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.