The blue blur and pals return in a 2.5D platformer that may just recapture the series’ Mega Drive era highs. Our hands-on preview of Sonic Superstars…
I must be dreaming. New 2D platformers from both Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog releasing within days of each other. Is it the 1990s again?
It should be said that even during the original console wars, when Nintendo and Sega went toe-to-toe in a rivalry greater even than Biggie vs Tupac or Blur vs Oasis, the two mascots never properly launched their titles directly against one another. (Super Mario World had already released in Japan a year before the first Sonic title, while Sonic 2 came out the same month as the release of the Game Boy’s Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins).
Today, the two mascots and companies are partners rather than rivals, and of course you’ll get Sonic Superstars on Switch too, not to mention these days most of us can accept that the moustachioed plumber has always starred in the better and more innovative games.
But look, as a dyed-in-the-wool Sega fanboy, I’m prone to irrational behaviour, and so I’m fully committed to being in the blue corner in this 2D showdown, even if I will naturally play both. Besides, it doesn’t actually matter which is better; what I can say after a hands-on of Sonic Superstars is that it really does feel like the proper successor to the Mega Drive halcyon days that fans have been waiting for.
That is to say it’s not a re-run of the well-received Sonic Mania. While terrific in its own right, Sonic Mania was developed by Christian Whitehead and folks from the Sonic fangame and ROM-hacking community rather than Sonic Team itself. It also leaned on the nostalgia factor, with its pixel art deliberately evoking the Mega Drive’s classics.
Superstars, on the other hand, is a decisive step forward in the modern era, a platformer on a 2D plane but rendered in vibrant 3D visuals that also does away with Green Hill Zone. Superstars instead takes place in a new setting, Northstar Islands, and for the first time in the series, features four player local co-op with playable characters Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and Amy.
It nonetheless returns to some old-school principles – namely that its narrative is kept to a minimum with no voice acting, as seen at the start of the demo where Sonic and Tails are flying on the latter’s plane when they catch sight of blast-from-the-past Nack the Weasel (also known as Fang, which seems to be his official name now). They begin pursuing him, though it’s interesting to note that if you pick Amy, she will view this same scene from another perspective. Collaborating with the Blue Blur’s original creator Naoto Ohshima and his company Arzest means Sonic also sports a more classic, rounder look without the green eyes. It’s still distinct from his Generations throwback, while Amy also shares more similarity with her original outing in Sonic CD.
More important than aesthetics, however, is feel, because Sonic jumps and moves just like you expect him to. The physics are exactly like that of his 16-bit adventures rather than the dreadful Dimps-developed Sonic 4 – the last time Sega had officially tried to make its own 2D follow-up. That also means it ditches the modern homing attack (arguably only functional for the 3D iterations anyway) though it does retain the Drop Dash introduced in Mania.
The level design, at least from what I played from the new verdant opening level, Bridge Island Zone, also takes its cues from the classic games. The second and third entries, which had very large and elaborate stages that meant very different paths for each playthrough, appear to be the inspiration here. It’s quite easy to forget that, despite the tagline ‘Gotta go fast’, the original Sonic games weren’t always about just blazing through levels at top speed; the levels were designed so that you could move at a more moderate pace for platforming or exploration (Tails could even pick up Sonic and fly up to higher points in Sonic 3), and that certainly seems to be the case here. You might argue it’s even more necessary given that Superstars supports local multiplayer, and while I wasn’t able to test that in my hands-on, my impression was that there’s decent pacing to the speed that Sonic isn’t going to have his friends racing to catching up with him like Tails used to always have to do.
As with the 16-bit games, Superstars also plays with perspective during its special stages, where the camera’s suddenly positioned behind your character. The mini game is quite different from previous special stages (no Blue Spheres is fine by me), as you’re trying to collect a Chaos Emerald by swinging across various points in the air, which I didn’t get at first but handled with ease once I jumped into another Warp Ring hidden in each level.
Perhaps the coolest addition is that each emerald isn’t just a collectible that eventually lets you transform into Super Sonic. You’ll also unlock a unique Emerald Power – a time-limited power-up reminiscent of the Wisp abilities in Sonic Colors. An emerald I collected in the demo granted the power of water, which allowed me to climb waterfalls – these are conveniently in abundance at Bridge Island.
While this may not represent the final game, the demo also provided a few other additional Emerald Powers I could play around with, such as Bullet, similar to the fire shield in Sonic 3 except you can blast in any direction, Avatar, which summons numerous clones of your character to attack enemies, and Vision, which reveals secret collectible rings and other items hidden in the level.
Perhaps my only bugbear with these powers is that you need to use the right stick to select one from a wheel – a modern bit of UI that felt a little off, but I suppose it’s a trade-off for being able to freely access whichever Emerald Power you want at any given time.
Ultimately, if I had any niggling doubts, they were quickly dispelled by a Sonic game that felt easily back on prime form, with all the nice touches you’d expect. From the iconic sound effects of jumps and collected rings, a mid-act chase sequence, and even the animations of the hedgehog trying to keep his balance when positioned just over the edge of a platform, it all feels pleasingly precise.
Sure, that new Mario will no doubt give players a lot of Wonder, but I’m feeling confident Sonic fans are going to be having a pretty Super time, too.
Sonic Superstars releases for PC, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, and Switch on 17th October.