Retro Game of the Whenever: Sonic Drift
I was scrubbing through GameGear Sonic soundtracks on my iPod the other day and wound up reacquainting myself with what I shall call an obscure, yet noteworthy, little spin-off series. No, not Tails' Adventure or Tails' Sky Patrol; I won't subject you to those, at least not this time. Before there was Sonic Riders (in my own opinion a very playable adrenaline-twitch-racer that in some ways makes F-Zero GX look tame), and before there was Sonic R (a forgivably misguided attempt at a Sonic 3D racer, with unforgivably misguided execution), way back when Super Mario Kart was the hot thing on SNES (2 years later, to be precise), Sega had actually made one very early foray into Sonic-themed gimmick-racing: Sonic Drift.
When grade-school pre-SNES me first saw Sonic Drift 2, I needed it. It was Sonic, which was totally awesome. It was Mario Kart, which was totally awesome. And it was on the GameGear, which I actually owned, and the fact that it ran on GameGear blew my mind just a bit even then. "Mario Kart on GameGear" really did turn out to be the most apt high-level description of the game dynamic, if not precisely the mechanic. Coming back to the series as a game designer, amateur historian, and engine hacker, I can perhaps be a bit more descriptive in where the series holds up and where it doesn't.
Sonic Drift bears a title copyright of 1994, putting it (as previously noted) two years after Super Mario Kart. These two years probably amount to a year of Kart getting on Sega's radar and a year of coalescing a development team and doing the work. This also puts it a year after Sonic CD, and various factors lead me to suspect the same team as did CD and the heart of the GameGear core Sonic series was responsible for Drift. Lacking a manual for the original Sonic Drift, all I can say of the premise is that an automotive race is being held for the Chaos Emeralds, and Sonic and Friends are participating. "Sonic and Friends" here refer to Sonic, Tails, Amy, and Eggman, each with a vehicle varying in the stereotypical parameters of top speed, acceleration, and handling. Each character also has a unique special ability selected from a very Mario-Kart-esque palette: Sonic has a speed-booster, Tails can jump over obstacles and other cars, Amy can toss hearts which, when hit as mines, cause vehicles to behave as if no control inputs are being pressed for a couple seconds, and Eggman can toss proper mines which bring racers to a halt and reduce their ring count.
Each of three Grand Prix tiers feature a set of six unique courses in areas named after classic Genesis/MegaDrive Sonic 1 levels. Races last three laps. First place on a course awards an emerald, and all places score points in decreasing value. All four characters participate in each race—one under player control, the others under CPU AI control. After all 6 courses, highest point total wins. Cursory research indicates no particular reward for winning all six emeralds, and I've never played well enough to personally observe anything. Sans anything like Mode 7, courses are rendered in scanline-shift/false-perspective style similarly to Hang-On or Out-Run.
Courses are littered with a smattering of objects to help or hinder the player (AI racers are unaffected)—rings accumulate on a meter, and can be spent to trigger the character's special ability. Springs launch vehicles into the air similarly to Tails' jump. Red and blue monitors activate on contact and grant a speed boost or invincibility period respectively (invincibility music is "Toot Toot Sonic Warrior" from the Japanese version of Sonic CD, representing at least the third bit of cross-pollination between CD and the GameGear universes). Obstacles, usually placed off the edge of the course, halt vehicles and cause ring loss. To better avoid drifting off the outside of turns and into obstacles, players may invoke the series titular mechanic and Drift into a tighter turn by holding the accelerator and brake simultaneously mid-turn. Drifting too long, however, will cause a spin-out and ring loss.
On the whole, Sonic Drift tries really hard. It wants to be Mario Kart. It has the right idea, and is headed doggedly in the right direction. But with only 4 racers and 2 power-ups, and courses with little differentiation beyond aesthetics, holding Sonic Drift 1 up against Mario Kart feels exactly like one would predict: The SNES game runs circles around its trumped-up imitation, and the GameGear's enhanced palette and sound chip do little to compensate for the fact that, under the hood, it's the same old Master System that struggled to stand up to the original NES.
Enter the sequel.
Sonic Drift 2 bears a copyright just a year later than its predecessor: 1995. And yet, the world is a very different place. Sonic CD and Sonic 2 have been displaced by Sonic 3, and in the world of GameGear, Sonic Triple Trouble has built upon the solid execution of Sonic Chaos, expanded the canon, and made portable Sonic something for players to take seriously. Whereas Drift only saw a Japan release, Drift 2 goes global.
In only one year, the developers successfully rebuilt Drift's engine and chassis into something… delightfully… better. Adverbs and adjectives still fail to capture the right sense of the game, so I'll move on to the point-by-point.
Joining Sonic, Tails, Amy and Eggman are Knuckles (punches an adjacent vehicle to a standstill, or jumps if nobody is around), Metal Sonic (blue Sonic CD / Sonic & Knuckles version, not silver Sonic 2 version; a faster speed boost than Sonic, costing even more rings), and Fang (formerly Nack the Weasel, a wily purple bit-player in Triple Trouble; tosses oil globs which make vehicles spin out). The game can still only operate four vehicles at once, so each GP run, three characters are selected for CPU AI control and the remaining three sit out.
Course selection has expanded from the six recurring worlds of Drift 1 to a grand total of 14 settings mixed and matched from Sonic 2, Sonic 3, and the independent minds of the developers. The courses themselves have gotten considerably more sophisticated and differentiated as well. Within only the entry-level "Purple" Grand Prix, players encounter pitfalls and blind-drops off the edge of the track, ramp mini-jumps, moguls, high-banked corners, pinball bumpers, and sadistic 'R' balloons which temporarily invert steering control. Higher-level tracks feature skid-zones, lightning-flashes which briefly white out the whole screen, snow, warps, and mobile enemies/hazards. Most excitingly, non-ability road hazards now affect AI vehicles and player vehicles equally, so the player doesn't feel at all as disadvantaged.
