From the creators of Balan Wonderworld comes the latest mainline 2D Sonic game…kind of? Sonic Superstars is more of a 2.5D title, but it is a continuation of the classic mainline Sonic games that started with the Genesis titles up until Sonic Mania. As a fan of Sonic Mania, I was very excited until I found out that the Sonic Mania development team wasn’t coming back to work on this game. Instead, we have studio Arzest, which doesn’t have the best track record. Most of their games are just OK at best, and trusting them with a highly-anticipated title concerned me. Thankfully, most of those concerns became less and less apparent as I played through the game. But does that mean that this title is worth $60?
This is an excellent title and, in many ways, feels like a natural evolution of the classic Sonic franchise. It probably does a better job of acting as a Sonic the Hedgehog 4 than the official Sonic the Hedgehog 4 from a few years ago (yes, I’m still bitter). Sonic Superstars tells the classic Sonic versus Eggman story, except this time Sonic has the addition of his friends Tails, Knuckles, and classic Amy. On the other hand, Eggman hires Fang the Hunter to help him capture animals to power his robots.
There’s no air of mystique here or some twist; it’s as basic as they come as far as platformer stories go, which is a bit of a letdown. Thankfully, the hand-drawn interludes between levels and character interactions sprinkled throughout the game are filled with an exuberant amount of energy that makes me desperately wish we would get a silent Sonic The Hedgehog cartoon done in this style. The bits of 2D animation we get are so impressive (despite the amount of time we spend on them) that it becomes jarring when we get to actual 3D-rendered gameplay.
Make no mistake; this is a side-scrolling 2D platformer whose primary goal is to make it to the end of the stage at supersonic speeds, collecting rings and Chaos Emeralds along the way. I would’ve preferred this to take on a more sprite-based style similar to Sonic Mania as I never really thought that classic Sonic looked great in 3D. However, studio Arzest did their damn best to justify the stylistic choice by filling the series with as much charm as possible. Sonic and his team are fleshed out with these little animations, like when Sonic dances on the edge of a cliff or when Amy plays with her hammer. There are also moments while playing when you’ll see a bunch of little things going on in the background, such as your friends taking on other robots and bosses. It does a lot to make the game feel more alive than it otherwise would have, and while I don’t necessarily think this charm was pushed far enough to justify the aesthetic, I can still appreciate the attempt.
The characters still move with a bit of rigid stiffness to them. It’s felt the most when the characters initially start moving. I played the PS5 version, and while the game runs at a pretty smooth 60 FPS, the characters still have a bit of an unnatural stop-and-go that carries over from the other 3D titles. However, once the characters reach a certain momentum, we get the type of physics Sonic is most known for. I miss the days when you could crawl into a ball and go down a hill, gaining momentum the steeper the incline or going through shuttle loops. Sonic Superstars still doesn’t play as well as the original Genesis games from decades ago, but it hits the realm of “close enough.”
That’s probably the best way I can describe Sonic Superstars: it gets just close enough in almost every aspect. The visuals are just close enough to justify the 3D stylistic choice. The physics are just close enough to the best parts of the Genesis games, and unfortunately, the music is just close enough to being memorable. I don’t know what happened here, but this is probably one of the weaker Sonic soundtracks. Maybe it’s because I just came off of playing Sonic Frontiers, where I had access to almost the entire Sonic music library, but listening to some of these new tunes didn’t do a lot for me. They matched the stages in terms of themes. Still, there was this overall generic feel to them that I never thought I would say about music in a Sonic game. Usually, at least one or two tracks would stand out and even define what makes certain levels so memorable. But here, we strangely have a case where the level design defines the levels more than the music and visuals, when Sonic has always had a history of portraying the opposite.
The overall level themes are generic, from desert to waterslide to casino. Almost every level has some gimmick to help you traverse it, whether climbing up waterfalls or sliding on vines in a way similar to grinding on rails from the Adventure games. The gimmicks were somewhat memorable, but sometimes they clashed with Sonic’s core design philosophy. The whole point of classic Sonic has always been to try to traverse the game as quickly as possible. You have Sonic at top speed, and then you use your mastery and experience over the level to find the most optimal path to the end. Sonic Superstars does have diverse pathways, but sometimes its gimmicks get in the way of maintaining that overall speed. It doesn’t matter how fast I go because once I hit something like an automated hover train, the speed is taken out of the equation, or I’m forced to wait or jump at the right time until the segment is over. It’s a gimmick getting in the way of what should be solid gameplay.
This permeates all the levels and gets in the way of that original gaming philosophy. Players could jump into portals that allow access to extra rings or metals that can be spent in the game shop for cosmetics. The problem is that at some points in the game, you can accidentally fall into these levels in the middle of an exhilarating stretch of speeding platforming, ultimately killing the game’s momentum. This happened a handful of times in the first couple of levels, and it genuinely started annoying me. It also feels weird because you can sometimes access these portals via checkpoints, so I don’t know why they’re scattered all over to get in the way. Or maybe they’re supposed to be another obstacle meant to be avoided, but I’m getting conflicting messages.
This only irritates me because I think the level design is genuinely good. There are plenty of shuttle loops, springs, and slopes that will help you maintain your momentum. The enemies don’t feel like they’re put in any cheap locations, and some can even be utilized as platforms to reach higher areas after you reach top speed. The game also provides plenty of hidden secrets, like giant gold rings that you can use to access the Chaos Emeralds. This game was a bit more vertical than many other classic games, making it reminiscent of Sonic CD. Overall, these are fun levels to play through, and I can see myself revisiting them a few times to explore as many different pathways as possible.
Speaking of the Chaos Emeralds, I also like how uniquely integrated they are in the game. Instead of gathering all the Emeralds and then only being functional at the end so you can achieve Super Sonic, Sonic Superstars makes each Emerald distinct. You unlock a new power that can be used with each Emerald in the levels. I was initially bummed out because this game didn’t appear to include as many power-ups compared to its predecessors until the Chaos Emeralds’ function became clear. After you collect one by finishing a mini-game in those aforementioned giant gold rings, you gain access to a specific ability with various ranges of usefulness. Some can help you deal with enemies by making infinite copies of yourself for a few seconds, while others can have you propel yourself in any direction. You lose the power up if you get hit or after using it once. It can be recharged at checkpoint stations spread throughout the game. Some abilities aren’t as helpful; some are just easy to forget about, like the ability that lets you climb waterfalls. That’s an ability that only feels useful under particular circumstances, unlike the others that have some great skill-based utility if you play with them enough. Still, this is definitely the best inclusion in the game and is probably one of the main things that helps define Sonic Superstars.
But is all of this worth $60? I would argue no. While there is a decent amount of content here and plenty of replay value, I don’t think the game excels in anything exponentially that justifies that price tag. It’s better than I thought it would be and gets close to being impressive, but it still barely misses the mark in a few areas to put it on the same level as past Sonic titles. I only bring up previous Sonic games because those arguably set a standard for high-speed platformers, which Sonic Superstars is trying to emulate. While it excels in some of its more unique ideas, like the use of the Chaos Emeralds, a few gimmicks here clash with that main design philosophy. If you’re a fan of platforming games and Sonic, it is worth a purchase, just not the asking price. Wait for a discount.