Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed’s hook is such an obvious one, it’s surprising that it hasn’t featured in many more racers. A sequel to 2010’s Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, Transformed separates itself from that title and others by forcing players to master cars, planes, and boats all within the same race, on tracks that morph each lap. Although there is no choice as to which vehicle may be used when – special gates automatically shift the form of the player’s vehicle – it’s a great point of difference that, along with some genuinely creative track design, makes a stale genre feel fresh once again.

Given that Sumo Digital features developers that worked on Blur, Project Gotham, Split Second: Velocity, and Pure, it’s unsurprising that All-Stars Transformed has driving down pat. Despite its kart racing pedigree, the action in Transformed is fast and car controls are satisfyingly tight. As was the case with the game’s predecessor, drifting and mid-air tricks confer a speed boost whose length is proportional to the drift length or trick number.

Boat mode sees top speeds ramped back. Turning becomes slower and heavier, and forward momentum is preserved in the manner that one would expect, forcing players to compensate by over-steering or drifting when cornering. Initially an annoyance, waves that bounce the racers about become useful when it is discovered they may be utilised for jumps. This means that explosions from weapons not only potentially impede racers but send waves out in all directions, presenting opportunities for further place-gains. Regardless, this is easily the dullest mode; the only one that will have players looking ahead for transformation gates.

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed review

Plane mode is the fastest of the three forms, and also the most challenging to master. It allows players to move both horizontally and vertically as well as barrel roll to quickly adjust position, but it’s easy to lose track of the next gate and slam into the invisible walls on the sides of each course. Moreover, sharp corners are particularly difficult to judge in plane mode as the game camera doesn’t rush to follow the aircraft, resulting in blind flying around the few air corners that approach 90 degrees. Tighter tracking would have done wonders here.

Thankfully these crashes don’t penalise the player beyond robbing them of all momentum, but getting re-oriented is sometimes tricky as it’s hard to know where exactly the wall is. Fortunately, an assist option is available, and keeps the player’s plane close to an ideal path marker that runs through the gates. This means that many bonuses are out of reach as the plane refuses to deviate too much from its projected track, but it’s a great feature for novices. As in the other modes, drifting gives a short boost, but here so does narrowly dodging obstacles – something the barrel roll is great for.

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed review

The game’s roster comprises mainly Sega characters, and given the title it won’t surprise anyone to learn that one-sixth of them are from the Sonic franchise. It expands on the previous game’s line-up by adding characters from Shinobi, Golden Axe, Nights Into Dreams, Skies of Arcadia, Space Channel 5, and race driver Danica Patrick for some reason, along with Wreck-It Ralph and an amusing secret racer. Each of the game’s 28 characters pilot vehicles whose handling, acceleration, top speed, and boost statistics differ, but each may be levelled up by collecting tokens.

Along with a handful of returning tracks, there are 17 new courses in All-Stars Transformed, and the quality of each colourful game homage is uniformly high. Many feel like rollercoasters, with precipitous downhills and swooping banked corners. Jet Set Radio’s Graffiti City is a standout that features lazy drift turns, breakneck downhills, and a jet section that only requires small path corrections, while Golden Axe’s Adder’s Lair is a snaky trail around a volcano that includes some boating on lava. Within each course, sharp-eyed retro gamers will spot many cameos and touches that are fan service of the best possible kind.

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed review

All the usual kart racing weapons make an appearance via pickups but again All-Stars outdoes the competition. The best new additions are the glove that catches attacks from behind and allows them to be re-deployed at the catcher’s whim, a whirlwind that reverses opponent’s controls, and a swarm of bees that keeps the field close by placing a cloud of giant bees in front of the leading racer that everyone must navigate through.

All-Star Moves pickups return as well and remain character-specific, although they usually involve some sort of sustained boost coupled with a devastating attack. For example, Tails creates a huge tornado that pulls him forward while sucking up items and opponents in his path. Beyond weapons, players can collect star tokens or earn them by attacking opponents, which may then be spent to earn random bonuses such as enhanced items or faster recovery from certain weapons in the coming race.

The game’s career mode is a mix of straight-up races and entertaining variants. The best variant, Traffic Attack, tasks players with navigating through traffic to pass a checkpoint car before time expires, while avoiding being rammed by police cars. Elsewhere are boost and drift challenges, as well as ring races in airplanes and Pursuit, in which the player must follow and destroy a large, hostile tank.

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed review

Transformed’s multiplayer supports up to 10 online or four playing splitscreen (five using the Wii U’s GamePad). The Wii U also gets two exclusive multiplayer modes, both of which unsurprisingly pit the player using the GamePad against those using the TV screen in entertaining fashion. In singleplayer, the GamePad simply shows the current race positions and any weapons anyone has equipped, as well as top down view of part of the track. Raise it (or press Y), and a rear-view mirror appears on the TV. Those are hardly essential features, but the ability to play on the GamePad without a TV is welcome.

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a fantastic racer. The tracks and racers are great, and the controls – small jet niggles aside – are excellent. There is plenty of content on offer here, and the small touches will give veteran gamers’ nostalgia glands a thorough massaging. What’s more, there has been promise of DLC characters including Shenmue’s Ryo, Hatsune Miku from Vocaloid, Vectorman, ToeJam and Earl, Bayonetta, and others. But even without those promised additions, All-Stars Transformed is the best mascot kart racer on the market.