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  • TSS REVIEW: Sonic Superstars

    Classic Sonic is back!

    Arzest might be an unfamiliar name to most Sonic the Hedgehog fans, but the developer certainly has experience with the blue blur. Led by original Sonic character designer Naoto Ohshima, the Japanese studio seemed like the perfect partner for Sonic Team to work with on a new classic Sonic adventure. Sonic Superstars aims to pick up the energy and goodwill generated by Evening Star's Sonic Mania and enhance it with new characters, stages and gameplay gimmicks. Have they succeeded?

    Old-School Cool

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    Well, if the presentation is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding 'yes'! Taking one look at the character design and the overall setting, everything about this feels absolutely perfect. The cute animations, colourful environments, interesting stage gimmicks and wonderful characterisation - including of newcomer Trip and returning villain Fang the Hunter - all come together for a Sonic experience that just feels right. In terms of vibe alone, Superstars is 100% on point.

    Stages are designed with both speed and platforming in mind from the start - Arzest has really understood the brief here, with opening Zones gently offering easy-to-access dash pads and mid-air boosters while introducing players to core gameplay concepts that will return with a vengeance in the latter stages.

    By the time you finish Pinball Carnival, the gloves start to come off and the real fun begins, with various speed traps laid out and multiple routes through each Act. Players will be required to engage with the classic Sonic formula of accessing speed tracks by navigating platforming sections. The Zones do not feel like the one-track levels, with both character abilities and Emerald powers allowing you to explore the maps at your leisure to find the fastest route.

    The Emerald's Power Allows Me To Feel

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    Emerald powers are new to Sonic Superstars, and add a little extra gameplay depth to the age-old hunt for the Chaos Emeralds. Special Stages for these gems, accessed via large gold rings hidden within a stage, are quite fun once you get used to the momentum of swinging Sonic and his friends around a strange fantasy zone, and can require some quick thinking and circular tactics to catch the speeding Emerald in its path. Collecting a Chaos Emerald unlocks a certain ability that can be used one time between star posts - one allows you to grow a vine upwards to access higher routes in a level, while another slows down time so you can avoid an enemy attack or crushing pillar.

    My favourite has to be the Avatar, that chucks a whole bunch of mimics at your foes - which can help you in a pinch on a boss fight but can also be confusing as it’s easy to lose yourself in the chaos. Some of these powers do seem a bit superfluous right now as I write this, but I imagine there will be cool advanced use cases for them all as I replay certain stages. The only real difficulty with these powers is the inability to quick-cancel - pressing L1 and R1 is said to drop your chosen power, but this only seems to be if you’ve equipped it and not yet activated it.

    Beyond Chaos Emeralds, there are plenty of bonus stages and collectibles to gather while on Sonic’s new journey. Giant blue rings take you on a Special Stage once more, but this time you play for Medals which can be used to spend on robot customisations in the Battle mode (more this later). Hitting a Star Post with enough rings opens a warp portal to a Bonus Stage that is reminiscent of the original Special Stages in Sonic 1 on the Mega Drive, again playing for Medals. There’s also strange-looking Fruit which you can get from end-level containers and hidden areas of a stage, which allows access to exclusive Acts in certain Zones that sees you collecting as many rings and Medals as possible in an auto-scroller.

    Teamwork Makes the Dream Work?

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    There’s more than enough within the stages to distract and entertain, and from a gameplay perspective it all feels near-perfect to blast through too. Characters do feel a little too heavy to start, and the Spindash isn’t as powerful or get as much speed as I’d like, but once you get used to Sonic’s slower kickoff it feels fine. Overall, the physics are nigh-on exact to the classic 2D Mega Drive titles, if not at least Sonic Mania, with inertia and momentum all present and correct. After so many years since Evening Star’s 2D effort, playing a Sonic game like this feels like a joy.

    As you spend more time with the game, the only other noticeable thing that impacts the single-player experience is the camera positioning. It’s a little too close to your character (unless you’re playing in co-op) which can make speed runs and hard-mode playthroughs pretty difficult to navigate. It’s a bit of a shame in tense platforming moments in particular, as it dulls the thrill of exploration and the temptation of going at high speed in the later stages - you’re constantly fearful of what enemies may suddenly pop out at you with no time to react.

    The co-op experience is one of the key selling points of Sonic Superstars, and as long as you don’t take any of your gameplay here seriously, it can be a really fun time. Short bursts of multiplayer mayhem are best had with this mode, and unless you enjoy the chaos of losing everyone off-screen for most of the time (and that in itself can be quite funny), it’s best that all players are on the same page with what they want to get out of it. I was playing with a family member who casually enjoyed Sonic, and it was fun for me to take my time as Sonic during the platforming sections and allow the both of us to work through the challenges together (before they went off and left me behind afterwards - typical!).

