When the controversial R4 flash cartridge appeared back in 2007, it certainly caused a headache for Nintendo as it found its way into the hands of many Nintendo DS owners. While it was mainly used to run pirate copies of games on the incredibly successful handheld, it also gave birth to a particular homebrew drawing software that would eventually generate a huge following.
The original Colors! took advantage of a Nintendo DS feature that Nintendo themselves, for some reason, kept quiet about. The handheld contained a secret ability to allow pressure-sensitive inputs through the touch screen. This handy feature enabled the user to stroke the screen with the stylus to determine the density and opacity depending on how much pressure was applied, similar to the pens digital artists would use on much more expensive hardware.
After a few legitimate releases on smartphones and the PS Vita, Collecting Smiles – the team behind Colors! – would focus their attention on the Nintendo 3DS. While the upgraded handheld lacked any pressure support, it did enable a feature that not only took advantage of the system’s main gimmick to deliver something that has never been achieved anywhere else before. The capability to draw artwork in full stereoscopic 3D without the need for special glasses.
Skip forward to 2020 and Jens Andersson, the lead designer of Colors!, started a Kickstarter campaign to release a Nintendo Switch version of the software. The campaign quickly generated a massive amount of interest by smashing the Kickstarter funding goal 10 times over. What fueled the buzz of Colors Live‘s potential release on the Nintendo Switch was down to a clever little peripheral that promised pressure sensitivity to be functional on the otherwise incapable touch-screen device of the hybrid system.
Colors Live, is the only practical drawing application for the Nintendo Switch that is available on the high street. Unless you purchase the standalone digital version, the physical copy of this basic drawing app comes bundled in with the pressure-sensitive ready sonar pen.
The pen itself has a 50cm flat cable that connects to the headphone jack to power up its operations and allow the user more control over painting digital strokes on the screen. The detachable nib that contains a flexible piece of rubber connected to a small plastic disc promised to provide 100 hours of use before needing to be replaced. Thankfully, a spare is packed in, which should provide plenty of scribble time straight out of the box. The Joy-Con is tailored to navigate the interface and available tools, which can be set up to work for both left-handed and right-handed users.
If you’re a young artist, a complete beginner or someone with little funds to invest in a more powerful drawing device, then Colors Live is a charming way to introduce you to the world of digital painting. Colors! was my gateway into the medium many years ago, and since then I have adopted digital art as a practical and convenient way to work. Although incredibly simple, and with only a small handful of tools at the artist’s disposal, Colors Live can allow a beginner to experiment and explore without completely overwhelming them with the list of other features that are usually abundant in more conventional software.
With only seven brush types, three different styles of erasers and a basic crop and move tool at the user’s disposal, the artist can sketch across up to ten layers at a 2560 x 1980 pixel resolution. managing layers by flicking the Joy-Con stick up or down works as a convenient way to swap between them with clever visual cues to show the user the layer they are working on. There’s also a cool little pixel brush included that grids the canvas to guide those keen on creating some nifty retro fan art.
However, some basic tools are either absent or at least possibly hidden away with little to no direction about where to find them. For example, there’s no fill bucket to colour large areas or a lasso tool of any kind to fill in more intricate spaces. The streamline brush adjustment isn’t particularly great, making it near impossible to create a smoother, more natural line. It’s something that could do with much-needed improvement considering adopters are drawing on such a small scale. The program overall is no-frills and straight to the point in a somewhat similar fashion to Nintendo’s own Art Academy, albeit with the lack of feeling nearly as organic in materials, nor as educational in presentation.
While this may very well be the intention of keeping things simple, the whole Colors Live user interface seems to have evolved very little throughout its lifetime. The magic of the Nintendo 3DS gave reason not to care, but when it comes to the next generation of artists, Colors Live tends to feel like more of a step back than a step forward.
Those who are more experienced in digital art may miss the luxuries of a more premium set-up, and will only really want to venture forth if they crave the fun of a handicapped challenge. That’s not to say that incredible pieces of art cannot be accomplished because the community time and time again has certainly proven otherwise.
Personally, for me, the experience of Colors Live often felt a little finicky. The cable that the pen is connected to seems far too short, and being a leftie with the jack on the right-hand side of the Nintendo Switch caused even more inconvenience due to the cable constantly getting in the way. The pen itself works well enough for the most part, but even a slight nudge near the headphone jack can cause unwanted marks on the canvas or strange interface behaviour. In my experience this happened quite a lot, considering that I would often have to move the cable out of my line of vision.
There’s a demand for patience when creating something in Colours Live and without even the fundamental ability to pinch and rotate the screen with my thumb and forefinger while the pen was attached made me feel like I had lost a limb. The control over the flow of digital ink had me almost convinced I was drawing with my right hand at times, yet that’s probably more to the way the software is designed as opposed to the Sonar Pen itself.
With that said, as soon as I passed it to my seven-year-old daughter she was completely in her element. While my complaints are a result of being spoiled with bigger and better software and devices, my daughter, completely ignorant to what is available out there, really embraced what Colors Live had to offer.
The daily drawing challenges that are set out across a world map to entice a videogame-like experience provided her enough drive to want to complete them. These are usually themed challenges that allow 20 minutes of sketching time that may, for example, restrict colours, opacity and brushes as part of the daily mission.
The online gallery built into the software that Colors! is famous for had her studying the playback replays of other artists, and even inspiring her to implement certain techniques she would witness into her own work. The only real gripe my daughter did have was that the program had no sound or music regardless of whether the Sonar Pen was plugged in or not. However, she did quite like how the cable can be wrapped snugly into the pen after use.
Colors Live may not be the most powerful drawing program for digital artists out there, but it was never intended to be so either. What it excels at is creating an incredible online community that lets anyone lay out their tools in front of them and think outside the box to create interesting and often thoughtful artwork. With online monthly challenges to take part in and inspiration spread out by the bucketloads, there are so many potential hours to spend amongst a much healthier and more welcoming community. More so than pretty much any other form of popular social media out there.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Collecting Smiles