Sonic Superstar (That Is What You Are)
HIGH Refined gameplay and gorgeous visuals.
LOW Late-game difficulty.
WTF Recognzing so many references and having no one to tell.
It’s no secret that I’ve come to love the Sonic The Hedgehog series. Come good or bad, I’ve followed the blue blur through it all — be it live-action films, a bevvy of spin-off titles, and even some solid compilations. Last year Sonic Frontiers blew me away, reinvigorating the franchise in a bold way that signaled great things for the future of 3D Sonic games — and maybe 3D platformers in general.
Of course, the advancements in the series’ 3D design left me wondering whether similar steps forward would be taken with Sonic’s next 2D platformer, Sonic Superstars.
A side-scrolling platformer, players control Sonic and friends as they seek to stop Dr. Robotnik from kidnapping giant animals from across North Star Island. As one might expect from the vaguely familiar premise, it’s a fairly standard return to 2D platforming gameplay and not the innovation we might have thought, but this return is still a welcome one, thanks in part to how great it feels.
Since Superstars is presented in 2.5D style (3D models on a 2D plane) I was initially worried that the controls would feel off, but I’m happy to report that movement is incredibly smooth. Sonic’s weight when running, jumping, and spin dashing feels just right, and is supported by some excellently responsive animation. It’s so tight that it feels like the 16-bit sprites from the Sega Genesis games were translated into 3D models, even down to Sonic’s idle animation.
Spread across 12 zones, gameplay consists of running to the end of each section. Along the way are loops to barrel through, rails to travel on, falling platforms to jump from, and other obstacles to avoid. Since Sonic usually speeds through these levels at a great pace, most players won’t see everything there is to offer on their initial play. However, the hallmarks of Sonic level design are varied pathways and smart methods of traversal, making repeat visits an absolute must.
Sonic Superstars also ups the ante by introducing new, level-specific elements that force players to navigate every stage in a different way.
One piece set in a cybernetic world has players transforming into a voxel-like version of Sonic and traveling through wires as if he was in Tron, while another retains the classic pinball paddle-like platforms of past entries, only this time including obstacles that can break momentum if certain jumps aren’t timed correctly. One of my favorite (and most stressful) levels was an industrial junkyard that was on a constant slow countdown to blow up. Throughout this stage were buttons that I had to jump on to stop the clock, which forced me to slow my pace and carefully think about where I wanted to go.
While the gameplay is certainly pulled from classic, Genesis-era titles, I appreciate the developers not wanting to retread old territory — each level feels distinct and varied. A shining example includes the lack of Green Hill Zone, the first level of the first Sonic The Hedgehog. It’s been a staple of the series for decades, but its omission is a great way to flex creative design muscles. There were also some cool bits in other areas that played with gravity, made used of the foreground and background, and even completely flipped levels upside down.
Unlike the excellent Sonic Mania, which remixed older levels with a few new ones, Superstars never failed to surprise me, and I always looked forward to the next new thing it was ready to throw at me.
Another huge change comes with being able to choose from one of four characters. Players can switch between Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and Amy at any time via the menu, although there are some story-required sequences.
Each one has their own abilities, like Knuckles being able to glide through levels and latch onto walls anywhere, but story-specific levels usually have elements that make use of the mandatory character’s special ability. For example, an “Amy” stage was littered with giant fruit. Every time she jumped, she did a spin move and attacked with her hammer, which made clearing the level entertaining. I also like that every character feels distinct enough to make a player’s choice matter, although they all control similarly enough to Sonic on a base level that simply speeding through levels is just as satisfying.
Also new to the formula are the addition of Chaos Emerald power-ups.
Scattered throughout each level are bonus stages that Sonic and friends can stumble into. These usually task him with swinging through a 3D environment and avoiding hazards while trying to finish within a time limit. If he manages to nab the emerald, he’s rewarded with a special ability, ranging from being able to send out a barrage of Sonic clones, to seeing hidden items around the stage.
These abilities are cool, and add depth to both level navigation and attacking enemies. One of the abilities turns Sonic into water and allows him to travel up waterfalls, while another turns him into a fiery ball that can launch in any direction. That ability I mentioned that allows him to see hidden items around every stage? That reveals secret platforms that led me to to the location of Chaos Emerald bonus rooms.
I loved how these moves were incorporated into the level design, and they came in handy with bosses as well. One of the earliest bosses I fought went down easily after I sent him a barrage of Sonic clones to attack. I also really appreciated the touch of animating bosses to react to these specific moves, which made it all feel cohesive.
Speaking of bosses, Sonic Superstars is full of excellent battles. Much like the scale of the “titan” fights in Sonic Forces, that same sense of scope is felt here. Most usually involve Robotnik piloting a giant mech while players avoid damage and dodge projectiles. Several have great twists in both design and gameplay, like one early fight involving a robot that would extend its giant arms across the screen, requiring Sonic to run on them in order to reach the foe land a hit. Another was based on running away from a boss giving chase while avoiding projectiles and obstacles that appeared in front of Sonic. I won’t spoil any of the late-game encounters though — there are some incredible fights that use scale in impressive ways and change gameplay significantly.
As for the difficulty these bosses, I found myself dying more frequently than any other 2D Sonic. My guess? It might be a little easier for those taking advantage of the co-op mode. Four players can be onscreen at once throughout the entire campaign, which sounds great. Unfortunately, as of the time of writing, I wasn’t able to test it out. I am excited, however, to see what kind of chaotic enjoyment can come from playing through Sonic Superstars with friends.
I touched a bit on the presentation of each level, but I can’t overstate how gorgeous every inch looks. Every area is bursting with color, from the dark greens of the jungle to the muted blues and whites of a snowy mountain. That also extends to character design, as they pack so much personality into simple things like the way they move, or how they’re animated. Sonic is expressive as he runs, mimicking facial animations from his back catalog classics and feeling like key art come to life. It’s funny to play a game with absolutely no dialogue after the rather talkative Frontiers, but it still packs the same amount of charm.
While it’s certainly familiar, the amount of variety on display makes Superstars feel like a proper follow-up and evolution of the old school entries, rather than just a simple retread of those past ideas. And in a way, that’s what I love about Sonic Superstars — it knows what the fans want, but it’s not content with playing it safe. Rather, it introduces new ideas to the well-established, crafting one of the finest 2D platformers around. If Sonic Frontiers set a new standard for what 3D Sonic should be, then Superstars is arguably the new blueprint for his 2D adventures.
Rating: 9 out of 10
Disclosures: This game is published by Sega and developed by Sonic Team and Arzest. It’s available on PS4/5, XBO/X/S, Switch and PC. This copy was obtained via publisher and was reviewed on PS5. Approximately 10 hours were spent in single-player, and the game was completed once. No time was spent in the game’s multiplayer.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E for Mild Fantasy Violence. The ESRB states: This is an action platformer in which players assume the roles of Sonic and his friends as they zoom around colorful zones and attempt to defeat Dr. Robotnik. As players speed through whimsical environments, they can jump on enemies’ heads, causing them to transform into small creatures; Sonic and friends react to damage by losing coin-like rings and falling off-screen when defeated. Boss battles can depict more protracted combat, with cartoony explosions.
Colorblind Modes: Colorblind modes are not present in the options menu.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing Gamers: There are no cutscenes that have dialogue and as such, no need to worry about subtitles, but there are visual cues throughout the game, like icons on screen alerting players of different things around the level. These cannot be adjusted. In my view, this game is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: The controls cannot be remapped.