Continuing on from the previous theme of bizarre spinoffs, this week we’re returning to more familiar territory: That of Sonic the Hedgehog and his non-platforming diversions.
We’re going back to the very first of the Sonic Spin-offs. Not the deplorable Sonic Drift series (promoted and rushed through as a portable alternative to Super Mario Kart. There was just one problem with that attempt: SMK was a glorious game that shaped the franchise for decades whereas SD was a wretched mound of filth) but the equally forgotten Sonic Spinball.
As the name suggests, Sonic Spinball attempts to meld the Sonic license with pinball gaming. It makes sense in a lot of respects. The hedgehog games have always been accused of favouring speed and spectacle over true platforming skill and both genres hide a wealth of skill underneath apparently random twitch gameplay. In theory it should be a match made in shiny blue heaven. Lets see how that prediction pans out.
From the start, its quite clear that this is a pinball game with Sonic elements, not a half and half blend or one of the Sonic-but-with-random-genre-elements approach that the games would develop after their awkward transition into 3d titles. You have bumpers, flippers, loops, obnoxious beeping sounds and dodgy midi music. Aside from the emblazoned characters, the real deviation from a standard format is that instead of using a crudely approximated ’tilt’ mechanic to emulate the time honoured practice of beating the machine like it owes you money, you have a limited amount of control over Sonics airborne movements like you would in the main games. Its clumsy and the game visibly switches between platforming physics and pinball physics depending on whether Sonic is walking around or being the subject of an animal cruelty crime involving the effects of whiplash on small mammals. But the emphasis is clearly on the pinball movement. Which is smooth and flows like a proper game compared to the slow, floaty jump mechanics. On the upside they even included the classic spin dash – unfortunately its useful once in the entire game. Not counting any attempts at virtual suicide with it.
Graphically, its hard to fault overmuch. The game sports a look that mixes elements of both Sonic 1 and Sonic 2, updating the design of the former with some of the detail and smoothness of the latter. It still falls mostly on the side of Sonic 1, which is something of a damning detail given that its release was almost simultaneous with Sonic CD. The music is the standard Sonic style, with some classic BGM being tweaked to pinball style and some new BGM. Granted, neither are major focuses of a pinball game. There’s only so much detail you need when everything consists of flashing lights and a handful of skins for the same basic bits.
Unfortunately, the game isn’t without issues. The biggest one is that the attempt to inject Sonic style gameplay into the frantic rebounding isn’t entirely successful. Each table (thats a level-equivalent, for those of you who’ve avoided the genre) has you aiming to collect Chaos Emeralds by completing fairly standard pinball tasks. Unlike most pinball games, these aren’t so much about score as progression through the levels and that’s where it comes unstuck. Mess up an opportunity and lose your ball in a standard pinball game, you’re just losing some score bonuses. Mess up under this scheme and the table largely resets for the next life, undoing most of your progress towards the boss. The other – generally incidental – problem is that Sonic has a distressing tendency to clip through or otherwise get stuck on things when moving too fast. It’ll never force a reset but I shouldn’t have to explain why watching the blue blur clip right through the flipper can be rage inducing.
But whether it frustrates or excites you, the game as a whole just doesn’t have that much meat to it. Five levels, each with a couple of small sub-areas, isn’t much to sink your teeth into. Its significantly shorter than the standard Sonic games and that takes some effort.
So: Is it fun?
Not really. Its not a horrible game. In fact its downright polished compared to licensed games in general and Sonic spinoffs in particular. But Sonic Spinball just doesn’t have a whole lot going for it once you get past the novelty of the premise.