The announcement of Sonic Superstars came as a big shock to everyone. With Sonic Origins Plus and a suite of free DLC for last year’s Sonic Frontiers, many assumed that this year would not feature a brand new game for the blue rodent. Lo and behold, there was a new game, and one styled after the original classics at that. With it having been released now, how does it stack up to the games it wishes to emulate and further evolve?
New Thrills, Classic Feel
The main goal of Sonic Superstars is to take the format used in the original games and evolve it in ways not possible on older hardware. Before it can evolve anything though, it has to get the core fundamentals correct. On the surface, classic Sonic is a 2D side scroller about going fast, but there’s a lot going on under the hood. It’s actually about physics and the steady accumulation of momentum through skillful play. With this in mind, a new game styled after the classics lives and dies by how accurate and satisfying its physics are.
It’s worth bringing this up because several past attempts at classic Sonic gameplay with modern embellishments have gotten this completely wrong. Games like Sonic Forces and the Sonic 4 duology feel incredibly off to play, and end up misunderstanding what made those original games so special. Sonic Mania did feel perfect, but I still felt anxious on whether Sonic Superstars would get it right considering the big shift in aesthetic and core gameplay ideas.
To my absolute pleasure, Sonic Superstars doesn’t miss a beat. The controls are a pitch perfect replication of those original outings. Sonic and friends will jump, roll, run, and react to slopes and inclines as you would expect them to. Better still is that the level designers clearly understand that this is what makes classic Sonic gameplay tick most of all. As soon as I booted up the game, I was immediately comfortable with how everything felt. Even the more sophisticated tricks like loop jumping work exactly as they always have. It’s like slipping on my favorite pair of shoes again.
New Sights On Northstar Island
The biggest thing about Sonic Superstars, as a longtime fan of the series, is that it’s the first game since Sonic Colors to not feature any old levels or copy-pasted archetypes. That might not seem like a big deal to some, but it’s the first Sonic game in well over a decade to do this. The entirety of the main game takes place on the Northstar Islands, which consists of entirely new locations for Sonic and friends to dash, jump, and roll through. The level design largely takes a page from Sonic 3 & Knuckles rather than Mania, with each being long, large, and sprawling. They’re also typically topped off with an exciting set piece to punctuate their respective stage gimmicks. A peaceful jaunt through Bridge Island Act 1 may end with you suddenly being attacked by a giant killer robot fish. Bouncing about on the pinball flippers and rollercoasters of Pinball Carnival Zone will end with you outrunning rockets hellbent on destroying you.
These moments of surprise always put a smile on my face, and helped to capture a similar feeling to games such as the aforementioned Sonic 3 & Knuckles, as well as the Sonic Adventure games. As far as the overall level design is concerned, it feels a lot more ambitious than previous classic games. They also help to carry Sonic Superstars’ minimalist storytelling. There’s no dialogue and only a handful of cutscenes, but what you do in gameplay helps you understand what’s going on. I don’t think it manages to match Sonic 3 & Knuckles’ level design when it comes to this mixture, but it’s still good and helped to endear me towards what was happening in and out of gameplay.
There are also single-act zones in Sonic Superstars. This idea has been toyed with before, such as with Sky Sanctuary from Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Superstars sees fit to push it to the next level and make it a big focus. These levels are significantly longer and larger than normal acts, and are home to a much greater number of gimmicks, as well as more involved boss fights. I’m specifically reminded of the speed levels from the first Sonic Adventure game, where levels seamlessly transform as you run through them. Sky Temple Zone may start near its safe ground level, before you’re later doing do-or-die platforming amidst debris inside of a tornado. These single-act levels make for excellent changes of pace that I hope to see again in future 2D outings.
Overall, the new suite of levels in Sonic Superstars are a lot of fun. They successfully manage to capture the appeal of the older games, whilst also expanding upon their interactivity in meaningful ways. Exploring them, speedrunning them, and seeing all the little details each stage holds has been a real joy. Though this game is familiar on a mechanical level, having a suite of entirely new and entirely fun stages again has left me feeling refreshed.
