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Sonic Superstars is so close to being a Sonic classic

With Sonic Superstars, I’m starting to get the feeling I’ve been here before.

In Sonic’s return to the 2D format, there’s a good game here with lots of moments where I was pleased to see the innovation of Sonic Team shining through. These ideas were, unfortunately, buried in slower-than-it-should-be-for-a-Sonic-game moments with technical issues and unintuitive boss fights.

For Superstars, I really, really wanted another Sonic Mania. That game was sublime, and I feel like both Sonic Team and Sonic fans have been chasing that high ever since. I can say Superstars did not deliver as Mania did but also did not frustrate me as badly as Sonic Frontiers did. There were no moments when I wanted to put either my controller or my head through a wall like I did with that damnable pinball sequence in Frontiers or the boss fight that glitched out as I was on the verge of triumph.

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The frustrations of Superstars came in smaller bursts that took just a touch too long to surmount. There are platforming sequences in just about every level that required me to go through them again and again, often in peril of death, before I was able to punch through.

Sometimes, I would get bounced around by springy platforms, frustratingly arranged to block forward progression. Other times, the game didn’t adequately communicate what I was meant to do, leading to multiple deaths trying to tease out that information.

During the carnival stage, Sonic rides on rollercoasters to get to the next portion of the level. During one of those sequences, the coaster kept crashing, and I kept dying, only to realize the coaster was moving way too fast for me to see that I’m supposed to jump into little canon launchers to escape certain death.

The frustrations of Superstars came in smaller bursts that took just a touch too long to surmount

Despite my frustrations with some bosses — with one actually causing me to put down my Switch and walk away for the night — I really enjoyed the thought put into their design. Whereas in previous 2D Sonics, bosses were usually structured like, “Hit four or five times for the win,” in Superstars, bosses have phases that change up the flow of the fight. After a couple of hits, Robotnik switches up, forcing me to switch up, too. Sometimes, the new strategy for the next phase is easily intuited; other times, it is very not.

For the sand level boss, I only found out after eight or nine deaths that Sonic could bump one of the badniks it throws at you to damage the boss.

Innovation is very much on display in Superstars, but there could be more. I’m kind of tired of seeing the same flavors of stages in every Sonic game. I get that there are good feelings in reminding Sonic fans of the games they grew up with, but there’s a fine line between nostalgia and unoriginality. Oh, another carnival zone? A Green Hill remix? A water zone with slides? A desert sand zone? How quaint.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with having another casino zone or the like as long as they do something different, and I didn’t feel like those legacy zones did.

There are some bright spots in level design, though. There were often very small, discrete moments in each zone that break up the gameplay from hold left and jump. One zone makes you use a drill to burrow through dirt and rocks to reach another part.

There’s even an Arkanoid section that was a real treat. Just great little ways to make the 2D Sonic formula feel new.

I really enjoyed Press Factory Zone, where every few seconds, a giant pneumatic press in the background falls, making everything in the level jump. In the second act, the factory will self-destruct, killing Sonic instantly unless he presses reset buttons scattered throughout the zone. It was a more urgent version of turning on the lights every so often in the Sandopolis Zone in Sonic & Knuckles. Press Factory was a great way to do something new while evoking Sonic games of old.

There’s a lot of old and new in Superstars, which was great. It’s exactly what I wanted. There are plenty of new enemies — some frustrating, others simple — to fight. The game also straight-up ports the badniks from the first three Sonic games into this one. Remember those grasshoppers from Launch Base Zone that could snipe you from across the screen with their claws? They’re back.

The Special Stage from Sonic the Hedgehog where you tilt Sonic through a maze? That’s back, too. But now, instead of winning a Chaos Emerald at the end, you earn medals, a currency you use in the cosmetic shop that I didn’t pay much attention to because the last thing I want or care about in my Sonic games is a dress-up feature. There are Chaos Emeralds, though, and you earn them by chasing them through a stage that reminded me of the special stages in Sonic CD. Not too simple, not too challenging, and definitely cathartic when you manage to catch them.

One fun thing about Superstars is that there’s actually a discrete story that’s very cute. The standard beats of a Sonic game are there: gather the Chaos Emeralds and beat Robotnik. But there’s also a fun side story involving Nack the Weasel. (I can call him that instead of his new name, Fang the Sniper, because that’s what he was called when he was introduced in my favorite Sonic game of all time, Sonic: Triple Trouble.) While you can play as Sonic, Amy, Tails, or Knuckles, throughout the game, there are moments where you are required to play as one of the other characters in special bespoke zones made just for them that make use of their unique abilities — Amy’s double jump or Knuckles’ glide / wall climb, for example.

Your reward for Chaos Emeralds is wholly new to Superstars: emerald powers. One power floods the screen with an army of Sonics that are able to damage enemies from every angle. Another power lets you fire Sonic like a canon shot. My favorite grows a tall vine you can climb for when you can’t get the jump right, while my least favorite is the one that reveals hidden secrets. (It’s Sonic! I am supposed to go fast. Do you think I’m gonna spend time secret hunting?)

While the emerald powers looked interesting in all of Superstars’ trailers and are interesting when you actually get to use them, they feel a bit superfluous. They don’t really add anything to gameplay because they’re simply not required for progression. I wish they had been made a necessary part of the game and the levels designed to make you use them instead of them being optional nice-to-haves.

My main complaint with Superstars is that it’s just too slow. The levels are big, windy, and unwieldily, often taking anywhere from five to seven minutes with not enough sections that allow Sonic to really let loose. He is the fastest thing alive, and I did not feel that, to instead muddle about jumping platforms for eight, nine, 10 minutes at a time. There was exactly one moment at the beginning of the game where I felt like the Blue Blur I was supposed to be.

I wish there had been more moments like that.

The game also takes too long to get interesting. My first hour was boring, and I only really started to feel what Sonic Team was going for around the fifth zone.

Superstars is also technically…not great. I tested the game with both a PS5 pre-launch version and a Switch copy on launch day, and I can see why Sega held back on the Switch code. It’s buggy, loading takes longer than what should be permissible in Anno Domini 2023, and there’s this:

Which is a shame because the Switch is the primary way a Sonic game should be played nowadays. If you get it (and I think you should), maybe hold off on the Switch version. (Fun fact: not too long after this glitch, the game just crashed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game simply stop working on the Switch like that.)

The last time I played a Sonic game for review, it was Sonic Frontiers, and the experience was mixed. While there were many parts of that game I enjoyed — some I really enjoyed — that enjoyment was ultimately stymied by wheel-spinning tedium and frustrating performance issues.

In preparation for writing this, I reread my Frontiers review, finding myself nodding along, recognizing a lot of the same feelings I have for Superstars I had for Frontiers.

Though I had a lot of the same feelings, Sonic Superstars did not hurt me the way Sonic Frontiers did. Ultimately, I’m glad Sega has made another 2D Sonic game that feels fresh and innovative 30 years after Sonic the Hedgehog instilled in this little girl her lifetime love of the franchise.

There are so many good ideas and moments in Superstars, and if it was a little more streamlined and polished, it’d be a game worthy of standing alongside my favorite hedgehog’s greatest hits.

Sonic Superstars is out now on Nintendo Switch, Playstation, Xbox, and PC.

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