In a lot of ways, it feels like I’ve been chasing a unicorn since 1994. As someone who grew up deeply immersed in Archie Comics’ Sonic series, I’ve been waiting for a new Sonic game to match the glory of Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles or even Sonic CD. Sonic Adventure 2: Battle, Sonic Generations, and Sonic Mania came oh-so-close, but didn’t clear the hurdle.
Sonic Colors: Ultimate falls shorter than all those, but it does give me hope.
The blue blur’s new outing is a remaster of a rarity—a well-received post-Genesis Sonic game. I missed this particular boat back in 2010, like many others, but Sonic Team and Blind Squirrel Games have stripped out the Wiimote controller support and revitalized the experience with modern 4K graphics. Judging by Wii footage, this has done a world of good. Sonic Colors’ environments are varied and complex, and ideally fly by you at breakneck speed. The visual overhaul allows the original vision to shine in ways the Wii simply could not touch.
“Sonic Colors’ environments are varied and complex, and ideally fly by you at breakneck speed.”
Once again, Dr. Eggman is up to no good, and it’s up to Sonic to dash his theme park-centric mission for world domination by freeing the Wisps—alien life forms the evil doctor is using as batteries. These Wisps impart special shape-shifting abilities to Sonic at certain points in each level, from a laser beam that cuts down enemies and allows access to secret areas, to a cube that changes the landscape with shockwaves, to (my personal favourite) a rampaging beast that smashes through boxes, obstacles, and enemies alike.
Levels take the natural complexity of the Genesis-era games and the spectacle of the Dreamcast-era games and combines them to good effect. Subtle hints tease alternate routes in many, while in others you may get chased by some giant robot. Replayability is huge here, for better or worse, as red coins lure you to the hidden crannies of each act.
Early on, however, I found this quality level design undermined by the inherent awkwardness of 3D Sonic controls. It’s always an adjustment when I play a new 3D Sonic—do I need to hold the stick forward to keep running during big set-piece chase scenes? Is he going to keep moving straight ahead on this “lane” or do I have free rein over his positioning? My initial impressions were sullied by this, but by the end of the second zone I was comfortable in the engine, aside from the odd collision-detection bug.
“Sonic goes fast, it’s amazing, but when he’s forced to slow down for very precise platforming, the whole experience sags.”
With relative ease, levels hop back and forth from more traditional 2D to modern 3D perspectives, but you’ll inevitably find the pacing thrown off by some awkward platforming—the curse of post-Genesis Sonic games in general. When Sonic goes fast, it’s amazing, but when he’s forced to slow down for very precise platforming, the whole experience sags.
Speaking of going fast, however, the decision to do away with numbered lives and Game Overs is a welcome change. Gone are the days of “running out of lives” and getting booted back to the main menu. Instead, you can keep trying a level until you beat it. Formerly fatal accidents now reset you to the checkpoint. Alternately, Tails can reset you to the closest “safe” point if you’ve collected “Tails Save” icons. This change works seamlessly, and really helps when you hit difficult patches.
Practically any complaint or quibble I have with Sonic Colors: Ultimate boils down to relics preserved from the original game. The narrative is simple, with required doses of character traits presented as a story. Many players will rejoice that the cast contains just Sonic, Tails, Eggman, some robot goons, and mute Wisps. It’s not even trying to reinvent the wheel or be bold, really. That’s okay with the narrative of a Sonic game, but the bosses are less inspired, and repeating/reskinning boring bosses is a more grievous error.
“Cutscene graphics really show the base game’s age, and the load times on the PS4 are not ideal…”
If anything, the Ultimate version tries to be wholly faithful to the original game and falters for it. All the good achieved by the Tails Save/no game overs’ system can be undone when certain late-game areas could have been improved by simply adding checkpoints. But I can’t really fault Sonic Team for playing it safe either.
Cutscene graphics really show the base game’s age, and the load times on PS4 are not ideal, but otherwise the presentation is fantastic and the gameplay exhilarating for the most part. This is all amplified on the PS5, of course, and it runs terrifically on Sony’s new console.
Rival Mode was a big selling point, but ultimately, I was a little disappointed with it. Getting 15 red coins in a given zone will unlock a Rival Race challenge on one of its stages, where Sonic must race through the level against Metal Sonic. I love Metal Sonic, but the challenges basically demand nothing less than total mastery and flawless execution. Whole new challenge stages, better rewards, and a standalone mode would have been more compelling, but now it feels like one more make-work task lining the world select screen.
At the end of the day there are flies in Sonic’s chili dog, but it’s still a palatable meal. Diehard fans should appreciate the new coat of paint, and most lapsed fans should be pleased to find it’s no Sonic 2006. Between the remaster and experiencing Colors for the first time, I’m now optimistic about Sonic’s future; maybe that worthwhile follow-up to Sonic 3 could still come along after all, because he’s in trustworthy hands.