The critically-acclaimed Sonic Colours is getting a fresh chance to Wispon its way to hearts old and new with a remaster hitting modern platforms later this year. This time, the game will be free from strictly-Nintendo hardware, appearing on PlayStation and Xbox consoles as well as the Switch, and on PC to boot. For SEGA producers Aaron Roseman and Calvin Vu, this presents an opportunity to introduce the fanbase to a game that may have passed them by when it was originally released exclusively on the Wii in 2010. But it also presented a hefty challenge.
Contrary to how it may seem, bringing back an older game like Sonic Colours and touching it up for current-gen platforms wasn’t easy. A lot of the original game’s code had to be rewritten and updated in order to account for modern development features and techniques… not to mention that, when simply porting Colours’ 2010 base code into a 2020 PC, you run the risk of Sonic going… too fast.
“Have you ever played an old PC game on a modern platform, and it just runs at about a million frames per second? We had a very similar situation here,” Aaron Roseman chuckled. “You have to optimise it and make it run just right – a lot of graphics shaders had to be retooled for this remaster.
“The game does use a lot of the baseline code and logic [from the 2010 original], but there were changes that had to be made. The game was originally made for the Wii, so there was a lot of Nintendo-specific code in there which wouldn’t work anywhere else. The effects, lighting, animations, all were impacted by these Nintendo toolsets – the talented engineers at Blind Squirrel Games redid a lot of that work and managed to get it all talking to a new, modern engine.”
For Calvin Vu, one of the critical challenges was making sure the game was able to hit improved resolution and framerate targets (SEGA confirmed that Sonic Colours Ultimate will run at 60fps on PlayStation, Xbox and PC, and 30fps on Nintendo Switch in both docked and handheld, with “more capable” platforms able to play in 4K). “There was a lot to step up. Back in 2010 this game was on screens that had a lower resolution than your smartphone today, so increasing that, supporting 4K and adding improved lighting, that alone was a huge undertaking.
“We definitely wanted to make sure this game looked good against the standards of today. That means improving framerate, remixing the audio, sound effects and all that jazz, but we also wanted to add in some new features so it isn’t just the same game you played in 2010.” He points to quality of life tweaks such as refined Wisp controls (which are no longer tied to any kind of motion), improved stage hazard alerts, a modified moveset for Sonic (including an altered wall-jump that was “too sticky” in the original game) and a more forgiving lives system.
“It’s been life by a thousand (happy) paper cuts, honestly,” Aaron added. “We had a long list of refinements that made it through the game, just to make things more accessible. Things like making the jumping in Sonic’s movement a little easier so it’s less punishing and more exciting to play.”
One new feature in Sonic Colours Ultimate that aims to alleviate some of those original ‘punishing’ elements is the Tails Save, a token you can collect that offers a rescue if you manage to fall off the stage. Calvin runs through how the idea came about. While there was a lot to love about the original Sonic Colours, “back then if you ran out of lives, you’d straight-up get a Game Over. Back to title screen, go through the menus again, start at the beginning of the level.
“We didn’t think that was a great playing experience. It was kind of punishing – we already made the game challenging and difficult, and with this it was just like slapping you in the face while you were down. So we wanted to remove those type of hard resets, change it to a checkpoint-focused game, where if you run out of lives you just go back to the last checkpoint. And the Tails Save adds to that, where instead of going back to a checkpoint, Tails just comes in and drops you off at the last ledge you were standing on.”
“I wouldn’t say the Tails Save was geared towards younger players either, per se, but obviously while we want to showcase Tails and all of Sonic’s friends… it’s more about the usability of the game,” Aaron added. “We want to maintain that player enthusiasm in wanting to play the game, and some of that is lost if you start forcing people to navigate through menus and replay everything over again. We want to keep the players playing, keep them happy, maintain the fun.”
It’s clear that the teams at SEGA and Blind Squirrel Games wanted to enhance the enjoyment of a game built with 2010 design sensibilities, but it was also important for them to do so while respecting the essence of the original. For all the cool new features and modes – ranging from custom button layouts, character customisation options, the addition of the Jade Ghost Wisp from Team Sonic Racing and a new Rival Race mode featuring Metal Sonic – much of what made the Wii original great has remained intact.
“With regards to the actual level design, we kept the levels – outside of the visuals themselves – pretty much the same as they were in the original,” Aaron confirmed. “We didn’t want to make any drastic changes to that. We know that fans of the original game will appreciate that.” Asked if elements from post-Colours Sonic games were implemented into Ultimate, Aaron added that beyond the Jade Ghost Wisp, “we didn’t adapt any systems from future games; any changes we did make are unique to this title. We did definitely borrow from aesthetics [of future games] and learned from their techniques to get better visuals, but from gameplay, no.”
