Last year’s Sonic Frontiers brought Sega’s mascot some much-needed success in the 3D gaming realm, but outside of some segments in the 3D adventures and the externally developed Sonic Mania, the 2D side of the Sonic franchise has been grossly underserviced in recent years. Announced yesterday, Sonic Superstars hopes to give that corner of the Sonic gaming universe a shot in the arm, delivering gorgeous HD visuals, four-player cooperative play, and a bevy of unique Emerald Powers.
However, the announcement was met with a dose of skepticism, as, for many, it immediately conjured memories of the poorly received Sonic the Hedgehog 4, the last time the franchise attempted a devoted, modernized take on the 2D gameplay. I went hands-on with Sonic Superstars during Summer Game Fest, and I’m pleased to report that it feels like a true continuation of the early years of the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise.
Going into the demo, I have the choice of playing through Bridge Island Zone or Speed Jungle Zone. After selecting Bridge Island, I am given the choice to play as Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, or Amy. Sonic retains his drop dash introduced in Sonic Mania, while Tails can fly, Knuckles can climb and glide, and Amy can use her hammer to attack enemies and double jump. To try to get the most accurate read on the gameplay, I choose Sonic.
Save for Sonic Mania, each successive 2D Sonic console experience has felt off. Whether you’re talking Sonic 4’s broken physics and momentum mechanics or the floaty and imprecise nature of the 2D sequences in 3D games like Sonic Forces, the 2D gameplay has left much to be desired in most games in the modern version of the franchise. Sonic Superstars veers closer to the Mania end of the spectrum, giving off a feel of picking up momentum that is loyal to the classic 2D entries in the series. Speeding through Bridge Island’s two Acts feels familiar and intuitive, and not just because the zone feels like a combination of Green Hill and Emerald Hill from Sonic 1 and 2 respectively.
Branching paths give you several ways through each stage, and discoveries like giant rings that let you take part in a 3D swinging minigame to retrieve a Chaos Emerald encourage you to explore each part of every Act. The Special Stages drop you into a 3D space with bubbles around you and a Chaos Emerald in the distance. As Sonic falls, he locks on to the bubbles and can swing from them to catapult himself in the direction of the Chaos Emerald. If you can successfully complete the chase without falling or running out of time, you’re rewarded with the precious gem.
When you retrieve a Chaos Emerald, you’re granted a new Emerald Power, abilities that give Sonic and his pals never-before-seen powers. For my troubles in retrieving the first Emerald, I receive Avatar. This ability sends a ton of clones across the screen, destroying enemies and obstacles to clear a path for the real Sonic.
At the end of Act 1, I engage in a chase with a giant fish robot that is destroying the ground beneath Sonic’s feet. I have no way to damage it, so it’s a game of survival for Sonic. After a brief chase, Sonic escapes and runs past the goal sign to signal the end of the Act. Act 2 transitions the zone to sunset and gives more elements with which to interact, including ramps that give Sonic boosts as he whips around the corners. I also take part in a different kind of Special Stage – one inspired by the Sonic 1 rotating Special Stages, but instead of Chaos Emeralds, these grant you medals.
Act 2 ends with a boss battle against Dr. Eggman in a robotic walker. After a phase where I dodge his spinning and hurtling rocket fists to damage him, his fists turn into spikes and he begins flying around the screen. One more hit puts him away and I complete Act 2.
I have time to try out Speed Jungle, which adds giant vines to grind on and smaller vines that send you flying upward, as well as a couple of really fun boss battles. The boss of Act 1 is a mosquito that shoots out a harpoon that you need to spin dash up the rope to damage, while the boss of Act 2 is essentially the giant spherical robot from The Incredibles, where you can’t damage it, but instead need to goad it into penetrating its own body with its spiky arms.
I really enjoyed my time with Sonic Superstars. My initial assessment upon seeing the gameplay featured in yesterday’s trailer was that it would basically give us Sega’s version of Nintendo’s New Super Mario Bros. series, but Sonic Superstars not only feels good, it feels bold and novel in a way the New Super Mario Bros. series doesn’t anymore, all while feeling like a strong continuation of the original 2D Sonic games. I can’t wait to experience more of this modern 2D adventure when Sonic Superstars arrives this fall.