I often have controversial opinions, so much so that I’ve actively lost friends over them. I mean, I actually liked Left Alive for the PS4, who does that? There goes my credibility as a games journalist. In all sincerity, I’m genuinely happy with my opinions. I am also secure in the knowledge that even if everyone disagrees with me that Breaking Bad sucks, or that the O.A should have been cancelled before it even began, I am still content, locked away with no friends. My love of Team Sonic Racing is another controversial opinion. Not just because I think the game is good, but because I think it’s better than Mario Kart.
Nintendo And The Romans
During my third year of university, I hit a real slump. For the first time in my life, I experienced full-blown anxiety, worries about my future, and was facing the worst my depression had ever gotten. It hit me all at once, and at times it was unbearable. My only recourse was my Switch, which was handily practical to play in bed as I hid away from all my fears and woes. I’d pop a Brutalmoose stream on in the background (love that guy), and chill out to some easy, pick-up-and-play games. The main title I’d always go to was Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. A game I’ve sunk well over 100 hours into, as not only was it a lot of fun, but it also reminded me of the good ‘ol days playing video games with my sister.
There’s something to be said about the brilliance of Mario Kart, a game refined over umpteen years to the point where Nintendo no longer feels the need to innovate upon it any further. Nintendo sees Mario Kart as a game that doesn’t need to be better, a game that is at its peak. They’ve stopped trying with a lot of their properties, resorting to porting over older titles (Super Mario), re-releasing titles with all their content included (Super Smash Bros), or releasing new titles with a slight twist on previous ones (Animal Crossing). Honestly though, who can blame them? Nintendo has been going since 1981. They’re allowed to take a break, stop for a moment and enjoy the impact they’ve had on the gaming world. It’s because of many of their titles that games are as refined and enjoyable as they are today. Suffice to say, Nintendo is a trendsetter.
So, no. I don’t hate Mario Kart; in fact, I love Mario Kart. I just so happen to think that Team Sonic Racing is a little better. Perhaps, like the Romans, Nintendo has gotten a tad bit lazy and allowed other developers to swoop in and innovate. Maybe, Nintendo will prove me wrong, make this article incredibly outdated by releasing the most brilliant, innovative Mario Kart game the world has ever seen. Maybe. But, for the time being, I prefer Team Sonic Racing, and here’s why.
Sonic vs. Mario
Mario has never really been a video-game franchise that’s interested me. Of course, my family had Mario Kart on the Wii, Mario Party, Mario and Sonic at the Winter Olympic Games, among various other DS titles. But I feel like we had these because everyone did. The Wii was this all-consuming console that almost every family-owned. Even if you didn’t, you almost certainly knew someone who did. I would often go around to friend’s houses and play Mario Kart Wii or would bring my DS on holiday and play the New Super Mario Bros DS minigames with my cousins. Mario was very much part of my life, but I don’t feel it was willingly. I’m not accusing Nintendo of being this dystopian dictatorship that forced everyone to own a Wii and play Mario games, but, let’s be honest, that’s absolutely the case.
Sonic, on the other hand, well the same can’t be said. Sure, we had a few of the aforementioned Mario and Sonic at the Whatever Olympic Games series, but aside from that the only other Sonic game we owned was a collection of Sonic titles on the PC, and that just collected dust on a shelf somewhere. I’m almost convinced we “borrowed” it from someone, and then never played it. I’ve always known Sonic, but he’s never been a part of my life, at least not in a meaningful way.
In essence, I never had a connection to Sonic. Therefore I don’t prefer Team Sonic Racing over Mario Kart as a result. The fact that my Nintendo overlords forced my family and me to play Mario games should have, in theory, made me more predisposed to preferring Mario Kart. Alas, it did not. In fact, my lack of allegiance to either franchise should tell you that my love for Team Sonic Racing is not born out of rose-tinted nostalgia, or a sense of fanboyism.
Teamwork Makes The Dreamwork
Mario & Co
The way teams have worked in Mario Kart has progressed slightly from game to game. For example, in Mario Kart DS, being a part of a team meant little more than just sharing points. Should you come in first, and the rest of your team in far lower positions, your excellence at the game would help prop them up a little. However, you could still crack your teammate’s skulls open with red shells and other nasty items. So, should you always be as annoyed by Princess Peach’s incessant rubber-banding, then you can still plonk her with a shell to teach her a lesson.
In Mario Kart Wii things changed a little. For example, if you were to place a banana on the ground it would be surrounded by a ring of your team’s colour, and should any one of your teammates hit into it, they wouldn’t get hurt. This was a welcome improvement, but playing as a team still felt redundant. If anything, the team-mode existed so that if you were playing with your partner, who knew nothing about video games and was ultimately terrible at Mario Kart, they still felt a sense of satisfaction when your team won. It was a mode that I very rarely played, opting to fling my shells at everyone and anyone I could see.
