remake many (or even all) of the Retro Courses to work with the new glider and underwater gimmicks of the game. And while that is cool, it’s not entirely necessary, either; I’d be happy to just be able to play a full assortment of my favorite courses without having to change games or only choose from a handful.

Mario Kart 7 did well by me with a lot of my favorites, but not all of them. And with the way they shuffle them around in each new release (not having the Airship Fortress in Mario Kart Wii was quite disappointing), I am a little worried about what “Mario Kart 8″ will contain.

This could also extend to characters; does anyone really like having characters removed? The more, the merrier! Bring back R.O.B., Dry Bones, and Funky Kong! Throw in some others! Granted, there is the balancing thing, but I addressed that with the portion above about focusing on karts’ stats instead of the drivers’ stats.

Incidentally, classic tracks and returning characters (and maybe kart frames, too) might also make a compelling case for downloadable content, if nothing else, so long as the price is right. Granted, it would be preferable if they were all included in the game from the start, but since they aren’t doing it anyway, at least it’s an option.

Allow Us Single Regular Races: I’m not sure how many games in the series do or do not have this, but Mario Kart 7 seems to lack them, so here we are. Simply put, nothing fancy: Sometimes I just want to race against everyone, but I don’t want to play an entire cup to do so. That’s all.

Finally, Bring Back Individual Themes and Celebrations: People may say they don’t play fighting games for their stories, and that may be true, but personally speaking, I find that having different endings is a pretty decent motivator for learning and completing the game with everyone on the roster. This is why I have no interest in Marvel vs. Capcom 2; I don’t have an Xbox Live Gold account, so multiplayer is largely out, and there’s only one ending for that mass of characters.

Well, Mario Kart used to have something similar going for it, all the way back in Super Mario Kart. Observe:

It wasn’t much, but at the end of a cup, each character would receive their trophy, pop the balloon, and celebrate with the bottle in their own way. But now, you don’t really see anything even that interesting anymore. I can’t remember the last time I had any inclination to finish the cups with each racer, or even use any besides my favorites for anything more than a whim.

Since then, look how far we’ve come with the endings from Mario Power Tennis (which, incidentally, were omitted from Mario Tennis Open, to that title’s detriment):

Now those are what I call rewards. They aren’t super-long or anything, but individualized and overflowing with character– enough to be worth beating the game once with each character, at any rate, just to see what happens next. We’ve come so far, only to get so little.

Furthermore, as you can hear in the Super Mario Kart video above, each racer also had their own victory themes which seemed to it the characters. Bowser’s was particularly cool, while Peach’s was– for lack of a better term– “frilly,” Koopa Troopa had a slower, easygoing melody, and so on.

Making the characters individualized in such ways certain gives a greater impetus for people to play with as many characters as they can, to be sure.

—–

"Let's-a go!"

And there we have it. There might be some other tweaks I would consider (bringing back icons from Mario Kart DS, or having more music options per track, for example), but these are the main things I think would go a long way towards proving the Mario Kart experience without jeopardizing or altering what made the series great and memorable in the first place.

Meanwhile, I’m kind of unsure where I sit on overpowered items. I’m not especially fond of them, and appreciate how ASR balances skill and item usage without resorting to the kind of “kill everything” pick-ups that Mario Kart has become infamous for; I’ve never felt cheated in an ASR race. There has to be a good middle ground, though.

As you can tell by reading above, Mario Kart 7 was a strong improvement in several of these regards, though it still lacks in others– the unlockable drivers being the worst they’ve ever been. Hopefully Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed will do well enough that Nintendo takes notice and steps up their game to compete when it comes time for the series’ inevitable eighth installment.

I love Mario Kart, I really do. However (Mario Kart 7 review copy notwithstanding), it’s been a while since I felt like I was getting the most value for my money as a paying customer for the games, something I feel Sumo Digital and SEGA’s title has provided in spades.

Of course, you’re free to disagree, add your own, or even fine-tune these Mello Yello-fueled early-a.m. suggestions in the comments below.

Images courtesy of Super Mario Wiki.

Share