For the longest time, SEGA has been synonymous with something that's come to be known as blue sky gaming: titles, across various genres, that take you away, that deliver another world to your screen that's more inviting than anything outside the window. Sounds and visions of superlative escapism.
Sonic the Hedgehog was packed full of SEGA blue in 1991 - the first stage might be called Green Hill Zone, but that perfect sky and glistening water in the background is as essential to the tropical feel of the level as the lush grass and chequerboard dirt. The crisp blue yonder and wonderfully fluffy white clouds are present and correct in Shenmue and its sequel, when it's not snowing; and they're a cheerful complement to the exploding-polygons violence of Virtua Cop.
Team Sonic Racing / Credit: SEGA, Sumo Digital
It's in racers that these SEGA blue skies have really taken root over the years, though: a pure hit of happiness at high speeds. Whenever I play Outrun 2 today, I still get the buzz, the rush, of tearing through a fictional landscape under the deepest blues, all but ready to take off and lose myself in them. (Finishing on the Cape Way, Ancient Ruins or Tulip Garden stage: yes, please.) Sega Rally Championship's Forest Stage is a symphony of blue over green over drifting Lancias over dirt; and the all-time arcade racer supreme, Daytona USA, matched its gorgeous horizons to music that literally said to the player, "let's go away." (The music is a big part of the Blue Skies Feeling, too - which is why I'll always have time for the sumptuous tunes of the Sonic CD OST.)
The original Outrun of 1986 and Super Hang-On of 1987: SEGA blues all the way, baby. And Team Sonic Racing, the latest kart racer to star characters from the series spearheaded by its company mascot, brings back these big-mood blues in a wonderful way, and I cannot get enough of it. (Seriously: look at that screenshot above and tell me you don't want to holiday there, immediately... After the cars have packed it in, anyway.)
Team Sonic Racing - as we've already covered - places an emphasis on cooperation, with teams of competitors having to race together to achieve overall victory. You might blast to first place on your own, as Tails or Shadow or Big or Silver or whoever; but if your teammates are way down the order come that chequered flag, you might not take that top position on the podium collectively. As a split-screen local multiplayer experience, this gives it an edge over its sub-genre rivals - the likes of Mario Kart 8 and the imminent Crash Team Racing Nitro Fuelled. The inclusion of a story mode also lends it some potential additional appeal over its Nintendo-exclusive competitor.
On so many of its tracks, Team Sonic Racing revives the SEGA blue skies of old, providing a dose of endorphins that flash you back to those gaming days of old, where there really wasn't anything else on your agenda for the day other than: play these excellent games. The blue, The Blue, is there on the cover art, with the Blue Blur himself; Wisp Circuit is a course set on an alien world but the skies are welcome analogues of equatorial Earthly expanses; and the whole of the Seaside Hill area, absolutely created in homage to Green Hill Zone, is topped by widescreen azure that sucks you into its sun-kissed clutches and squeezes the brightest smile onto your face.
The mood and feel of Team Sonic Racing is so perfectly, deliriously SEGA Through The AGES that it can almost mask the few shortcomings of this thoroughly decent game - a sense of repetition that sets in with some tracks, a slightly shallow pool of characters (developers Sumo Digital have only focused on Sonic series sorts for this one, rather than encompassing the likes of Alex Kidd and NiGHTS, as seen in the game's predecessor, Sonic & All-Stars RAcing Transformed), and handling that's never quite as apex-nailing accurate as MK8. The multiplayer is only truly a plus when experienced in the same room, too, as constant communication between the individual racers of each trio is vital to successful item swapping and roadside assistance - and do you really feel comfortable barking instructions at total strangers over the internet? (Maybe... maybe don't answer that.)
Video games are always changing, always growing, and are (and *will* continue to) reflecting the world around us in myriad ways. But while the medium must respect its audience by never shying away from our realities, refracting them through the lens of interactive entertainment to tell compelling and important stories underpinned by crucial themes, there's always a space for games that simply allow us to, in the words of Daytona USA songwriter Takenobu Mitsuyoshi, go away. To escape, just for a while; to breathe against a warm breeze, to feel a rush in our hair, a tingle on our forearms, that only these kind of games can manifest. And if you're wanting to ditch the everyday for the far-away right now, Team Sonic Racing is a destination to grab a ticket to, stat.
Team Sonic Racing releases for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC on 21 May. Will you be picking it up, to cruise around under these cerulean skies? Let us know - we're on Facebook and Twitter.
Featured Image Credit: SEGA/Sumo Digital