Sonic Riders

Three dreaded words pop into your head the first time you see Sonic Riders in action: 'Kirby', 'Air' and 'Ride'.

Characters ride around on floating surfboards without an accelerate button, there are twisty-turny tracks and auto-guiding rails, and even the cornering technique (hold, skid aaand boost) is reminiscent of that certain Nintendo game.

Thankfully, that's where the similarities end. Sonic Riders is a fun, hair-rustling rollercoaster of a racer, where things happen so fast that your primal finger-twitching reactions have to take care of things while your brain sits dazed on the starting line.

The version we played wasn't perfect - if the final release retains the grating commentator who never shuts up about how "Sonic is losing momentum!", we'll tear our own ears off. Still, after rubbish like Sonic Adventure 2, this is a breath of fresh air.

Actually, it's more like a blast of fresh air. Sonic Riders is all about turbulence - whirling tunnels of air trailed by the hoverboard riders ahead, which drag you around the course at a crazy but delicious speed if you manage to manoeuvre inside them.

Slipstreaming and mid-air stunts are the only way to keep your board's air supply healthy, in fact - fail to surf the wind tubes or somersault off ramps and your board will slow down until your rider actually hops off and starts walking.

Get it right and it's dizzyingly fast. The corkscrewing courses have the colourful look and slick feel of levels from Sonic's 3D platformers, except now that you're off the ground and don't have to worry about bumping into enemies or fiddling with the camera from hell, they actually work.

And there are some fairly 'out there' moments that make things more interesting than your average racer, such as bouncing off a spider's web and landing on a giant centipede.

There's a lot to think about in Sonic Racers. Collecting coins increases your max speed; B boosts you past obstacles and lets you punch rivals to overtake; and depending on whether your rider is a Speed, Boost or Flying type, you'll be able to soar through overhead rings or launch yourself off ramps.

It's not always clear what's going on - blink and you'll miss the reason why you ended up on a walkway miles above everyone else - but with practice, getting around the courses without bumping your nose has that F Zero-esque thrill about it.

So, Kirby's Air Ride plus Sonic Heroes plus SSX adds up to a lot more than you might expect. It's padded out with the usual assortment of fur-covered idiots and cutscenes that couldn't be more badly acted if David Caruso turned up, but our thrill-o-meter is buzzing in Sonic's presence for the first time since the old Megadrive days.