Let it be said: the daytime levels in Sonic Unleashed were pretty good. Yes, the excruciatingly dull brawls of the night-time Werehog levels ruined that game, but only because the daytime levels had a real spark. After years of failing to capture the speed of 2D Sonic games, the daytime levels almost felt too quick, their beautiful designs whizzing past and before you knew it you'd reached the goal. With all that speed there wasn't much room for old school staples of challenge and exploration.
With the return to safer, two-dimensional ground in Sonic 4 it would've been easy to think SEGA were casting aside the 3D Sonic formula and all the incremental improvements which manifested in Unleashed's daytime levels. Instead, Sonic Team has stripped Unleashed of its twilight travesty and simply tried again - like it would give up now - this time under the apt name of Sonic Colours.
Sonic Colours presents the same chaotic play of Unleashed, seamlessly alternating between side scrolling and 3D camera-in-tow platforming. There are the rail grinds, enemy-locks on, springs, and rings that kept Sonic moving along at speed in Unleashed, but a couple of interesting changes do give Colours a feel that's distinct from recent entries in the series.
The first noticeable change is the simplification of the controls, as Sonic Team veteran and Colours producer Takashi Iizuka explained to me. "The easiest way to describe it is that the team limited the amount of buttons to be used in this game. With the Wiimote and Nunchuck combination what you're using on the Wiimote is actually the A and B buttons [A to jump and attack, B to boost]. When you're trying to use the colour powers what you do is shake the Wiimote and that activates the colour powers... so players can instinctively come up with which action they want to use."
The colour powers Iizuka referred to represent the second major addition. On his journey through the amusement park worlds of Dr Robotnik's latest base, Sonic encounters little alien wisps. These brightly-coloured blobs transform the spiky hero and grant him temporary special powers. For example, the yellow wisp lets Sonic dig through soft ground both below and above him. Using it, Sonic can switch routes within a level and collect hidden goodies along the way. Another example is the cyan wisp which turns Sonic into a laser that can bounce of walls at speed, Sonic Heroes style.
At SEGA's press day, Iizuka took me through the gorgeous-looking Starlight Carnival level. Its glowing violet platforms flitted in and out of sight under the hedgehog's scurrying feet, all to the backdrop of huge, rather gaudy space stations against a very starry space. It's this level, along with the green wisp that turns Sonic into a spiky-looking balloon which floats upwards, that stirred in my mind comparisons to Super Mario Galaxy, Nintendo's 3D platforming series which is also on the Wii.
It does feel like Sonic Team has adapted that concept of physically transformative power-ups for Sonic Colours. Even if that's an unfair proposition, it's not one intended with negative undertones. Many believe - your humble author included - that Super Mario Galaxy is the finest 3D platformer to have graced recent years, so why shouldn't SEGA take inspiration from a now familiar friend, especially when Sonic Team's forays into platforming 3D have not been nearly as successful? And hey, the SEGA PR who I played a couple of Colours' bonus co-op levels with admitted to me that the two-player mode had something of New Super Mario Bros. Wii about it - so there's that.
With the imminent release of Sonic 4 lurking in the background, and with Sonic Colours' home platform having housed the hedgehog's more childish adventures of late, it would be easy to disregard Colours as unintended for more longstanding fans of the franchise. Earlier this year, Iizuka was reported as saying that Colours was primarily intended for "children of probably between six and twelve years old." SEGA of America quickly presented its word on the matter, saying that Sonic Colours was most definitely a game for everybody. I asked Iizuka if he wanted to clarify that statement in light of what his American colleagues had said.
"The previous remark I made about the game primarily being for six to twelve year olds was actually a slight misunderstanding. It's more like that the team wanted to really capitalize on how Sonic became more noticeable and more popular through the Mario & Sonic games, which was another Wii and DS title. It brought the opportunity for the team to talk to the newcomers to the franchise, and thus it made sense for the team to come up with more not-so-serious, but more fun and vibrant settings which could be perceived as more towards the kids in the audience. But when you actually look at the gameplay itself, the platforming side is more difficult. It's actually something that the core platforming action audience can really look forward to and enjoy. In that sense it is actually for everybody, but the setting itself is something different from the previous Sonic titles."
It was a sure-footed answer from a man with plenty of experience and history with Sonic over the years. I'm not so sure Sonic Unleashed wasn't any less childishly set, but during my brief hands-on time with Colours I saw hints of what Iizuka talked about regards challenge. Sonic Colours seems to be far more willing to slow down and present some sequences to be negotiated. One such sequence saw me having to hop over a conveyer belt of fast-moving platforms and time my jump just right to make it onto a ledge above - which I did not. Another rail sequence left me ring-less and lifeless.
It's not surprising when Iizuka carefully answered my question of what his favourite Sonic game of all time was by saying Colours is "probably the best 3D Sonic action game available", but there is a sparkle in his eye when talking about the game. You get the feeling that SEGA is quietly quite proud of Colours, maybe surprised by the strongly positive reception the game garnered at this year's E3.
Iizuka does admit, though, that from his personal experience - with all the difficulties of its development in mind - his favourite one is actually Sonic Adventure because it was the first time Sonic made the move from 2D to 3D. Iizuka of course directed that game, a game which many fans still regard as one of the few glowing entries in Sonic's three-dimensional history. Time has taught us to employ plenty of caution when it comes to the blue hedgehog, but if Colours continues to hit the right notes then Iizuka might have the very pleasant task of having to change his answer.