Opinion Piece

Random Loot: Rediscovering The Joys Of Gaming Through Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing And My Niece

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Hello, and welcome to Random Loot, a hopefully continous series of articles that give me a chance to discuss not only games but also films, comics and even TV series, depending on what’s got my attention at the time. For obvious reasons these will likely be far less critical than my reviews. Think of them as musings or ramblings. But rest assured, they will each focus around a single game, film or series.

Over the past month or two I’ve managed to rediscover the joys of playing Sonic & Sega All-Stars racing, a game which still sits on my list of the most overlooked titles of all time. It was released back in 2010, but never got the attention I felt it deserved, partially, I believe, because of its bright, cartoon visuals, when at the time dark, gritty and realistic were the focus of both development and gamers alike, with anything not fitting into this category simply dismissed as only for children. Banjo & Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts also fell victim to this, yet another brilliant game that adults and children can enjoy. Still Sonic & Sega did do well enough to get a sequel.

My rediscovery of this gem of a game stems from my little 5-year old niece, who is currently at the point of knowing absolutely everything. Her defense when questioned about this is to reaffirm that she already knows, and that she’s not telling you. Genius. This goes hand in hand with her other current tactics; if she trips and falls, then she totally meant to do that, and that “I tricked you” is a brilliant defense for when she does something stupid.

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Every Sunday she appears for the day to delight me for several hours, and then annoy the living hell out of me for several more after that, because that’s her sodding right as a 5-year old. We usually go swimming, run around the house, play mini air hockey, maybe bake some random cakes with grandma and go walks, but I’ve also been introducing her to the world of games, as my brother only has a Playstation 2 and Wii in his house, and while she does play them as a hardcore gamer there’s a strong part of me that wants to try to bestow my hobby on her. Look, if she has the right to annoy the crap out of me then I have the right to be a corrupting influence. It’s only fair.

So far I’ve had some decent success, although she’s struggling quite a bit in certain areas. The fairly recent Octodad has become quite the hit with her, largely because her own lack of coordination just results in even more hilarity. Inevitably the controls get handed over to me so I can guide the suit-wearing Octopus to his goal of getting the frozen pizza or making coffee. Clearly games really do ground chidren in reality. Oddly enough Next Car Game has become a favorite as well, the mayhem of a destruction derby appealing to her more violent side. Seriously, that child has one hell of a malicious giggle, like she’s some sort of evil overlord, which upon reflection is probably what most children are.

But most of all she loves Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing, which is fine by me as I’ve merrily rediscovered my own passion for it. It’s just a brilliant little kart racer, paying homage to so many wonderful Sega franchises with its roster of unique characters and beautiful tracks. The handling is spot-on, favoring high-speed drifting with responsive controls, the circuits are well designed and the weapons are nicely balanced. There’s a solid amount of content and a killer soundtrack, all of which equates to one of the most fun games around, in my eyes. Both the Playstation and the Xbox have lacked in classic kart racing action, and Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing fills that void damn near perfectly, and it offers up split-screen action, making it a brilliant game to play with a few mates and a couple of beers. And yes, I have no problem admitting that getting friends round to drink beer and play something like All-Stars is one of my favorite ways of wiling away the hours.

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Watching my niece play it is hilarious. She struggles, to be honest. She refuses to listen about holding down the left trigger to drift, which is key in the game as longer drifts give you big speed boosts, and she can’t keep her finger firmly down on the right trigger, especially when she’s excited or slightly annoyed. The end result is that she is usually seen weaving madly across the track, stopping and starting, and falling off cliffs. Sometimes she does well and manages to get a few places, but most of the time she’s last. Sometimes I let her beat me, and sometimes I don’t, because one of things I love about games is that they teach you that not winning all the time is fine. If you don’t succeed then you get up and try again, until either you get better or come to conclusion that maybe you don’t have the skill for it, to which there’s no shame. She seems to be accepting that lesson, and no longer becomes an angry rage monster if she loses or I beat her. She also now knows that she’s going to get better at it as she grows up, and indeed you can visibly see a difference from race to race. Games, ladies and gentlemen, can teach you good life lessons.

