Superstars celebrates and modernises the look and feel of the original Sonic games. Tight, responsive controls and a few excellent levels/boss fights are real highlights. Unfortunately, a baffling use of Chaos Emerald powerups, flat uninspiring music & sound design and a stuttery, framedrop-filled finale sours an otherwise good experience.
The blue blur has been making a bit of a comeback recently. The better-than-expected movies and Frontiers‘ mostly successful 3D return all bode well for the series. Superstars fires another shot in the right direction, and while it still doesn’t quite hit the mark, it’s definitely getting closer.
Old-school Vibes, New-school look
The Saturday-morning-style cartoon that serves as the opening cutscene is great and really gives you the impression that the teams currently working on Sonic games have a strong understanding of what Sonic is all about. The tone is fast, edgy and cool and I could almost hear the ‘SEGA’ scream in my head playing the first few levels. I loved the animation and the retro-modern take on 2D Sonic. Sure, it might be a tiny bit more cutesy, but somehow it works. The levels look and play out in a manner that feels very familiar. You’re immediately taken back to the original Sonic The Hedgehog on the Mega Drive/Genesis. However, thanks to the power of modern consoles, the backgrounds feel way more alive than they ever did and the Speed Jungle Zone and Pinball Carnival Zone are real highlights.
Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and Amy are playable from the start and thanks to their beautiful unique animations, have more personality than ever!
On top of that, Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and Amy are playable from the start and thanks to their beautiful unique animations, have more personality than ever and feel a little different. Tails can fly making slower exploration a little easier. Knuckles can glide and climb walls making vertical travel much more of an option. Amy has a trademark hammer and Sonic… well, Sonic is still Sonic, but that’s a good thing. The only downside is you can’t really easily switch between characters on the fly within levels. I would’ve preferred this option as – heading back to the main menu to Switch isn’t the most fun and I tended to therefore stick with one character between saves. In multiplayer (especially if you gather 4 friends) using Amy or Tails for less experienced players is a great option and I really like that kind of ‘built-in’ accessibility.
Eggman or Egg-on-your-face
Sonic’s unique speed-first platforming hasn’t always worked for me. Often, I struggled to balance the desire to explore and collect with Sonic’s level design – which pushes you to get to the end as quickly as possible. And if I’m honest, I also found that historically, Sonic’s controls just didn’t feel tight – they felt a little sloppy and slow which were are odds with the desired gameplay. I am happy to report, though that Superstar’s controls feel pretty great. The platforming feels crisp and barring some serious issues near the end, switching between speeding and hopping around felt crisp. Interestingly, the game actually feels a little slower than previous 2D titles, which will therefore likely be disappointing for some, but really worked for me. The conservation of momentum (getting Sonic up to speed still isn’t great) but I think it improved the sharpness of the platforming which is usually an issue for me. Plus, while there were a few bad ones, on the whole, the multiple boss fights were quite good in Superstars. Having, traditional 2D-mostly-sidescrolling levels, interspersed with some fun bonus levels and boss fights felt great. In fact, near the end of the game, you get a nice space-shooter-style changeup in one level and that was really cool, and we could’ve maybe had a few more twists like that.
Having, traditional 2D-mostly-sidescrolling levels, interspersed with some fun bonus levels and boss fights felt great.
The game also has the traditional Time Attack mode where you can see how fast you can complete a level and compare your times with players from around the world. Interestingly, it seems some gimmicks/hacks had already been found by other players who were finishing Act 1 in 0:00 – which is impossible and obviously a bit of a bummer when you see them topping the rankings. On the flip side, there is also a Battle Mode – which is a series of three mini-games that can be played offline or online. The mini-games range in enjoyability and difficulty (from electricity shooting Smash Bros-style beat-em-ups to collecting coins before the times run out to even a simple race). This is a fun addition which I liked – unfortunately, I never found anyone to match up with (may be an issue only in SA) and the little robot you use to compete with – can be changed by buying cosmetics – an addition I’m not usually a bit fan of. It’s quite good to have these extra modes though and definitely brings a little variety to the basic gameplay and mechanics which is a good thing.
