On the brink of his 20th anniversary and for the first time since the Dreamcast's launch, Sonic the Hedgehog has a console game of which he can be proud. Sonic Colors is a lot like Super Mario Galaxy, but faster, more exploratory and with a personality all its own. It's also a whole lot more other things, nearly all of them great. Most importantly, though, it makes most of the last decade of mainline console Sonic platforming games look absolutely foolish.
Sonic Colors takes lessons from his former archnemesis on the surface, and it also combines lessons learned from all previous Sonic titles to date. Sonic Unleashed is Colors' closest relative and incorporates all of Sonic's platforming techniques right off the bat instead of having to gather them during the course of the game. From the moment the game starts, Sonic is equipped with a short hop jump, a high-spinning jump to take out enemies, a light double-jump for those slightly higher platforms, a stomp move to stop momentum in the name of precision jumping, and his trademark homing attack for slamming into enemies from afar, making combat feel fast and fun.
Unlike Unleashed, Colors maps the homing attack and double-jump to the same activation method: pressing the jump button twice. If an enemy's near, there's a chance you may go careening him since the homing attack has 100 percent accuracy within a certain vicinity. This happened to me a few times in 20 hours, but the warning stands: Don't spaz on the jump button without taking note of your surroundings. Other than that, the controls are tight and responsive, and they feel quite nice when using either the GameCube Controller or the default Wii Remote/Nunchuk setup.
Now that we've covered the tried-and-true techniques, let's get into the new stuff. The Wisps are technically the "gimmick" of Sonic Colors, but applying that word to them would be an insult. Wisps are little aliens that Sonic's trying to save from Dr. Eggman, and some of them can fuse with Sonic to grant him powers, à la the Mario titles. The most recognizable is the standard White Wisp, which gives Sonic the ability to boost into high speeds at the touch of a button. Before you start thinking that this game will be an uncontrollable speed-fest, however, rest assured this isn't the case. Speed must be earned, and boost power is given out very sparingly, especially during your first time through the game. Only through skilled reflexes, steady fingers, clever Wisp usage, and exploratory abilities can Sonic achieve and maintain the high speeds for which he is known.
Boost Wisps aside, there are seven other Wisp-granted powers in the Wii version. The Hover Wisp allows Sonic to fly for a short time and utilize the light dash for fast travel along scattered trails of rings. Drill lets Sonic burrow into the ground, allowing him to find all sorts of hidden passages, alternate routes and warp pipes within the gigantic stages. Spikes is a supersonic version of Metroid II's Spider ball, allowing Sonic to stick to and spin-dash along any surface, breaking blocks in his wake. Rocket gives Sonic a one-way vertical trip several screens up, followed by a slow descent. Cube acts like one of Mario's P-switches and a bomb at the same time, letting Sonic change certain large blue blocks to bonus coins and vice versa while also destroying scenery and enemies. Laser zaps Sonic along the stage, destroying anything in his path and reflecting off of walls. Finally, Frenzy turns Sonic into a one-hedgehog eating machine that gets larger as he consumes more. It's a virtual juggernaut, but it's also the hardest to control while active, so it's the only Wisp that I consider to be somewhat of a dud.
Nearly all of the Wisps feel like an extension or variation of Sonic's basic move set, and with thought, some of them could be adapted into Sonic's existing expanded cast (Tails for Hover, Knuckles for Drill/Spikes, etc.). This may put me in the line of fire, but I hope that happens in a future game; it could add some much-welcome replay value — think Sonic 3 & Knuckles or the Sonic Rush titles — and appease more recent Sonic players who've grown to know and like the other characters.
The game doles out plenty of powers and fun mechanics for Sonic to play with, but they'd be worthless without good levels to use them in, right? No problem; Sonic Colors has you covered. It combines much of Unleashed's framework and assets with the expansive level design of the original 16-bit Sonic games. The majority of the game plays out in 2-D, with 3-D segments added for spectacle. The camera seamlessly switches between perspectives at designated spots.
When the game is 2-D, Wisps are enabled, and stages can be multiple screens high and deep, loaded with hidden paths, secrets, shortcuts, underwater tunnels, warp pipes and stunt areas disguised as bottomless pits. It's very easy to go through the stages like a speeding bullet, but if one takes the time to explore the stages and use Wisps liberally, he can find all sorts of alternate paths and hidden goodies. This combination allows players to create their own personal fastest-traveling and coolest-looking lines to the stage goal — and that's always been one of the best parts of good Sonic games. Whereas Unleashed was about fully exploring the potential of super speed, Colors is more about using speed to aid in exploration.
