Sonic Superstars is very nearly the sequel that should have arrived after Sonic 3/Sonic and Knuckles. Nearly. It's let down by unnecessary additions and, believe it or not, we reckon it should have been a little harder on players (right up until it starts being properly hard on players -- then it should have chilled out a little).
There’s a vague theory that Sega’s Sonic franchise is cursed. It was, with the first three games (plus Sonic and Knuckles), an absolute gaming darling. After that… nothing seems to have gone as planned. Early efforts to go 3D were hated. Heading back to 2D flopped. There was that Werehog incident that nobody likes to talk about and then there’s Sonic Frontiers, which was okay but… eh. Sonic Superstars hopes to right these wrongs and, perhaps, put an end to Sonic’s cursed half-life beyond the Mega Drive.
Sonic Superstars is an updated take on the original trilogy of games (plus Sonic and Knuckles) that hopes to recapture that blue lightning in a bottle. We know what you’re thinking. Hang on, you’re describing Sonic Mania. Yeah, kinda. That’s a proper throwback, right down to the pixel art characters and levels. This one’s attempting to appeal to the kids these days a little more.
You need a story?
There’s a story of sorts in Superstars but you’ve heard the beats before.
Jim Carrey Robotnik (always Robotnik, never Eggman) is out to… something or other, we’re never really sure what that is. It involves wreaking mayhem on the titular blue hedgehog and his mates while kidnapping all manner of woodland critters and using them to power his robots. That’s why Sonic is actually evil (he doesn’t bother to liberate every single trapped creature in a stage) but that’s another conversation.
The point is that this is a classic storyline for a classically-structured game. Sort of. Each area is divided by theme and you’ll have to complete one to head to the next. There are a few optional stages and a couple that are locked until you get a random piece of fruit (after defeating bosses — you’ll see). There’s no consistency in the number of levels in each act — maybe you’ll get three, maybe there’s one but it’s an absolute bastard to finish. The difficulty scales upward as you progress but that… could have been handled better. You’ll see why in a moment. What’s important for now is how close Sonic Superstars comes to emulating the original three-and-a-half games.
Reigniting the spark
This is most apparent in the early levels but it continues past the Pinball Carnival and Lagoon City, all the way up to Egg City and the end of the game. Sort of. But Bridge Island and the other early sections are slower-paced (slower for a Sonic game) and give you a chance to appreciate the attention to detail. This includes old-school skidding and balancing animations that translate well in Sonic Superstars‘ new 3D graphics. Purists will argue that pixel art is essential and they may be right. But the new look manages to convey the same wonder the first games provided way back in the late 20th century.
This impression continues as you blast your way through the stages. If you were around back then, you’ll find that muscle memory handles navigation and control rather handily, even though it’s your first time on a level. The sets of powerups, pickups, and hazards have more in common with Sonic 2 than any of the later games. The same goes for the checkpoints, which still generate a little portal if you pass one with more than 50 rings in your pocket. But that’s not the only secret to be found.
That’s just super, Sonic
The Chaos Emeralds and their attendant ability to turn the blue ‘hog into the iconic Super Sonic have returned but that’s not their only point. Each Emerald, which is attained by hopping into a cunningly concealed gigantic gold ring (you’ll know it when you see it) and making like Tarzan to catch the blasted thing, confers a new ability on Sonic. Superstars reuses this bonus area to tempt you into catching Medallions (more on those in a second), except you’re leaping into a giant blue ring for these.
There are some nifty abilities. One populates the screen with fake versions of your character — Sonic, Tails, Amy, and Knuckles are playable from the start and you can do the same-screen multiplayer thing if you hate yourself. Another reveals hidden platforms, still others let you boost and deal elemental damage. These abilities are all temporary but are recharged when you hit a checkpoint. They’re also… afterthoughts. Using them slows the game down, which isn’t supposed to be the point, and they’re not terribly useful. Well, sometimes.
Certain abilities will let you absolutely paste bosses, zipping you past their attack patterns while barely having to lift a finger. It’s a question of timing and it doesn’t work on every boss but you can slam-dunk Robotnik a few times as you progress if you’re annoyed at those repetitive attacks that you can’t quite dodge.
That’s another thing — Sonic Superstars features the same sort of difficulty the first games were famous for. If you can’t remember them or never played them, it was a painful experience. You rarely hear about Nintendo Thumb these days but you could also get it on a Sega console. Sonic Superstars keeps the difficulty but removes the consequences.
You’ll never run out of lives or see a Game Over screen, which wastes the point of that wicked difficulty. If you know you can just restart and restart and restart forever, a madly difficult part ceases to be a challenge and just starts being annoying. If you bang your head against the wall long enough, you’ll pass it. But the game never stops and tells you how much you suck. We missed that.
Battling to see the point
And then we come to the Medallions. Sort of. They’re an incidental resource intended for the other game mode — Battle. There’s also a Time Attack, which is exactly what it sounds like, but Sonic Superstars has added something grinding and resources and multiplayer. Not the same-screen multiplayer from the campaign but competitive multiplayer which takes place online or on the couch. Or against bots, which is useful for practice. Battle mode requires that you buy the parts you need, and an individual paint for each part, using Medallions.
The trouble is that this mode isn’t especially attractive. The minigames aren’t compelling enough to send you hunting for the resources to create and upgrade a custom robotic combatant, but maybe we’re the wrong audience for this. But the younger ones are playing Fortnite while running around as Pickle Rick or Nicki Minaj or something. They don’t have time for the weak effort Sonic Team has presented here. Still, it’s there if you want it. Someone probably does. They probably still have a secret Sonic OC somewhere.
Sonic Superstars verdict
Sonic Superstars really could have replicated the feel of the first games almost entirely. One addition and a few subtractions would have managed the job rather neatly. Add lives and a continue screen, scrap the Medallion grind and Battle Mode, and deemphasise the multiplayer campaign (because there’s always one bugger who is far too slow) and the all-new areas, threats, bosses, and even the story would have shone that much brighter.
The game still would have had its faults. The Chaos Emeralds powers thing is just weird but we’re also fine with it because we get to cheese poor old Robotnik from time to time. There are late-stage shenanigans to contend with that’ll have you torquing your controller, infinite lives or not, and some of the enemies just suck. That’s normal for a Sonic title, though, so it should probably go into the Plus column.