Calling the Sonic The Hedgehog franchise’s history a convoluted one would be a euphemism. Once able to go side-by-side with Nintendo’s behemoth mascot Mario, not to mention almost single-handedly carrying a handful of SEGA consoles, the last 15 years or so of games have seen quite the rollercoaster in quality. Between infamously broken games, disappointing concepts, and multiple failed attempts to translate the Sonic formula into a modern environment, there were also multiple titles that got it right. Sonic Generations, Sonic Mania, and of course the formerly Wii-exclusive Sonic Colours, which we’re now getting in an extended version for all modern platforms. It’s called Sonic Colours: Ultimate, but is it indeed the optimal version?
Where were we?
One of the main issues with 3D iterations of the blue hedgehog’s titles was speed management. Not only they never optimally solved the awkwardness of the slower sections, but even the iconic faster segments were hard to create in 3D, as the velocity Sonic reaches poses several challenges. How big does a map need to be? What sort of enemies and traps can you realistically handle at such speeds? How to analyze complex level designs in split seconds to avoid losing speed? Sonic Unleashed in 2008 found an enjoyable compromise (ignoring the oddly named werehog parts) by offering relatively short but fast-paced levels with 3D controls but a lane-based system and multiple autorun parts, with players mainly tasked with jumping at the right times, handling the boost, and using homing attacks to grasp items and crush enemies.
The evolution to that was Sonic Colours, released exclusively on the Nintendo Wii in 2010. This chapter, on top of being chromatically more varied, lost the obnoxious night-time segments and made the fast platforming even more exciting and, most importantly, varied. Perhaps aside from Sonic Generations, no other 3D installment on this legendary IP managed to capture what speeding through fascinating levels since. It is therefore with pleasure that we recently learned about this installment’s comeback to modern consoles, finally leaving behind what is, by modern standards, the blurry, low-resolution mess of Wii graphics. We tested how Sonic runs at astonishing speeds on Xbox Series X!
Let’s get the obvious part out of the way: this is technically a remake of Sonic Colours, as it was transported to a newer engine, but it’s also functionally closer to a remaster as few assets saw meaningful upgrades, with the visuals and gameplay trying to stay as close as possible to the original product, just with a higher resolution and different lightning. There is no meaningful new content to be found, aside from some optional skins based on the recent Sonic The Hedgehog movie that is bundled in the more expensive editions of the game, and a not particularly exciting mode where players get to race a ghost of Metal Sonic, in what is essentially a speedrunning reference of sorts. What you see is what you get, and if Sonic Colours is already sitting in your library, this isn’t an essential purchase, just a way to get it to modern systems.
And a far from perfect way, unfortunately. For the most part, Sonic Colours Ultimate is mechanically the same as the Wii counterpart, despite having brought the game to a newer engine. This, however, has the unintended side-effect of multiple flawed cameras, occasionally botched hit detections, and uneven performance. Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of the technical upgrade underneath is in the game’s palette: while most textures are more detailed than before, developers appear to have missed the mark when trying to hit the right look. Several shiny elements appear way too bright, while other areas and game elements such as the dirt feel needlessly dark, creating an unpleasant contrast. For example, when activating some of the wisps’ powers, the screen turns darker than it should normally be, making it hard to see the level as intended. The visual inconsistencies peak at the Starlight Carnival levels’ light pathway segments, where even background elements are so shiny and bright that the levels get needlessly confusing, with so many elements on-screen appearing to be screaming for our eyes’ attention.
Sonic and the Will of the Wisps
What are wisps, anyway? They are the distinguishing element of Sonic Colours, and a clear evolution over the Sonic Unleashed formula. That game’s day levels were a mixture of semi-automated 3D levels, played in an alternation of lane-based third-person action and sidescroller segments, with speed and homing attacks being key to reach the end. This episode’s story element sees Sonic rescue these alien creatures he and his friends refer to as wisps, who can be found across the levels and are, for all intents and purposes, power-ups. These range from extra boost, being able to run on the ceiling, all the way to special abilities that allow the destruction of certain kinds of blocks or even to teleport through otherwise unavoidable obstacles. Understanding their correct use is key to mastering the many paths each level offers.
Much like the classic titles of the franchise, Sonic Colours also offers branching paths and locations only reachable via exploration or fast and precise acrobatics. Smart usage of these power-ups and a keen eye often reveal paths that would not be obvious in a normal run, with these hidden areas often rewarding the player with red rings, which can be used to unlock further bonus content in the game. Speaking of unlockables, levels also introduce a new type of coins, spread across the various paths, that can be recollected in every attempt. These can then be spent in an in-game shop that allows players to customize the look of their Sonic: shoes, gloves, all the way to the special effects behind him when using boosts. Just a little extra incentive to replay levels.
A flawed rendition of a classic
Once again, however, this little addition is an afterthought, and it shows. Those Metal Sonic races already have an ugly implementation in the game’s otherwise coherent UI, but these visual upgrades to Sonic are hidden behind some shockingly slow and unresponsive menus, that can freeze up for seconds before moving to another page. Even the settings menu, which is also painfully slow, has glaring options missing, such as the ability to separately regulating the sound and music volume. The music happens to be too loud compared to the in-game sounds and voiceovers? Well, too bad, these elements do not have individual sliders, just a single one for the general volume level. The original game’s great OST sees new remixed versions here for those who bought the more expensive editions, but this also can not be toggled: if you want them gone, you need to manually uninstall the DLC. Weird.
And that sort of carelessness is what transpires from this re-edition of this exciting Sonic The Hedgehog game. When we’re speeding through the game’s colourful and exciting locations, the Sonic Colours formula still manages to shine, and to this date, it’s arguably one of the highest points in the modern era of the famous blue hedgehog. Every new addition and change to this remaster feels poorly implemented, however, with even a handful of new bugs and palette issues, often making the core gameplay less optimal than the now-dated Wii version. It’s a disappointing port of a great game, and Sonic Colours is good enough to be worth the experience even with the aforementioned shortcomings. But we would have expected a better job overall.