Sonic Superstars Review – Conventional Shine

    Title: Sonic Superstars
    Developer: Arzest
    Release Date: October 17, 2023
    Reviewed On: PS5
    Publisher: Sega
    Genre: 2D Platformer

Sonic’s 2D adventures have usually been met with acclaim, though a major critique many fans had for the most recent one, Sonic Mania, was its lack of original levels. Cut to post-Sonic Origins, a collection of classic titles, and we finally have a wholly new 2D Sonic title standing on its own. Granted, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from an outing of this nature after so long, but I ended up having a moderately enjoyable time despite standout design gripes.

Sonic Superstars features Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and Amy in a new setting, the North Star Islands, on a new adventure to stop Dr. Eggman. The narrative here is as light as you’d expect, though the additions of the classic character Fang the Hunter and the new character Tripp instill this journey with distinction. If you have a history with the original 2D Sonic games and Sonic Mania, the wordless storytelling here will be familiar. So, fans with an affinity with the cast will pick up on endearing dynamics and messaging. This also prevents intrusion for players solely here for the gameplay experience.

Regarding gameplay, Sonic Superstars is exactly as you’d expect from the classics, alongside notable variation. When starting, you can play as Sonic, Amy, Tails, and Knuckles, each providing inherent tools to navigate the levels differently. For instance, Knuckles can glide and stick to walls, enabling climbing, while Tails is capable of vertical ascension via flight. Everyone’s controls are relatively intuitive to the extent that even if you lack background in this style of Sonic games, you should have little difficulty grasping the movement.

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Still, there is a particular perception worth emphasizing that, while not unique to this game, warrants mention. The Sonic franchise, at least to me, has never simply been about running fast. It’s certainly a part of the experiences, yet that blanket statement is such an overgeneralization of how these games operate. More than the sheer thrill of speed or even the momentum accumulated to enact it, it’s understanding level layouts across subsequent replays that make the sense of reached speed feel genuine.

Like gradually realizing the intricacy of boss patterns in a difficult action game, there’s ironically a sense of patience attributed to this feat. Speed without meaning is hollow, so, like other achievements in gaming, you have to put in the effort to make the culmination of the practice meaningful. If you’re unwilling to take the time to explore the diverging pathways throughout Sonic Superstars’ levels, there’s a fair chance you’ll find much of it shallow, and the title may not be for you. Now, with all that said, even across multiple replays, none of the stages in Sonic Superstars stood out as exceptional, with them, to a casual fan like me, feeling middle in quality compared to the rest of the prominent 2D entries.

Sonic Superstars 1

To elaborate, the levels of Sonic Superstars boast sufficient reason for replayability thanks to the multiple paths, bonus stages, and pick-ups of medal currency for cosmetics, yet the layouts of the levels themselves were never particularly inventive or memorable. It’s not like any of them were actively unpleasant; they just felt safe above all else, save for a few exceptions. It’s a tricky sensation to describe because my stance does not lean toward extremes. At times, in the first handful of zones, I honestly felt bored because of how by-the-books the conjoined stage elements played out, while other levels had specific aspects that really compelled me.

Concerning the latter, the boss battles of Sonic Superstars are a surprising step up compared to the usual 2D Sonic fare. The bosses throughout these games tend to be mindless and forgettable, but this new entry improved them drastically. Aside from an evident lack of possible spam-lessening cheesing, these battles are simply more challenging than you would expect.

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The final boss, in particular, is an actual test of your skills, necessitating careful telegraph and phase analysis to prevail. While a low bar, the final boss of Sonic Superstars is my favorite of the 2D series, with the bosses generally being parts of the experience, I genuinely look forward to during replays; I never thought I’d ever say that about a 2D Sonic game. In hindsight, the worst I can remark about them is how a few moves come off as padding to extend the lengths of these bouts.

