Sonic R (1997, Traveller’s Tales for Sega Saturn)
Sonic R is without question the most divisive software title in the Sega Saturn library, one that is either loved or hated. Both camps have long since entrenched their positions over the years, and it is all but impossible that the debate will ever be settled. In the end, one simply learns to make peace with the stalemate and enjoy the ride as best you can.
Sega Saturn was notorious for lacking a proper Sonic the Hedgehog title, which was due to the combination of overly complicated hardware designs and bad timing, as the era of 2D videogames gave way to expansive 3D worlds. As we have discovered in the years since the Fifth Generation, it is far more difficult to successfully translate the traditional Sonic experience in 3D, certainly when compared to Nintendo’s iconic Mario. The proper balance has never been achieved, although many of us will argue that NiGHTS: Into Dreams achieved that perfect balance. But that title proved too quirky and surreal to achieve blockbuster success.
The unfortunate truth is that Sonic the Hedgehog is a creature of the 16-bit era, with four groundbreaking masterpieces — Sonic the Hedgehog (1991), Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992), Sonic CD (1993), Sonic 3 & Knuckles (1994) — that were followed by a very long and very uneven series of sequels, reinventions and spinoffs. The experience is all about speed and precision of control and exploiting the restrictions of the 2D realm. It just doesn’t work in 3D, not without significantly changing the formula, but Sega could never find a successful second act for its blue mascot.
Love it or hate it, I think Sonic R is one of the more interesting attempts at reinvention for the 3D polygon era. It’s not quite a racing game and not quite a platformer, but borrows elements of both genres. You race as the characters including Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Sally and Dr. Robotnik across four sprawling stages. If you finish first, you will win a gold trophy. If you win gold on the four stages, a fifth course will become available.
I think a lot of players and reviewers gave up once they finished first place in the five courses, assuming they had seen all there was to see. The real challenge is not only to win the race, but win while collecting all the gold coins and chaos emeralds. Collecting all the coins will open up a second race on the same course against a hidden character; if you can beat that opponent, they will be unlocked and available to play. Collecting all the chaos emeralds will unlock Super Sonic. Achieving these feats requires you to really master the complex track designs, knowing when to use the right shortcuts and alternate pathways. If you can achieve these goals and master that perfect speedrun, congratulations.
If you can pull off that trick, give yourself a pat on the back, because you’ve achieved something truly special, and the reason for that is where my troubles begin. The controls are an absolute shambolic mess. The characters are prone to oversteering, sliding and skidding uncontrollably in many situations. Lateral movements are twitchy and require the tap-tap-tap approach of digital controls; analog controls are simply too loose to be of any use whatsoever. When entering turns, your character instead slides sideways, as though they are running on ice. You need to find a proper balance between using the joypad and the shoulder buttons, and it’s a very tricky balance.
I have struggled with the controls on Sonic R for years, and on the times when everything clicks, it’s quite enjoyable. When things aren’t clicking, it’s a nightmare. Where you come down on this issue largely depends on your patience and willingness to keep playing for hours and hours until you’ve mastered every twist and quirk of the steering as well as the complex interlocking pathways, bridges, hills and drops that make up the level designs. Again, you can see how Traveller’s Tales, the software developers, tried to thread the needle between racing and platforming, between running as fast as possible and exploring your surroundings for secrets. Each level feels like three or four separate tracks were laid down on top of one another. It’s both highly inspired and highly messy, very deliberately designed for extensive play sessions, and a very fitting metaphor for the Sega Saturn.
One area where everybody will agree are the graphics, which are absolutely sensational. The programmers achieved a number of highly impressive visual effects including a fade-in transparency effect to eliminate polygon “pop-up,” polygon shading and light-sourcing, water reflections, environmental mapping and transparent polygons. Many of these visual effects are closer to what was seen on NIntendo 64, and was widely believed to be “impossible” on Saturn, which demonstrates that virtually anything can be achieved with skilled coding and enough time. Everything looks vivid and solid, especially the final stage that gives Mario Kart 64’s Rainbow Road a serious run for its money.
Oh, and for the record, I really do enjoy the music. It’s so very 1997, with its Euro-dance beats and infectious pop hooks that probably belonged in dance clubs instead of a videogame. That was the onion on the belt, the style at the time. Just as polygons had shoved out sprites, recorded pop tracks had shoved out “chiptune” computer songs. It was all part of the effort to make videogames “grow up” and shed its kiddie reputation, which has been an industry obsession for decades. Thank you very much, Puritanical Guilt.
Masterpiece, Train Wreck or Misunderstood, it probably doesn’t matter. Sonic R is practically the definition of “review-proof.” In any event, you owe it to yourself to play and see where you end up, either at the finish line with a gold trophy or the bottom of a lake kissing fish. Just don’t pay the ridiculous extortion money being offered on the used games market for the US release. Beg, borrow or steal a copy from one of your friends or import the Japanese disc.