That being said, there are some baffling decisions in terms of new gameplay, particularly with the new way Chaos Emeralds work. In Superstars, Chaos Emeralds grant the player unique Powerups (like an army of Sonic clones that will take out enemies, or transform Sonic into a bullet that can be fired in any direction). These can then be used by selecting them on a radial dial at any point after collecting them (barring a cool-down period after each use). Sounds great in principle, but in my playthrough, I only found two of these gems and the second in the last level. Superstars encourages you to speed through levels and offers multiple routes to do so. Unfortunately, that means you may make it through a level without seeing the portal (a giant Ring) to get the Chaos gem. Why you’d make it so a whole new mechanic can be missed by players is beyond me. Worse still, even when you find the portal you still have to play a mini-game to ‘capture a gem and while it isn’t too difficult, it is timed and you only get one shot and grabbing it. Miss it – and again you miss that power-up. Sure, you could say that encourages multiple playthroughs and exploration, but that goes back to my long-standing issues with Sonic games – I’m never sure if I’m supposed to run through each level as fast as I can or not explore. And if it’s the latter – Sonic’s defining quality – flow and speed – is immediately lost. Plus, in a final letdown, the radial dial to select each power-up is clunky – forcing you to repeatedly hit the R trigger and then X to trigger. All this while the game keeps going on in the background – enemies flying at you and all. In short, I finished my playthrough and barely used the few that I even saw.
Why you’d make it so a whole new mechanic (Chaos Emeralds) can be completely missed by players is beyond me.
Sound Design and Disaster
Despite the Chaos Emerald fiasco, the only other small issue I had with Superstars is something I don’t even usually notice, the sound design. First of all, the music wasn’t quite my cup of tea either but that was more a personal preference and likely related to my musical taste. It all felt just a little techno and while some were quite good, there were others that simply weren’t very memorable at all. That being said, the sound design in this game is really odd. While playing several times, weird decisions for sound effects stood out – be it the sound of being squashed that sounded too triumphant or the grating ting of hitting metal which repeatedly echoed through my living room and even led my wife to walk in and wonder what that irritating sound was. However, the issue that almost made me rage quit – sadly seems to be specific to the Nintendo Switch version and unfortunately, it’s a biggie.
To explain this I need to specify a few things about the final battle so there are some slight spoilers ahead but I will do my best to be as vague as possible. However, if you’d prefer to avoid anything even mildly spoilery this is a good time to skip the next paragraph.
The final boss is an insane multiphase twitchy platforming challenge. It would be tough even if there were no performance issues, and it relies on precision button presses and pinpoint timing. To add to this, it is long! The first phase alone takes around 2-6 minutes depending on how quickly you can get certain actions right. After several tries I got through the first phase, only to learn that there’s no checkpoint between phases. That alone made me a little crazy. Personally, I’m not a fan of long punishing final fights – especially if a lot of repetition is involved. The next phase then adds another 3-8 minutes of even tougher platforming and depending on your ring situation – one error sends you right to the beginning again. That means you could be doing 10-15 minute runs for every mistake you make. It is very tough. However, what makes it unbearable on the Switch is, particularly in that second phase, the game lags, jumps and freezes terribly. At one point, you need to make a series of jumps that require almost perfect timing, and the screen is filled with a giant boss, flailing robot arms, lasers, and you’re running in tight circles with platform-step obstacles in your way. I’d hit this section again and again, and even when I arrived with a full complement of rings one touch would cause yet another animation (the explosion of rings) and the screen would freeze and jump. It was excruciating. Now, this section is tough. It would be tough even without the frame rate and performance issues. However, throw those in and the rng of not knowing when the screen will freeze makes this nearly impossible. It desperately needs a fix and until one arrives – I’m not even sure I can recommend playing this one on the Switch unless you have no other option – and even then, I’d say not to play this level until there is a patch – it’s that bad.
In the final section, the game lags behind then jumps and freezes terribly. I’d say not to play this level on the Switch until there is a patch – it’s that bad.
Superstars has elements we’ve been missing in Sonic’s 2D adventures and is a lot of fun. It understands a lot of what made the first few games great and provides a fresh take on the animation and style of those original games while respecting the classic tone and look. A few levels and the addition of 4 characters to choose from are real highlights and the variety in gameplay is a step in the right direction. However, a slightly slower pace, a Chaos Emerald mechanic that is wasted plus a few other smaller issues really trip up the speedster and a disastrous (in terms of performance) final boss fight really sour the experience. That being said, a patch may sort out the latter and should that be the case, Sonic Superstars provides more than enough to be deemed a worthy sequel to a series that we’ve missed for a long time.
REVIEW CODE PROVIDED BY: GAMEFINITY
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