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All Stars: 30 years of Sega history in 63 laps

Sumo's kart racer takes us back to our childhoods

I never played Skies of Arcadia, brightest and breeziest of the Dreamcast's small payload of JRPGs, but somehow, blasting around the sparsely wooded hills of Rogue's Landing aboard a whirring steampunk race car feels like coming home. It's not just that the scenery drips nostalgia, a heart-warming medley of stubby chimney pots and mauve sunsets - the stage is an ode to a genre defined by nostalgia, the role-player of the late 1990s. Its roped-together chunks of airborne earth and stone recall an age when every "capital city" had a maximum of five shops, when everybody brought a sword to a gunfight, and being born in some godforsaken backwater meant you were destined to save the universe.

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Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing is formed of such twilight spectacles, but that doesn't make the game a museum. "Carnival" is more like it. My second lap of Rogue's Landing proves rather more exciting than the first, as battle erupts between dozens of gloriously baroque dirigibles. It's war within the invisible walls of the track, too. Wind-up explosives chase down pack-leaders only to be swiped by enormous baseball mitts, snowballs freeze up steering columns and bee swarms turn otherwise easy-going straights into a super-sticky bout of Dodgems.

Echoing the malleability of the cars themselves, which fold out into planes and boats when you run out of terra firma, Transformed's stages evolve in the course of each race. By the third time you circle Dragon Canyon, a grumpy Panzer Dragoon extra will have eaten away one of the bridges, obliging the drivers to continue on water. The effects aren't always as dramatic, and at their most extravagant they simply reinforce the weaponised racing subgenre's well-known tendency for last minute upsets. On Temple Trouble, an avalanche of Monkey Balls throws the running order into disarray during the final third, flattening the Schumachers among us and giving the fifth wheels a chance to close the gap.

It's possible Transformed's core gimmick is also a commentary on Sega's capacity for adaptation - a celebration of the publisher's survival despite the demise of its console business, the woeful fortunes of its fleet-footed mascot and the industry-wide decline of boxed product. If that's the case - and let's be honest, I'm probably just being pretentious - Sumo has work to do. Seeing Sonic the Hedgehog in a car still gives me a dreadful pang, though his courses are actually among the most appealing - even Temple Run, which is modelled on that ghastly outbreak of sidekick syndrome, Sonic Heroes. Picturesque marble freeways split and wind together like molten candy sticks, and Dr Eggman's creations make for an entertaining roadside distraction.

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Shinobi's track is comparatively arid, all square edges and disappointingly meagre drifts of cherry blossom. It's also the glitchiest - at one point a wooden shutter slams down across the road, trapping me in last place (if only all the racing games I play were so conveniently buggy). The most entertaining is probably Carrier Zone, a tribute to arcade favourite After Burner: Climax which sees you following speed hoops down to the deck of an embattled warship, careening around the runway and leaping into the waves. The handling takes Project Gotham Racing's obsession with drifting to an extreme, allowing racers to skid along at an implausible angle till a flash of tail-lights indicates you've accumulated enough juice for a boost.

Transformed is a reminder of both the fierceness of my old Sega fandom and its narrowness. I bought a MegaDrive for Sonic back in 1993, and to Sonic I remained committed throughout my infant years, sticking resolutely to the franchise despite the quality plummet inaugurated by the release of Sonic Spinball. Years later, I've only just begun to discover titles like the wonderful Comix Zone and Shinobi by way of handheld compilation packs and HD updates. That seems all the more tragic now that Sega has restructured to focus on a grand total of four strong-selling franchises - Football Manager, Total War, Aliens and, of course, the ever-chippy Blue Blur.

Those are good irons to have in the fire, for the most part. Total War and Football Manager dominate their respective genres, and there's plenty of value left in the Aliens universe despite frequent misfires. But none of them have the innocence, the happiness of Sega's old catalogue. Enjoyable though it is, the game Transformed leaves me most anxious to play is Skies of Arcadia. I hope there's some truth to those rumours of an Xbox Live Arcade remaster.

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