Like most popular platformer franchises, the Sonic series has dabbled in the racing genre in the past with games like Sonic R for the Saturn. Despite the fact that Sonic's already-speedy nature might seem like a perfect fit for a racing game of some sort, the results of these attempts have been disappointing thus far. Sonic Riders is the latest attempt to get Sonic back on the race track, though this one eschews the typical kart- and foot-racing brands of racing usually found in a racer starring popular platformer heroes. Instead, Riders gives Sonic and pals their very own Back to the Future II-style hoverboards, which they can use to dart and dash around wacky tracks of varying levels of difficulty. Unfortunately, Sonic Riders isn't much better than any of Sega's previous attempts to make Sonic a racing hero, simply because it can't quite keep its diverse and chaotic racing mechanics together in one cohesive package. There are times when you'll find yourself enjoying how blazingly fast the game can go and other times when you'll be frustrated beyond belief by the very same thing. And that's all within a single race.
Something about the term extreme gear is offensive on so many levels.
The premise behind Sonic Riders is going to be utterly impenetrable to anyone but the most ardent Sonic fans. Along with his pals Knuckles and Tails, Sonic is, once again, on the hunt for chaos emeralds. Suddenly, the team witnesses the theft of an emerald by some very edgy, cute-looking thieves riding hoverboards (or, "extreme gear," as they're known in the game). Not long after that, Dr. Eggman shows up and starts rambling about wanting to hold an extreme-gear racing tournament for some reason or another. It turns out that the thieves are part of a crew of legendary thieves known as the Babylon Rogues, and there's a whole thing about trying to rediscover the long-hidden island of Babylon, which harbors some kind of treasure...or something like that. It's a completely incoherent storyline, not to mention one that rehashes a lot of stuff that has been done 20 times better in just about every other Sonic game every made. Evil plots are hatched, Sonic and Knuckles get into it with the bad guys, Tails says a few overly precocious things, and so on and so forth. Then again, this is a racing game, so the plot is really incidental to the whole package. Still, this game probably would have been much better off going the minimalist story route, like the Mario Kart games.
The racing in Sonic Riders is kind of an odd mishmash of F-Zero GX-style futuristic racing and something like SSX. When you get going during a race, the pace can be extremely quick--as it should be in a racing game starring Sonic--but pure speed isn't enough to win. There are a number of secondary mechanics and meters you'll have to concern yourself with to succeed regularly. First and foremost, you'll find yourself monitoring your air meter, which depletes every time you hit the boost button. Incidentally, that's going to be a lot of the time. To keep up, you're going to find yourself hitting that boost an awful lot, especially in the early goings, when you're still trying to figure out the layouts of the tracks and all the shortcuts. That's bad, because once you're out of air, your character jumps off his or her board and starts running until you can find a pit to stop in for a moment to recharge. Running into objects on the track also kills your air. While that makes some measure of sense, the whole pit-stop aspect of the game sucks a lot of the fun out of the racing. The whole point of the game is that you're going along at increasingly blinding speeds, trying to ride as much momentum as possible; it doesn't make much sense that you suddenly have to stop and recharge because you accidentally hit a wall after boosting a bunch. Not to mention that the pits themselves aren't even all that out of the way on the tracks, so you may find yourself running into them accidentally every now and then.
Fortunately, some of the other concepts in the gameplay pan out a bit better. One of the cooler things Sonic Riders has to offer is the turbulence-riding mechanic. Essentially, as other racers zoom along the tracks, they give off streams of turbulence that you can ride into and get a big speed boost out of. Turbulence sort of takes the game out of your hands, though, because you could easily ride it out without ever touching a button. But if you did that, you'd miss out on the opportunity to pull off some tricks. Yes, there's a rudimentary trick system in Sonic Riders. Whether you're riding turbulence or taking big jumps, all you need to do is spin the left analog stick (or, if you're unlucky enough not to have a dual analog gamepad to go along with the PC version of the game, hold down one of the directional arrow keys) and you'll pull off a few neat flips and spins. It's nothing deep, but pulling off tricks is a necessary enjoyment, because doing them and landing correctly afterward nets you sizable air boosts. There are also some unique shortcuts that various characters can take depending on what class they fall under. Power racers, for instance, can simply bowl through certain obstacles on the track without losing a bit of speed, whereas speed racers can grind various rails scattered throughout a course. As nice an idea as the class system is, it doesn't make much difference to the gameplay. You can pick just about any racer in the game and play pretty much the same way without much consequence.
That's mainly because the track designs lend themselves to the same level of frustration, no matter which character you're playing as. While all the tracks are built with the sorts of launch ramps, loop-de-loops, and other craziness you'd expect, they're not nearly as much fun to race around as you might hope. For one thing, the game relies a little too heavily on taking corners perfectly. These tracks are littered with the sorts of blind jumps and turns that cause you to go flying off the course and have to reset yourself, and you'll often lose the race as a result. You can't always correct this by practicing, either. Sometimes you'll be taking a corner perfectly, only to run into a wall of turbulence that you can't bust into to ride because you're not traveling fast enough, which in turn bumps you off the edge of the course. The tracks can be pleasing to look at, and there are more than enough shortcuts, jumps, and other fun things to race around, but the tracks are simply too short, too loose, and too frustrating to keep up with what the fast-paced racing requires.