Sonic Superstars - Keep It Simple, Sonic! (Review)
Released: October 17th, 2023
Developer: Arzest, Sega, Sonic Team
Systems: PC, PS4/5, Switch (reviewed), Xbox Series S/X
Sonic Superstars is revolutionary.
After years of wildly inconsistent yet constant reinvention with every gimmick-soaked installment, the ADHD riddled Sonic series has hit upon its most ingenious innovation. It's a wacky little notion called... no innovation!
What Superstars does that so impresses me is that it adheres to the age-old KISS system - Keep It Simple, Stupid! No werehogs, no guns, no threadbare open worlds. It’s bypassed all the flailing, poorly conceived nonsense and cut to the goddamn chase.
This is Sonic the Hedgehog 4 to a greater degree than the actual Sonic 4, which still meddled with the original formula despite its supposed status as a direct sequel. Superstars’ own gimmickry is kept to the periphery as it focuses primarily on presenting a game that plays almost exactly like it was ripped from the 16bit era.
Well, I say that... it’s also focused on throwing out masses of bonus levels, but in another breathtaking departure for the franchise, they’re not a sloppy load of erratic wank!
Of course, even a Sonic game this rudimentary can’t help itself, and this one’s particular brand of egregious bullshit is to be found in its boss battles, which are way too long, boring, and occasionally obtuse.
But we’ll get to that.
The overall premise is wonderfully uncomplicated. Eggman’s being a dickhead again, so Sonic and friends go to get his ass. That’s it. You can pick the hedgehog himself, or choose from Tails, Knuckles, and Amy, each with their own usual quirks, though Amy’s double jump and extended attack range put her leagues ahead of anyone else.
Unlike the obsessive Sonic fans who’ve hurled slurs in the comments of my reviews since they were five years old, I was alive in the 90s. I remember when Sonic games played like this, and I am happy to say superstars feels right. The way characters move, the level design, the momentum physics, it might not be a 1:1 recreation, but it’s by far the most authentic attempt to produce a 2D Sonic with modern visuals.
Most levels are pleasingly mapped out with multiple paths, entertaining environmental tricks, and actual platforming because Superstars blessedly knows that making a glorified Scalextric track isn’t actually good. I’ve replayed multiple levels quite gladly, not just to find secrets, but because they’re a lot of fuss-free fun.
The argument put forth by ancient desiccated corpses like myself has always been that Sonic's speedy sections are best used for moments of rewarding satisfaction rather than an entire game. Superstars seems to agree, and the result is a game in which enemies, traps, and obstacles are placed with some genuine measure of consideration and require care from the player in turn.
Imagine that, levels designed to be played instead of rushed through!
Those speedy sections, meanwhile, are really cool - all the loop-de-loops, perspective-hopping spring sections, and vine grinding sequences are fantastic, all dished out at a pace that keeps them refreshing. The combination of speedy moments and solid platforming lead to frequently delightful levels.
As I mentioned earlier though, the bosses at the end of these levels are fucking shit. It’s like the developers thought, “Oh no, we’ve made a good game! Better dump some Sonic Team splooge all over it.”
The majority of bosses are needlessly lengthy with tiresome attack patterns that fail to be challenging or energetic enough to justify themselves. Most of them need to be hit five times and it feels like two hits too many. This is compounded by them taking ages to get into attack range, and if you happen to miss, you’ll be stuck going through another tawdry sequence of enemy offense before getting another shot.
Many of these encounters try to make a puzzle of things, but they’re terrible at communicating what they want you to do since there’s no text, dialog, or even context clues. Others are just a bloody mess, such as the mech with a big hammer that can incorrectly trigger a "crushing" instakill even if you’re not under it, which is really awful since jumping on the hammer is the best way to reach the weak point. That’s if the physics don’t get confused and fail to register you landing on the damn thing.
These bosses are by far the biggest deterrent to replaying stages. Even the interesting ones, like the robot whose tentacles you guide toward self-inflicted damage, just go on way too long. There’s more than one boss that’s almost as lengthy as the level it punctuates, with no checkpoints, and it’s always frigging atrocious.
None of them are hard, either. They’ve substituted difficulty for attrition. What’s worse, they seem designed entirely with local co-op in mind. It totally misreads its audience, since the kind of devout fan who harasses people online for not liking the “right” Sonic games just isn’t going to have friends that can move on their own.
