Not only does it let you drive a giant Dreamcast controller with an outboard motor, but Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed also features a cast of dreams. Each track is a nostalgic reverie that’s sized and structured according to fond memories instead of slavishly adhering to decades-old code. But despite the game’s massive and slow-burning success, fans who playfully nag after missing series such as Shenmue and Streets Of Rage seldom consider the struggle of getting the formula right. A game such as this needs characters who can fit in cars, planes and boats; levels that fit around all-terrain racing, but just as importantly fit together into a progression of tracks, colours and challenges. Game director Steve Lycett and art manager Dominic Hood explain.
What’s the secret recipe for ‘Sega blue’ skies?
Steve Lycett: We’ve always said that it’s like the most perfect version of a thing. If it’s a sunny day, then it’s the most beautiful sunny day – the most beautiful water, the most beautiful reflections. Ideal. Likewise, if it was a storm, it’d be the perfect version of a storm: perfect whirlwinds, cloud patterns, dust kick-up and the rest of it. When people think about Sega arcade games, you remember it as being a happy time. You’ve gone to the seaside, you’re enjoying yourself, you’re playing in an arcade. What we try to do is make it how you remember and not necessarily how it is.
[With] Golden Axe, the classic example is the skeleton you have as the character select screen. We said it’d be quite good to get a version of that in there, but if you look at it, it’s nothing like the original character. You look at Jet Set Radio and it’s the iconic skyline and the draw distance. In After Burner, obviously, it’s the horizon: the amount of blue sky and blue water you’ve got. With each one of the levels, it’s [a case of] find something iconic, then talk to the original developers. What were they aiming for when they did it? Then we kind of roll the two things together so there’s a few reference points to trigger the memories, and so it’s authentic to the creators’ visions. Having said that, there’s then so much of us poured into that to translate it into what you finally see.
Presumably the karting genre lets you pare back the characters to their older selves, too, if that suits you better?
SL: When you’ve got so many characters and IPs, you kind of have to focus. A lot of people don’t like the modern Sonic games because there’s too much story, all these characters… Our Sonic is just some characters in cars, so we focus on the qualities of Sonic that stand out. It’s about colour and attitude. You can’t have all this exposition in there.
Dominic Hood: When we first started the project, we were talking about having a story to tie everything together. But very soon – it was a relief, really – that just became, ‘Let’s make a good karting game.’
SL: This is the craziness. We’ve got such a disparate set of IPs that we were looking for something we could use to tie them together. For example, the track furniture – the transform gates and the chevrons – was put in place by some omnipotent power. He pulled these bits of worlds together into one place, which is where the floating islands came from. It was this guy manipulating the laws of time and space for his pleasure, or for the pleasure of his audience… That actually did help us in a way, because it gave us a consistent theme, and there was quite a lot of pressure on us to tie a story together.
What kinds of reasons are there for certain fan favourite characters being left out?
SL: I spend a lot of time out there on the forums, and it’s the number one question: ‘How on Earth do you pick the characters and the tracks?’ The short version is that as much as we’d love to, we can’t put everything in. With just 16 tracks in a game like this, what you’re effectively doing is defining 16 different games’ worth of look. That does take time… That’s a lot of artists and quite an investment from the original developers, finding time from them to support us. When we set out, what we wanted to do with the tracks was give a journey from classic Sega to modern Sega, but also from dark to light. So the very first track in the game should be bright and breezy, but by the time we get to the last track it’s going to be a bit more difficult, so we can explore darker themes.
A lot of fans out there say we don’t do enough Mega Drive games. It’s almost like a compliment that they think we can take just about anything and make it work in 3D. But the fact is that when you look at those games, there aren’t always a lot of points of reference. There’s not always guidance as to what’s iconic or what stands out. Vectorman, for example. In its time, it was a fantastic character, a really nice-looking game, and obviously it was emulated in Donkey Kong Country. But as soon as you try to make that work as a 3D model and see it from behind, it’s a lot of disconnected spheres. We’ve got to make this game bearing in mind that anyone can pick it up and empathise with the characters, and that’s actually quite difficult to do.
You can see some of Sumo’s best work in our Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed gallery.