Have you ever wanted to like a game that everyone and their favorite critic said was no good? Sonic fans would know, but it’s to be expected because when it comes to the long-running franchise, you never truly know what to expect.
Are you going to get an amazing 3D adventure with killer music that probably won’t age as well down the line (but is still awesome)? Probably. Maybe a disappointing side-scrolling that doesn’t deserve a mainline number, much less any mention in the series’ history? Most likely. Some of the worst stories ever told with some of the dumbest plot twists and gameplay mechanics possible in 2006? Indubitably. It’s a benefit and curse of being a Sonic fan.
"However, like any Sonic game, you never really know until you get into it, and after getting into Sonic Superstars, I can confirm that it’s a mess."
Nevertheless, the franchise has been doing pretty well as of late. Sonic Mania is an incredible throwback, delivering an incredible 2D side-scrolling adventure while adding some of its own ideas. Sonic Frontiers took the 3D platforming into a new direction, warts and all while presenting one of the best soundtracks in the series to date. Such is the anticipation for Sonic Superstars because it’s the first co-op title to support up to four players in the story.
There are plenty of other firsts, though, like Emerald Powers and Amy Rose being a central playable character (who also plays an important role in the story). It also doesn’t utilize a single zone from previous titles, instead featuring all new ones in the Northstar Islands. Also, unlike Sonic Generations and its side-scrolling levels, the controls in Sonic Superstars are a bonafide successor to the original Sega Genesis game.
However, like any Sonic game, you never really know until you get into it, and after getting into Sonic Superstars, I can confirm that it’s a mess. Even worse is that it’s a mess I wanted to like as a long-time Sonic the Hedgehog fan. One that I go back to, thinking that I’m looking at it wrong, only to become frustrated at what could have been, especially with what it gets right.
The story, such as it is for a Sonic game, is minimal and completely ignorable, even if those animated cutscenes look good (though not as good as Sonic Mania). Thus, the presentation comes to the forefront – the visuals and soundtrack. At first, the former catches your eye – bright, colorful and in line with that classic Sonic aesthetic but in 3D.
"There’s no way of sugar-coating it – Sonic Superstars has one of the worst soundtracks in the entire franchise."
There’s an ample amount of fidelity, as well, whether you’re admiring how Sonic’s quills bounce while he’s traveling at top speed or the background detail. The textures are also sharp, and the animations are on point, whether it’s the characters or the enemies and bosses.
Of course, there’s a catch, and it’s the lighting. You won’t notice it at first, but sooner or later, it becomes clear that some parts of the stage are darker while others have glowing outlines for no reason. The characters themselves are strangely lit, and while the effect may be to help objects stand out, the application leaves a lot to be desired.
It’s not horrendous like Sonic 4’s visuals, but it wastes much of the work that went into the environments and their multitudes of details. When you go from Bridge Island and Speed Jungle to Lagoon City or even Sky Temple, the difference in lighting is so glaringly obvious that it’s insane. You could argue that this is a stylistic choice or even done to improve visibility, but instead of immersing one in the adventure or the sense of speed, it creates an unnatural feel.
As annoyed with the lighting as I am, my disappointment is immeasurable, and my day ruined thanks to the soundtrack. There’s no way of sugar-coating it – Sonic Superstars has one of the worst soundtracks in the entire franchise. One or two decent tunes put it above the bottom of the barrel, but you’d be hard-pressed to remember anything afterwards.
"If there’s one bright spot in Sonic Superstars, it’s the controls. Arzest and Sonic Team wanted to capture the feel of the older titles, which is no easy feat. To say they succeeded would be an understatement."
It’s a shame because, among many things, the soundtrack is one of the core pillars that makes a Sonic game, adding to the atmosphere, lending a sense of urgency, creating tension and ushering in victory. Instead, Sonic Superstars’ soundtrack feels bland and uninspired – like an imitation of what someone thinks Sonic music should sound like. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not going to tell you what does or doesn’t qualify as Sonic music, but when you’ve spent as many decades with a series, the magic and charm of a compelling soundtrack is undeniable.
You hear it in Sonic Frontiers, Sonic Mania, Sonic Generations, Sonic Unleashed, the original games – the list goes on. Even Sonic ’06 had some memorable tracks – and yes, vocal tracks count. Superstars lacks all of that, and the worst part is that the mixing is done horribly, with tracks sounding too low (despite bumping up the in-game volume). It just makes the soundtrack blend into the background all the more.
If there’s one bright spot in Sonic Superstars, it’s the controls. Arzest and Sonic Team wanted to capture the feel of the older titles, which is no easy feat. To say they succeeded would be an understatement. Each character’s movement, from Sonic’s spin-dash to Knuckles’ gliding, is on point, from the responsiveness to the momentum.
It also doesn’t hurt that the sense of speed is captured well when it wants to be (more on that in a bit). Long story short, if you enjoyed the older games or Sonic Mania, you’ll feel at home with Superstars‘ controls. I wasn’t a fan of some changes, like Knuckles’ glide having a recovery when it ends, extended if he lands on his stomach, but I digress.
"While the effects can be interesting, the Powers feel tacked on – at times, it’s possible to forget you even have them and play like any other regular Sonic title."
The new addition is the Emerald Powers. Whenever you collect a Chaos Emerald via a new grapple-heavy Special Stage, it’s no longer just on your person, waiting to be stolen through story circumstances beyond your control (hint hint). Instead, it grants an ability. The Red Chaos Emerald gives the Bullet ability to shoot ahead in a direction of choice. The Blue Chaos Emerald has the Clone ability to summon a venerable army of clones across the screen to defeat enemies (or die mercilessly).
