Sonic is back in glorious 2 dimensions! And he's brought all of his friends along for the ride! And some new ones you'll likely never care about!
Sonic Superstars, developed by Sonic Team and developed Arzest, previously best known for.....Balan Wonderworld, is the latest 2D platforming entry in the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. It focuses on traditional Genesis-era platforming with the new added twist of abilities granted through the acquisition of Chaos Emeralds, as well as a new 4-player co-op mode that allows you to zoom through each level in a manner similar to that of the New Super Mario Bros. titles. It feels as progressive as it does a little bit....off?
The key to cracking a great Sonic experience is its level design; the best Sonic titles are well known for their memorable level maps - think Chemical Plant Zone in Sonic 2, Flying Battery Zone in Sonic and Knuckles, Studiopolis Zone in Sonic Mania, and any of the tight, tasty morsels of levels sprinkled throughout Sonic Frontiers. These levels are all intuitively designed maps that keep you moving fast as much as they do challenge you to seek out new pathways and explore each environment to its full potential. These levels also appear early, and set the tone for excellence - the first zones in Sonic the Hedgehog titles are often solid, but the 2nd level will tell you type of craftsmanship you're about to dip into.
Sonic Superstars doesn't really give you that shot of confidence until maybe 5 or 6 levels in, which makes for an awkward experience. It's opening levels have weird music, a camera that occasionally feels too close, and far too many obstacles sitting in just the right place to kill your momentum in a first time experience. It all adds up to a big ol, "hmmm," feeling that will struggle to grab some players.
Fortunately for those willing to persevere, the latter half of Sonic Superstars finds its footing; levels start to better reward you for speed and exploration, and boss fights stop feeling trapped in Sonic's past and begin to expand the horizon for 2D platformer Sonic titles. There were a few surprises in this portion of the game that really feel like an exciting evolution of what one can do with a Sonic the Hedgehog game when you're not terribly worried about it feeling like a Sega Genesis Sonic the Hedgehog game. The boss encounters in this game feel particularly rewarding for those willing to learn patterns and stick with the surprisingly challenging experiences the back half provides. It's unfortunate that its early levels feel reluctant to experiment in the same way.
The rest of Sonic Superstars presentation is fairly standard; players can revisit levels, hunt for hidden bonus stages and alternate paths, and can also earn medals through gameplay that allow them to purchase items from an in game shop. The new co-op mode is more functional than it was fun to me; Sonic games move fast. This makes it incredibly easy to leave behind the players that can't keep up with the lead player's momentum. This worked in previous titles, such as Sonic 2, because the momentum always followed Sonic in level scrolling and otherwise. It does not work for me in Superstars because it just....seems to follow whoever is at the farthest edge of the screen. Some might be able to manage it, but I felt it overwhelmingly chaotic.
Ultimately, Sonic Superstars feels like a promise for future potential rather than a new, exciting idea. Everything about it needs maybe another set of revision and tightening to make it something truly exceptional. As it is, its an acceptable experience. I'm glad I played it. Shame about it debuting against that new Mario though. lmao.