Chaos Is Power
The headlining gimmick of Sonic Superstars is new power-ups associated with each of the Chaos Emeralds. In past games, Chaos Emeralds were collectibles that were tied to unlocking Super forms for each character and getting the best ending. That’s still the case with Superstars, but now, getting each Emerald feels like a reward in and of itself, rather than a formality to see all of the game’s contents. The Emerald Powers can each be used once, and will only have their power restocked upon touching a checkpoint. Thinking strategically about when and where to use them is important, as is being careful. If you’re attacked by an enemy while using the power, you lose it until you hit a checkpoint. This balancing does a good job at making each power feel powerful, whilst also still requiring a high degree of attentiveness and skill to get the most out of.
Emerald Powers feel like more loose versions of the Wisp power-ups from Sonic Colors. Unlike in that game, you can use these powers whenever and wherever you please. Use the Avatar power-up to clear a path of enemies and explore more safely. Use the Bullet Power to dash about in the air, allowing you to clear gaps in the level or reach higher pathways that you missed. Use the Water power-up to swim safely and not drown, making an absolute mockery of the game’s obligatory water levels. There’s more powers beyond those I’ve mentioned, and each has its share of useful applications if you’re attentive and strategic with how you use them. These are an excellent and much-needed shake-up to core Sonic gameplay that helps me rethink how I approach its platforming.
This is perhaps best demonstrated with how they can be used in Sonic Superstars’ many boss battles. Previously, boss fights in classic Sonic games always suffered from either feeling like total slogs, or being so easy that they felt more like formalities. There was hardly ever much inbetween, but Superstars manages to mostly fix this. Bosses are much tougher and more aggressive, having more complex attack patterns and needing more lateral thinking to overcome. They largely manage to avoid feeling like slogs because of the ways you can strategically apply Emerald Powers to gain the upper hand. Personally, I always used Bullet and Avatar to cheat out a few extra hits on enemies that felt tough to reach.
There are times where the bosses feel overtuned, however. Especially nearing the endgame, bosses sometimes felt too long or too punishing. Even as someone very well versed in how classic Sonic plays, some felt like they were too over-the-top for my taste. Nevertheless, I think the boss fights in this game are a net win for the formula overall.
The Real Superpower Of Teamwork
The other headlining addition for Sonic Superstars is its extensive multiplayer component. For the first time ever in the series’ history, up to four players can tackle the main campaign at once. To put my feelings on this mode shortly, it’s complete and utter chaos. It’s the fun kind of chaos, but chaos nevertheless. Sonic is a series where how good you are at it has a huge knock-on effect on how things play out. If the skill level between players winds up being disparate, it’s not long before they’ll lose track of each other and what’s happening on screen. I can imagine that it’s a lot of fun for players who are of roughly even skill level, but gathering people for such a thing is easier said than done. Overall, it’s a neat addition, but it’s not something people are going to see an even use from.
Thankfully, there’s also Battle Mode if you’d prefer to beat the crap out of your friends rather than cooperate with them. Using your own create-a-mech character, you’ll compete with up to seven other players and take on different kinds of challenges in a competitive setting. These challenges can range from collecting more stars than your opponents, a shooting minigame, and tried-and-true racing. All of these are randomized, as are which maps these battles take place on. It gives a nice air of unpredictability, and helps to even the playing field if a player happens to be good at one mode, but not another. It’s a bit like Mario Party, where it’s something mostly done out of casual interest and not meant to be taken too seriously.
I had fun with Battle Mode and co-op, but these aren’t really where the meat of the game lies in my eyes. I have no doubt that children and younger fans of the series will enjoy them a lot, so they were worth the inclusion for that alone. Battle Mode isn’t quite up to par with certain ones from previous games in the series, but it’s hands down the best multiplayer offering of any prior 2D game at the very least.
