Sonic Colours, then. It's another return to the hedgehog's roots, but in a different way to Sonic the Hedgehog 4's elaborate sprite tribute to his Mega Drive days.
Evidently taking its inspiration from the relative success that was Secret Rings and not, thankfully, from Black Knight, Colours strips away periphery characters and desperate additions like talking swords and werewolf transformations to focus on speed and tight design. There's no Arabian or Arthurian theme, no Shadow, just platforms and bright colours and plenty of things to cheerfully jump on and rebound off.
It jangles our nerves at first, though, by calling itself SONIC COLORS on the E3 demo's title screen. We're hastily reassured that there'll be an extra U in there in time for the European release.
Sonic Colours' stages are sprawled across a six-armed planet map not entirely dissimilar to Mario's galaxies. Colours also pulls the same trick of transitioning you between 2D and 3D without much warning, in such a way that you don't always notice it's happening. It's partly on-rails, but not to Secret Rings' extent - you use the nunchuk's analogue stick to guide Sonic around tight corners with your own capable thumb without the game wresting away control.
Stages are bright, sugar-hallucination arrangements of corkscrewing pipes, spring pads, primary and pastel-coloured blocks and hovering robotic enemies, with trails of golden rings leading from one mini-segment to the next. The two levels on show - Sweet Mountain and Tropical Resort - are stylistically very different, but equally colourful.
Sweet Mountain is an icing-daubed, candy-coloured stage constructed mostly from cake, sending Sonic loop-the-looping around donuts and boring through layers of pastry. Tropical Resort is a blue-and-green paradise. Both are a mixture of familiar audio and visual cues - the blue-and-red spring pads, the discordant chime when Sonic is hit by an enemy and scatters his rings - and fresh level design.
There are plenty of alternate routes, vertically-stacked in the 2D sections. Sonic barrels along at such a relentless pace that you're not always sure why you've emerged in a new area - zipping left and right across parallel rails on different playthroughs sends the hedgehog in different directions, soaring through a series of rainbow-coloured hoops or skating down onto a fast-disappearing bridge.
Sonic's homing spin is, once again, as much a form of conveyance as an attack, propelling him from enemy to enemy, exploding them into rings and speeding up his path through the levels. Stages are peppered with bright balloons, too, which you can lock onto and burst with a satisfying pop and which occasionally lead to shortcuts.
There's a mix of destructible obstacles that Sonic can run straight through and barriers that stop him in his tracks, ruining his momentum. Trial and error is the only sure way to tell between them, but it's generally obvious that you can run through a crowd of barrels but not through a steel block.
There is a new gameplay gimmick in Sonic Colours: collectible Wisps that give Sonic one-off special abilities. White Wisps add to a boost meter, activated with the B button, that makes you run even faster, blurring the screen at the edges. We also see the Cyan Laser, which pings Sonic around like a light-speed bowling ball, and the Yellow Drill, a novel way of finding new routes.
Picking up the drill Wisp, activated with a shake of the Wiimote, lets Sonic burrow through the ground (or through layers of cake in Sweet Mountain), carving winding patterns into the scenery and emerging somewhere new; a different part of the level, or a bonus cache of rings. A yellow meter on the bottom-right of the screen limits the amount of time he can spend digging - let it deplete fully before finding another drill wisp or emerging above ground and Sonic will perish of cake suffocation. There are worse ways to die, I suppose.
You really can't fault Sonic Colours for speed. Stages aren't more than a few minutes long at full pace, but they've plenty of replay value in terms of extra routes and higher scores. It's not so fast that you feel out of control, though, or can't see where you're going, and it's also not so on-rails that the game feels devoid of any meaningful player input, which has been a problem in all of Sonic's Wii games so far.
Wii remote-specific controls are kept to the occasional remote-shake and tilting the nunchuk to guide Sonic around especially tight corners. It's possible to play without the nunchuk, presumably by tilting the remote as in Secret Rings, but the analogue stick gives such tight control that we didn't feel the urge to try it out. After Black Knight's muscle- and soul-destroying repetitive waggling, such economy of control is a blessing.
At the end of a stage there's an interactive score screen with your rings, time and bonus points proudly displayed. Sonic can bounce around it like a mini playground, spinning the numbers and letters and picking up extra lives as a reward. Except it seems that Sonic Colours won't be hard work at all - the level of gentle guidance in the stages, coupled with a relative sparseness of enemies and non-threatening bosses, seems to indicate that challenge isn't a priority.
We only played two early stages, of course, but Sonic Colours really doesn't appear to be at all difficult. After one attempt at each level, we came out with an S Rank. It would be disappointing if this return to bright, classic Sonic graphics and simple gimmick-free gameplay came with a dumbing-down of the difficulty level. Super Mario Galaxy proves that you can have a bright and cheerful appearance and the devious mind of an evil genius, and other developers have proven that kids' games don't have to be playground pushovers.
It's always hard to approach a new Sonic game without caution, but don't pre-emptively extinguish your hopes for Sonic Colours, because it's making a lot of the right noises and pushing the right large, brightly-coloured buttons. Along with the promising Sonic 4, it gives us confidence that the Sonic series is theoretically capable of making a recovery - at least until the next relapse.
Sonic Colours is due out for DS and Wii in late 2010.