On the other hand, the new Emerald powers feature of Sonic Superstars feels underutilized. As you earn Chaos Emeralds from special bonus rings found throughout various stages, you’ll obtain a Chaos Emerald, assuming you succeed at the minigame. Each Emerald bestows a gameplay ability that opens up new paths and, sometimes, potential opportunities for movement. Unfortunately, because of their innate tethers to the Emeralds, these powers are primarily secondary, with their capabilities never fully committed to in favor of optional pursuits that came across as tacked on more often than not.

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Examples of the Chaos Emerald powers include summoning hordes of clones, seeing hidden objects, slowing down stage movement, and shooting off rapidly in a chosen direction. There are also special abilities from a certain Emerald that grant character-specific abilities. They’re more supplemental than anything, though they’re a neat touch.

Regardless, I would have vastly preferred if a select number of these Chaos Emerald abilities were granted automatically at the start of the game or earned naturally throughout story progression so the foundations of beating a level relied on these tools. Admittedly, part of me is glad this didn’t occur since these gimmicks don’t encompass the entire experience, giving the standard platforming more time to shine with stage-specific maneuvers. Yet, due to the way Emerald powers are utilized, the gameplay identity of Sonic Superstars feels half-baked. More of a middle ground should have been struck here to make the Emeralds more integral due to their impacts on the gameplay.

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Another facet I found myself mixed on was the Chaos Emerald special stages, which are likely my least favorite iteration throughout the entire classic series. It just has players swing across a void with nothing else really going on. Oddly, altered takes of the Sonic 1 special stages are present as bonus areas for other prizes, and the gameplay in those instances felt considerably more involved than obtaining the Emeralds. The priorities here appeared mishandled.

Still, an incorporation I did appreciate was the character-specific stages built around one’s capabilities. These leaned more toward the direction I was hoping for regarding greater gameplay distinction and identity, but it wasn’t embraced as tightly as vastly as I would have preferred. Upon reflection, the best way I can describe my time with Sonic Superstars’ on a gameplay level was a notch above mixed, yet not beyond that.

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Sadly, another facet I’m mixed on, which surprised me more than the rest, was the soundtrack. This is far more of a subjective take than the rest of my points, so I’m not weighing it heavily. Still, I found the soundtrack of Sonic Superstars to be quite disappointing. There are a few stage themes near the end with catchy instrumentation, but the majority of what’s present is serviceable background noise at best. Of course, reception on this will highly vary.

Moving on, after beating the main story for the first time, you unlock a decent chunk of bonus content which I won’t specify for spoiler reasons, but fans will find more than enough reason for replayability. As for other modes, there is Time Attack which is what you expect, as well as the new Battle Mode. I’ll be blunt; the latter is not for me. I gave it a go and quickly found it dull.

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Aside from the charming character customization, the minigames here are too simple, with insufficient deviation to keep them refreshing for replays. For instance, one necessitates projectile avoidance, while another comprises races. At most, you may get a dozen or so minutes of amusement. Still, there is multiplayer for this and the story so you may get some mileage out of it all.

Lastly, regarding bugs and performance, my experience was pretty smooth on PlayStation 5. The framerate stayed consistent throughout, with no noticeable dips, and I only faced a handful of bugs. I fell through the floor twice or so, and Sonic became stuck in a corner during a spindash, requiring a restart. The lattermost instance was the worst of the bugs I encountered. These occasions were minor inconveniences and didn’t bother me much, but I figured they were worth pointing out.

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Sonic Superstars is an adequate 2D Sonic adventure boasting great character control and stage theming alongside significantly improved boss battles. However, the peculiar implementation of the Chaos Emeralds and the only decent level design prevent this outing from really establishing itself as a must-play for veterans of the franchise or genre. At the very least, there’s a reasonable offering of supplemental content packed in replays and bonus modes to satisfy the fans awaiting an original 2D Sonic game.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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Orpheus Joshua

Random gamer equally confused by the mainstream and the unusual.