Version tested: Wii
In graphical terms, next-gen consoles have matured to a point where developers are really pushing at the edges of platform capability. It's an arena in which the Wii, with its sub-HD capabilities, was never designed to compete.
It's far from obsolete, though. Sonic Colours is a reminder that visual impact needn't be about bump-mapping and high dynamic-range lighting. One level, aptly named Starlight Carnival, is a textbook example of how to get the most out of a less well-endowed machine.
The level begins and Sonic hurtles out of an airlock, down a twisting, loop-de-looping pathway into the heart of a star fleet, and it's a marvel to behold. Colossal rainbow-coloured ships wheel and turn while the pathway loops manically around them and you bullet along at breakneck speed. It's a riot of neon signage and lambent, Escher-like design, drunk on fizzing, synth-tinged J-Pop. It's stupefyingly fast and utterly thrilling.
Welcome back, Sonic!
After some lacklustre outings in recent years, Sonic Colours feels, alongside the recent Sonic 4, like a return to form. It taps directly into the vein of velocity that helped Sonic The Hedgehog punt SEGA poster-boy Alex Kidd off the podium in 1991 and assume his place as official mascot. It's also a lot of fun.
The plot is all it needs to be: an introduction to the setting in which you do your spiky, speedy thing. Arch-nemesis Dr. Eggman has renounced his evil ways and set up an interstellar amusement park for the benefit of all. Naturally, Sonic and Tails smell a rat, and ride the mag-lev elevator into space to see for themselves. They soon discover Eggman's real plan: to attract a cute species of alien known as wisps which he then harvests for their energies.
Step away from the hub into one of the game's seven areas and you're presented with a sequential series of levels themed around that particular area. Starlight Carnival's levels, for instance, are set in space and aboard ships; Tropical Resort is all palm trees and sand; and Sweet Factory is composed entirely of cake and candy. In a nod to the past, the Game World zone is a non-critical side-area which is unlocked from the start and features old-style side-scrolling levels complete with 8-bit menu music.
It's the wisps that put the colour into Sonic Colours. In each of the main areas you'll free captured wisps, at which point you become infused with their powers. Blue wisps turn Sonic into a lightning bolt, which enables him to zap through large sections of a level and access otherwise-hidden pathways. White wisps endow Sonic with turbo energy for mind-blowing speed. Each area you unlock has its own wisp type, which brings variety, and often a measure of exploration, to the zone.
Your activities generally fall into two categories – platforming and speed-runs – and there's a good mix of the two. Certain levels are gigantic, ceaseless runs which leave you panting and starry-eyed, while others mix side-scrolling platform-work into the fray. The variety of locations and environments all bring their own flavours of challenge, and only rarely do you find yourself hammering repeatedly against a problem.
It's a mark of success that in the speed-focused levels, you'll find yourself obsessed with keeping the pace and flow up – a bit like Mirror's Edge or Assassin's Creed. You know you're missing content; you catch the beginnings of hidden pathways or bonus items from the corner of your eye as you belt along. The fun often lies in nailing the level fluidly and flawlessly, then going back and re-tackling it at a slower pace to find the goodies and achieve a higher score.
The game involves combat of a sort. Eggman's robot army is never more than a couple of chicanes away, but in a pleasing stroke, they're as much a scenery feature and method of egress, as an actual foe. Sonic automatically locks onto the nearest enemy and, while airborne, a tap of B sends you hurtling towards it. As soon as it's crushed, you auto-lock onto the next enemy, and repeat.
The whole process keeps you airborne, bouncing joyously between targets, and often lets you focus on the environment around you, trying to spot terrain features or simply scoping where you can go next. Bosses tend to be larger, more complex applications of the same principle.
The Wii's controls are used to their best. It's a traditional input method, with the nunchuck's stick controlling movement and the Wii remote buttons jumping and boosting. Given the split-second timing required for movement, jumps and rail-shifts, motion control has been wisely eschewed – except for the use of your wisp-energy. A waggle of the Wii Remote activates any you've collected, and it's probably the only control worth mapping to motion, so top marks there.
Sweet little touches abound. The music – which is rarely less than celebratory in tone – goes all tinny when you're turbo-boosting; it's as if your ears are being battered by the sheer velocity. And when you've finished a level, you can control Sonic on the score screen. The score is displayed in large, 3D block characters, and if you bounce around and pound them enough they spit out extra lives and gold rings.
If there's one flaw, it's that the game's sheer pace sometimes falls foul of the Wii's limitations. Smaller items, such as gold rings or obstacles, start off as pixel-hash in the far distance; in speedy forward-motion sections, terrain features or collectibles don't really resolve until the middle distance, by which point you should have already made the decision and begun your manoeuvre. Things are at their worst when you're in the top-end rush of a turbo-boost.
Sonic Colours won't be for everyone. The humour of the interstitial cut-scenes leans to the preschool side of gentle, and in one way that's fine and dandy; kids will enjoy the game, and rightly so. For an adult, it can be a little too much to stomach. There are none of the cleverly-penned characters you might find in, say, a Ratchet and Clank, and the game as a whole is pretty old-fashioned in a lot of ways.
Depending on your point of view, that could either be a good or a bad thing. There are tried-and-tested action-game formulae in Sonic Colours, and while they're consistently well-executed, there's little inherently new or innovative on show. For me, Sonic Colours' pace and thrill-power overcome these concerns. It's a simple, neon-tinged blast of action gaming, and sometimes, that's all you really want.
8 / 10