Xbox One, PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch, PS5, Xbox Series X
October 17, 2023
Sonic Team has done it again! And by done it again, I mean created a truly mixed bag: a game that’s great in some areas, so good that it almost makes you think Sonic is “back again”, only to sabotage itself with poorly implemented new mechanics and some baffling design decisions. At its best, Sonic Superstars is pure classic Sonic excellence with fun, fast, 2D platforming through a variety of charming levels. It’s brought down by some truly frustrating boss battles and the completely uninteresting battle mode, but if you’re a Sonic fan, you’ll probably still enjoy yourself most of the way through.
Eggman and Fang the Hunter (Née the Sniper) are terrorising the Northstar Islands, capturing its animal inhabitants and turning them into robots in service of their terrible plans. What are those plans? Who knows, and who cares! We all know it doesn’t really matter; Eggman bad, time to kick his butt. This is partly what makes Sonic Superstars hit so close to its nostalgic roots, before the Sonic franchise started including human characters and warehog gimmicks.
Like Sonic Mania, Sonic Superstars aims to bring players back to the days of 2D Sonic, with bright, vibrant levels that feature multiple routes through to the goal. But where Sonic Mania uses nostalgic 16-bit graphics, Superstars brings some 3D charm. The zones are not quite as inventive as Mania in my view, but there are still some standout Zones, like Golden Capital Zone and Egg Fortress Zone. More importantly, the layout of the levels allows plenty of opportunities to hit and maintain top speed, which feels like a reward in and of itself. There are heaps of launch pads, loop-de-loops, chutes, and boost pads to keep your character moving. There are some new and inventive enemies that are placed around each level in thoughtful ways, and the bosses are (most of the time) cool and inventive. Unfortunately, boss fights begin to get frustrating about half-way through, as the game stretches fights into multiple-phase gauntlets with no or few chances to recover rings, and no checkpoints in between. They’re never that hard; just good luck not getting hit twice for a whole five minutes.
“Layout of the levels allows plenty of opportunities to hit and maintain top speed, which feels like a reward in and of itself.”
The playable characters and enemies look gorgeous, and the level environments are packed with detail. I especially love the backgrounds, which can include some actual environmental storytelling and foreshadowing of future bosses and mechanics. Sometimes you will even see the characters you’re not currently controlling interacting with some background detail, which is super cute and makes you feel like you’re on a group adventure even when you’re playing solo. There’s no dialogue in Superstars. All storytelling is either environmental or communicated by a series of short gestures, just like the Sonic classics of old.
It’s great to see good ol’ Fang in a game after so long: the last time he was properly featured was the spin-off arcade fighter Sonic the Fighters (1996) as one of the playable characters. Sonic Superstars places him properly as one of the villains alongside Eggman and a brand new character to the franchise, Trip the Sungazer lizard. Trip is as adorable as the rest of them, and has special abilities of her own. She can scale walls faster than knuckles and also sports a double jump like Amy, which makes her very fun to use. Once you finish the story, you unlock Trip’s Story, which takes you through a new version of all the Acts that have been lightly redesigned with Trip’s abilities in mind and well as featuring some new bosses.
It’s great to have a modern game so reminiscent of the old days, but it must be said that it seems a hard ask to pay full AAA price for a game so deliberately scaled back in content, especially when Sonic Mania was about half that price on its original release. To combat this, Sonic Superstars has made a few additions that they clearly hoped would add value to the game, but what was added was regrettably the weakest link in the game by far.
Each time you collect a chaos emerald, you unlock a special ability. Most of these abilities allow you to navigate the level in more interesting ways, such as scaling waterfalls or shooting yourself forward in any direction. This is Superstars’ biggest departure from classic Sonic gameplay, and its not a bad concept in theory; while the emeralds are all still optional to complete the game, you have much more incentive to collect each one and perhaps even replay levels to grab one you’ve missed. But what this means in practice is the levels are all built around the possibility that you may not have collected any emeralds at all. As a result, opportunities to use these abilities are so infrequent, and pass by so quickly, that the game feels the need to literally tell you when you can use your powers in an area by flashing up an easily missable symbol on the bottom right corner of the screen.
In my opinion, Sonic Superstars ought to have stuck to their guns and filled each level chock full of opportunities to use these abilities, and simply made it much easier to clear the chaos emerald bonus games to avoid too many players missing out on them. Each ability is single-use only until you reach a checkpoint, too, which only serves to disincentivise trying out the ability for fear of needing it later. If this restriction had been ditched, I would have felt more free to explore the level as I pleased, which simply would have been more fun.
Since you don’t need these abilities to actually complete any levels, the main thing you get for using these abilities is power-ups and gold medals, the main collectible. These medals are also awarded for completing bonus stages and collecting enough rings. Finding them in the little nooks and crannies of each level should feel exciting, because the medals can be spent to buy parts to design your Battle Mode robot — but this is where some truly baffling decisions were made.
Battle Mode is not fun, and ineffective to the point of comedy. After playing through 3 rounds of a Battle tournament via the absolutely abominable split-screen aspect ratio you see on the left, my player 2 and I could only break out in disbelieving laughter at how uninspired and bare-bones it was. There are only about 4 types of minigames, each of them as boring as the last: a short race, a free-for-all fight with only a single attack, a collecting challenge, and a survival challenge. The only thing you win is bragging rights, and if you’re bragging about beating your friends in Sonic Superstars’ Battle Mode, you should probably rethink your life.
Visiting the parts shop, we laughed even harder at the cost of buying just one part; each one ranges anywhere from 15 medals to 45 and even 100! For reference, I commonly find only between 2-5 medals in one level. You can play bonus levels for more, but the thought of grinding through bonus levels to buy one robot part to play more of that Battle Mode just makes me laugh more. Even the paint needed to colour a single robot part is 10 medals each — yes, they are single-use only! I have no idea who would find this mode engaging.
With Battle Mode being a total bust, the medals become useless collectibles. Luckily for Sonic Superstars, going back to replay the levels with all of the chaos emerald abilities is fun enough on its own — although I maintain that there should be more opportunities to use them. I want this team to try again with its next game, because they got the majority of the classic sonic formula right! But its frustrations just bring it down too much too bring out the candles and the “Sonic’s back!” balloons.
- Full of classic Sonic charm but with cute 3D graphics
- Varied levels packed with different routes that reward keeping your top speed
- Fast-paced 2D platforming is fun even without the abilities
- New abilities aren't implemented well enough into level design
- Battle Mode isn't worth bothering with at all
- Boss battles run on too long in the last half
Sonic Superstars is packed with classic sonic charm, gorgeous visuals, and fun, fast-paced levels that we love from all 2D Sonic games. But the two big ticket selling points, the chaos emerald abilities and battle mode, are sadly its weakest links. The story mode is still largely enjoyable, and some better implementations of the new abilities but make a sequel to this game legitimately great. If you’re a fan of classic Sonic, you’ll likely still enjoy this title.