The existence of Sonic Superstars is a beautiful, mystifying conundrum.
If you owned a Sega Genesis growing up, you probably know that a co-op Sonic game is a bad idea. Sonic runs too fast, the screen moves too quickly, and player two often gets lost off-screen. So when I learned the upcoming Sonic Superstars would offer a multiplayer sidescrolling Sonic experience, I couldn’t help but scratch my head. Sure, our own Eric “the Hedgehog” Van Allen covered this already, so I knew the game was already toying with some 2D Sonic fundamentals. But the how and why of a Sonic Superstars co-op mode continued to eat at me. How could a game like this ever work?
Fortunately, during a recent event held by Sega, I was able to sit down with a demo of Sonic Superstars that let players get into the trenches of the two-player co-op experience. And after playing the game myself, I was again reminded that multiplayer 2D Sonic really is a fundamentally broken prospect. But rather than try to fix something that can’t be repaired, Sonic Superstars instead embraces the insanity of its premise and molds a chaotic, riveting experience for Sonic fans to sink their teeth into. And honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
You can call me Knuckles
My session with Sonic Superstars began with testing a Jungle-themed zone by myself, since this was the demo’s designated solo level. I picked my boy Knuckles—which, look, back in the Genesis days, Knuckles was the coolest. If you think I’m not going to try Knuckles first, then obviously, you didn’t know me at seven years old. Which makes sense, as the odds of that are statistically improbable.
Anyway, this turned out to not be the best way to first experience Sonic Superstars. Every character in the game has unique properties, and Knuckles is weirdly weighty. Sure, gliding is as fun as it ever was, but Knuckles always has to kind of brace himself when he lands from a noticeable height. For a series focused on speed, this felt awkward and really messed with my muscle memory. Sonic games don’t necessarily need to control the same, but Knuckles specifically felt off because of this.
Also, I’m not entirely sure about the physics of Sonic Superstars in general. I know this is always a super contentious thing with Sonic games, as the 3D games tend to feel just a bit differently than the sprite-based ones. And sure enough, your jump arcs and hang times are different enough from the classics to feel noticeable. That said, it’s far from the worst the series has seen, and it likely is something you can quickly get used to. In other words, it’s more Sonic Generations than Sonic 4.
I got through the level just fine, but I really wanted to see how Superstars fared in co-op. This is where everything changed.
Open your heart
A Sega representative asked me if I had any questions, so I vocalized my desire to test the co-op. I was looking at the screen, so I couldn’t really see what happened, but the next thing I knew, I had Paste Magazine’s Moises Taveras on the couch with me. We kicked off our co-op trial by jumping into Superstar’s Green Hill Zone equivalent stage, and oh boy, did things get goofy quick.
Much like performing the Safety Dance, you can easily leave your friends behind in Sonic Superstars. Rushing ahead of your co-op partner to capitalize on speed boosts is not only natural but expected. Even if both players happen to be together through the faster sections, whoever is in front will lap up all the rings while everyone behind earns nothing for their troubles. This sounds like a bad thing, but it actually added to the experience. There were so many moments where Taveras and I were commenting on how disjointed our ring counts were, only for one person to instantly grab 70 rings in a few seconds just because they were the first person to jump on a spring. Those kinds of moments fit so well in a couch co-op setting.
Fortunately, the game puts protections in to prevent the “player two Tails” situation from the Genesis titles. When a player gets left behind off-screen, they can warp back to the leading player almost instantly. This means no one is ever not playing for too long, which helps keep the party engaged. Additionally, the game lacks a traditional extra life counter. When one player gets wiped out, they’re put on a cooldown timer. As long as at least one person is still alive on screen, you’ll get back into the action sooner than later.
I really like this dynamic. Losing progress in Superstars usually meant we both messed up so catastrophically hard at the same time that we needed those extra seconds of staring at a black screen to process it. It was always good for a laugh, which I value most in multiplayer games like this.
Live and learn
Luckily, Sonic Superstars appears to balance the antics with actual platforming pretty well. We also tested out Pinball Carnival Zone, a well-trodden theme for a Sonic level. During sections that involve paying homage to the 1993 seminal classic Sonic Spinball, the camera zooms out to give players a wide view of the playing area. We usually didn’t need to linger on these parts for too long. However, something about playing with another person makes the prospect of getting rings via a silly minigame section so compelling. It really drives home the “just for fun” vibe the game kept giving me to that point.
Similarly, the last level we got to demo involved a futuristic computerized setting. Honestly, I think the game really hit its stride here. All the player characters become pixelated versions of themselves, which is just aesthetically fun to look at. And all throughout the stage, everyone would get sucked into little minigames that changed the pace of the game. At one point, we both turned into squids that had to slowly swim through dangerous obstacles like we were playing the dam level of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the NES. At another point, we turned into little mice in what I assume was a Chu Chu Rocket homage. Each involved unique mechanics that were easy to grasp and enjoyable to play.
It all came together in a way that did feel like Traveras and I were working together. You know, instead of just fighting over who jumps on the springs to steal all the rings first. The balance of slow and fast sections are key in any Sonic game, but they’re really the glue that holds Sonic Superstars together. In fact, I’d say the creativity of these slower parts is what really elevates Sonic Superstars as a whole. I never knew what to expect next, and I hope that feeling carries throughout the full game.
Walk into my mystery
Meanwhile, if you want to get any Chaos Emeralds, that’s fittingly where the chaos of Sonic Superstars gets downright super.
Remember those special stages from the original Sonic the Hedgehog? Those return here, but with everyone on your couch trying to navigate the rotating mazes at once. These were already silly in their original form, but the extra confusion of managing multiple people on screen made them extra goofy. At one point, Traveras and I simultaneously landed on the one game over spot right at the beginning of the stage, which made us both question our lives before we could return to any platforming.
The other special stage involves an oddly Spider-Man-inspired mechanic of swinging from giant rings to chase after a Chaos Emerald. While these only put one player on the screen at once, the game would alternate players every three swings. This served as a good moment to grab a drink, only to frantically go, “WAIT it’s my turn already!?” before slamming your beverage back on the table. I don’t know where these bits will rank among all Sonic special stages, but I did enjoy them here.
I’m not sure if these are the only two kinds of special stages in Sonic Superstars, but they do get the job done. Of course, the prevailing question I had was whether the game as a whole was actually wacky fun, or if I was merely enjoying a novelty that would wear off after a day or two. This, I think, will be the make or break of Sonic Superstars. And honestly, I can see the full release going either way.
Gotta follow my rainbow
I have a sinking feeling that Sonic Superstars will be a divisive game. As I mentioned, my first impression of the game as a solo experience wasn’t necessarily glowing. Don’t get me wrong, it was fun, it just wasn’t Genesis Sonic. Meanwhile, the co-op doesn’t lend itself to hardcore Sonic play. The friend group that likes to carefully work together and play optimally could easily feel frustrated playing this one.
However, for the type of couch co-op experience I look for, I’m oddly optimistic for Sonic Superstars. It’s dumb. It’s really dumb. But I mean that in the kindest, most endearing way I can. It’s the type of game you pop on with friends while you all enjoy some drinks and shout about what is even happening on the screen. I’d compare it to something like the New Super Mario Bros games, though I think Sonic Superstars comes out on top as a co-op experience. The former game can make mishaps kind of frustrating, whereas Superstars expects and relishes in them. You need the right friend(s) to make it work, but if you do, I think this one has potential.
Either way, we’ll see how the full version of Sonic Superstars fares when it launches on October 17 for the Nintendo Switch.