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Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed is a Sonic kart racer mashing up characters from different game series, but still somehow manages to be a solid, entertaining game.
Some questions echo down the ages, ever unanswered. Who was the man in the iron mask? What happened to the crew of the Marie Celeste? Why would Sonic the Hedgehog, a character known for his superspeed, need a car?
There's no in-story explanation that could possibly make sense of Sonic's tendency for occasionally jumping in a car and racing his mates, although back in the real world we know exactly why Sonic races a kart - because Mario does, and if Nintendo can make money off their goggle-eyed mascot in a kart, then Sega are damned if they won't do the same, regardless of what fictional logic it breaks.
Thankfully, this latest incarnation of Sonic Branded Kart Racing Consumer Product is a bit more interesting than I had any right to expect.
Partially this is necessity - while Mario has a diverse cast of (inexplicably) popular dead-eyed plumbers, leering dragons and funny little mushroom things, Sonic's supporting cast is a wasteland, with even Sonic's stalwart sidekick Tails regarded with ferocious contempt.
(Don't get me started on Shadow the Hedgehog.)
Anyway, with Sonic's cast so weak, the roster needs bolstering with more palatable faces, so Sega has raided its other IP for a line-up of racers who have nothing in common apart from shared corporate ownership. All your favourites are here: the monkey with big ears from Super Monkey Ball; the other monkey with the hat from Samba de Amigo; the lady from Space Channel 5; the bloke from Jet Set Radio; and many many others that aren't unlocked from the start.
Oh, and Wreck-It-Ralph, presumably included as part of a reciprocal deal related to Sega characters appearing in the videogame-themed Disney film of the same name, available on DVD and Bluray now.
(Please send me Mountain Dew and Doritos, Uncle Walt).
There's similar cross-genre plundering for the floating worlds the tracks run through, leading to a delightfully rich selection of environments: the open sea and aircraft carriers for After Burner; an urban world of skyscrapers and scaffolding for Jet Set Radio; a haunted house for House of the Dead; and, perhaps best of all, a gorgeous, semi-aerial steampunk landscape for Skies of Arcadia.
Even the more traditionally cartoonish levels you'd expect in a kart racer feel more varied than usual, with the musical insanity of Samba de Amigo notably different from the Hunter S Thompson in Vegas simulator trippiness of Sonic's casino themed track.
If there's any unifying theme that ties most of the worlds together, it's Sega's trademark brilliant blue skies.
If there's any unifying theme that ties most of the worlds together, it's Sega's trademark brilliant blue skies, and even when those are absent the pallete leans towards neon brightness and vibrant warmth. Developer Sumo Digital demonstrated a firm grip on the summery atmosphere and poppy atmosphere needed for a Sega racing game in their excellent versions of Out Run, and here show the same authentic arcade feel.
Aside from bringing that aesthetic knowledge and a sound background in racing mechanics to bear on the kart racing genre, Sumo's big trick here is the 'Transformed' part of the game. All the tracks feature sky and water sections as well as land racing, with karts morphing into planes and boats as required.
It's a neat gimmick, and with different routes through each level it allows for some light, quick-thinking strategy, as each mode of travel has different advantages: air is super-fast, but if you're battling opponents sticking to dry land makes targetting easier, for instance.
The theme of change and transformation even bleeds through to how a race develops from lap to lap, with some environments collapsing and reshaping throughout the course of a race, sections that are on dry land in the first lap being blown up and requiring flight through the ruins on later laps.
There's a lot going on here, with characters to unlock and level up with XP, handling to be tweaked, and the usual variety of different play modes including the likes of Time Attack, Drift Attack, and best of all Battle Race - if nothing else, the opportunity to destroy Tails with rockets is a joyful experience few will want to miss.
Better than I expected, or really had any right to expect.
Does it make any narrative sense, throwing all these genres and characters and play modes together? Not a bit of it, not even in the structured campaign modes which slot the various tracks into some form of order.
Nevertheless, as kart racers go this has all the gloss and depth you'd expect from Sumo, and aesthetically its a fun and rich joyride through Sega's diverse back catalogue of games.
All in all, much better than I expected, or really had any right to expect.
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