When Sonic Mania released in 2017, it seemed like we were on the verge of a Sonic renaissance. However, that turned out to be a one shot kind of deal with every Sonic game released after a reversion back to the misunderstanding of what makes a Sonic game enjoyable, and the Sonic Team in particular completely botching the way they make a game.
Sonic Superstars is by far the worst 2D sonic game I’ve ever played (I was called out, and told Sonic 4 was way worse, but I never played more than the first Act of the first World in that game). Sonic Superstars fundamentally doesn’t understand what makes a good Sonic game; and it’s sad because I do think a few minor ideas are interesting and can really take the series in a new direction, or at least amplify the series from what it currently is.
The game starts off with beautiful animated cutscenes and instantly changes into a 2.5D mismash of graphical styles that clash and don’t go well together. One stage that stood out was the Cyber Station, where the Sonic and all enemies change into a Voxel based three dimensional design, it looks great and comes off as something new and exciting. However, various items like the checkpoint tower and other items keep their same starkly different style and it comes off as lazy and uninteresting.
I’d much rather Sonic Team be taken off Sonic games at this point, as they’ve shown time and time again that they can’t make a good or even decent Sonic game in well over twenty years. The first time a new developer stepped in, they created a game that looked and felt like a natural successor of the original Sega Genesis games. It breathed new life into the franchise for the first time in years. I’d give anything for that team to continue making games over what we have gotten over the past six years instead.
Superstars spends much more time on a collectable style avatar creator that I honestly didn’t even understand the point of. You progress through levels and are give items that you can purchase/use to create a special character. What this character does is beyond me, since I finished the game and didn’t interact with the creator at all. You unlock parts in the shop and then can customize certain sections of the avatar like the head, swapping between different character and I just felt zero desire to ever look at it once I checked it out. It has no impact on the core game.
On the surface, Sonic Superstars seems like it probably is a “decent” sonic game, but it isn’t. The level design and layout is so obtuse, and cumbersome that each level takes roughly 7-9 minutes to complete depending on if you blast through it as fast as you possibly can, or just take a leisurely pace. Sonic levels/Acts are not supposed to take roughly 10 minutes to get through. They should be fairly short, within a handful of minutes at most. One or two levels near the end can be a bit longer, but on the whole, it should be fairly tight and fast to blast through these acts, since there should be two or three in each world. However, I’ve noticed a distinct focus on verticality and especially backtracking in these games lately. And no one likes that. A bit of exploration and vertically is fine, but when that becomes the major focus or draw, it loses a lot of it’s defining character. Speed.
We all know that's Sonic's major characteristic. Sonic is a speed platformer. The goal is to get from point A to point B as fast as possible, while racking up points and freeing the little animal creatures in the process. Finding hidden items and shortcuts along the way, and even a bonus stage or two resulting in new powered shields or a chaos emerald. But instead, it’s this tedious twisting up and down labyrinth that doesn’t feel familiar at all, and more of a maze, where once you come to a checkpoint, you are baffled on how you got there. More as happenstance than actual pathfinding. What we have now is not a Sonic core concept, it’s a misunderstanding confusing artful plot pointing with just random sections of eye candy. Loop-de-loops and corkscrews and even slides and auto run sections were used as a moment to catch your breath, not to solely rely on as something that is just there to look nice. They serve no functionality in the new games, because they are constant.
I can go on and on with how awful this game is, but everyone already assumes it. Sonic is a punchline to gaming at this point, and it doesn’t need to be nor should it be. Sonic Mania proved that good 2D side scrolling Sonic games are possible, if given to the right people. And at this point the formula needs to be changed up. Why is it that we’ve had two, going on three Sonic movies, all very successful and not one game that has capitalized on it’s popularity or incorporated it’s plot. We don’t need a “Sonic The Movie: The Game”, but we do need a game that is in line with the movie’s plot and characters at this point. It would bring meaning to the games at this point, since all are basically stand alone carbon copies of each other with no discernible difference beyond a gimmick here and there. Superstars gimmick is 4 player co-op multiplayer, which… is I don’t understand who wants to play multiplayer sonic besides Sonic 2’s multiplayer which was just a race. Again, with the level design in this one, a 8 minute race isn’t really enjoyable and more tedious than anything else.
I’m sure we would all love the series to mean something again, and that starts with the games being shoveled out the door having to mean something. Starting with the plot of being an overarching narrative of more than just the handful of same characters trodden out. Sure it’s nice to see Amy getting more of a spotlight in years, but here she just is a skin, nothing else with a big mallet allowing a bit of a different attack. With zero voice acting, zero text or dialog, we rely on the emotive state of character to convey what's happening, and it all boils down to “someone takes something they shouldn’t, someone else is upset at that, and a chase ensues” Dr. Robotinik shows up and he has machines that try to kill Sonic but ultimately don’t. That’s it. That’s the entire story of every sonic game. It’s a breaking point, and it’s upsetting, as we see the potential of what could be, thanks to Sonic Mania. Bringing it in alignment with the movie, or heck even the Archie comic series or TV shows would make it more interesting.
Ultimately it boils down to Sonic games being more than nostalgia cash-grabs or just being cheap, nearly mobile quality fodder for children. Sonic games don’t have to be, and shouldn't be bad. They have the ability to be very fun and interesting and with someone else at the helm, they could direct the course of the series into a much deeper and interesting story. Giving depth behind Dr. Robotnik is more than just a Teddy Roosevelt look-alike bent on evil desires. Just like with Mario, Sonic has decided to just keep being the same thing with a new coat of paint with outdated and childish features to entice people to buy it based solely on nostalgia. Nostalgia can be a good thing, in very small doses. But when it’s the focal point and just is regurgitated for no reason other than to exploit people into feeling the need to buy the same thing… It's bad. Sonic Superstars is exactly that, and it’s a bad game because of it.