|Release: November 16, 2010|
|Screen Resolution: 480p||Cartoon Violence|
by Steve Haske
Poor Sonic. He's become a bit of a pariah in his later years. Sega has basically been tossing their once-beloved unofficial mascot around like a ping-pong ball since the DC's Sonic Adventure, and as you're probably aware, the results have not been pretty. Following the somewhat dubious shark-jumping incident that was 2008's Sonic Unleashed (in which Sonic became a werehog during the game's night-based levels), everyone had high hopes for the so-called Project Needlemouse, which we know today as Sonic 4 (Episode One). Though Sonic 4 had some questionably janky physics for a speed-based platformer, this long awaited throwback, which fans had been begging Sega to make for years, was actually not half-bad. It wasn't as good as the old-school hedgehog games, to be sure, but it wasn't an inauspicious revival, either. As someone that grew up with Sonic, even I have mostly stopped paying attention close attention to whatever his latest adventure might be, following so many terrible disappointments over the past few years. So when I played Sonic Colors and it actually felt like Sonic (albeit a Sonic Adventure-inspired 2D/3D hybrid iteration), I was pretty surprised.
Though in this day and age Sega seems to lack the understanding that Nintendo has long since figured out—namely that Mario doesn't always need some gimmicky add-on mechanic to still be good—Sonic Colors is notable because such novelty gameplay is kept to a minimum. Sega must have learned their lesson with Sonic Unleashed. When not playing as a werehog, fans were teasingly given classic-style Sonic gameplay, beautifully rendered with contemporary hardware. The fact that these levels only made up about half the game was more than a little upsetting to most players, and the whole concept of the werehog, not to mention the sluggish slogfest combat that its levels were littered with, was so utterly ridiculous it was almost as if Sega was actually trying to alienate the Sonic fanbase. When Sonic Colors first made its debut though, there were no extraneous characters to muddy the waters, and it looked like gameplay was more or less made up of alternating 2D and 3D sections that focus on speed. Guess what? That's about right.
Sonic Colors is in fact about as pure a modern-day Sonic game as has probably been released since the hedgehog's Dreamcast debut, and that includes Sonic 4. Perhaps it's something to do with the fact that Sonic Colors was developed primarily by Sonic Team, as compared to Sonic 4's majority outsourcing to Dimps (who did incidentally assume primary development of Colors' DS version), but whatever the case, Sonic Team seems to have finally listened to its fanbase. From a gameplay standpoint, Sonic Colors basically seems to take off where Sonic Unleashed's day levels left off. The two core tenants of classic Sonic design—speed and level construction—are key here, and Sonic Team has crafted some fantastic scenarios that are a joy to behold as well as play.
Sonic's only in-game accompaniment (apart from Tails, who only appears in cutscenes) are a group of aliens called wisps. These little guys are, not surprisingly, the target of an evil scheme from the nefarious Eggman, who seeks to harvest their energy in order to dominate the universe. The narrative is silly, as Sega caters to a younger demographic, but there's a bit of meta-humor. About half the time the writers seem to be making fun of their own expected conventions, which actually makes things a little more entertaining. However, Sonic Colors' plot is still ancillary and could be easily skipped entirely if you're simply after what really matters: the gameplay.
Thankfully, for the most part, Sonic Team gets this right on the money. Throughout levels there are wisps to collect, and when Sonic frees them he's able to temporarily transform into a colored form that can perform respective moves like the ability to drill underground, float through the air, or roll along any surface. But while it might be vital to transform into a wisp at some points, it's often more of an auxillary thing to make progression through a level go more smoothly. When you're in wisp form, it only lasts for a minute or two, and then it's back to being Sonic. I wouldn't go as far as to say that the wisp mechanic is an afterthought, but it seems clear that Sonic Team definitely gave some thought to exactly how much dilution of the classic Sonic formula might be tolerated by fans. The result is that the game actually feels like a modern Sonic game, and that's not really something that can be said for almost any Sonic game that's come out since the hedgehog hit 3D.
This does come with the caveat that a "modern" Sonic game is not the same thing as one that's strictly old-school. Going all the way back to the precedent set by the tropical first level of Sonic Adventure, the blue blur's adventures in the third dimension are generally one-way travel level design. You may start out on what looks like solid ground, but the heavily-scripted levels rarely stay that way. Blowing through loop-de-loops and crumbling walkways and bouncing from flying enemy to flying enemy using your lock-on attack to, say, navigate a treacherous chasm is often times exhilarating, though it means that backtracking for rings and the like in levels is all but impossible in most cases. Does this matter? No. But too much scripting can lend a game of sense of being on autopilot, which Sonic Colors sometimes suffers slightly from. The flash of sprinting upside-down across a space corridor onto a whirling, freewheeling strip of track that's hardly big enough for Sonic to run along is undeniable, but there are times when the mercurial nature of the level design can hamper the appeal—your sometimes limited control over the action notwithstanding.