Latchkey Games is a weekly column that takes a look at games that perhaps didn’t quite get the amount of love they deserved: whether it was a game that was panned on its initial release only to become a cult classic, one that stirred the ire of series fans, or simply a game that fell through the cracks and was forgotten by time or overshadowed by a more popular release. This week’s game is Sonic Colors, which was the first Sonic game in years that was worth playing and the title that finally broke the “Sonic Cycle.”
Contrary to what the 12 year old fanboys and dudes in furry costumes who commented on one of my old articles might tell you, I don’t hate Sonic the Hedgehog. In fact, I’m rather fond of the series: I still think the original trilogy on the Genesis/Mega Drive comprises some of the best 2D platformers ever made, and hell, to this day I will still defend the original Sonic Adventure as a dated but fun, (mostly) worthwhile experience. With that said, I like to think I’ve maintained a realistic perspective on the series: while I like Sonic, I’m not going to pretend that he hasn’t appeared in a lot of shit games over the last few years.
A few years ago, even Sega admitted that Sonic’s reputation was in the gutter. Starting with 2004’s Sonic Heroes, reps from Sega and series developer Sonic Team routinely promised that each new Sonic game would be a fresh start for the series, and that this would be the game that brought Sonic back to the limelight. They’d say that they listened to criticisms of the previous game, and that the next game would be completely different. Unfortunately, these promises were all lip service, as each new Sonic game got progressively worse, culminating with the nigh-unplayable 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog reboot for Xbox 360 and PS3, followed by the equally ill-thought out “werehog” sections from that game’s follow-up, Sonic Unleashed.
Sega’s repeated attempts to dupe fans into thinking that Sonic was on the verge of his big comeback eventually spawned a meme called the “Sonic Cycle,” which illustrated the seemingly never-ending pattern of hype and disappointment that accompanied each new Sonic game. Eventually, people just stopped caring and stopped listening to Sega’s hyperbole about the next Sonic game.
I’ll admit it, I was one of those people: when Sonic Colors was first announced, me and the rest of the internet collectively turned the game and its goofy name into a punchline before we actually knew anything about it. We laughed every time Sega released a new video or a new screenshot, and we reassured ourselves that we wouldn’t fall for the Sonic Cycle again. We sneered when someone from the development team promised that Sonic Colors would be a good game. We all refused to spend another $50 on another poorly designed, barely playtested, embarrassing Sonic game. We were going to break the Sonic Cycle with our apathy.
In the end, Sonic Colors did end up breaking the Sonic Cycle, but it wasn’t because we all refused to get our hopes up this time, and it wasn’t because we all boycotted Sega and forced them to change their ways. Rather, Sonic Colors broke the Sonic Cycle by doing what nobody expected: it was actually a good game.
Of course, I didn’t notice right away. Like most other supposedly “hardcore” gamers, I had stupidly prejudged the game before I actually knew any concrete info about it. After all, Sonic Colors already had two strikes against it: 1. it was a modern Sonic games, and those are almost always never good, and 2. it was a third party Wii game, which likewise are almost always terrible. I, like many others, made jokes at the game’s expense, and I assumed that anybody who said that the game was good was probably a closet furry or was one of those Sega fanboys who likes to pretend that the company is still as great today as they were in the 90’s (PROTIP: they aren’t.) But slowly, over the next few months I began hearing more and more people, including people whose opinions I respect, talk about how surprisingly great the game was and about how I needed to play it. After months of peer pressure, I finally caved and bought the game when its price had reached the magic $20 mark, and… well, they were right. Sonic Colors was fantastic.
There are lots of great things about Sonic Colors — the excellent level design, the fantastic graphics (it’s one of the few genuinely great looking Wii games,) the thankfully minimal story — but undoubtedly the best thing about the game is that it’s only a platformer and you only play as Sonic. In the decade before Sonic Colors’ release, Sonic Team had loaded each new game with some stupid gimmick or alternate play-style that was never as fun as the core platforming: Sonic Adventure 2 forced you to spend more time playing as Sonic’s crappy sidekicks than Sonic himself, and later games tried to shoehorn in garbage like third-person shooting sections, beat-em-up levels and even physics-based puzzle solving. Sonic Colors succeeded by jettisoning all the excess and unnecessary “improvements” that Sonic Team had added to the series over the last decade and took Sonic back to his roots: Colors is 100% platforming 100% of the time. The game is basically the daytime sections of Sonic Unleashed (a.k.a. the parts where you didn’t play as the Werehog, a.k.a. the parts of the game that people actually liked,) with improved controls, better level design, and better boss battles. You never have to search for emerald shards, get in a gunfight, or swing a sword: you simply spend most of the game running and jumping, and it’s glorious.
Sonic Colors doesn’t just recapture the glory of Sonic’s past either: the game’s main new feature is the addition of color-coded “Wisp” characters. Now, I know, the last Sonic needed was more crappy friends, but the Wisps are actually cool: they function like one-time use power-ups, giving Sonic the ability to temporarily burrow through the ground, or launch himself vertically like a rocket, and they’re the first genuinely fun and worthwhile addition to happen to the series since Sonic 3 introduced Knuckles. Rather than replacing the traditional Sonic gameplay, the Wisps serve to add a new layer of depth to Sonic’s usual plaforming: you can still race through most stages like you’d normally do, but creative use of your Wisp abilities will unlock new paths and secrets.
Sonic Colors was followed by Sonic Generations, an Xbox 360 and PS3 sequel that celebrated Sonic’s 20 year anniversary. While Generations has the edge on Colors in terms of graphics and nostalgia, I still feel that Colors is overall the better game: the original stages are more thoughtfully laid out, the boss battles are definitely better (seriously, Generations had some terrible bosses,) and Color’s meaty main adventure is substantially longer than Generations’ extremely short jaunt through Sonic’s history.
Sonic Colors isn’t just noteworthy because it’s a good Sonic game: it’s noteworthy because it’s damn great game regardless of what franchise it belongs to or what system it appeared on. It’s also a good example of the kind of quality experiences you end up missing when you decide to be a fanboy and prejudge a game based on the company that made it or what system it appeared on: a lot of people missed out on Sonic Colors because they assumed that the game would be bad, and in doing so they missed out on one of the best platformers of the last five years. Even today, people give me weird looks when I recommend this game, but I let me assure you once again: Sonic Colors is great and the Sonic Cycle is now long dead because of it.