Meanwhile, when the game decides to go 3-D, it's usually to allow the player to take a speed break and enjoy the view. The 3-D sections are the best in a Sonic game, but there are a few times when the inability to manually control the camera can take its toll. On the other hand, whenyou're playing chicken with enemy robots on a glowing highway in space, and you're slamming into them and making them explode as you scream down the track, essentially living out supersonic Tron fantasies ... suddenly it's very difficult to make a case for the complete excision of the Z-axis. There are also exploratory parts in this perspective, with rewarding results.
The visuals are incredible, and not just "for a Wii game," either, but on its own merits. There's real art design here, there are barrages of colors, and there are inventive settings. All good Sonic games have their own personality and style, and this is no exception. Unlike Unleashed, which based its stages on real-world locales, Colors imagines a space-based amusement park teeming with fantastical-themed environments. You'll zoom through space on light trails, swim through an Asian water park, run around the wings of Saturn among a space-based roller coaster, and loop-the-loop around giant donuts and hamburgers.
Giant hamburgers. Every part of this game is awesome.
Sonic Colors also features the best soundtrack ever featured in a Sonic game. It's a great blend of classic and modern-style game music, featuring everything from rock to techno, to chiptunes and nature themes, and back again. Most songs have three to four remixes to their name, played in different stages of a zone. If one song doesn't really do it for you, odds are that there's an arrangement of it that hits that sweet spot. Even the songs for the map screens are catchy if you let them run for about 30 seconds. I've never stayed on a map screen to hear its music in a video game. It's a strange and wonderful feeling.
If all of this sounds good to you and you've decided you want to test these new Sonic waters, let me issue a warning: You'll have to bring your A-game. Colors starts out easy but noticeably ramps up in difficulty. Eventually, the level designs become fair but tough. Holding right or constantly trying to boost will repeatedly send you off cliffs or into enemies until you get a rough idea of the stage layout in your head. People who are used to other platformers that dole out lives every other minute will find that it's very hard to "farm" for lives here; there aren't any stages that allow easy grabbing of lives without a time investment. Additionally, extra lives are only rewarded to you with higher stage ranks, so until you get good at the game, you will see plenty of "game overs," whether or not you think you should. They're still worth it.
The one place where this does not apply is the bosses, who are pushovers. All but the final boss ends up being recycled, so you'll fight harder forms of them in the second half of the worlds. It's a bit of a letdown, especially since the Sonic series is known for fun, inventive boss fights, but the last boss gets points for inventiveness, and for once, it isn't a random MacGuffin that predictably breaks free from Eggman's control.
As for the rest of Colors' package, the game has a few valuable additions. The first is the Sonic Simulator, which is a collection of 21 stages that can be unlocked by grabbing red medals scattered throughout the game. The red medals encourage exploration, and the simulator levels are fun obstacle courses for people who think they've mastered the game. The second is Super Sonic, a welcome Easter egg from the 16-bit games and Sonic the Hedgehog 4. Acquired by grabbing all of the red medals, Super Sonic allows for cathartic invincibility and infinite boost. Finally, there's Challenge mode, an endurance test for people who want to get a healthy dose of levels thrown at them without having to mess with the map screen. I love this mode and would like to see it return in future Sonic games — perhaps even with a randomizer.
Sonic Colors is a fantastic game. Its greatest achievement is that one does not have to be a super-tolerant dyed-in-the-wool Sonic super fan to enjoy it or to forgive a laundry list of flaws. However, just like in the days of 16-bit, if you go in expecting Mario, you'll be in for a shock as often as you'll feel like you're in familiar territory. It's unique from just about any other run-and-jump, hop-and-bop action game, and as mentioned at the beginning of the review, it's taken a long time for Sonic to find an established formula that really worked for him since he went polygonal. Any problems one might have with Sonic Colors are impossible to attribute to any lack of design prowess, quality control or polish. Sonic Colors has it all, and, at least from where I stand, it deserves your cash and support. If you like action games, or if you're a fan of the platforming genre as a whole, then you owe it to yourself to at least try this.
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