Sonic the Hedgehog: Erinaceidae of Colour

After 2008’s entertaining but divisive Sonic Unleashed, it would be another two years before we’d see the next mainline Sonic the Hedgehog game.

There were two versions of Sonic Colours developed, both of which remembered to put the “U” in for the European version: a Wii-exclusive version that combined 2D and 3D gameplay in the way we’d come to know from “modern Sonic“, and a side-scrolling Nintendo DS version developed by Dimps that was closer in execution to the original Mega Drive games.

Today we’ll be focusing on the Wii version, though anyone who has played a Dimps-developed Sonic game will know the DS version will also be well worth your time. I’ll leave that for you to explore yourself for now, however… we’ve got one hell of a vacation to go on!

Development for Sonic Colours began immediately after Sonic Unleashed was completed. Both Sonic Team and Dimps wanted to create an experience where there was an equal balance between speed and platforming rather than the razor-sharp demarcation there had been in the prior game, and they were also keen to take on board fan feedback.

Consequently, what we have here is a Sonic game that has a lot of the elements introduced in its immediately preceding installments pared down — so that means no additional player characters, no unconventional methods of attack such as Sonic and the Black Knight’s swordplay and definitely no Werehog. (Although I maintain that those levels are a lot more interesting and enjoyable than most people gave them credit for at the time!)

In other words, we have a very “pure” Sonic game here, although producer Takashi Iizuka was keen to make the game accessible to a casual audience. Between Sonic Unleashed and Sonic Colours, we had also seen the well-received and commercially successful Wii title Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, which Iizuka assumed would have brought a lot of new, younger fans to the series; consequently, it seemed to make a lot of sense to focus development exclusively on Nintendo’s family-friendly platforms and court that younger, more casual audience.

This decision indirectly led to a certain amount of controversy, since Iizuka made some seemingly strong statements prior to Sonic Colours’ release, noting that the game was “intended to be played by children of probably between six and twelve years old” and that it was “not really a game for the core gamers”.

Judy Gilbertson, Sega of America’s brand manager at the time, later backpedalled somewhat on these claims, noting that what Iizuka had actually meant to say (uh-huh) was that Colours was just one of three Sonic games coming out in 2010, and that each had been designed to cater primarily to a specific audience. Colours was the one designed to be the most broadly accessible to both new and existing fans, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I was targeted directly at those who had grown up with or particularly enjoyed the old Mega Drive games, and Sonic Free Riders was for those people who had bought into Kinect hype and still thought waving your arms at your TV in an attempt to control games was a good idea.

Sonic Colours for Wii ultimately ended up being the most well-received of these three 2010 Sonic games, with even the most vitriolic of “modern Sonic” haters finding themselves begrudgingly admitting that the game was something of a “return to form”, and dedicated Sonic fans appreciating the solid mix of gameplay styles that the new title provided.

In Sonic Colours, Sonic and Tails have decided to attend an orbital amusement park that Eggman has constructed high above the surface of their home planet. Eggman, naturally, insists that there is absolutely nothing for anyone to worry about, and that he has constructed said amusement park for no other reason than to atone for his past sins by bringing joy to the masses. Somewhat skeptical at these transparently false claims — and, of course, knowing Eggman pretty well by this point — Sonic and Tails decide to investigate, only to discover that surprise surprise, Eggman is indeed embroiled in yet another dastardly plan.

His amusement park has pulled in a number of different small planets, each of which play host to small creatures called Wisps. Conveniently for the game’s structure and aesthetic design, each of these planets has its own distinct “theme” to it — one appears to be made of cake, for example, while another consists almost entirely of underwater Japanese-style temples.

As it happens, Wisps are immensely powerful sources of energy, and it seems Eggman needs an awful lot of energy for the mind control beam he absolutely is not constructing behind the front that his amusement park provides… err, I mean to power the generators that keep his amusement park up and running, obviously. Yes, that’s clearly what I meant to say.

As with most past Sonic games, the core theme at the heart of what is going on here is the conflict between man and nature, with Eggman, as always, representing “man”. His corrupting, polluting influence is clearly represented on each of the worlds by the addition of distinctly out-of-place looking metalwork and machinery, leading to situations such as the absurd but oddly disturbing juxtaposition of bright pink, fluffy confectionery and cold, metallic machinery, scaffolding and enormous missiles.

The theme isn’t just for show, either. Sonic, as ever, is attempting to save these worlds from Eggman’s influence, but this time around he has a bit of help from their native inhabitants. As you progress through the game, you’ll encounter a number of different colours of Wisps, and after you’ve successfully discovered each for the first time on a specific level, they subsequently “unlock” and appear elsewhere in the game, allowing you to revisit stages and access previously unreachable areas.

Each colour of Wisp gives Sonic a special ability that can be triggered at will. White Wisps allow him to boost, similar to the mechanic in Sonic Unleashed’s Daytime stages; cyan Wisps allow him to turn into a laser beam and bounce into awkward areas at high speed; yellow Wisps transform him into a drill, allowing him to freely move around underwater or access areas and items buried deep underground; blue Wisps allow him to send out a blast to destroy nearby blocks as well as transforming special “blue rings” into platforms that can be traversed (and blue platforms into removable blue rings); orange Wisps turn him into a rocket, shooting him high into the air before causing him to float down gracefully; green Wisps allow him to hover and float upwards for short periods; pink Wisps turn him into a spiked wheel that can cling to walls and ceilings; and purple Wisps turn him into a “frenzied” creature that destroys everything in its path, growing in size in the process.