Conversely, Sonic Superstars offers some lovely bonus stages. It’s a good thing they’re enjoyable because there’s loads of them. Rotating puzzle mazes from the very first Sonic the Hedgehog return in abundance, adding some new facets such as shifting walls. I was never enthused by them back in the day - guiding a balled Sonic through a sluggishly spinning maze wasn’t great - but these new ones pick up the pace, require some thought, and are really pretty.
Chaos Emeralds are acquired in hidden bonus levels where you chase the little gemmy bastards around a nebulous arena by grappling and swinging from floating orbs. It’s hardly Spider-Man, but it’s inoffensive and benefits from straightforward brevity.
Notably, it is significantly easier to nab the Emeralds than in most Sonic games because each one bestows a new special ability upon the player. I was ready to facepalm when I got my first “new power” notification, but despite being gimmicky, they're not the aggravatingly shoehorned bollocks I expected.
Abilities are entirely optional and they’re only required for one or two areas per level where you can use them to grab bonus treasures. They’re quick and easy to use, too - one fills the screen with clones that can pick up items for you, another reveals hidden platforms, and none of them get much more involved than that.
Using abilities when the game signals for them will often lead to Medals, which you can also get from aforementioned bonus stages, collecting 100 rings, or defeating a golden enemy hiding in each stage.
You’ll get a lot of Medals. They’re a currency, and their use is… interesting.
Medals are spent on customizing a robot that, if you jumped right into the main game, appears with zero context and has no apparent use. You can give it different body parts and colors, many of which become unlocked at a weirdly grinding pace.
As someone who indeed jumped into the main game, I had no idea why I was putting a pumpkin head on a robot and painting it pink. You can’t use it in levels, even though you really should be able to. No, the robot serves as your avatar in a totally different mode, the mere presence of which has left me both baffled and amused.
You see… there’s a budget rate Fall Guys tacked onto this throwback mascot platformer.
Yes, Sonic Superstars has an online multiplayer mode and it boasts the skeletal trappings of a battle royal game.
Matches take place across three stages with different objectives, such as shooting opposing players with lightning balls, surviving a barrage of bombs while navigating crumbling platforms, collecting stars as they appear around an arena, or just taking part in a good old fashioned race. You get points after each stage based on how well you did, with the ultimate winner determined by a cumulative score at the end.
It’s… stupid. A nonsense addition that seems to exist for no other reason than to exist, with banal objectives and messy gameplay. It is perhaps because of those reasons I’m completely charmed by it. Such multiplayer frivolity is just so dumb that I kind of love it even though I barely want to play it.
Still, I really am perplexed and disappointed that you don't use the robot for other things. Considering it's just a Sonic reskin in a game that features reskins (via DLC), I see no reason why the robot is restricted to a throwaway mode with very little staying power. There’s a late game “twist” with it, but even then, it doesn’t really preclude the robot from having more utility than it has.
It’s especially strange considering the huge focus Superstars puts on collecting Medals. It’s a huge build for a little payoff.
Game’s gorgeous, by the way. Bright colorful levels, each one brimming with personality, and classic Badnik enemies redesigned to look disarmingly adorable. This production also boasts one of the best soundtracks a Sonic game’s ever had. The music is stylistically perfect, with catchy tunes capturing the intended retro atmosphere effortlessly.
Perhaps the thing I appreciate most about Sonic Superstars is that, despite aiming for pure retro appeal, it doesn’t rehash old games for cloying nostalgia. Outside of a few references and those bonus mazes, the levels and aesthetics are unique to this game, which only adds validity to its status as a direct sequel - it’s not remixing old content, or trying to constantly make you remember Chemical Plant Zone. It does its own thing while being distinctly old school about it.
Mostly. I mean, there is one stage that longingly wishes it was Sky Sanctuary.
Sonic Superstars is the first decent mainline Sonic game since Sonic Forces (an objectively okay game as rated by civilized minds). A distilled descendent of the original lineage, Sonic Team’s rare display of restraint has resulted in a game that succeeds through the purity of its simplicity. However, the stark contrast of convoluted, tawdry boss fights offsets its positives significantly, contributing some truly offputting misery to an otherwise entertaining time.
I’d love to see more of this if Sega could resist reinventing the wheel again next time.