    However, you do need to be patient with the camera in this mode, as it has trouble focusing on the right character at the right time. It’s not always clear whether the game will choose to focus on the player who is furthest forward, furthest upwards or on the correct track, but in any case you’ll find that the camera has a mind of its own in that instance. Overall, I found co-op to be pretty fun, but there are obvious design flaws here that mean that this is more a mode for casual players rather than four pals trying to seriously speed run stages at once.

    Mega Drive Madness

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    The music is a bit of a mixed bag this time around. While there are some great individual tracks in here - Lagoon City, or Golden City Act 2 for example - many of them don’t seem to work well together to convey a cohesive theme for each Act. Speed Jungle, for instance, opens Act 1 with a fantastically flighty Tee Lopes melody to set the tone, but then you get to Act 2 and the less energetic theme there doesn’t appear to properly follow the leitmotifs set by the previous stage. Act Sonic’s BGM might as well be from a different game, let alone Zone.

    Heavy use of Mega Drive percussions throughout will sadly draw many comparisons to the soundtrack of Sonic the Hedgehog 4, but it’s really not all that bad. Some of the music, such as that found in Frozen Base, proves there’s still life in using the old 16-bit sound chip yet (and the Tails Act theme of that Zone is an absolute banger). But it doesn’t make Sonic Superstars feel as fresh as it could be. Whereas Lopes’ Sonic Mania soundtrack breathed new life into the sprite-based 2D experience, here it kind of feels like I’m listening to something from ten years ago.

    It doesn’t help that sadly, although Jun Senoue directed the music in this, he was unable to compose a lot of the music (beyond a few collabs with Lopes for Bridge Island Zone, which slaps), meaning that a large number of other composers filled in for him. While I have nothing really horrible to say about any of the composers’ individual works in Sonic Superstars, it does kind of contribute to a lack of unified vision for the soundtrack. I’d happily listen to the whole thing on Spotify, though. 

    Cutscene Communication

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    One of the few faults we found with Sonic Mania back in the day was in its story and how little was told between Zones - Sonic Superstars suffers from the same problem. While there are some cute cutscenes that help illustrate the dynamic between characters, or get Sonic from one stage to another, broadly-speaking there’s not a lot here that will help you understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Completing the main story reveals a new harder playthrough taken from a different perspective, but there’s little explanation as to why the character you play in this new mode is pursuing the same goal as Sonic.

    The transition from the story mode to the Super Sonic challenge that presents itself at the end is non-existent as well, meaning you’re going to have to understand the context of what you’re fighting through clues in promotional media such as the animated short. I get Sonic Team wanted to keep things simple to stay true to the classics, and I’m not suggesting that there needed to be any voice-acted Sonic Adventure-style expositions or anything, but some more in-game cutscenes would have really helped sell the story the whole way through. There isn’t really anything here as impactful as, say, the Hidden Palace post-fight sequence from Sonic & Knuckles.

    That doesn’t mean that the game lacks spectacle or atmosphere though. The final stages and boss fights are among the most engaging and challenging I’ve ever played in the 2D series (with the exception of the Super Sonic boss, which is pretty naff), and the difficulty curve in general is designed in such a satisfying way that simply reaching the latter stages of the game feels like an accomplishment. For anyone interested in actual platforming instead of just holding right, this will be a rewarding challenge for the seasoned 2D Sonic player.

    There are some fantastic set-pieces, gimmicks and Easter Eggs to be found here too, from the Harmony SEGA Magazine-inspired snake you ride along in Sand Sanctuary to a classic throwback in Frozen Base Zone Act 2 that will have SEGA fans grinning from ear to ear. There is a genuinely fun twist in the second act of the final zone that mixes things up in a very interesting way - even as you spend the stage wondering about the device Eggman uses to make it happen and why it’s not been a point of focus in the story until that very moment.

    For Great Honor and Justice!

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    Another new feature introduced in Sonic Superstars is the online (or offline) Battle Mode, in which you spend Medals collected in the main game on customisations for a robot prototype (that makes several appearances during your story playthrough, which adds some neat continuity there), which is then sent to glorious battle against other robots.

    The gameplay here is hardly going to win any awards, to be honest with you - it kind of feels like a prototype of what the main experience of Superstars ended up being - but it works for its purpose, and the online battle rounds of 3 are short enough that you can get some fun out of it. Of the mini games I played, besides a standard race, I fought other robots for stars, tried to survive a barrage of cannon fire and shot opponents in the face with lasers.

