The weird fallow years for Sonic the Hedgehog are over. Last year’s Sonic Frontiers managed to buck a trend of less-than-impressive 3D Sonic games, and was a commercial and critical success for Sega. Despite some stumbles with Sonic Origins and its slightly hobbled launch, the blue blur has also proved that he can still inspire child-liek awe in the 2D space, too; Sonic Mania is one of the best mascot platformers released outside of the 90s.
And Sonic Superstars is set to continue Sega’s redemption arc. Eschewing the pixel styling of Sonic’s heritage in favour of shinier, sparklier 3D HD graphics, Sonic Superstars remixes the Sonic formula for 2023. But it does so with respect, acknowledging what’s come before whilst introducing a bevy of new ideas and powers – and the result is, surprisingly, really good.
The announcement of Sonic Superstars itself was met with side-eye glances and the sound of 30- and 40-something adults scoffing. The memory of the appalling and derivative Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is still fresh in the minds of many, after all. But, in the hands, Sonic Superstars is more than a cynical cash-in; it’s a smart, fun little co-op game that feels more like a continuation of the blue blur’s legacy than any of the misfires of the past few decades.
The demo I played at Summer Game Fest had both Bridge Island Zone or Speed Jungle Zone – the former being the game’s take on Green Hill Zone, and the latter packed with curious little gimmicks that really nailed the idea of speed and discovery in one. Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and Amy are playable and you can bring up to three other friends in so that you can take the whole cast for a ride at once, if you desire.
And, the second you spin dash away from the starting block, you start to realise what’s so good about this game. It feels right; it’s not floaty, the momentum is reasonable and readable, and there’s a really nice sense of speed and power with each character. Sonic retains the drop dash given to him in Mania, Amy can pound things with her hammer, Tails can fly, and Knuckles can glide and climb – and they all feel like you expect. Knuckles handles like he did in S3&K, which was enough to keep me interested. This feels more like Mania than Sonic Forces, so that’s a big ol’ tick in the right box.
The bonus stage – accessed via big rotating rings tucked into secret corners of the stage, naturally – is a nice, fun distraction that has you swinging from grapple points as you hunt down a big Chaos Emerald floating through the void. Time it right, get a sense of momentum going and collect rings en route, and bear down on the Emerald in time. It honours the Sonic mini-games of the past whilst introducing something new (and flinging Sonic towards the screen and seeing his little mouth and nose tilted towards you is just adorable).
Nabbing a gem awards you new powers, the central gimmick of the game. The two on offer in the demo were the ability to turn into water and shoot up waterfalls, and the ability to summon clones of yourself to rush the stage and take out any visible enemies. These are fun little distractions that can make the game easier or help you find secret collectibles, but don’t change the core Sonic bread and butter all that much.
Ping your checkpoints, and you get access to the rotating bonus stages of Sonic 1 (which proffer medals, rather than Emeralds) and reach the end of Act 1 to interact with mini-bosses or setpieces that keep the excitement levels relatively high. My only real issues with the game from the demo are the bosses; they’re either retreads of old Robotnik encounters that fall apart in a few hits, or predictable ‘I’m gonna make you hurt yourself!’ fights that don’t really add anything to the series, and feel more like roadblocks than climaxes.
That’s a small complaint, though, and something easily rectified in the main game (if the bosses improve in the other levels). This is an interesting and fun love letter to Sonic that demonstrates there’s still place for wholly new Sonic experiences, and that remixes and re-releases like Mania and Origins aren’t the only ways to make this series relevant again, some three decades after Sonic the Phenomenon entertained us in the 90s.
Sonic Superstars launches for PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC in 2023.