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[Preview] Hands-on with Sonic Superstars and new gameplay

Posted on June 10, 2023 by in Previews, Switch, Videos

Sonic Superstars preview

It feels like there’s a lot riding on Sonic Superstars. While it’s (only?) been six years since the highly acclaimed Sonic Mania brought the franchise back to its roots, that game was developed by a team of indie developers; it’s been far longer since Sonic Team itself has attempted to bring the blue blur back to the side-scrolling realm [update: Sonic Team’s Takashi Iizuka is involved, but has since confirmed Arzest is leading development]. After recently playing a demo of Sonic Superstars at Summer Game Fest Play Days, I’m optimistic the game will manage to recapture a lot of what people love about old-school Sonic, while leaving the door open for some exciting new mechanics to shine.

Although I only had the opportunity to play through two stages of Superstars during my demo, I was impressed by just how much variety was packed into those levels. The Bridge Island Zone is a lush, tropical paradise with flowing waterfalls and moss-covered ruins; it was refreshing to zoom through a world that felt a little different from previous games’ opening zones. Not only was everything bursting with color and detail, each stage had a surprisingly high degree of freedom, with multiple branching paths to the end of the level.

Sonic Superstars preview

While I feel like the overall pace of racing through stages was actually slower than I expected, the more I played and replayed the stages, the more I felt like the rhythm of the platforming had been tuned incredibly tightly. For every satisfying sequence of high-speed loops or chains of rings floating in the sky, there was also a notable amount of on-the-fly decision making (should I jump for that quickly approaching platform, or see what lies below it?) and a decent – but not overwhelming – selection of hazards to avoid. In other words, momentum feels earned in Sonic Superstars, rather than something that is freely given. Sure, there are some set pieces scattered about – like a chase sequence involving a giant fish who demolishes the path behind Sonic as he tries to escape – but for the most part, the game seems focused on delivering tight, open-ended platforming above all else.

The big new shakeup to gameplay is Emerald Powers, which are unlockable abilities that introduce new ways to traverse the environment and dispatch foes. There were only a few in my demo – one that lets Sonic climb up waterfalls, and another that lets him unleash a swarm of clones across the screen to damage foes. While the latter was quite impressive to behold (and useful), the former felt a bit clunky to use – awkwardly hopping up a waterfall really broke the flow of my run through the stage, so I opted to avoid those sections entirely on replays of the stage. I’m also a little concerned that some of these abilities will only be useful in niche situations. It’s too early to say for sure how useful all these abilities will be in the long run, and there were several skills shown in the reveal trailer that I didn’t have the chance to play with, so I’m hoping there’s more depth to these mechanics than at first glance.

Sonic Superstars preview

There are a good number of collectibles and secrets tucked away for those who explore, including portals that teleport Sonic (and friends) into some brief minigames. One of them gives Sonic a grappling beam and tasks him with swinging through a 3D, somewhat cyber-themed realm to collect a Chaos Emerald. Another whisks the hedgehog away into a rotating pachinko-esque world, locking him in ball-form and challenging players to collect as many rings as possible without falling out. I enjoyed both of these, although I hope that there are more variants of these types of diversions tucked away throughout the rest of the game, as I could see them getting repetitive otherwise.

While Superstars will launch with full co-operative play, I only had the opportunity to play through the demo by myself. I made a point to run through the stages twice, once as Sonic, and another time as Amy Rose. To me, these characters didn’t feel drastically different to play as, other than Amy’s signature hammer ability that lets her clobber through obstacles, of course. I imagine that some of the nuance will make itself clearer with time, and I’ve heard differing opinions on this topic from other media who sampled the game – I wish I had had the chance to play as Tails to see how hovering around felt. But even if my suspicions are correct, this might end up resulting in a more balanced experience overall, potentially ensuring that stages don’t feel unoptimized for any particular character, which would ultimately be a good thing.

Sonic Superstars preview

Mercifully, Sonic Superstars seems to be lighter on story elements than previous outings, which I’m completely fine with. The general premise is that Dr. Eggman (and surprisingly, long-dormant antagonist Fang) are capturing and transforming animals into hostile creatures called “Badniks.” I saw a single animation of a little penguin getting captured inside a weird wrecking-ball shaped prison before Sonic launches off Tails’ plane and right into the game. This approach seems like the right call to me – give us a little context as to what’s going on, then throw us into the action. I did notice that the opening scene, at least, plays out completely differently depending on which character the player selects, which adds another small element of replayability beyond score-chasing and gathering collectibles.

The version of Sonic Superstars I previewed wasn’t running on Switch, so I can’t say much about performance at this point, but I’m really digging the new art style. It manages to evoke the confidence and energy that defines Sonic’s character and fills his worlds with life, without straying into the overzealousness that made me cringe in previous games. It’s charming without being overbearing, vibrant without feeling artificial. The animations are spectacular, and the sheen on objects in the environment gives the whole game a subtly toy-like appearance, but one that never feels distracting. On an OLED screen, it’s stunning to behold.

After feeling somewhat mixed towards last year’s Sonic Frontiers, I left my demo of Sonic Superstars eager to play more, and excited with the direction that Sonic Team is taking this new entry in the franchise. It feels both old and new in all the right ways, and if the rest of the game manages to keep the same gameplay flow while introducing even more excitement and variety, this could be one of the best Sonic games in a long time.

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