Being a Sonic fan is hard. The Blue Blur has starred in quite a few legitimately great games over the years, but he’s also been in just about as many clunkers that tanked his reputation. Sonic has especially struggled when it’s come to his forays into 3D environments, yet there was an all too brief period from about 2008-2011 where it seemed that Sonic Team almost had a solid idea of what they wanted a 3D Sonic game to be. Sonic Colors released at the pinnacle of that era and at the time was lauded for raising the bar and representing a promising new direction for the often troubled ‘hog. Now, nearly ten years later, it’s been given a re-release as Sonic Colors Ultimate, and we can confidently say that this is still one of the best 3D Sonic games out there.
The narrative primarily sticks to the classic duo of Sonic and Tails, as they travel to Eggman’s new outer space amusement park to investigate any signs of nefarious wrongdoing. It doesn’t take long for them to find out that he’s exploiting a secret race of aliens called Wisps to power the park (and an evil space laser), so they endeavor to travel to all the planets to free the Wisps and save the day. It’s not a terribly in-depth story, but many of the jokes still land well and the pleasantly lighthearted nature of it fits the freeform style of gameplay. At the very least, it’s refreshing to play a Sonic game that doesn’t take itself too seriously or get bogged down in actually trying to tell an emotional story.
Gameplay in Sonic Colors follows the often divisive ‘boost’ formula that most modern 3D Sonic games have taken after, and while there are some notable cracks in its design, it often manages to properly sell that sense of manic speed that the developers were clearly going for. Many stages will have you guiding Sonic along relatively flat, runway-like paths that give him plenty of room to go full throttle, while quick reaction times are often needed to deftly dart around or attack any obstructions that may come up in his path. Dispatching any of the easily defeated robots in your way will give you a small hit of boost power that you can then use to break the sound barrier and turn Sonic into a virtually invincible comet that barrels through everything he touches.
It may sound rather mindless—in many instances it is—but the key thing here is that the level designs often reward quick reflexes and muscle memory with more speed. For example, a lot of stages will have some low curbs scattered around for these high-speed segments that trip Sonic up and bring him to a halting stop if he connects with them. It’s not big deal if you hit one, but it can be quite a buzzkill when you were just rolling around at the speed of sound and suddenly have to build back up from zero again. However, if you’ve got quick enough reflexes or have played the level enough that you know when these hazards are coming, you can easily skip over them with a brief tap of the jump button and continue sailing through.
When you consider that the main game can be beaten in a little over five hours, it’s clear that the main joy of Sonic Colors is found not in clearing stages, but in excelling at them. It’s a thrilling feeling when you pull off that perfect run of a level and shave 30 seconds off your old record, but more importantly, there’s a great deal of satisfaction found throughout the run as you nail each obstacle and platforming section that you’ve practiced countless times.
Bearing this in mind, Sonic Colors is the sort of game that appeals best to players that don’t require much extrinsic motivation to have fun. Sure, there are plenty of unlockables and secrets to collect across all the levels, but focusing too much on those things will rob you of the intended experience and the enjoyment it can bring. This is a game about constantly being better than your former self, about learning the shortcuts and executing the tricks you need to bolt through these levels quicker than greased lightning. In this regard, Sonic Colors is comfortably one of the best 3D Sonic games.
Things often come apart, however, when you get pulled into one of the many 2D sections that are seamlessly strewn throughout each level. When Sonic Colors goes 2D, things usually slow way down and the focus turns to a more precise and careful kind of platforming. This is fine in theory, giving Sonic brief stints where he slows down certainly introduces some variety to the level designs, but the problem is that the physics clearly aren’t tuned right for the kind of precision that’s being called for. Sonic’s inertia feels off and ironically sluggish, almost akin to Donkey Kong in the recent Donkey Kong Country games.
It takes some time to get to grips with Sonic’s 2D controls, and while things do get a little better as you acclimate, they never feel right. These 2D segments are typically rather short before you get back on the road, so they don’t drag down the overall experience too much, but this is one aspect of Sonic Colors that definitely could’ve used a little more love in the development stages.
Of course, everything up to this point could more or less apply to any 3D Sonic game, but the big innovation that Sonic Colors brought to the table were Wisp power ups. These multicolored little aliens not only serve as the core of the plot, they also each have different temporary abilities that grant Sonic new mobility options. One wisp, for example, turns him into a drill that can quickly bore through special sections of the ground that lead to new collectables and pathways. Another turns him into a spiked ball that can stick to walls.
None of the abilities radically change the way you play—and they’re only in use for a few seconds at a time—but the Wisps greatly aid in making the level designs more complex and interesting. You’re unlocking new Wisps pretty much throughout the entire game and they’re retroactively added in to older stages, which means that there’s almost always another pathway or secret that you’ll need to come back for later once you get the right Wisp unlocked.
It wouldn’t be an ‘Ultimate’ release without some new bells and whistles, and fortunately Sonic Colors doesn’t disappoint in this regard. The most notable new addition is the integration of large coins scattered throughout each level that can be collected and later spent on new cosmetic customizations for Sonic. You can change things like his shoes or his boost mode aura, and there are quite a few options for each category. Similarly, there are some optional races you can participate in against Metal Sonic that lead to even more unlockables. This customization aspect certainly won’t appeal to everyone, but we rather appreciated how it adds a little more content and rewards for those that like to collect things.
The last major addition is a new Wisp called Jade Ghost, which gives Sonic the ability to fly and phase through walls. Some levels have been tweaked to better accommodate this frankly broken ability, but it mostly functions as an easier way of accessing some hard to reach places. It overall feels like a nice addition to the gameplay loop, even if it doesn’t particularly shake things up all that much.
Presentation is probably the area where Sonic Colors stumbles the most, as it feels more like an enhanced port of the Wii original than a proper remaster. Unlike other consoles, Sonic Colors only runs at 30FPS on Switch (though it is stable) and the graphical improvements feel relatively minimal. Nothing in the game looks bad, of course, quite the opposite for gorgeous courses like Sweet Mountain or Planet Wisp. The issue is simply that it feels like more could’ve been done to showcase the improvements that hardware evolution over the last ten years has brought. This is more of a half step than it is a giant leap.
Similarly, the newly remixed music leaves a lot to be desired. The original soundtrack is still present in most levels and sounds just as good as ever, but the new versions sound different just for the sake of being different. In most respects, then, Sonic Colors Ultimate won’t wow you with what it can do with the Switch hardware, which feels rather disappointing considering the opportunity here.
Sonic Colors Ultimate is a well-executed revisit of a high point in Sonic’s long career. Most of the quality here stems from the content of the original, rather than the new additions and tweaks for this re-release. Things like the Jade Ghost and extra customization options are welcome, but not game changing, and the musical and graphical improvements are minimal. At the end of the day, though, this is still a well-performing, portable version of a classic and that’s arguably all that it needs to be. We’d give this one a recommendation, then, to anyone who has yet to experience Sonic Colors, as this is certainly the best and easiest way to try it out. If you’re a fan of the original, we’d still say it’s worth a punt — you'll still love the game on Switch. Just be aware that this isn’t a massive overhaul of what came before.