Review by Snow Dragon
Smell that? Mmmm ..... sludge from the nearby subterranean cave network. Kid tested, mother approved. The first level of the game drenches you in the stuff, or at least puts it in very near proximity to your fragile body. You get an innocent enough introduction for such a quirky game: Sonic and Tails dip low in their trademark biplane to take out Robotnik's impossibly large fortress of doom, though in the twinkling of an eye, they're cleanly and mercilessly shot down. Tails manages to steer the plane away and make it to safety, but Sonic plummets into the unforgiving sea below. Any other hedgehog would have drowned in the disruptive tangling of his own quills and paws, but this is Sonic! With top-of-the-line sneakers and spikes growing out of his back! He just so happens to land in a tunnel that puts him in the Toxic Caves, the first level in what is probably Sega's most idiosyncratic mascot plug of all time, Sonic Spinball (Sega, 1993).
It is a truism of video games that at some point in their career, every mascot who has passed their initial platform runs has to branch out and try something weird and new. Mario did it in Super Mario Kart with an impressive amount of success that can't be appreciated enough - I mean, seriously, if you were the one designing the game, would you have thought a plumber in a go-kart could sell cartridges? Kirby the little pink cream puff hit the links on the SNES and starred in his very own Breakout ripoff on Game Boy. Strangely though, with Sonic Spinball, the game actually seems like a natural extension of Sonic's abilities. Heck, they've already given him the power to curl up into a ball and scoot along the ground like a blue furry wheel - why not stick that spherical form of his on a pinball table? You will spend the majority of the game focusing on the deep blue fuzzball as he shoots back and forth and bounces off bumpers, flippers, and (you heard it here first, people) robotic chickens. As per the usual fast and furry Sonic action, that old potbellied mad scientist Dr. Robotnik makes the same tired attempts to thwart your forward progress as ever, with a fun bonus game following each victorious boss battle. I wonder why Dr. Robotnik gave his fortress a pinball theme. Maybe he was feeling rather flippant that day. Baha! Or not.
In Sonic Spinball, you step again into the speedy shoes of everyone's favorite blue hedgehog in the four-level quest to stop Dr. Robotnik from taking over the world with a fading mode of arcade entertainment. In each of his four separate lairs is a robotic likeness of himself plastered all over a machine of sheer destruction. However, staying true to more modern video game rules, you cannot just plow through to the boss battle and have the game beaten in the half-hour before school starts. It is required that you find the designated number of Chaos Emeralds in each level first (never less than three, never more than five). Blue though they are, it is Chaos Emeralds that they have always been and shall henceforth be known as. When you have found all of the ones a particular level holds in store for you, you then make your way to the boss chamber, which are easy if you get in a groove good and fast but massively difficult if luck sticks its greasy tongue out at you. It's probably best that the game only has four levels in it, because with all the random insanity mixed in, all of the tasks you are asked to perform can combine and reach up into the range of one-and-a-half to two hours. Just to beat a four-level game! Much like the misnomer of the Chaos Emeralds, it's a crazy thing you find yourself thinking far too much about if you look at it too objectively. It's sad how sometimes just reviewing a game can suck all the life out of it.
Sonic Spinball succeeds in the area that is most important for this game in particular - that is, in reaching for a harmonious mix of platform action and pinball frenzy. Your first evidence of this comes in the game's premier level. When you shoot up onto the ''table'' via the sludge cannon to the right, you have to bump Sonic around and hit switches that will drain the tank full of toxic liquid so that you get the Chaos Emerald inside. Make one slip of the flippers and Sonic falls immediately not into the acidic offal below, but onto a small column. Shrill music and blinking messages warn you of impending danger, and you figure, ''Hmm, I figger maybe I oughter go ahead and jump off'n this here ledge thangy.'' Right you are, my friend, for out of the acid comes crashing a monstrous metallic sea serpent that Sonic is more than ready to grapple with if it means not being his lunch. As you struggle to tap the buttons furiously and hold his jaws open with all your strength, you wonder if you'll make it out of this encounter alive. You do - but just barely.