Now I didn’t play Mario Kart 7, so I can’t say for certain how teams worked in that game. But it hardly makes sense that they’d be any better or any more refined than Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. If they were, then shame on Nintendo for making them worse in a proceeding title, but chances are, and I’m willing to bet they weren’t, the team mode was either the same as the Wii version or mostly the same as Mario Kart 8. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe made a few adjustments to how teams worked, but nothing drastic. If you flung a blue shell and your teammate was in first, then it would just hit whoever was in the highest position of the enemy team. And that’s about it. Teams have had no adjustments made to them outside of that, at least as far as I can tell.
Now I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the classic Mario Kart Double Dash for the GameCube. That game was all about teamwork, and was, comparatively, leagues ahead of anything that came after it. I’d even go as far as to say that it’s better than Team Sonic Racing. But I don’t have access to a GameCube and haven’t played Mario Kart Double Dash for years, which is a shame as I remember it being a lot of fun. Nintendo sure acts as if it’s a thing of the past, as we’ve not gotten a mainline Mario Kart spin-off since, and if anything, Mario Kart has regressed since its release back in 2003.
Sonic & Friends
In my humble opinion, Team Sonic Racing is leagues ahead of Mario Kart in terms of innovation. Of course, where it excels the most, as I’m sure you can tell, is in its introduction of interesting team-focused mechanics. Unsurprisingly, Team Sonic Racing looked at what the market sorely lacked, and innovated upon it. And while the new mechanics introduced in Team Sonic Racing don’t completely resolve the issues left behind by Mario Kart, they certainly improve enough that it stands out in a dominated market.
Team Sonic Racing’s biggest introduction to the team-based kart racer is the addition of sharing items. Essentially, should you not want an item, or know a teammate is lagging behind a little, you can offer your item up with the press of a button. Should they accept it not only will your boost metre increase but there’s a chance that the item you sent will be powered up. There’s a huge incentive to share items with your teammates, especially if you’re in first place, and should you do so, you’ll often be treated to a nice piece of dialogue from either your own character or the character receiving the item.
Obviously, should you be playing with friends you can communicate if you need an item or not, and your friends can be generous and share with you. But even if you’re playing with AI, you won’t be left in the lurch, as you can both request an item, and have the AI offer up their own out of the kindness of their hearts. If you’ve ever dreamed of Doctor Eggman and Sonic becoming friends, then this is the wholesome game for you.
Outside of sharing mechanics, you have a slipstream that will trail off the player who’s ahead in your team. If you or an AI drive through it, you’ll get a gradually increasing boost that will send you flying when you drive out of the slipstream. If an enemy player or crash knocks you, then a passing teammate will give you a boost and set you back on course. Doing either of these things will add to your boost, which, when full, will give the whole team a dramatic boost that lasts a decent amount of time. Of course, enemy teams will be able to use this function should they increase their own metres, so you’ll have to watch out for that.
Compelling Characters Create A Captivating Campaign
Team Sonic Racing also includes a narrative-based campaign mode that features both races and challenges to complete. This narrative focuses on the various characters in the Sonic franchise, and the teams that they form within the game. Having this narrative, which Mario Kart sorely lacks, gives additional personality and warmth to the characters in your team and helps you relate a little more to the characters you’re racing alongside, at least when you’re playing with AI. Characters will shout out one-liners as you race, which while it may annoy some, I felt added a lot to the proceedings and made the whole experience far more enjoyable.
Team Sonic Racing doesn’t rely on the age-old adage “everything is better with friends ” like Mario Kart does, and instead offers a fleshed out team-focused experience even should you be playing alone. All of the aforementioned mechanics also make playing with friends far more enjoyable, as it actively encourages communication when talking instead of the usual grunts, ohs, and ahs that I’d normally hear when playing Mario Kart with my family.
But in all honesty, the real reason I prefer Team Sonic Racing’s team-focused mechanics is that they add a level of warmth to the kart-racing genre that’s missing elsewhere. Of course, Mario Kart is a warm, charming and bubbly game aimed at children, just as Team Sonic Racing is, but I feel the difference lies in the character interaction and the teamwork element of Team Sonic Racing. I can imagine making friends with Team Sonic Racing, whereas Mario Kart is better suited for playing with existing friends. As someone who has no friends, Team Sonic Racing, therefore, wins in this department.
The Bells And Whistles
When we get down to the nitty-gritty, the graphics, music, tracks, and other non-emotional, and therefore way less interesting, mechanics, I still think Team Sonic Racing comes out on top. Of course, I am in no way attempting to diminish the clear technical achievements of the Mario Kart franchise, but I do think that Team Sonic Racing is the better kart racer.
For one, it’s faster. Having gone back to Mario Kart after playing Team Sonic Racing, I couldn’t help but feel that the driving felt considerably slower. It likely helps that Team Sonic Racing includes the slipstream mechanic and the boost mechanic, which ensures that the player is always whizzing around the map. But even outside of these mechanics I still believe that Team Sonic Racing is a faster kart racer, and therefore more enjoyable. The slower pace of Mario Kart, while likely better suited for its younger audience, is just less enthralling, and felt like a chore after smashing through Team Sonic Racing’s levels.
