I'm sat in front of Takashi Iisuka, the man behind the wonderful Sonic Adventure (read Jon's preview of the XBLA/PSN updated version here), level designer for Sonic Unleashed and lead producer on Sonic Colours. He's a man steeped in world of modern Sonic, with the blue hedgehog bravely taking on new platforming heroes who've long since embraced three dimensions and blasted into space.
It's not uncommon for developers to throw everything including the kitchen sink at a game to see what sticks, particularly when revitalising classic franchises. But whilst Mario seems to have gone from strength to strength, Sonic's route has been a little more haphazard. These days variety seems to be the spice of life but, as Sonic Unleashed displayed, sometimes changing things or adding in new elements just for the sake of it really isn't the answer. When gunning for the top, having your central protagonist turn into a werehog, whatever the hell that's supposed to be, is really not the answer.
With that in mind, there's really only one burning question I want to ask Iisuka-san before we go on, the answer to which will undeniably outline what he hopes to strive for with Sonic Colours: just what exactly are the core principles, in his opinion, that make an excellent Sonic game. The answer? Multi-route platforming and speed... lots of it.
Lest we forget, Unleashed had some really promising moments, the majority of them in the daytime stages of the game. Mixing the free roaming 3D gameplay of Sonic Adventure with classic 2D platforming, helped along by an emphasis on the searing pace for which our spiky friend is perhaps best known, made for some genuinely enjoyable phases of play. You'll be glad to know that Sonic Colours is being built upon those foundations, and those foundations alone. No cartoon, Lovecraftian, midnight transmogrifications this time around!
Colours takes place in a massive theme park, a setting chosen, Iisuka told me, for its 'vibrancy and colour [...] We wanted to set the game in a place that allowed for maximum fun, and a theme park immediately came to mind. You have these massive rollercoaster sections and moving platforms, dazzling colours and large structures, it seemed to fit very well.' With Sonic 4 going fully back to 2D, and incorporating a number of torchure-ous elements that frustratingly serve to break up Sonic's flow, it's refreshing to see that even though Colours retains much of what kept the daylight levels in Unleashed ticking along at a pleasant rate – powerful springs, rails to grind, targeted enemy lock-ons – it manages to incorporate a few new aspects into the mix courtesy of the Wisps.
The Wisps are essentially little alien blobs that grant our intrepid blue shrub dweller the ability to transform into certain things. The blue one, for example, turns Sonic in to a laser beam that can be aimed and fired, ricocheting the heroic hedgehog off of walls and trouncing foes. The orange one will transform him into a rocket, to be blasted sky high up to taller precipices, with the yellow Wisp allowing Sonic to drill through soft ground.
The newer, Wii exclusive, Wisps we got to see were the Green Hover and Pink Spike Wisps. The latter turns Sonic into a trundle ball of...erm...spikes. He can roll up walls, onto ceilings, poking enemies into dust whilst looking like a neon sea urchin that looks like it's been marinaded in a Vice City cocktail. But, perhaps my favourite, was the Green Hover, allowing Sonic to not only float upwards much like a pink marshmallow we all know and love, but also make useful, targeted dashes along lines of rings.
The Wisps are something SEGA are pretty proud of, 'The speed and core platforming has always been at the heart of what makes a Sonic game,' said Iisuka. 'But with the coloured Wisps we wanted to vary the gameplay a little. […] Additionally you'll be able to go back and replay levels having unlocked Wisps later in the game to reach new areas and grab rewards you couldn't earlier in the game.'
What was truly impressive, though, was just how seamless all of these elements tied together when playing it later that day. The 3D sections are, by and large, actually a little superfluous, breaking up the 2.5 D bits with speedy showcases and lane-swapping ring-snatching, but they don't take away anything from the game. Iisuka has been, perhaps unfairly, picked upon in previous interviews for suggesting that Sonic Colours is geared to towards a younger demographic. However, the refined control system – everything happens on the A and B buttons apart from the odd waggle to trigger a Wisps – and stripped-down approach are guaranteed to appeal to gamers of all ages, particularly longtime fans. There are a few moments that require a bit of thought, an assembly line of platforms that need timing to navigate or speedy 3D sections that have you switching lanes to avoid obstacles as if it were an 80s driving game. SEGA are willing to vary the pace every so often, which is a good thing; but, crucially, it's never too long before you're back to zipping around.
Equally, the Wisps only add to the gameplay experience, and are reminiscent of two games in particular: Super Mario Galaxy and Shadow Complex. The latter, Epic's 2.5D XBLA shooter, offered up an enormous map that rewarded replays by having a number of different weapons and gadgets that allowed you to access certain areas. You could mix and match to your delight. Similarly, gameplay elements like Mario's bee suit made for new options without ever breaking flow. In the case of the latter, it's no bad thing whatsoever that SEGA are taking inspiration from their recent bedfellows, far from it, as Colours is looking more and more like the Sonic game we've been waiting for since the turn of the millennium.
It's telling that when pressed on what his favourite title of the series, Iisuka leans towards Sonic Adventure, and equally important when he notes that the great desire for Colours is to 'introduce Sonic to a whole new audience, building on the success and publicity garnered by the Mario and Sonic titles. Hopefully, with the emphasis set on speed and core platforming, along with the new Wisp elements, it will be a game for old fans and newcomers alike.' Colours is absolutely a statement of intent, to propel Sonic back into the big leagues and, on this evidence, he's going the right way about it.