Sonic Superstars is an exciting return to the Blue Blur's 2D origins, but its new art style exists because its developers don't think the classic pixel art approach will be "viable" in future.
Speaking to GamesRadar+ at Gamescom 2023, Sonic Team head and Sonic Superstars producer Takashi Iizuka discussed (via a translator) the importance of having both 2D Sonic games, like Superstars, and 3D titles like last year's Sonic Frontiers.
"When we talk about the brand, we definitely need to have a modern Sonic 3D game," Iizuka said. "We also feel we need to have a classic Sonic 2D game. Those are our fundamental pillars that we need to have. We're expanding into movies and TV, but we still need to have both the 3D and the 2D line up for our gaming audience."
"Last year we released Sonic Frontiers, and what Sonic Frontiers was doing is taking the open zone concept, to cement that 3D Sonic gameplay, as something we can build on for the next 10-20 years to continue bringing new gameplay experiences to players. It was really the evolution of where the 3D Sonic space was going, and we feel very proud in what the team was able to deliver."
However, while Frontiers is being seen as a platform for the next two decades of 3D Sonic, Superstars has a slightly different role to play. Iizuka described the game as an "evolution of the 2D Sonic gameplay," saying that "we look at the pixel art - it's great - but when we think about 10-20 years in the future, we don't think it's going to be a viable art style or presentation for our players. And in order to advance and really step things up, we did want to make sure that we're presenting something that 10-20 years down the road we're still evolving and creating new content for."
Iizuka's comments are certainly interesting. Critical consensus isn't always a perfect measure of success, but it's worth noting that Sonic Frontiers' MetaCritic scores range from 61 to 75. By contrast, 2017's Sonic Mania - made in the original games' pixel art style - boasts scores in the mid-80s, and 2018's Sonic Mania Plus is the best-reviewed game in the entire Sonic series.
Elsewhere, pixel art games continue to thrive in the indie space, and several high-profile games from this year, including Octopath Traveler 2 and recent release Sea of Stars, make significant use of the style. Iizuka's comments seem to extend specifically to a Sonic fandom that may skew younger than the JRPG community, but I'd be surprised to see pixel art going anywhere in the short term.