    After completing an online battle you can earn Medals based on how well you performed (you can play offline, but you won’t earn Medals or increase your online rank - another first for the Sonic series). Coming in first will net you a huge chunk of coins, so this is likely the mode where you’ll get the majority of your currency to spend on weird robot heads, body parts and patterns to adorn.

    Bang For Your Buck?

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    One surprising factor I found in Sonic Superstars was in its overall longevity. Overall it’s taken me some 10 or so hours to briefly see all that Superstars has to offer. That’s without really exploring the Battle Mode (I had a few online battles, quite fun), taking on the time attack mode in a serious way (each character has their own leaderboard for each act in the game, and of course you can rank your times online too) and fully completing the game in co-op. Even playing through the main story solo took a longer stretch of time than I was expecting for a classic Sonic game - some four or five hours or so (a lot of time spent trying to complete that final boss).

    While the game might be priced a little higher than I feel is necessary, when you factor in the above, plus the additional story modes that unlock as you play through, there’s a lot to come back to in this title. Much like Sonic Generations before it, the first-play experience is short for the amount of money you’re putting down here, but the overall quality of that experience - plus the replayability - adds a bit more value underneath the surface. Really, it all comes down to whether you feel the game is priced adequately enough for a 2D adventure - one that does happen to be rather good, but a 2D adventure nonetheless.

    Final Words

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    While it doesn’t quite hit the highs of Sonic Mania, Sonic Superstars is a worthy successor in almost every way. It plays faithfully to the classic games, the new stages are wonderfully designed, the challenge is well-balanced outside of some of the bosses, and the presentation is simply perfect - this is the best that Sonic has looked in decades. It could stand to be around $10-15 cheaper, but there is a surprising amount of content here beyond the replay value of the main stages, and is well worth your time to explore.

    Arzest and Sonic Team have worked together to pull off an impressively entertaining adventure with Sonic Superstars, and I hope that - with a little refinement - there’s more to come from this partnership.

    Review copy provided by SEGA, and is based on PlayStation 5 gameplay.

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    dang, how's the multiplayer? Does it run well with the camera? I have so many questions about this game lol

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    Seems like it's...pretty good. I was witnessing what looked like a bit of doom and gloom from fans here and on Retro, but I trust the staff here and this sets my heart back in place. I was expecting "good but not better than Mania", and the prospect of "not even that good" was scaring me a little. Obviously I'll have to play it for myself to have a real opinion, but I'm glad TSS enjoyed.

    Overall I'm really rooting for this game, because I'm guessing it had an excess of neither time nor money, but it looks like what they did have was spent in the right places, and I am a HUGE proponent of Sonic games being more-efficiently designed. I truly hope this sets a standard for future 2D games to improve on...or even just to match, really! The biggest struggle of the 2010s was not having a stable lineup of original "alternative" games to Sonic Team's output, and I think things will truly be great for Sonic if ST themselves can match and surpass Frontiers while this game's lineage spreads into more solid titles alongside it.

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    40 minutes ago, Ratchet25tx said:

    dang, how's the multiplayer? Does it run well with the camera? I have so many questions about this game lol

    Yeah I wonder if there's friendly fire, like, you can attack your friends because why not we do live in a world of chaos

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    Posted (edited)

    1 hour ago, AlexHidanBR said:

    Yeah I wonder if there's friendly fire, like, you can attack your friends because why not we do live in a world of chaos

    lol, i hope not, cuz that's all what my brother will do when it's a struggling moment in the game.:ded:


    though that would be a cool addition to the game. maybe thats what battle mode is for


    Edited by Ratchet25tx
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    Another well written review that has me really looking forward to next week after this. Thank you!!

    Sonic Fan Fest Sat, Superstars Tues.....a great week ahead!

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    I was hoping the game would follow S3&K's example when it came to the story but alas that isn't the case. Its good to hear the game itself is fun though.

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    Too bad they completely botched the Switch version though :(

    It looks like an alpha stage unity project.

    Tex quality is psp-grade, no lighting (no shadows -> the characters seems to be floating in front of the level), no blurred background, and it’s so aliased in docked mode it looks like 720p.


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    I think it's because Epic is hosting the multiplayer servers? You don't actually NEED it to play single player, but MAN they could've just moved that to the multiplayer menu instead of shoving it on you the second you start the game.

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    Does this have a demo?? I want to know if the whole package is really something special or if the experience is worth the price tag. I read hands-on reviews and other reviews that tote how it has such true-to-classic 2D Genesis-era physics but I view gameplay videos and the controls and frames don't seem very tight. And now I read here that it is at least close to Mania's and even in that game, as good as the gameplay was, the character controls/movement still felt slightly heavy compared to S1-S&K. Thanks for the review, Dreadknux and TSS.

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