While the effects can be interesting, the Powers feel tacked on – at times, it’s possible to forget you even have them and play like any other regular Sonic title. Some abilities, like Vision, are completely useless during boss fights. Water allows you to climb up waterfalls, which is also highly situational (no river in the desert here, unfortunately).
It also doesn’t help that the Zones aren’t very well-designed to take advantage of the new Powers. You may discover a hidden wall here or there and maybe even reach out-of-the-way areas with Bullet, with the game helpfully indicating where you can use power, but that’s pretty much it.
This brings us to one of the game’s biggest failings. At first, it seems like the new Zones balance classic Sonic gameplay – where you play through stages again and again to find your optimum run – with several new gimmicks. Bridge Island, the first Zone, is a good example, as it features the usual half-pipes, loops and classic foes, balanced with a few new additions.
"As for the bosses, they range from interesting to – you guessed it – needlessly tedious and become all the more frustrating as you near the finale."
However, this approach can go overboard as early as in Zones like Sky Temple and Pinball Carnival. The former consists of one Act with numerous gimmicks, seemingly cramming multiple Acts into one. Some, like the Brickout-style mini-game or the brief homage to Windy Valley from Sonic Adventure, work well, while others – like slowly hovering between points, precision platforming and avoiding projectiles with iffy hitboxes – don’t.
The latter slows the game down to an annoying degree, to the point where it feels less like finding your optimal path and simply surviving as much zany nonsense as the game can throw at you. There’s one frustrating Act involving finding switches to ensure that Eggman’s machine in the background didn’t blow up and kill you. Another causes you to jump automatically due to an earth-shaking press in the background, screwing up your timing. I also can’t state enough how bad the pinball mechanics feel, especially when there’s an entire Zone dedicated to the same.
Some portions of levels also feel like they’re designed for four players to stop and ponder or die and retry multiple times. The digital rat maze in Cyber Station is one of many examples, except they feel tedious even with several players involved. The fact that your allies automatically teleport when you speed ahead of them tells me these sections are placed to ensure that doesn’t happen, thus affecting the overall flow and speed of the game.
As for the bosses, they range from interesting to – you guessed it – needlessly tedious and become all the more frustrating as you near the finale. Some even have attacks akin to being crushed by the environment, resulting in your immediate death. The fact that certain bosses are trivialized with an Emerald Power like Clone is also hilarious since they effectively bypass mechanics that require reaching the boss’s weak spot.
"It may be a mode that fans try out once or twice, but Battle Mode’s staying power is highly suspect. The fact that Medals don’t do anything else, like unlock new concept art or wallpapers, is disappointing."
Though the returning Special Stages, where you navigate a constantly rotating maze, can be enjoyable, the new one – where you grapple from one to another to reach a fleeing Chaos Emerald – feels incredibly janky. Otherwise, each character has dedicated Acts in certain Zones which advance the plot and are tailor-made for their abilities. Those belonging to Knuckles and Amy feel fine.
However, Sonic and Tails have some extremely annoying and frustrating gimmicks, like surviving attacks from Fang at high speed or navigating sections filled with environmental hazards while flying. You also have bonus Acts accessible by spending fruit, which is less stressful and provides ways to earn Rings and Medals.
Speaking of Medals, they’re used for the new Battle Mode to unlock parts for customizing your Metal Fighter. The rate at which you earn Medals during the story feels way too low, even if you’re constantly playing through Special Stages. As for the mode itself, which involves competing in three randomly chosen multiplayer mini-games, it’s fine.
The mini-games don’t feel particularly compelling, and though you can play offline with up to seven AI bots, no Medals are awarded. It may be a mode that fans try out once or twice, but its staying power is highly suspect. The fact that Medals don’t do anything else, like unlock new concept art or wallpapers, is disappointing.
"A Sonic game like this with a not-insignificant amount of development resources could’ve and should’ve been so much better."
Upon completing the story, you unlock an additional playable character in their own story, with slightly revamped levels tailored more to their abilities. They’re fun to play, but it’s here that the tedious Zone design strikes again, robbing you of any real enjoyment. The fact that even the character-specific Acts are needlessly difficult in this particular story mode is baffling.
I had high hopes going into Sonic Superstars. When it started with that classic-style animated cutscene and the promise of adventure in these brand-new Zones, there was excitement. The initial Acts also felt fine, even if the presentation left something to be desired, but the experience fell off a cliff as it wore on. Maybe it’s because the overall flow of the levels and how they went against a defining principle of Sonic titles, particularly of the 2D side-scrolling variety, annoyed me.
However, the most disappointing part about it all is that Arzest and Sonic Team had the tools to deliver a compelling experience, from the controls to the visual fidelity. Superstars has a decently large scope and tries to do something new, but the result doesn’t come together in a way that feels thematically coherent or mechanically fun.
As enjoyable as the sense of speed can be, with the background rushing by (thanks especially to the rock solid frame rate), it doesn’t make up for all those times where the action comes screeching to a halt as you deal with stage hazards and annoying gimmicks. Maybe you’ll have more fun with friends in co-op or embrace the potential online chaos that Battle Mode can offer. A Sonic game like this with a not-insignificant amount of development resources could’ve and should’ve been so much better.
This game was reviewed on PS5.
Decent fidelity on display in the environments, textures and majority of animations, with solid performance overall. Controls feel on par with the classic Sonic games in responsiveness, and the sense of speed is unmistakable. The classic-style Special Stages are fun to play.
Bizarre lighting diminishes any visual appeal. Tedious Zone design with annoying gimmicks and unnecessary hazards which break the gameplay flow. Certain sections feel specifically catered to co-op in a bad way. Emerald Powers don't lead to fundamentally different gameplay - certain abilities are also especially chief in some boss fights. One of the worst soundtracks in the series to date, with some awful mixing. Battle Mode customization prices feel too high. New Special Stage is way too iffy with its grapple mechanics.