Sonic R was the closest thing the Sega Saturn ever got to a real Sonic game. Sonic Jam was merely a compilation of the Genesis titles with a cool 3D museum and Sonic 3D Blast was an underwhelming isometric port of a Genesis title.
However, on October 31, 1997, when the Saturn was nearing it's death, Sega released this little gem. Sonic R is a racing game, the second Sonic racing game released in the US after Sonic Drift 2 for the Game Gear. Like all Sonic games, the story involves Sonic trying to stop Dr. Robotnic from obtaining chaos emeralds and controlling the world. But really, this is a mascot kart racing game staring Sega's blue blur.
There are 5 tracks in Sonic R. Resort Island is the typical first level for a Sonic game, sporting a lush tropical environment complete with waterfalls and palm trees. Radical City take place in a city like environment with twisting highways rising above the ground. Additionally, Radical City features the trade mark pinball table for Sonic and company to bounce around. Regal Ruin is an Egyptian themed tack. Reactive Factory is your typical Sonic end zone taking you through one of Dr. Robotnic's layers. The final track, is Radiant Emerald, which appears to be nothing more than a tech demo for transparent polygons (which the Saturn wasn't supposed to be able to do, more on that later).
You start the game with 4 tracks available (Radiant Emerald has to be unlocked) and 4 characters to choose from: Sonic the Hedgehog, Miles "Tails" Prower, Knuckles the Echidna, and Amy Rose. Each character is rated in different attributes including Speed, Acceleration, Turns, Grip, and Jump. Sonic can double jump, Tails can fly, Knuckles can glide, and Amy has a speed boost.
Winning each of the first 4 tracks will unlock Radiant Emerald and winning in Radiant Emerald will give you the games ending credits. You can technically beat Sonic R in well under an hour. But then you'd be missing out on most of the game. First, there are 6 additional characters to unlock, including Metal Sonic, Tails Doll, Metal Knuckles, Dr. Robotnic, EggRobo (in a rare appearance), and Super Sonic.
To unlock these characters you need to find 5 coins hiding about the courses as well as finishing in the top 3 all in a single race. This is where Sonic R starts to really shine. Each of the levels features branching paths, short cuts, and doors that require a certain amount of rings to enter. The level design is amazing. At first, the game seems really confusing because it's not always obvious where you need to go. The fact that there are so many different paths to take means it's not that hard to take a wrong turn and be going backwards. But after a few laps it starts to make sense.
After you get the basic feel for the track down, you need to start exploring the different paths to locate all 5 coins hidden about the level. It will take a few races to find all five. After you have their locations memorised, you need to figure out how to get all five in a 3 lap race. This can be challenging because taking one path means you will be passing by coins in a different path. Additionally, some coins are hidden behind doors that require 20 or 50 rings to pass, meaning you have to wait till lap 2 or 3 to nab them. It's a lot of fun to explore these levels, and at times Sonic R feels more like a platform adventure game than a racing game.
Finally, there are 7 chaos emeralds scattered about the first 4 tracks. These are usually hiding in a hard to find (or reach) spot. After finding one, you have to finish in first place to keep it. Obtain all 7 chaos emeralds will unlock Super Sonic, the best character in the game.
All of this exploring is what makes Sonic R so damn good. The levels are so detailed and massive that you will want to explore every nook and cranny to find all of the secrets. Not too mention figuring out the fastest way to get around the track. In many ways, Sonic R works better as an adventure game than it does as a racing game.
One of the few downsides to Sonic R are the controls. Whether using the regular controller, or the 3D controller with the analog stick, it can be difficult to control where you are going. The controls somehow feel sluggish and over sensitive all at the same time. It is very easy to miss a coin or a line of rings. Turning is the worst, as it is almost impossible not to hit the outside wall of a turn. Thankfully, running into walls doesn't slow you down too much so it doesn't ruin the pace of the game.
Sonic R may be the best looking game on the Sega Saturn. It seems towards the tail end of the Saturn's life is when developers finally started "getting" the hardware. First, to help ease some of the pop-up that was common on 32-bit titles, Sonic R implements a fade-in effect. Instead of having objects in the background pop-up, they fade in. The effect looks great, but also keeps the frame rate silky smooth. The texture detail is amazing. Everything is incredibly detailed and varied. It's hard to believe this is a Saturn game.
Finally, Radiant Emerald puts to rest the myths that the Saturn could not do true transparent polygons. The whole level is made entirely of transparent polygons! The programming wizards at Traveller's Tales really sent the Saturn off on the right night with Sonic R.
The most controversial aspect of Sonic R is the soundtrack. The soundtrack has a weird euro-disco feel to it that was off putting to many. Even more strange are the vocals, with their in your face upbeat style ("Can you feel the sunshine... as it brightens up your day"). I actually don't mind the music at all. T.J. Davis, who does the vocals, has a powerful and pleasant voice that even Simon Cowell would admire. The lyrics are very cheery and fit the game well. For those who disagree, you can toggle off the vocals. Seriously though, leave them on, they'll be stuck in your head for weeks.
Overall, Sonic R is an outstanding achievement. The graphics push the Saturn to it's limits and it never stumbles. The sound is great, even if you don't like the cheesy music. The game play has the perfect mix of racing and exploring that really captures what it means to be a Sonic game. The only flaw in the Sonic R is the controls. Once you get past that, you are in for a treat. Sonic R is a must own!
Graphics 10/10 - A technical masterpiece
Sound 9/10 - Crisp sound effects and an upbeat soundtrack
Game play 9/10 Awesome levels, awkward controls
Overall 9/10 - Nearly perfect