To go along with all the new dangerous course debris, the power-up system has received a thoroughly sensible overhaul. The manual is printed in grayscale, so the power-up page with corresponding screenshots makes for an amusing read. In addition to red and blue monitors (invincibility is now remixed from Sonic 3), Tails' jump (yellow) and Eggman's mine (grey) have been added to the mix. Power-ups now no longer activate instantly. Instead, in grand Mario Kart style, running over one puts it in a stock box, from which it may be activated just like a character's default special move. A character's default only activates when they have no cached power-up to spend. Unlike in Mario Kart, running over a second power-up while carrying a first drops the first back on the course (i.e. you can keep picking up powers, but only one may be carried at a time). And much to the satisfaction of dedicated kart-racing gamers, it is now possible to boost-start sans-power by hitting the accelerator at the proper time in the starting countdown.
If all you have is a GameGear, Drift 2 is a surprisingly, impressively solid play. While the underpinnings are still Master System grade, many design elements and gimmicks, I am tempted to say, outshine the original Super Mario Kart Sega was no doubt emulating. It certainly brought back memories and consumed multiple 15-minute "research" sittings, and I almost wish it had found its way onto a more recent and properly pocket-sized handheld. But of course, stealing a move from grand old British Top Gear, I can't just leave such a generally positive review on a positive note. There are points of both games that I've left out discussing so far because they hold consistent across both titles, and are equally maddening in each.
In short, having played and consciously or passively analyzed quite a few vintage games, not among the least of which being Mario Kart and the full handheld F-Zero lineup, I can say that, comparatively, the fundamental racing code under Drift feels like it's held together with bailing wire. Things happen. They happen at odd times. Invincibility protects from all drivers and course hazards, except that springs instantly nullify it. Jumping, the manual of Drift 2 hints, can even be used on turns; the problem with this is not so much the accuracy of the statement as the fact that if you're in midair when you enter a turn—whether via spring, yellow monitor, or as Tails/Knuckles—it's as if the game doesn't register entering the turn at all. You can completely avoid the usual forced yanking to the outside of the turn, even after your wheels touch back down, until the course changes shape again. Power-ups suffer from friendly fire. You can toss a mine or a heart or an oil glob onto the track, supposedly in front of your nearest opponent, but if they miss it (or if it simply does not go where it's intended to), there is a very good chance you'll run into it yourself if it was thrown forwards (or run into it next lap if nobody hits it). You can even get hung up on your own hazard after an opponent has already hit it so long as they haven't started moving again. The only saving grace here is that, as bad as the player character usually is at aiming, AIs are even worse. I would say it's 25% odds you get forced into an AI's hazard, 25% you miss it, and 50% they hit it themselves while trying to pass you after tossing it. And the driving AI isn't even as bad as, say, the early F-Zeros.
One of my favorite strategies to demonstrate in any GBA F-Zero is simply to get another vehicle on-screen and just kinda camp out along side it forcing the AI to drive it for a few seconds until it wrecks (because when opposing machines aren't on screen in a 2D F-Zero, it is a very safe bet that all the AI is doing is moving their blip around the minimap at a set rate regardless of geometry and hazards). Drift AI drivers don't fall for that one. In fact, they seem happiest when they're close enough to you to be an on-screen pest. And yet, I sense some lingering hints of rubber-band mechanic. Particularly in 2, one rival appears to dominate most (but not all) races in a Grand Prix; the others seem more lackluster. More intriguingly, after failing to place first in two consecutive races, I was running in third right up to the finish line when both racers ahead of me, on screen, came to an almost dead stop and let me win. While I will point out that rubber-band AI is usually employed only in the move-the-dots-around-the-minimap controller and not in on-screen driving, I would not normally go so far as to object to it in on-screen. Unfortunately, at least in Drift 2, vehicles can collide on-screen. And collision normally causes the player (but rarely the AI, unless it directly rear-ends you) to stop, spin out, and lose rings. So rubber-banding on-screen vehicles is a very direct recipe for player-frustrating carnage.
It's those sorts of things, and probably some dozen other little details, which make it very difficult for me to apply an adjective to the Drift series. It tries hard. By 2, it gets things mostly right and even surpasses its role model in some respects. And yet it's quirky and, while not per se broken, at least built in a way that suggests a collection of parts which don't really know about each other's existence rather than a solid, unified whole. But that said, it's fun, and it's challenging, and it's not just challenging because stuff doesn't always work, but rather challenging and satisfying because opponents are always in your face, in your dust, or just off screen ahead of you and due for a good thrashing as soon as you can grab that one more ring or monitor. It's much more than I would expect out of a GameGear title, and yet I'm torn whether that is the only reason I put up with its limitations… I think I might just play along with them even if the platform was more impressive because something… just… clicks.
As a Sonic racer, Drift beats the pants off R, and is infinitely more accessible than Riders. I don't know. If you're a fan of kart racers, give it a spin. One or both games, originally released for GameGear, have apparently made it into a number of Sonic vintage "complete collection" compendiums in recent years, and unless you've kept your GameGear in a sunless, airtight, temperature-controlled case for the past two decades or are willing to buy enough units for-parts to assemble a complete working one with all sound and screen capacitors and controls still intact (coincidentally, mine is yellow), re-releases are probably the way to go here.