Sonic is – and has always been – about running really fast. Spin dashing down green hills. Speeding through loops and corkscrews. Grabbing rings with an iconic tinkle as you fly through the air.
Sonic Superstars has all that. But what happens if there’s more than one player on the screen? Sega’s latest 2D Sonic offering (with co-developer Arzest, who worked on Balan Wonderworld) features up to four player co-op as Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and Amy. At Gamescom I was able to test out both two-player and single-player.
As a multiplayer game, Sonic Superstars is fundamentally flawed.
I’m playing as Sonic, swiftly picking up speed to rush through the level, when all of a sudden Amy spins ahead, the camera follows her, and I’m left off the screen. With the tap of a button I respawn to her position, but my momentum is stalled.
This is a frequent occurrence during multiplayer. Rather than the smooth flow of Sonic games past, Sonic Superstars has a stop-start rhythm that jitters as the game struggles to contain the supersonic speed of more than one character. The level design often features multiple high and low paths typical of the series, but take an alternate route to your partner and the game will only follow one of you. Sonic 2 famously introduced Tails as Sonic’s AI companion who struggled to keep up, fell into pits, and was generally more of a fluttering nuisance. Now that’s you.
The idea, really, is that you play this with your younger sibling but when one player speeds ahead and the other is left behind to watch the action before simply teleporting through the level, frustration and boredom quickly sets in. The alternative is to carefully take your time to jump across platforms together and speed through in unison – but where’s the fun in that? This isn’t a Mario game.
And that’s with just two players! Sonic Superstars supports up to four-player co-op. I can only imagine the chaos (and tears) that would ensue.
I was able to play four different zones in this demo, but one – Speed Jungle Zone – was off limits for two-player sessions. I quickly realised why: the second act takes place mostly in the dark with just a firefly lighting the path slightly ahead. This was hard enough alone, let alone with multiple characters attempting to speed through the shadows.
And remember those infuriating special stage mazes in Sonic 1, the ones that spin around as you find the emerald in the centre while avoiding the speed up and goal nodes? They’re back. Imagine that with more than one player. No thank you.
There’s a new special stage, though, that’s a lot of fun. Jumping through a golden ring in each level transports players and offers a chance to grab an Emerald by swinging through the air like Spider-Man to build momentum as you chase your prize. In multiplayer this works by alternating swings with your partner. It’s simple, one-button stuff but a fun diversion from the main game.
Collecting Emeralds rewards you with special powers new to Sonic Superstars. Selectable using the right stick, these powers allow your character to swim up waterfalls, reveal hidden platforms and rings, summon a legion of character copies to defeat enemies, and more. They’re a nice addition but ultimately superfluous – the game can easily be completed without using these powers at all. Instead they’re more for completionists looking to fully explore each zone, or for beginner players needing a little assistance.
The thing is, all of that multiplayer nonsense can be completely ignored. As a single-player game, Sonic Superstars is a return to classic Sonic, for better and worse. It features the classic toe tapping animations, familiar sound effects, and a suitably chirpy soundtrack – as well as some cheap level design through enemy placements, something that’s present in every Sonic game.
And while the physics of Sonic’s speed and jumps are a little on the sluggish side, they’re mostly up to speed. It’s not quite Sonic Mania, but it’s a vast improvement over Sonic 4.
The opening Bridge Island Zone is typical stuff – green hills, loops, and glistening waters – while Speed Jungle Zone offers high speed thrills over stretching vines (at least in the first act). Pinball Carnival Zone, meanwhile, is your standard Sonic zone of bumpers and slot machines, calling back to the heydays of Sonic 2. Gameplay is side-scrolling but with visuals presented in 3D, allowing Sonic and friends to occasionally run in and out of the screen, lending each zone a greater sense of depth than we’ve seen before.
Cyber Station Zone was my favourite, however. It’s a futuristic playground of techy gadgets that feels fresh to the series, plus you play as a cute voxel rendition of your character – Tails now a high speed bright orange block with a squished face – that can transform into squids, rocket ships and more.
Bosses were also surprisingly inventive. Yes, Robotnik (or Eggman, if you really must) is once again the main antagonist but his designs have become more complex. There’s a robotic dragonfly that swoops over players, a pinball robot that thankfully doesn’t require flippers, and a rotund robot with stretching arms that players must misdirect so it hits itself. They’re easily defeated in multiplayer but provide a challenge when tackled solo.
My trip to the Northstar Islands was mixed, then. On the one hand this is a return to form that solo Sonic players will enjoy, even though it certainly doesn’t reach the highs of Sonic Mania. On the other hand, the chaotic multiplayer – the game’s key selling point – is best avoided. When you gotta go fast, leave others in the dust.
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