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The years haven't been kind to poor old Sonic the Hedgehog. When he raced onto the scene in the early 90s, his face was a mark of quality. Gamers could buy the latest Sonic game secure in the knowledge it would be blast of pure arcade action. Ever eager to exploit the poor chap, Sega released more and more games, using his name to sell some truly awful titles.
Thank heavens then that recent Sonic games have seen a dramatic improvement in the little guy's fortunes, a trend continued with the excellent Sonic Colours on the DS. Sonic and his sidekick Tails are once again seeking to foil the evil Dr Eggman who using wisps (small creatures who grant additional powers) to bring his diabolical plans to fruition. To spoil Eggman's plotting, Sonic must race around a 2D platform environment, collect the usual gold rings and use the powers given to him by the wisps to add new abilities to his already impressive speed.
The original Sonic was, of course, known for its breath-taking speed, with the spiky little fellow pinging all around the screen at an impossible pace. Nothing has changed in this DS incarnation and the marriage of old-style 2D platforming with the increased processing power of today's machines means that Sonic Colours' speed is just as impressive as it was 20 years ago. Indeed, at times, it's a little too fast and on some levels I found myself hurtling around the screen so disorientated that I didn't really know where I was, what I was doing or where I was heading. In some ways, that's a problem, but the feeling of exhilarating, barely in control action has always been one of the core appeals of Sonic games and remains so here.
Sonic Colours intersperses the traditional 2D mode with occasional 3D levels which see him racing into the screen, collecting rings that come towards him. These are actually quite good fun and introduce an element of variety to the levels. Since the DS is not really cut out for true 3D gaming, these levels are noticeable slower than the 2D ones, but this is not actually a bad thing as it gives you chance to catch your breath!
The addition of the wisps is a welcome way of giving Sonic new powers (some temporary, some permanent). Whilst they are just power-ups by any other name, they do add a bit of extra depth to the game. Rather than simply bouncing around at breakneck speed, there's an element of strategy where you have to make sure you use the right power at the right time to reach otherwise impossible parts of the screen.
The graphics perfectly capture that sense of Sonic-ness. They are well-drawn, brightly coloured and nicely detailed. Although they have obviously been updated for a new gaming platform, they wouldn't look out of place in some of the earlier adventures. Sonic himself is well drawn and animated and captures that Attitude for which the character is famous. There are also some nice graphical touches to the animation. When Sonic is receiving instructions, for example, he does leg stretches to keep himself limber whilst he's being told what to do! Other presentation is good too, with several well drawn (if rather cheesy!) static cut-scenes developing the story.
Unfortunately, there is a downside. Although the game makes good use of the DS's twin screens (action at times spreads over both screens, giving you more space in which to manoeuvre), everything still feels a little too cramped. The mass of background graphics, enemies, platforms, rings and wisps can make it tricky to pick out exactly what is going on, what needs to be collected and what needs to be avoided. On certain levels, the screen(s) become so crowded that making your way across them can becomes a little bit of a chore.
Sound is excellent. Although Sonic's speech is (mercifully) limited to the occasional word (most of the dialogue appears as text), this is actually a good thing as the voice characterisation just sounds all wrong to me. Various stages are accompanied by different soundtracks which really get the adrenalin pumping. I expected something a little more twee than the bass-heavy soundtracks that the game actually features, but clearly the developers knew what they were doing as they work well. Sound effects are standard stuff, but are perfectly suited to the game.
The game's controls are pretty well implemented and make good use of the DS's various buttons. The controls themselves are not that tricky to master (usually involving pressing a button or a couple of buttons in sequence), although when you're racing along at breakneck speeds it can sometimes be tricky to remember what button accesses which special ability. On the plus side, new abilities are introduced gradually so you do at least have a fighting chance to learn how to use the different power-ups slowly.
Crucially, what makes Sonic Colours work so well is that the core Sonic game play (lost in so many recent outings) is present and correct. Previous Sonic games have tried too hard to offer something "different" and have ended up losing sight of the elements that made the original so much fun. Here, the emphasis is very much on hurtling around as fast as you can and completing each level in as quickly as possible, whilst collecting those precious gold rings. It may not offer many innovations in game play, but Colours comes the closest of any recent Sonic game to re-capturing the incredible feeling of exhilaration that came with the Megadrive original. And you know what they say: if it ain't broke; don't fix it. That's a mantra it's taken Sega over 20 years to understand but, hey, they got there in the end.
Sure it's not the most challenging game in the world and even the most averagely competent gamer will be able to complete it without breaking too much of a sweat. Most players will be able to complete the levels after just a couple of aborted attempts (you effectively get infinite continues) and even the end of level bosses are not difficult to defeat. On the other hand, there are plenty of additional challenges built in: hidden areas to uncover, higher rankings to achieve on each level, high scores to beat and best times to better. Sonic Colours is such good fun, you'll still keep coming back for another quick blast even after you've completed it.
After too long in the wilderness, it's good to see Sega's mascot hit some form again. It's not quite as good as the Megadrive's Sonic 1 and 2 (was it ever going to be?), but it's the closest we've been for a while. Sonic Colours is a cracking little game that embraces the fun of 2D platform gaming with the processing power of new consoles to deliver the breathtaking speed we have come to expect of the Blue Blur. Welcome back Sonic!
(c) Copyright SWSt 2011