Let's get it out of the way; Sonic's Wii entries have not been the greatest of games. They weren't broken and unfinished like Sonic '06, but Secret Rings and Black Knight weren't a whole lot of fun either. Classic Sonic fans, of course, simply wouldn't stand for the blue blaze filtered through a youth-friendly Arabian Nights or Arthurian England, but the problems ran far closer to gameplay than theme. Clunky player control, anemic platforming, and poor pacing were at fault. Sonic Colors, while not officially linked to the so called Storybook Series, retains much of the theme, but benefits from three years of trial and error behind it. It's like Sonic Team mixed the daytime portions of Sonic Unleashed, the multiple-path design of the 16-bit era, and the kid-friendly approach of the previous Wii games and, surprise, the sum of those parts is actually pretty good.
Sonic Color's secret best asset is its lack of filler. The game opens not with some drawn out cut scene or half baked theme, but gameplay. Real, tangible press-start-and-go gameplay. Two levels are cleared before the first cut scene, and the few sprinkled here and there are entirely skippable. The narrative content skews toward a younger audience and it has about as much charm (and originality, unfortunately) as a Saturday morning cartoon, but it's rarely intrusive and never required. In short, Dr. Robotnik Eggman is using aliens (called Wisps) as an energy source for his orbital theme park and Sonic and Tails look to whimsically end his nefarious master plan.
The right-to-the-point methodology also applies to pacing. Sonic Team appears to have exercised restraint, finally understanding that not every level has to feature some sweeping overture. Some acts require a methodical approach that requires trial and error, and some are poised to last only a few minutes, and all have decent checkpoints. Don't mistake an objectively short length for a lack of content, as, true to modern Sonic form, each level favors another play through for complete optimization. The game isn't long, maybe around five or six hours, but earning A and S ranks on each act is quite the challenge, as is finding all the red rings. And, for once, S-ranking an act isn't all about speed; collecting rings, not getting hit, and a clever use of Wisps all factor into the final grade. Ranking also serves as additional content for more sensible players, as simply getting through the levels isn't much of a challenge.
The previously mentioned "Wisps" are Sonic Color's vibrant play on the series' mechanics. Wisps are basically single-use powers found in different colored (get it?) capsules in an act, with each world-played adding a new Wisp to the mix. Engaging a Wisp's respective ability transforms Sonic into (among other things) a spaceship for vertical accent, a drill for subterranean exploration, and a lightning-fast beam of light ripe for ricochet. Sometimes you'll reach an empty Wisp container mid-level, which provides incentive to return once you've later unlocked that particular Wisp. Wisps are rarely required for progression, save for few instances when plenty are provided.
Level design is another strong aspect of Sonic Colors. Sonic still controls like a lubed up walrus slipping down an iceberg for the few 3D exploration segments, but penalty of death is largely removed from those obtuse sections. There are a few sections that flat out kill Sonic without warning, but Sonic Team was aware enough to relate most of the challenging sections of the game to two dimensions. 2D revivals are all the rage these days, but Sonic Color's brand does manage to stand out from the rest. 2D composes well over half the game, and the constant camera switching is great for scale and perspective. The rail sliding is the best it has ever been, and relegating running to three analog-flicking paths was a wise move. Best of all, multiple paths through levels are back. Usually an indication of player skill, it's not out of the question to play through a level three or four times and experience something new each time out.
Distinctive mechanics are also a part of most levels. One particularly interesting feature is a sort of mobile bumper that floats in space under Sonic, requiring Sonic to strategically bounce on it as it proceeds through the level. Restricted to two dimensions, the bumper moves forward with Sonic, but never backward, providing a great, slightly unconventional challenge. Sonic Color's level design isn't as inventive as say, Mario Galaxy or Kirby's Epic Yarn, but Sonic's brand of enemy bopping and movement still feels fairly unique in the platformer landscape. Most of the unconventional and gratifying portions are left to Wisp usage, but even a vanilla play through functions as a more competent Secret Rings or Unleashed. On one hand, a deliberately Wisp-less play through provides an experience closer to the 16-bit titles than we've had since the 90's, but on the other such a flavorless play style is a good indication of how well that brand of gaming works (or doesn’t work) in the 2010 landscape.
A constant criticism of Sonic was his frequent auto-piloting, cheerfully reduced to "hold right to win." Unfortunately there are plenty of sections in Sonic Colors where this feeling rears its ugly head, but ironically it’s usually found in areas that try to mock Sonic of old; both the high speed sections and the loop-de-loops segments are bound to hold right on the analog stick and watching the madness unfold. You can also count on the game sort of taking over whenever Sonic has to go upside down in outer space or virtually any section where Sonic Team had to balance fan wishes or something cool looking with actual gameplay. It's disappointing, but hopefully a necessary step for something greater in the future.
Regrettably, control is one area Sonic Team hasn't yet found their footing. I admit it's tough to find a balance between instant blazing speed and pin point platforming precision, but what's given is barely serviceable in some areas. Pushing Sonic from platform to platform on a 2D plane is for more loose than it should be, as is gauging the distance necessary in mid jump. In fact, Sonic actually has a double jump this time around, adding further potential frustration. It's also worth mentioning that the spin dash has finally been excised and replaced with a finite dash button. Necessary? Probably not, but it's a good sign that Sonic Team was willing to compromise a signature move in the favor of better control.
Next to his peers Sonic feels way too slippery; a point illustrated clearly when he's trying to emulate their gameplay styles. Sonic is not Mario (and Mario is not Sonic, which has never been a problem for Nintendo) and he's at his best when he's doing his own thing, not trying to poorly emulate classic platforming tropes. Still, this is only a legitimate problem on a handful of occasions. On the brighter side, Sonic Team seemed to be aware of the futility of forced motion controls, granting the player the ability to use the GameCube or Classic Controller.
Boss battles also left something to be desired. Sonic Colors definitely has a few cool tricks up its sleeve; the Ferris wheel boss and the excessive on-screen badniks to serve as distractions prove such, but they can't last a whole game. True, there are bosses for each world, but the game basically repeats a few, slighter harder versions of the bosses multiple times. At any rate, only the final boss proved to be a challenge, or at the very least a divergent take on the other two.
Sonic Colors art direction is undoubtedly the best in the series. An interplanetary theme park is a pitch-perfect setting for Sonic's antics and the design team really ran away with the theme. Aquarium Park takes your standard water level tropes and sets them against a deep sea Japan, complete with pagodas and badnik samurais. Wisp Planet's color pallet features burnt orange machinery, lush green foliage, and craggy grey cliffs set against a deep blue sky, suggesting the presence of lost industrialization. The theme park paradigm is never lost, with roller coasters, dancing badniks, and other celestial carnival tropes running rampant through every level. While the frame rate is locked at 30, the sheer amount of on-screen activity makes up for any perceived lack of fluidity. Sonic Colors is a beautiful game, and definitely one of the best visual showcases the Wii has to offer.
Even in Sonic's darkest days the soundtrack has been the bright beacon of hope, and Sonic Colors is no different. The pop vocal behind the opening track is more cheesy than terrible, but the rest of the game opts for fast pasted electronic music and a few orchestrated tracks as well. Each level features a few variations on a main theme for the respective acts. Aquarium Park Act 1 is the standout, but, minus the opening song, the music is stellar. The voice acting is so-so, but new cast vastly outperforms the embarrassing previous efforts.