As the old saying goes, history is written by the victors, and there’s no doubt that Nintendo ended up winning the console war of the 90s. As someone that swore allegiance under the blue flag, before eventually defecting to the red side during the 3D era, I’ve seen both sides of the fight and see the best in both. With SEGA effectively losing after tripping over their own shoelaces, Nintendo were left to claim victory and have claimed the best history for themselves.

As such, Mario is often seen by reviewers as a beloved IP that can do no wrong; whilst Sonic tends to get the short end of the stick, with critics often (in my opinion rather unfairly) being overly harsh on the spiny spinner. Sure, Sonic may have had its fair share of mediocre (sometimes even bad) games, but then so has his plumber rival.

Regardless of his past though, there has been somewhat of a resurgence with Sonic. Against all odds (and social media), we’ve had Sonic Mania, Sonic Frontiers, The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog, and two fun Sonic movies all in very recent memory. It certainly is a good time to be a Sonic fan.

Would Sonic Superstars let the side down? With Headcannon, the team behind Sonic Mania, having nothing to do with this one, it was rather unclear as to whether this game was going to fall flat on its face.

Thankfully, I can say that it absolutely does not.

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FANGS FOR THE MEMORIES
Taking place on the Northstar Islands, a beautiful unchartered archipelago, Dr Robotnik / Eggman seeks to turn the island’s inhabitants into badniks with the help of a mercenary known as Fang and a mysterious native known as Trip. With the chaos emeralds in his sights, it’s up to Sonic, Amy, Knuckles, and Tails to put a stop to his plans before it’s too late.

It’s hardly an innovative plot as it essentially mimics almost every other 2D Sonic game in its setup, but the beautiful animated cutscenes that bookend the story certainly make the narrative at least pleasant – especially as the game makes an effort to include some kind of transitional sequence between each stage. They’re not quite as creative as the ones in Mania, but they’re certainly briefer and allow you to get straight back into the action.

There are eleven zones in total, comprised of a variety of locations that touch on familiar themes from the series, such as the normal Green Hill clone, an island full of snow, a perilous factory, and of course the notorious water stage (that doesn’t actually want to put you in the water all that much, which is a pleasant surprise); however, what sets them  apart from other similar stages is that every single act contains its own unique gimmick to work around. Speed Jungle, for example, has you grinding along branches in one stage and using vines to spring yourself upwards; in the next you’ll be pursued by Fang as he pounds you with rockets and lasers; and the final act has you going through foggy caves using butterflies to illuminate your path. These examples are far from the most interesting gimmicks the game has to offer, but I’d rather leave you to experience those for yourself!

Every level in the game feels fresh due to this constant playing around with new gimmicks, and it really works to the game’s advantage. There are some gimmicks that carry over across the entire zone, but for the most part every act feels likes its own thing. Part of this is due to Sonic Superstars shunning the usual formula of having the same number of acts for each zone, as some may have three, others may have a bonus stage to earn coins, and others may just have a single act to choose from. This blatant disregard for consistency allows for some of the really special levels to shine, particularly one towards the end of the game which features some remarkably cool twists, which surely would have been lessened if it was given a second act.

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Level variety is one thing, but it’d mean nothing without good level design and controls, and Arzest have thankfully pulled that off with aplomb. Taking a slight step back from more recent 2D entries, the movement feels more akin to the early Mega Drive games where you can build up a good amount of speed as you zip around the level, but your base movement is a bit less unwieldly thus allowing for more precise platforming. It feels just right the moment you take control, and I feel like jumping in particular has been refined to ensure that landing on smaller platforms isn’t as much of a pain as it can be in some of the other titles. It’s not as tight as Mega Man or Mario, for sure, but given that the game is designed for you to speed through onceto allow you to go and speed should you require, it feels like it has been balanced well.

