Early in Sonic Colors, during one of the game’s few, brief story sequences, the titular hedgehog’s hetero-lifemate Tails asks what he and Sonic are doing in a space-bound theme park run by the supposedly reformed Dr. “Eggman” Robotnik. Sonic tells his pal that they’re going to figure out why Eggman is kidnapping aliens and what his evil plot is. “Then we’re going to foil that plot, right?” Tails asks. “Yep,” Sonic replies, more casual than put-on-cool. “That’s pretty much how we spend our time.” This sets the tone for one of Sega’s most effortless, joyful creations in a decade.
As with the Genesis trilogy that spawned the character, Sonic Colors’ greatest asset is its level design, a collection of sprawling environments that fit the theme-park setting with their array of series staples like grind rails and loop-de-loops. These stages take their formula from the more successful parts of 2008’s lamentable Sonic Unleashed, switching back and forth between two-dimensional run-and-jumping and three-dimensional rushes that place the camera behind Sonic’s back. Unlike Unleashed, though, Colors doesn’t break up the action with ill-advised brawler action or mandatory shooting sequences, though it doesn’t want for variety.
In fact, across the game’s 49 main levels, there’s a more robust, coherent selection of challenges than in any other Sonic game. Some acts are 10-minute speed gauntlets, while others are tough platforming rooms that can be completed in 60 seconds. None are superfluous, and every one is worth revisiting as you find “wisps,” new aliens that act as single-use power-ups. Pink turns Sonic into a spiked ball that clings to surfaces, Orange into a rocket ship, Green into a laser that can be refracted by crystals, etc. Once you find a wisp, that wisp type is filtered into previous stages, letting you go back to find alternate routes and locate the five red stars in each stage. Those collectibles in turn unlock new features for the game’s 21 extra bonus stages in the Sonic Simulator, a collection of rigid, old-style platforming stages that support multiplayer. Sonic Colors’ levels are a stark contrast to classic Sonic games in that they’re big for a reason, built to suit experimentation with the Super Mario-style powers.
The game isn’t flawless, of course. Colors’ failings are the same as those in every Sonic game going back to the original. Later stages are littered with unexpected bottomless pits, ill-defined obstacles, and seeming dead ends that make progress a chore. On the other hand, Colors is free of the annoying features and flat-out incompetent design that plagued the series from 1994 up to Sonic 4. There are no crap characters and no forced, grating story sequences, the controls are excellent, and some levels (like act one of Starlight Carnival) are among the best available in any action game. Sonic Colors has no deep moral message and no revelatory new ideas for game design, but it is artful, fun, and well-made. There is higher praise, but not much.