Sonic Superstars Review
The red sneakers return with friends
Only a handful of gaming franchises have ever solidified themselves in pop culture to reach the acclaim of a household name. Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the few icons who has achieved this renowned level of stardom, especially since the recent films have introduced a whole new generation to the wise-cracking Hedgehog. That being said, the famous blue blur has struggled to find its video game footing in the past decade. It's been like trying to nail jelly onto a wall; nothing has really stuck. Sonic Mania is the only one that broke this norm and was seen as a unilateral success in many people's eyes as it channelled Sonic's roots with high octane platforming and glossy 2D graphics. Sonic Superstars attempts to follow in the footsteps of Sonic Mania but adds more simplistic gameplay to be more palatable for casual players with a coat of modern graphics. Sonic Superstars successfully harnesses the old-school flare of the franchise, but it never fully differentiates itself enough from other Sonic the Hedgehog titles.
Superstars features a main story mode with eleven zones, most of them having two acts. Like Sonic Mania and Sonic Origins, the story mode starts with a delightfully cute anime-esque opening, where not a single word is spoken throughout the animation, which harkens back to the golden days. The plot follows Sonic and the crew through the mystical Northstar Islands. Eggman is up to no good as per usual and is turning the giant animals inhabiting the islands into robot drones. This time, Eggman has enlisted the help of a bounty hunter called Fang The Sniper, who likes using devious traps and his clumsy little robot companion Trip to hunt down the island's animals. Naturally, when our band of heroes sees what's transpiring, they begin interrupting Eggman's nefarious plans. After the main adventure, a bonus story will be unlocked, where you will play through all the stages again but slightly differently. This may sound bothersome, but the surprise element of the storytelling will hold your attention for the second stint.
The game uses the typical 2.5D viewpoint, and each zone has you collecting rings, destroying robots, and racing through power-up shields, springs and elaborate loop de loops. It also follows the general rule of thumb for the series: if you take a higher-up route, there will be fewer obstacles in your way and a better opportunity to go at higher speeds. But fall to the lower levels, and there will be far more platforms, so it will be harder to build up momentum. Compared to previous games, the lower levels of the platforms are far less complicated and will only require a few careful jumps to get past any obstacle, which makes the game far more newcomer-friendly.
You can play as either Sonic, Tails, Knuckles or Amy. It's pretty neat to see the inclusion of Amy, as even though she is an iconic character, she has only been playable a handful of times and rarely in the side-scrolling games, with the most notable titles being Sonic Advance and Sonic Advance 2. There is enough variation between the characters that makes their movements feel different, but it never dramatically changes the discourse of gameplay. Sonic has the drop dash ability, which has become a series stable since Sonic Mania, a manoeuvre that allows Sonic to spin-dash in midair. Tails can skip good portions of the zone by flying past areas, Knuckles can glide and climb up walls to reach higher platforms, and Amy can use her handy hammer to double jump.
At the end of most acts is a boss battle. These fights are composed of multiple phases, and you will have to damage the opponent several times until you can move on to the next part. So you will not be able to cheese any of these fights. Every boss will have different attack patterns and weak points. For instance, one enemy can only be wounded if you trick it into hurting itself. The boss battles felt a bit tedious at times, and some later ones were rather tricky and would take a few attempts.
One of the main standout features of Sonic Superstars is that you can tackle the story mode in couch co-op with up to four players. Sonic the Hedgehog games are built upon the philosophy of travelling at high speed, and this aspect excels while playing single-player but naturally goes against cooperative play as everyone can't travel at the same pace. But, if you forgo the fact that you will not be getting your adrenaline fix in couch co-op, it offers a surprisingly good platforming experience to share with friends and family. Everyone shares the same screen, and if anyone journeys too far ahead, you can press X to join them at the location. The levels are fun to navigate, especially on the lower platforms, encouraging you to traverse the zones in ways you may not have before. I played with one other person, and we could follow everything happening on screen, but I could imagine playing with more could be chaotic.
The character designs are clearly inspired by the retro days of the blue hedgehog, with a colourful, shiny gloss of modern graphics, which is simply delectable. The zones are oozing with throwbacks from previous instalments, like the first level, Bridge Island Zone, serves as a wannabe Green Hill Zone with long-running parts accompanied by greenery and water bridges. Lagoon City Zone feels like a hybrid merger of Labyrinth Zone and Hydrocity Zone with its distinctive outside water aesthetic and waterslides, and we also have the appearance of a classic pinball level in the form of Pinball Carnival Zone. There are so many subtle and obscure references that veteran fans will be sure to appreciate. Although there is not a single bad zone in the game, I would not go as far as to say there are any exceptional ones, either. None of them are intuitively designed, probably because they heavily rely on the past, ultimately leading to them not standing on par with classics like Studiopolis Zone or Chemical Plant Zone. Safe to say, they will not be appearing on any greatest-hit list.
It would not be a Sonic the Hedgehog game if the Chaos Emeralds did not make an appearance. You can enter a Special Stage, where you can earn a Chaos Emerald by finding a giant ring in the zone and jumping into it, reminiscent of Sonic 3 and Knuckles. The Chaos Emerald will be floating and moving around in space, and you need to swing yourself from fixed points, almost like you are using a grappling hook, to capture it. It's a very easy mini-game, although it can be awkward in cooperative play, as you will switch between players every three swings. If you successfully get the Chaos Emerald, you will earn a new power to use during the zones or boss battles. These powers include turning into water so you can swim upward in waterfalls or summon multiple versions of your character to run across the screen to attack enemies like you've just performed a shadow clone jutsu from Naruto. These powers may sound handy, but they fall a bit more on the gimmicky side, as I found myself rarely using them because they are not essential to completing the zone.
Outside of the story, Superstars also has a Time Attack mode: race through any zone you have unlocked through the story mode and see how you fair on the online leaderboards. A few of the zones can be completed in under a minute if you practice a few times, so if you are into speedrunning, you will have a good time.
Lastly, the Battle mode is a different matter and is rather mundane and uninteresting. You can play locally with up to four people or in an online battle with eight players. To win a match, you must win three rounds of various objectives, including collecting stars or a traditional race to the finish with a customised metal fighter. To customise your fighter, you can collect metal tokens hidden throughout zones and buy body parts. All the objectives were rather bare-bones and not that interesting to play because they were oversimplistic. What also did not help is if you play locally, the screen is split between players and is disproportionately small. You really have to concentrate, and it disrupts the flow of gameplay and stagnates the whole experience.
Tee Lopes, who composed the soundtrack for Sonic Mania, is back again for Sonic Superstars and, unfortunately, slightly misses the mark as none of the tunes are super-catchy and will not be living rent-free in your head. Another complaint is they reused the menu sounds from Sonic Mania and Sonic Origins, which is disappointing as recycling noises feels like lazy programming rather than a homage to the past. No framerate issues were observed, and all the loading screens were reasonably fast, but there were a few bugs. The main one I observed was when playing as Tails in Lagoon City Zone; after I jumped out of the water, the game still thought I was underneath, and I died because I was nowhere near an air bubble.
Sonic Superstars taps into the blue hedgehog's legacy and creates an enjoyable platformer. The standout is being able to play through the main campaign with others, which makes Superstars the best Sonic the Hedgehog title to play with friends and family. Despite this, the battle mode, which should have further enhanced the multiplayer experience, is spoiled by its rudimentary gameplay and strange split screen. Furthermore, the campaign's uninspired zones do not make the experience rememberable once the dust has settled from the red-hot sneakers. A heavy price tag of $59.99 USD/£54.99 firmly places Superstars in the C-tier category in the Sonic games catalogue.