Love it or hate it, but the whole game consists of pretty much nothing but variations on the previous scenario: avoid some supposedly inventive booby trap that the Sega think tank decided needed to be in the game and find the switch that de-activates such-and-such passage to whichever Chaos Emerald it is you need to get next. Even with only four levels to its name, Sonic Spinball can become a snooze in a hurry. Fortunately, it's got some quirks and perks to make it at least worth a look-see and an induction into the Well-It's-Not-A-Total-Failure Video Game Hall of Fame (other inductees: Sonic 3, Zelda II, Iron Tank).
Sonic Spinball's control is of course quite miscellaneous due to the inherent nature of a pinball table, but as you soon find, there is a method to the madness if you calculate your flips and flaps carefully. Considering the limited number of buttons on a Genesis controller, it doesn't take a genius that Left and Right do all your walking and running. On land, Sonic is able to execute the trademark charging spin from his second adventure or jump up to a nearby higher plateau if the situation calls for it. Controlled movement is out of your hands when Sonic's banging against the bumpers, of course. A and B each handle the left and right flipper respectively, and someone who goes crazy with both at once will find their play style more adapted to exclusive use of the C button. Once your hands and mind adapt to the game's style, you'll find that the individual flipper buttons work better in given situations, like in the vaguely named Machine where you must hold the A or B button to command one flipper's upward movement to a particularly tricky Emerald. Sonic Spinball rewards the conservative pinball player who takes time to plan out careful moves with high scores, extra lives, and quick and easy access to whatever it is they seek out. When you learn to be slow and methodical, the game will reward you; button mashers need not apply for this romp.
Unfortunately, whatever Sega was doing to make the Sonic series full of bright colors and beautiful landscapes was totally ditched here. Sonic Spinball is full of inappropriately dark shades and fudged sprites. The tables look like Lemmings levels with the intense solid colors and artificial shading and lighting drawn in. Sonic himself has gained weight in the time between whichever adventures he was tackling at the time (too many chili dogs from the cartoon?), and appears to be that shade of navy blue you see Honda Gold Wings painted in. Most fascinating of all (and whether it is an unintentional aftereffect or not, I can't decide), the bosses are scary to look at, especially the four Robotnik craniums in the Lava Powerhouse stage who look like souls of the damned gazing hopelessly out to the world of the living from their eternal drowning in the River Styx. Robotnik himself, in the Epic Final Battle™, is disproportionately large, the fact that he's a pain to do battle with notwithstanding. Few franchises have taken such a stark turn away from their graphical norm, and it's an area that definitely hurts Spinball in that regard.
Sonic Spinball also fails to produce memorable tunes that stay in the background and don't come out to play very often in another 180-degree turn from the 16-bit Sega standard. Everyone can remember the Marble Zone, Oil Ocean, and Angel Island tunes from Sonic's successful platforming gigs, but hum even one note from The Machine and I'll give you a big fat $50 bill (unmarked). Even the sound effects miss the bull's-eye by a hair's breadth. The memorable gling of rings being collected and the whistling twoo! of a robotic chicken being pounced on go a bit sharp. If you can gather fresh memories of the sounds of the series from my crude onomatopoeia, visualize it as higher-pitched and wavier and you'll get the idea. Everything about it is just .... off. You recognize the sounds, but it's more akin to some other kid dressing up as your brother in an attempt to pass himself off as him. Points for effort, but no cigar. The lack of a decent adrenaline-pumper is shocking, as the series has almost always been good for at least one of those per game, but the absence of a funky groove to get down to is twice as disturbing.
But math hurts my head, and so does this game when it comes down it. Some games throw wizened but effective formulas to the wind and succeed beyond anyone's wildest expectations, which is the only thing that can explain why a one-trick pony like Rockstar is drinking martinis with little paper umbrellas in the new indoor Jacuzzi they had installed in their offices after the smash sales of Grand Theft Auto III and the subsequent Vice City follow-up. Sonic may feel right at home on a pinball table, but the removal from his roots is costly. Without the fluidity and inexplicable fun factor of its predecessors, Sonic Spinball is doomed to rot with other titles remembered only in times of the publication of complete Sonicographies such as Sonic R, Sonic 3D Blast, and the Game Gear port of Sonic 2. Wherever the rush flowing through your body originally was, it's been shaken up too much, and you're stuck in an eternal tilt staring hopelessly at the cartridge. Sign your initials, turn the game off, and only come back to this Machine when all the other ones are no fun anymore.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Originally Posted: 02/25/03, Updated 02/25/03
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