Sonic Superstars Preview: As Nostalgic For 16-Bit Sonic As You Are

Sonic Superstars Preview: As Nostalgic For 16-Bit Sonic As You Are

I confess, when Sega first announced Sonic Superstars, its new 2.5D sidescroller starring the ol’ blue blur, my first response was to disparage it. “Ya jokin’,” I muttered, “Shoulda been Mania 2.”

I don’t think I’m alone among old-school, 16-bit era Sonic fans when I say that Sonic Mania felt like Sega admitting something to itself; that Sonic was always at his best in two dimensions, and that its many and varied attempts to turn the character into a 3D platforming hero hadn’t borne fruit. It turns out Sega didn’t feel that way all, cheerfully deciding it would simply make 2D Sonic games alongside the 3D ones.

Sonic Superstars is a throwback to the 16-bit era that attempts to blend modern visuals with the franchise’s flowing, maze-like levels. It is not the first Sonic game to attempt this, but it may be the only one outside of Mania to identify the correct vibe. The game’s opening level, Bridge Island, is built to remind you of the classics — specifically Sonic 3. Sonic and Tails descend toward a beachy little island biome on a bi-winged plane, and Knuckles rushes down to follow them.

The level itself is purpose-built for Sonic to blast through, full of looping, weaving straights and long, wide chasms to leap over. Every part of it was crafted to pull something out of my memory. The star poles make the same sounds, and are positioned about where you’d expect them to be. The bonus stages are pulled straight from Sonic 2. There are hidden large rings that will teleport you into special stages, where you can hunt for Chaos Emeralds. Even the menus, when completing a level or bonus stage, play the same music stings.

This frantic jabbing of the nostalgia button works! It put a smile on my face. Sega is very clearly appealing to a specific subset of the Sonic fandom with this game — it’s me, the old Sonic fan still grumbling about how much better things were on the Mega Drive.

Where it feels like Sonic Superstars may have stumbled is in including its four characters. Players can choose between Sonic, Tails, Knuckles or Amy, each of which have their own unique moves and top speeds. Sonic is plain fast and very nimble. Tails can jump higher than anyone else and can use his tails to fly short distances. Knuckles is heavier and slower than Sonic but can also glide and climb walls. Amy gets a neat double-jump that cocoons her in a momentary barrier.

I played through each of the demo build’s four levels — Bridge Island, Speed Jungle, Pinball Carnival and Cyber Station — several times so that I could try them with each character. What I found was that every one of these levels was easiest and most enjoyable to complete when playing as Sonic himself. Perhaps it was just the levels Sega chose to demo, but what I played felt as though it had been quite specifically built around him (with the possible exception of Speed Jungle Act 2, which fills the screen with fog, forcing you to slow down). Between Amy, Knuckles, and Tails, it felt like there wasn’t much room to deploy their skills except to derail the intended flow, slowing play to a crawl and letting you hunt for certain secrets. Totally possible that the full and final roster of levels will make more concessions for these characters and create space for them to shine a bit more brightly. I watch with interest.

Of the four levels, the only one I didn’t vibe with was Cyber Station, which is set within a computer of some sort. The player passes through energy barriers that cause the character to morph into a voxellated, digital version of themselves. It’s flashy, but for the aesthetic only. A second trip through the barrier turns you into a squid (??) and a third and final turns you into a rocket toward the level’s end. What bugged me about this level is that for every character that isn’t Sonic, it felt like a real traipse to get through. The geometry was such that everything felt just a little more painful to navigate with Tails or Amy than it did with Sonic. The other three levels, I have no complaints. They all evoke specific levels from previous Sonic games, and they all hit the spot.

Each level has new boss fights, but they all function much the same way 2D Sonic bosses always have — avoid incoming attacks, and look for a moment of vulnerability to strike. The difference is that each boss affects the level differently – some require you to run constantly to the right and avoid flying obstacles, and others have you forcing bosses to hurt themselves.

Only two major parts of the game were unavailable to me during the preview, and both were multiplayer modes. I haven’t had time with the four-player campaign co-op and or the competitive battle mode so unfortunately I can’t speak to those in this preview.

At the end of my session, I came away from Sonic Superstars feeling reasonably hopeful about its fortunes. It feels like Sonic as people know and like it; a rapid, spring-heeled platformer interested in recapturing the vibe of its illustrious 16-bit forebears. We’ll see how the fandom feels about it when it launches next month.

Sonic Frontiers launches October 17, 2023 for PlayStation and Xbox platforms, PC, and Nintendo Switch. The author flew to Sydney as a guest of Sega.

Image: Sega

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