Our enjoyment of the game has prompted me to go ahead and finally buy Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed, the sequel to the first game. I don’t know why I never bought this before, despite my adoration of the first game. It’s just one of those things that I never seemed to get around to doing, even though I kept spotting it the local ASDA. But now that I’ve got it I’m once again head over heels in love. It builds upon the original by allowing vehicles to transform mid-race from a simple car into a boat or even a plane, which is really a great idea as it alters the flow of the gameplay just enough to keep things interesting, while ensuring the handling is familiar enough to make the transition feel smooth. There’s another selection of great tracks that reference various franchises throughout Sega’s timeline, while the inclusion of things like Mods let you customise your chosen characters stats a little. Certain tracks will even change mid-race, altering the path you must take. Meanwhile the main campaign is more robust, featuring a branching selection system, and several interesting types of events to try out, like dodging traffic or even battling a huge tank. It really is an oustanding little game, and considering how cheaply it can be picked up these days there’s no excuse for giving it a whirl.

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Several types of event also return from the first game which my niece loves. Capture the Chao is a firm favorite, and is pretty self-explanatory. While she seems to struggle with outright speed my niece is uncannily accurate when it comes to blowing the shit out of me with some random weapon. This skill feeds nicely into Battle Arena. She’s going to be a good little warrior when she grows up, something which she is keen to prove during the many frequent bouts of, “Lets pummel Uncle Baden with a pillow.” Just lately she’s taken to bringing her plastic sword with her, which is great because in my great maturity I happen to own a rather awesome plastic pirates sword, replete with badass hilt which features a skull and crossbones.

I guess more importantly is that through my niece I’ve rediscovered a more innocent joy in regards to gaming, and sense of wonder that I’ve largely lost over the years, both through simply getting older and through reviewing games in a critical manner. The industry as a whole has made me a more cynical gamer, and the artificial hype machine has so often lead to me growing tired of a game before its even release that I rarely find myself truly excited about an upcoming title. Games like Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing and Octodad help to us that among the cynicism and Internet arguments there’s still that same sense of fun that ensnared most of us when we were younger. Games now can deliver emotional stories and invest players in their world. They can amaze and force us to think in different ways. But sometimes they forget that we need fun games, too.

Playing Titanfall last night I realised how angry I was getting with my performance. Not to toot my own metaphorical horn, but I’m good at shooters, and very good at Titanfall, rarely being out of the top three in every round with very few deaths and a lot of enemy Pilot and Titan kills. But last night was clearly an off night, and my performance was pretty lackluster. I struggled to keep my top three position, and the rate at which I was dying to the rate I was killing was pretty poor, which matters quite a bit when you’re playing Attrition. Reflecting back on that as I write this made me realise that I need to relearn the very same lesson that I like to believe games are helping my awesome niece learn; its alright to do badly, and its alright to lose. Just keep calm, and try to do better next time.

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I’m sort of hoping to mold my niece into a gamer. Perhaps not a die-hard nut, like me, but certainly into someone who has a passion for them, assuming of course that’s the way she wants to go. Because ultimately games can be a force for good. They can be entertainment, but they can also teach us valuable lessons, if we let them. Over the course of my own life games have been a great help, things like Mortal Kombat allowing me to relieve my own stress and anger and anxiety from living with Cystic Fibrosis, or further back Sonic the Hedgehog showing me that losing was okay, I just needed to keep trying. I’ve learned things from videogames, some of it truly useless, like how you should never stand beside red barrels, but much of it important. They’ve helped me so many times and often through harsh times.

Seeing games again through my nieces eyes and her evident delight at blasting me with a rocket in Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing is a wonderful thing. Seriously, though, she has one hell of an evil cackle. Now that I think about it my own desire to mold her slowly into a gamer may have something to do with the whole evil-overlord laugh. I’m probably not the best role model in this regard, given my own evil chuckle when I’m playing online.

So, to summarise, little kids are insane, games are good and you really should play Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing or its sequel. Oh, and everyone should own a plastic toy pirate sword. It’s good for your mental well-being.

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