Levels And Visuals
Speaking of levels, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, the title I am mainly drawing comparisons from, has more of them. In fact, it has over twice as many. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe has 48 tracks as it compiles all of the DLC from the original Mario Kart 8 from back on the Wii U. Team Sonic Racing, on the other hand, has only 21 tracks. And yet, despite this, I still think that Team Sonic Racing, content-wise, is better than Mario Kart.
Sure, Mario Kart has more tracks, but so many of them are recycled from previous titles, which seems to be Nintendo’s MO recently. Of course, some of the Team Sonic Racing tracks are reused and remastered from Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, but in Mario Kart, it feels far more egregious. It’s not that I don’t enjoy playing on the old maps, but for the same reason that replaying old content in Pokémon or Super Smash Bros isn’t fun, this doesn’t appeal to me.
In terms of the maps themselves, I think Team Sonic Racing’s maps are far more impressive, featuring many environmental details and animations that are far more interesting to look at as you’re zooming around. Mario Kart‘s maps are somewhat detailed, but what’s there feels flat in comparison. There’s just more going on in Team Sonic Racing‘s maps, which makes replaying them easier and more fun than replaying a track in Mario Kart. I also believe that Team Sonic Racing has a much higher visual quality, comparing the Switch port with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.
I will, however, give credit where credit is due. Mario Kart has better and more interesting items that are more clearly defined than Team Sonic Racing. I do think that Mario Kart’s far longer presence in our living rooms has helped with that, as it really isn’t obvious why a green shell doesn’t track another player, but a red one does. Ultimately, its more simplistic items make for a more enjoyable experience. Trying to figure out what whisp does what in Team Sonic Racing is completely nonsensical, and requires you to use every item whenever you get it and hope for the best.
Triple-A Developers Are Lazy
At the end of the day, I love both games. Mario Kart is not only a fantastic game, but clearly paved the way for games like Team Sonic Racing to come and innovate. But I think that companies like Nintendo are getting lazy. When I look at the state of triple-A titles these days I’m seeing more or less the same stuff.
Take Ubisoft, for example. They continue to pump out the same three titles with an occasional outlier that they continue to update and focus on instead. Or how about Activision with COD, EA with FIFA, Bethesda with the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series, or Square Enix with Final Fantasy. Of course, these companies do innovate, and even, from time to time, release a genuinely good product. But they’re also so rooted in the franchises that clearly make them money, that they’re not willing to try something new.
I recently had a conversation with my brother about the game Bully. He’d started replaying it, remembering it fondly from his youth, and was talking excitedly about a sequel. We spoke about Rockstar teasing and then dropping the idea of a sequel, and then about how there was nothing else really like it. What didn’t make sense to us was why no one else had tried their hand at making a Bully-type game, and why Rockstar suddenly had a monopoly on narrative-focused school-sims.
It feels as if these bigger, triple-A developers have a stranglehold on specific genres. And while smaller devs have been able to dip their toes in the water, these more significant developers hold them back. I believe that no one has made a Bully-type game since the original is seen as a defining title, and no one feels it’s even worth trying to improve when it could use a lot of innovation.
Celebrating Team Sonic Racing isn’t me trying to be controversial. It’s me as a lover of games, someone who is sick of remakes, re-releases, and sequels, desperately pleading for other double-A and indie companies to try their hand at innovating where triple-A companies have gotten lazy. Sure, Team Sonic Racing is yet another kart-racer, but at the very least it’s trying something that Nintendo hasn’t done in 18 years. It’s doing something that the company that dominates that market is too afraid to do. It might be as simple as just putting in a new mechanic, or focusing on a particular part of the game that’s sorely lacking in other titles, but it means that we’re not stuck with the same old, recycled titles over and over again.
Trying Something New
I remember when that kid freaked out and destroyed his PS4 because Genshin Impact looked like Nintendo’s Breath of the Wild. I know it made a lot of people cringe, and I can see why, but honestly, I was saddened by it. MiHoYo was a company that was taking a popular IP, looking at what made it so special, and trying to infuse it with some of its own ideas.
Companies outside of the mainstream few, taking a stab at an idea, at their own version of something popular, and trying their best is something that should be celebrated. As much as I didn’t enjoy Battleborn, I have to admit that it was brave for it to try something different. Even if it doesn’t always work out, make the biggest impact, or make the most sales, it’s better than being trapped in a never-ending cycle of lame releases.
Of course, I am aware that many companies make their own versions of popular titles, or even make unique properties. For that, I am incredibly grateful. I think it’s pertinent to remind ourselves that triple-A companies shouldn’t dominate markets and that we should celebrate the underdog trying something new. When rumours started to circulate that Nintendo was remaking Pokémon Diamond and Pearl I was disheartened. Not only because they were undoubtedly going to ruin what is already a great game, but because it became apparent they had entirely run out of ideas. I hope one day they come up with something new and fresh, but until then I’ll going to be turning to the little guy who continues to innovate despite the odds being stacked unfairly against them. You’ve got this pal, I believe in you.