Speaking of which, levels feature the usual multiple path routes for you to explore. The higher routes tend to feature the trickiest platforming, but reward you with a shorter route should you be able to stay there. Lower routes tend to be less difficult, but also far slower too. There’s some great platforming as a result of the aforementioned stage gimmicks, as well as lots of secrets to find from the game’s currency (more on that in a bit) to an assortment of special stages. What I liked the most about the stage design was the absence of the usual speed traps that tend to plague many sonic games. Rarely did I find myself running into spikes, enemies, or trollish springs, designed to intentionally rob me of my rings; instead, difficult was added as a result of good platforming design instead. It ensured that every act actually felt fun, instead of having a level like Oil Ocean or Metropolis that ruins the fun. 

After each act, you’ll typically face off against some kind of boss and these really are an absolute delight to take down. With some unique designs and some genuinely fun patterns to learn, I found them to be an absolute highlight for the most part. Unlike some of the classic bosses that can be taken down in seconds, these fights often last minutes and really test your skills. Sonic is probably best equipped to deal with bosses due to his drop dash that allows for a quick burst of speed, but all the other characters have unique movesets that can prove advantageous in certain circumstances (although Tails and Knuckles definitely fare better within the levels themselves). Admittedly some of the bosses can go on for a little too long, which makes me wish there was some way to manipulate their pattern to allow for quicker kills, but I still found almost all of them satisfying to take down – the exceptions being the final two bosses in the post-game, which like to hit you with instant-kill attacks during very long fights. It’s a disappointing way to round off the game, but thankfully they’re in the minority.

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One of the new features that SEGA made a big deal of prior to launch were the newly implemented emerald powers: special abilities that you acquire as you collect chaos emeralds via the (surprisingly easy) special stages. These can be used to reach alternate routes within the levels or accessing secrets, but their primary use is basically as an assist mode to help struggling gamers. With certain powers allowing you to navigate the levels easier or to make shorter work of bosses, they can be extremely useful in a pinch. On the flip side, this does mean that you will unlikely use many of them throughout your playthrough, but their inclusion is certainly a nice way at demonstrating your increasing level of power as you gain more and more emeralds before eventually being able to turn into Super Sonic. Seen in this light, they’re a great addition to the series – just don’t expect them to be as major as SEGA made out.

The other big new inclusion was the multiplayer mode, and that too is a little underwhelming. The co-operative mode is designed to follow the person in the lead, meaning that anyone going off-screen will have to push a button to teleport back on screen. A fine idea for a slower game, but in a Sonic title it just means that staying together can be a nightmare. Remember Tails in Sonic the Hedgehog 2 having to constantly fly back on screen? It’s essentially like that, and it’s just as disastrous as it sounds. Even worse, one of the levels has you navigating the fog using a butterfly to lights the way; the problem is that it only follows the lead player, making this stage a nightmare to play with friends. That being said, it certainly works if your intention is to pass to a younger sibling so they can play along with you – just don’t expect anything special.

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The other multiplayer mode is the battle mode, which allows you to use your own custom robot (built from pieces that you can buy using the in-game currency) to play various games against the AI or friends. Being tasked with collecting rings, fighting each other, or racing, it’s a perfectly serviceable distraction even if it’s not worth the price of admission. At the very least, the custom character does play a part in the story mode giving solo players a reason to hunt for and use the coins. 

Whilst these extra multiplayer modes probably won’t be enough to hold your attention for long, there’s still plenty to do for those playing alone. The main game took me around six hours or so to get through, including collecting all the chaos emeralds, but beating the game will unlock another mode that effectively doubles that length and adds a greater degree of challenge too. It’s not quite the Kaizo-like experience that the Sonic Frontiers story expansion added, but it’ll still be a welcome challenge to veterans. On top of that, the time trials and multiple characters will have fans coming back for many, many more hours. Still not quite enough to justify the €60 price tag, but certainly enough to be a meaty package.

VERDICT
Sonic Superstars turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Whilst I was expecting a fun experience, I didn’t realise that it would turn out to be my new favourite Sonic game. Arzest did a fantastic job at making a fresh feeling experience for fans of the blue hedgehog. It may not be worth €60 for anyone who isn’t already a huge fan, but this is still a game worth experiencing.