Kickin’ It Old School
Sonic Superstars’ visuals feel like a mixture of old and new. It’s modeled closely after the 2D games, but its makeup is entirely 3D. Compliments first: the game is absolutely packed with Naoto Oshima’s signature flair. I was excited when I heard he would be coming back for this game, and he didn’t disappoint. These new iterations of classic characters and badniks are some of the best and most expressive they’ve ever looked. It’s like the game hopped right out of the 90s with the ways characters animate and emote cartoonishly. There’s a wonderful sense of pomp and reverence for what the series was way back when, and it’s clear that a lot of effort went into recreating that sense of style and attitude.
There’s a surprising amount of visual fanservice in this game. Even artwork and concepts that were left on the cutting room floor as far back as Sonic 1 managed to sneak in here. There’s also cameos and nods to games like Sonic R and Frontiers if you’re eagle-eyed enough to catch them. Stages aren’t lacking in that sense of detail or care at all. Sonic’s scrapped design where he was a bunny is even an alternate costume that’s complete with its own set of animations. Despite the impressive amount of hours I’ve already poured into the game, I’m still discovering new details or tidbits in just about every level. These kinds of things will probably go unnoticed by more casual players, but they resonated with me.
The issue with all of this is Sonic Superstars’ inconsistent graphical fidelity. Some stages, like Bridge Island and Speed Jungle, look great. Other stages, like Lagoon City and Golden Capital, look half-finished. They have detail and little things that I enjoy about them, but their fidelity leaves them lacking in the atmosphere I find to be so important in Sonic games. It’s especially bad because the contrast between the well-realized characters and occasionally crude-looking environments sucks me out of the experience even more. It’s not a death sentence, but it’s an area that lacks the consistency that previous Classic games had.
I feel the same about Sonic Superstars’ music as I do its visuals. It seems hell has finally frozen over, because what we have here is a mainline Sonic soundtrack that doesn’t leave me totally floored. Coming off of how incredible Sonic Frontiers’ soundtrack was last year, it feels like salt was poured into the wound. The big issue with its music is that it’s just not consistent in terms of quality, instrumentation, and emotional intention.
Some tracks sound incredible, like Lagoon City Act 2 and Cyber Station Zone. They have complex instrumentation and earworm-y melodies that hit the musical standard the series has set for itself. Other tracks, like Frozen Base Act 1 and Golden Capital Act 1, end up falling short. Out of some misguided attempt to recapture the ‘classic’ feeling of 90s Sonic music, many of Sonic Superstars tracks use the same instrumentations seen in the Genesis/Mega Drive games. I wouldn’t prefer that, but it’s an idea I’m willing to give a chance on paper. In practice, it leaves a lot of tracks in the game as decent, but not anything I’d call classics. Most of the melodies are good, but the instrumentation used for them is lacking.
These “retro” tracks don’t really push the boundaries of what those old Sonic games were doing either. There’s nothing anywhere near as strong as Hydrocity Zone or Chemical Plant, I can tell you that with certainty. That said, they’re never outright unpleasant listens either. I’ve come to enjoy a lot of them over time as well, if only somewhat. The 16-bit music used for the battle mode is also strangely of much higher quality.
On the whole, I’d still say it’s a decent if not largely good soundtrack. But it isn’t a great soundtrack like Sonic games almost always have. Out of all of the things Sonic Superstars does, this is what left me by far the most conflicted.
Sonic Superstars is a largely successful evolution of the classic formula. Although its multiplayer component doesn’t really appeal to me, the addition of Emerald Powers when combined with more ambitious levels won me over and then some. It doesn’t quite touch the peak that Sonic 3 & Knuckles still sits upon, but it makes a valiant effort to stand tall with its peers. What holds it back from claiming the throne for itself are inconsistencies in its visuals and music, but those are easy things to forgive with how much it ends up getting right. I’ll likely be playing this one for years to come alongside the other classics, and that’s all I really want at the end of the day.
SONIC SUPERSTARS IS RECOMMENDED
Thanks to Sega for providing a Nintendo Switch review code for Sonic Superstars.
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A hobbyist who took up the pen to write about their favorite pastime: games. While a lover of many genres, Isaiah Parker specializes in Platformers, RPGs, and competitive multiplayer titles. The easiest way into his heart is to have great core gameplay mechanics. Self-proclaimed world’s biggest Sonic fan. Follow him @ZinogreVolt