Normally I’m not huge on racing games — astute readers will notice I didn’t rank a single one on my Top 111. However, there are a few I do quite like, and we’re going to discuss two of them today! Mario and Sonic’s rivalry comes pretty damn close on the Wii U kart racing scene, with both Mario Kart 8 and Sonic Transformed (I’m sorry but I don’t wanna type that out a gazillion times) being strong contenders for the best example of the subgenre available, but which is actually the best? Well, with a mascot racer I feel these are the five main features I care about: ROSTER, STAGE SELECTIONS, STAGE LAYOUTS, MUSIC, and CONTROLS. Who will come out on top?
ROSTER – Mario Kart 8 is all about that Super Mario franchise at its base. However, it’s the richest breadth of characters ever to appear in the racing spinoff, including new racers like the Koopalings (a long overdue addition) among the many usual suspects. The two DLC packs however finally breach the notion that only Mario may Kart, as Legend of Zelda‘s Link and Animal Crossing’s Isabelle and two Villagers join up. Of course the Switch Deluxe adds in Inklings from Splatoon, but we’ll keep this debate Wii U only. So if you’re a Mario fan to any degree, you’ll likely find someone here to race as; otherwise, it’s DLC or bust for you. Unless you like your Mii a bunch.
Sonic Transformed however is a Sega celebration! While there’s no shortage of Sonic reps, the game adds in characters from Skies of Arcadia, Jet Grind Radio, Alex Kidd, Golden Axe, Shinobi, Space Channel 5, NiGHTS, Super Monkey Ball, Samba de Amigo, Crazy Taxi, and a few special guests, real-life racer Danica Patrick and Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph from his titular movie. Plus Miis. Alas, the Wii U did not get any DLC beyond the included Day One edition content, so no Shenmue for you! Personally, I love the diversity here. I like Mario, for sure, but I would be even more over the moon if I could race as Samus. So Sega wins!
STAGE SELECTION – Mario Kart again is limited to Mario locales outside of DLC, but 8 does a great job of covering a wide swath of Mario history over its many courses, and I’m not just referring to the retro picks that make up half the track list. There’s a ton of nods and winks to so much scattered throughout the game’s 32 base tracks that it’s spellbinding looking for the cameos as you zoom by them. And the DLC’s 16 extra tracks are fantastic, as it not only adds a Zelda and Animal Crossing course, but two F-Zero legends and an Excitebike arena as well. If only Waverace or 1080 got proper nods…we’d have a Nintendo racing cornucopia! As for the retro picks, Nintendo did well enough, although many of my faves from earlier games were already resurrected in earlier titles. Thankfully they did not slouch on remastering older maps, as they are completely remade in the MK8 engine with lots of new strategies to figure out. So all and all, it’s solid, but very much Mario.
Sonic Transformed incorporates their stages from a much wider net than MK8, limiting Sonic courses to 4 out of 20 and letting many of the other racers have a track to call their own, plus a few outliers to round out the package. Panzer Dragoon, Billy Hatcher, After Burner, Burning Rangers, House of the Dead and a tribute to Sega’s roots join tracks from most of the aforementioned franchises (Space Channel 5, Alex Kidd, Crazy Taxi and the guests lack a track to call their own). Four courses come back from the first game, but feel dissonant to the new tracks because Sumo failed to update them completely into the new mechanics, so they stand out as a little less intriguing because of it. Day One owners also get an OutRun 2 course plopped in as DLC, but no other courses were made to join it so it feels entirely isolated from the core game. So in breadth of franchises it definitely is the winner, but the overall count is significantly lower than 8, even without DLC considered.
STAGE LAYOUTS – Both games utilize transforming vehicles and do the best to make the most of it, although I would argue that MK8 handles it better by keeping it simple. In Transformed there’s three separate control schemes to keep in mind in a given race, with a few courses demanding all three modes. But we’ll get into that momentarily. In terms of the actual track contents and designs, both games have a lot of highs and few lows. However, MK8 has the numbers edge, making their low points even less of a thorn (to be honest, I can’t immediately think of one super bad track, but the first set of new courses are pretty tame. The Electrodrome and Music Park courses are also pretty dull to me visually). Transformed‘s AGES track is a little too messy for my liking, with an unpleasant aesthetic that hides the multitudes of cameos and a garish color scheme; the Burning Rangers course is really, really sterile looking, which I just don’t enjoy racing in; and the previously discussed retro courses not being brought entirely up to speed with the rest of the gameplay. They’re solid enough, but there’s a definite difference. I also think that the Mario Kart team has the deep experience now to really maximize chaos and joy equally in their maps; dynamism rules the roost here. So I have to give 8 the edge.
MUSIC – Mario Kart 8 has the best soundtrack in the franchise since 64, and the live band gives it such a happy, exciting and raw feel. Each song matches the locale beautifully, and it’s just a sensational blend of tunes.
Transformed meanwhile recruits Sega veteran Richard Jacques to lead the remix action, and personally…eh. It goes for a techno-heavy style that just sterilizes the shit out of the original songs in most cases, and it just isn’t my thing. It reminds me of Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3, which managed to perform the same exact miracle to Capcom’s classic scores that renders them inert to my ears. :p So yeah, 8 wins again.
CONTROLS – And it comes down to this, the most crucial part of the game, and luckily both games are more than competent. 8 again takes the long-running traditional feel of the series and refines it into a lovely little bit of gameplay bliss. Everything works the way you expect it to. Items are a nice blend of the the franchise’s past along with a couple of new options, although I do miss the trail of bananas, holding a blue shell behind you a la 64, and Boo, who was cut out until Deluxe. Every weapon makes sense in the grand scheme of the franchise too. Coins come back from the original (and 7) and give a nice incentive to follow their arcs to max out your speed, and the AI is much more relaxed and nowhere near as rubberband driven as games in the past highlighted. The transformations are subtle; anti-gravity kicks on underwater and as you head up or down specific areas, and you can glide if you get decent ups. These feel good to control as well, especially slapping other karts in anti-grav and getting boosts from it. In short, it is a delight.
Transformed is also well done, although the flight mode is a little awkward thanks to the addition of the third dimension, making aiming weapons a huger nuisance than I would like. The other two, hovering and regular driving, feel really good. The weapon selection is seemingly culled not from Sega lore but from random land, which is very disappointing. There HAS to be options from the entire Sega canon to use over RC car drones and a swarm of giant bees. Perhaps to counteract this, Sumo added All-Star moves to each character, activated upon the namesake item. Here the racer will speed up and usually gain some offensive or defensive bonus to their moveset, turning the tide nicely in their favor. Each comes with its own unique theme for the character too, which is pretty cool. So while the run-of-the-mill items are uninspired, the All-Star move sorta makes it up. The AI is pretty fair here, as well, with no major concerns popping up in my racing experience.
So this one is arguably the closest, but I do have to give Mario Kart the final point in this contest. There isn’t a moment of bafflement in 8 unlike Transformed‘s flight mode, and the wider net of items that symbolize the game it’s representing helps it out immensely.
However, both games are splendid and worth checking out if you haven’t already. And this is coming from someone who normally detests this genre entirely. :p So yeah, there’s your well-past-its-prime primer on these games! XD