The game typically provides you with a Wisp at an appropriate moment to either progress further in the level, or to reach an area that is a little off the critical path. In the latter case, you’ll often find red rings; five are secreted in each stage, and the more of these you collect, the more levels you are able to access in “Eggman’s Sonic Simulator”, a series of abstract levels that can be enjoyed in both single or multiplayer mode, and which can ultimately unlock the ability to play as Super Sonic.

Before you unlock all the different colours of Wisps — which will generally require you to have visited each of the main “zones” of the game — you’ll still be able to see where the various colours of Wisps will appear once you’ve acquired them. This is a clear visual signal for you to take note of on your first playthrough, showing you that there’s something interesting you might want to investigate on a replay of the level.

There’s no obligation to do this if you don’t want to — as with most other Sonic games that don’t make becoming Super Sonic part of the main story, you can beat the game without touching this side of things at all — but, alongside the scoring and ranking systems, it provides a nice amount of longevity for those who want a bit more from the game than the 6-7 hours it will probably take for you to blast through the main levels and reach the ending.

The level design is absolutely stellar, providing an incredibly varied experience even within a single zone. Sometimes you’ll have a lengthy series of platforming challenges from both a 3D third-person perspective and side-on 2D; sometimes you’ll have a short level that is all about figuring out how to make use of the Wisps available to you to reach a clearly visible goal. The Super Speed idea introduced in Sonic 2006 undergoes further evolution with sections of level (or sometimes whole levels!) that display a special icon indicating where the standard movement controls are replaced with a sidestep ability to switch between “lanes” as Sonic constantly moves forward, and a twist on this idea is provided with “drift” sections, where the button usually used for boosting is replaced with the ability for Sonic to slide dramatically around long, sweeping corners.

The switch between 2D and 3D is seamless, never leaving you in any doubt as to how Sonic will control at any point. Sonic’s capabilities remain consistent between the two perspectives, too; his iconic homing attack has probably its most refined form here, locking on to enemies he’s facing when you’re in the air, allowing effective use of enemies for traversal in both 2D and 3D sections — and for satisfying beatdowns to be administered to bosses at several points throughout the game as a whole.

Certain elements that have historically proven frustrating or challenging elsewhere in the series — such as underwater sections — have been tweaked and refined, too. While Sonic still can’t swim, he can now repeatedly jump while underwater, allowing him to gradually ascend without having to rely on sluggish platforming. In certain stages that require long stints underwater, Sonic can also enlist the assistance of schools of fish who continually provide him with air (I chose not to think too hard about how) rather than having to rely on the infrequent (but still present) bubble patches of previous games.

Elsewhere, in sequences where Sonic has to remain “in sync” with a moving platform, said platform actually accelerates to catch up with Sonic if he gets ahead of its current horizontal location, minimising frustrating drops into death pits while still providing some challenge factor: it doesn’t wait for you on the vertical axis, and there are plenty of other obstacles you’ll need to negotiate as you make your way to your final destination!

And the whole experience is topped off with some of the most polished presentation you’ll see in a Wii game; while still standard definition, Sonic Colours is a beautiful-looking game, throwing around intricately detailed worlds that provide a distinct visual character to each world without getting in the way of the important information you, the player, need to parse in order to traverse them successfully.

Each zone is complemented by a number of excellent musical tracks, too, typically presenting two or three remixes of the same theme according to the type of level you’ll be facing. Energetic, up-tempo arrangements with heavy rhythmic components accompany speed-centric levels with lots of sidestep and drift segments, while more tuneful variants are typically heard alongside levels that require more in the way of exploration, puzzling or intricate 2D platforming.

And we haven’t even touched on the genuinely amusing cutscenes. This was one of the first games to abandon the voice cast of the Sonic X TV anime series, bringing Roger Craig Smith on board as Sonic. While Unleashed had its light-hearted moments, it was overall fairly dark in tone, while Colours marks an obvious return to a distinctly comedic adventure. Sonic cracks bad jokes that don’t always land — much to Tails’ disgust — and breaks the fourth wall on more than one occasion, while Mike Pollock’s delightfully bumbling take on Eggman — a character he had been playing for five years by this point, starting with Shadow the Hedgehog in 2005 — is a prime example of why he remains such a beloved part of the series as a whole even today.

If someone says “modern Sonic is bad”, they haven’t played Sonic Colours. It’s as simple as that. There is so much joy, heart, soul and excellent mechanical design packed into this game that I seriously question how anyone could play it and not find themselves with a silly grin on their face for the duration — even during its more challenging moments, of which it has plenty!

Some nine years after its original release at the time of writing, Sonic Colours remains a particular high point — not only for the Sonic the Hedgehog series as a whole, but also for the entire library of software available for the Wii. Don’t let its pre-release promotion as a “casual” Sonic game for children put you off; this is true Sonic through and through, as well as the beginning of an interesting subseries of installments in the series that typically go rather underappreciated.

But, well, that’s the reason we’re here today: to celebrate those games that deserve a bit more love and attention. And Sonic Colours definitely deserves both of those things.


More about Sonic the Hedgehog

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5 thoughts on “Sonic the Hedgehog: Erinaceidae of Colour”

  1. People seem to lump Colors into the lot of bad Sonic games now. I don’t get that. It’s basically a good game. Plays well, and I like the goofy tone that I think is more in the spirit of the classic games.

    Liked by 1 person

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