From pixelated throwbacks to reimagined classics, the halls of Gamescom this year were full of nostalgic games, conceptually blending the old and new to varying levels of fanfare. One of the most prominent players in this memory-based market is undoubtedly Sonic, who, despite his old age, is more spritely than ever and ready to spin dash through a range of levels in Sonic Superstars.
As part of a behind-closed-doors preview, Sega let me go hands-on with two new zones at Gamescom 2023 on the show floor: Cyber Station and Pinball Carnival. I also had time to check out Bridge Island and Speed Jungle, the two levels that were playable on the convention floor this year and have been shown off in previous Sonic Superstars gameplay.
There’s a lot of competition on the market for top-quality platformers across PS5, Xbox, Switch, and PC. Still, Superstars’ nostalgic blend of 2D and 3D sticks out amongst the bunch and is certainly propped up by such an iconic mascot and his plucky pals. Preying on my need for speed and magpie-esque love of shiny objects, I was constantly enthralled as I raced through the levels available in the demo. In case it was ever in doubt, Superstars has all the momentum of the classic series but delivers that fantasy with a fresh lick of paint that is respectful of its forerunners.
Before jumping into my first zone, I was asked to choose between the four Sonic Superstars playable characters: Sonic, Amy, Tails, and Knuckles. As I worked my way through the small but mighty roster available, I noticed each character had their own feel and sense of momentum that would affect each playthrough of the zone.
Where Tails was light and floaty to traverse with, Knuckles held quite a bit of weight that altered how I controlled him. While subtle enough to keep multiplayer endeavors fair, this consideration is a nice touch that made my choice something actually worth considering, especially as I experimented with all sorts of wild platforming maneuvers to work my way through the zones. My fingers are crossed for even more Sonic titans emerging post-release; what I wouldn’t give to try out a course as a Chao!
If we’re talking nostalgia, there’s no better place to start than an 80s cabinet game. This informed my first zone pick in Superstars, which took me to the sentimental jubilee of Pinball Carnival. I was delighted by the retro art direction, which felt like a careful mix of the ‘Space Cadet’ Windows 3D Pinball table and the stylings of Sonic the Hedgehog 2.
I spent most of my time on Pinball Carnival smashing into bumpers, using the speed boost to fly as far as I could at top speed, evoking a sense of unbridled childhood joy. This map felt like Sonic Superstar’s simple yet joyous intentions were realized.
It was in Pinball Carnival that I also faced my first genuine challenge in Sonic Superstars. This arrived in the form of a mini-boss battle that involved using bumpers to bounce around a chain of arenas with progressively difficult terrain to take out a floating clumsy clown.
But, after a few goes, I jetted off to Cyber Station, which was just as visually striking, with the flippers and ramps of Pinball Carnival swapped out for pixelated blocks and neon spirals. I didn’t run into a miniboss in my exploration here; however, I did pass through a series of neon gates that turned my chosen avatar into a variety of chunky cybernetic figures, from a pixel jellyfish to a robotic mouse.
The new forms would allow me to make my way into new corners of the zone using these augmented skills. This process introduced even more puzzle mechanics to contend with to find your way through the level, putting a refreshing spin on the classic Sonic playstyle.
Outside of the base character abilities, players will have access to Chaos Emerald Powers that can be found by exploring levels and completing small challenges. As Sonic, Tails, Knuckles or Amy, you’ll swing through 3D space, avoiding obstacles and gaining speed on a distant emerald, which you have to catch within a certain amount of time. It’s a clever minigame with extra rings and boosts to collect within it, so I found myself pushing my luck to make the most of the section as the clock ran down.
Across my demo, I got to grips with three of the Chaos Emerald Powers. Bullet allows you to transform and launch yourself in a direction as a firey projectile, which is useful for closing tough gaps and breaking through walls. Avatar sends a bite-sized army of your chosen character to overwhelm and take out enemies, and Vision allows you to see hidden platforms throughout levels. I enjoyed how the new skills forced me to think laterally about the platforming puzzles in Sonic Superstars, and provided me with last-minute options at high speed.
A high point in my demo experience was definitely the sound design, which was consistently bouncy and upbeat. As I hung my head in embarrassment after losing all my rings, I still had a smile on my face as my character collected them to the beat of an interactive soundtrack. This is in part thanks to Sonic veteran Jun Senoue, whose previous works include the Sonic Adventure series and Sonic Frontiers, amongst many others. Senoue has spent decades working on Sega’s blue hedgehog sound, and it shows, as each individual zone I played through had a unique musical identity.
So far, Sonic Superstars is a compelling addition to the long list of games coming this year. And while there is a lot of competition for the top spot in the world of platformers right now, Superstars’ gorgeous nostalgic visuals and bright soundscape add an undeniable sense of style to its side-scroller gameplay. Superstars is not reinventing the wheel but finessing a classic experience and bringing it up to speed to deliver a moreish adventure that players can enjoy solo or with three other friends in co-op.