“Obviously, being faithful to the original game was the big backbone of this project,” Calvin said, “but when we first got stuck in we really had this whole new arsenal [of technological progress] available to us. Beyond just up-res’ing the graphics and adding more polygons, we were thinking about what we could try to add that might add some more character [to the environments and scenes] and make it closer to what the original design team in 2010 was maybe hoping to achieve.” He pointed to the different lighting effects in stages such as Tropical Resort, which gives a different feel in Ultimate than it does in the Wii original, as well as improved textures, more shadows and god rays to give Sonic’s space-faring world a little more flavour.
One of the most striking elements of Sonic Colours (besides the… colours) was its incredible music – and SEGA has been hard at work updating and remixing the entire soundtrack for the Ultimate release. All helmed by Sonic sound director Jun Senoue, Calvin explained the intense process; “Senoue-san has been an absolute talent and incredible resource for SEGA and Sonic. He was available to connect with everybody who worked on the original game – and it wasn’t just music, he decided to just remaster all of the audio in the entire game. Sound effects, jingles, you name it, he went back to the studio and did it all over again. If there was a question about how a track was supposed to be laid out, he’d pull someone from the original game’s sound team and get them to listen to the remix and get their feedback.”
“Jun Senoue and the original composers, they really collaborated to up the ante for the 2021 sound,” Aaron added. “It’s given a little more celebration to the songs in Sonic Colours. The remixes are awesome… and Jun Senoue is an absolute rockstar. He comes into meetings with his own branded Sonic guitar. You don’t get cooler than that!”
If updating Sonic Colours for a new generation of fans wasn’t hard enough on its own, the world threw in an Extra Hard Mode challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe in early 2020, forcing many countries – including the US – into lockdown. All of a sudden, development had to transition from an in-office process to a work-from-home environment.
“It was an incredible challenge,” Calvin recounts. Even simple things, like being able to connect with a colleague sitting next to you, can make all the difference in moving a project forward, but “all of that was totally taken for granted, and when the quarantine hit we had to still make a game and figure out how to do some of these essential functions. We had to have a lot more meeting and much more regimented agendas and schedules as to when we could actually get together to talk about stuff. Almost everybody on the team are like live-streamers now! I actually started SEGA the day quarantine started, so I’ve seen maybe five to eight people that I work with in person. Everyone else has been a screen or a microphone icon.”
Blind Squirrel Games ended having to uproot their entire studio hardware – from build stations to servers and more – to home offices, and despite this communications between the developer and SEGA had been continuous in order to make sure work on Sonic Colours Ultimate didn’t go too far astray. Sonic Team head Takashi Iizuka and the Sonic Pillar team were still playing builds every week and providing feedback to make sure the game ended up true to the original.
It’s a testament to the hard work and graft that remaster studio Blind Squirrel Games has put into the project, according to Calvin. “Blind Squirrel has been an incredibly professional, flexible and collaborative team as we’ve been working through this project. They’ve really shown their experience in working with remasters, using old tech and bringing it all up to modern standards. And they’ve been really good with their iterative process working with us… they’ve been an absolute pleasure and I’m really happy with the quality of the game coming out.”
All of these challenges and hard work overcome, just for little old Sonic Colours. It does beg the question, why choose this title for a remaster opportunity? There are many Sonic titles from the blue blur’s legacy that are locked to older hardware, so why this quirky Sonic Space Opera?
Takashi Iizuka recently said in an interview that Sonic Colours Ultimate might just represent the best introduction to 3D Sonic for new players entirely. Aaron believes the reason for this is because the Wii classic not only managed to refine gameplay mechanics introduced in previous games, but it did so while offering a unique standalone experience not found elsewhere in the Sonic franchise. Calvin adds that the narrative allows for a self-contained Sonic-focused story that is easy to follow for new players, while providing long-terms fans a no-frills blue blur-heavy action ride.
“I guess you could ask, ‘why Sonic Colours’? Why start with this game, and remaster it? It’s kind of a fan favourite game, that was only available on one platform when it released in 2010,” Aaron explained. “The fans really liked it, but it had limited availability. So what we wanted to do was take that game and bring it to a wider audience. And it’s worthy of this. It introduces new characters, new features that are now prevalent in a modern Sonic game. It just felt like this was a really good launchpad to start from.”
Of course, with talk like that we asked the obvious question about whether other past Sonic titles are being considered for a similar remaster treatment. We got a firm ‘no comment’! “We are constantly thinking about it, but there’s nothing we can talk about at the moment,” Calvin said. Worth a shot!
Even if Sonic Colours is the only title to see a remaster, SEGA’s picked a mighty fine candidate. Asked about what their hopes are for fan reactions to Sonic Colours Ultimate, Aaron said that the explosion of franchise interest since the Paramount Hollywood movie will hopefully lead to a growth of Sonic game fans too. “We’re hoping that fans will enjoy this game, but also that we get new fans interested. It’s been a while since we released a Sonic game, and we really want to make sure we appease the core audience and at the same time bring in new players so they can get excited for future Sonic titles.”
Aaron Roseman is a producer at SEGA of America, and Calvin Vu is an associate producer at SEGA of America. We want to thank them both for their time, as well as SEGA for the opportunity to speak with them.