It's easy to sneer at a game like Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed. Heck, it's easy to sneer at any Sonic game whose title isn't "Sonic" plus a whole number. "Screw you, Sumo Digital," my inner retro hold-out barked as I picked up the pad, grumpily ensconced in a posh London bar. "You're part of the on-going bastardisation of what used to be my favourite franchise ever. Sure, you might have a number of former Bizarre Creations employees on staff, which means I'm honour-bound to adore you under unwritten UK games journalist law, but you've also prolonged the existence of Big the Cat. Screw you. You put the world's fastest hedgehog in a goddamn car."
Fortunately for Sumo, Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed has an answer to all this. It's a pretty simple answer - simpler, even, than the headline shape-shifting gambit, whereby cars morph into boats and planes at predetermined intervals. It's a sheer question of excess. Starting a race in Transformed is like throwing yourself face-first into a New Year fireworks display from 1993. It's like triggering an avalanche in a videogame-themed cake factory.
Everywhere you look, something is twinkling or bouncing or gesticulating. Everywhere you look, there's a high resolution, glossily-lit nod to Sega's immense back catalogue, be it Golden Axe 2's Gilius Thunderhead swigging a potion as he hits a boost pad, one of Panzer Dragoon's beasties chomping down on the track ahead, or giant monkey balls cascading over the flanks of a pseudo-Aztec temple. This is the clear and self-evident work of people who love Sega, love the publisher's portfolio so much that they're quite happy to drown the frame rate in sparkle.
It's impossible to resist. As you peer into the depths of the Super Monkey Ball track, with its branching ribbons of checked pastel stone, water slides, waving clumps of fern and giddy penultimate whirlpool, you find yourself keeping one eye on the race itself, the other peeled for curios. It's just as well the kart racing model itself is so familiar - boost, drift, fire weapon - because not all the references are background furniture: pack leaders may fall prey to tumbling Monkey Balls as they near the finish, assuming vengeful rockets and homing missiles don't polish them off first.
Water offers no reprieve, thanks to a real time aquatic physics system that feels far too smart and sumptuous for something as "humble" as a licensed kart racer. That's a feeling that goes for Transformed as a whole, actually - in terms of on-screen detail, effects and draw distance, this is neck and neck with the likes of Motorstorm or, indeed, Blur. Controls don't change when you hit the surf, but the water physics introduces additional considerations: you'll slosh up the side of a breaker to grab air for a barrel roll, or throw your bottom out towards an on-coming tidal wave, letting it punt you ahead of a floundering competitor.
With the Super Monkey Ball course fizzling in our wake, it's off to Panzer Dragoon's sweltering crater of dusky oranges, vine-greens and reds. We're introduced to aerial racing for the first time here, thanks to the antics of the aforesaid swarming dragons - by the third time round, the central sandstone loop has been chewed to pieces and the only way on is up. The default controls remain, but there's the Y axis to reckon with, cue exhilarating stoops to skim collectables from wave tops or blast open seed pods carrying car-specific heavy weapons. Regarding the weapons, the characterless puffs of SFX we're presented with at this stage aren't the final variety: by release day, that wispy homing missile will be a radio-controlled Sonic buggy loaded with dynamite.