Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sonic Month: Sonic Spinball

Sonic Spinball

  • Publisher: Sega
  • Developer: Polygames / Sega interActive
  • Platforms/Release:
    • Game Gear: September 1994
    • Master System (Europe only): January 1995
  • Genre: Action
  • Rarity/Cost:
    • Game Gear: Very common (US$1-5)
    • Master System: Rare (US$10-30)
You remember Sonic Spinball, right?  This title for the Sega Genesis was essentially a pinball simulator with Sonic as the ball.  (Fans of the Super Mario World cartoon should get a kick out of that idea.)  It was one of the franchise's first games that tapped into the character's extreme-to-the-max edge, if the HUD chatter is anything to go by.  Call it personal, but I've never been too fond of pinball games, such as this, where you're expected to hit specific targets with the ball.  After all, pinball relies more on luck than skill - either that or I'm not that good.  So, imagine that experience, and beat the physics engine to within an inch of its life.  That's what the Game Gear port of Sonic Spinball is like.

Chaos Emeralds control your progress.
As per the backstory, Sonic has invaded Dr. Robotnik's fortress and must progress through its four levels: Toxic Pools (sewer), Lava Powerhouse (power plant), The Machine (laboratory), and Showdown (spaceport). Hard to imagine a spaceport named "Showdown", but that's beside the point and, quite frankly, the least of our troubles. Each 'level' is made up of, to put it simply, a series of interconnected pinball tables. Access to the boss room in each map requires finding the multiple Chaos Emeralds strewn around, the number per level ranging from three to five (And they're all blue. Canon? What canon?). Falling through the gutters into the trap du jour causes Sonic to lose a life, although you can save yourself by triggering force fields between the flippers, which last long enough to almost be a game-breaker. Since Sonic can't get hurt by the traditional methods in his platformer games, bosses can come off as easy - and you'll be thankful for getting such a breather after the stressful navigation you're forced to endure beforehand.  You also get another breather in the form of the platforming bonus stages in between every level... at least they were supposed to be less stressful than the main game, but I'll tell you why not later.

The pinball segments, which comprise 95% or more of the game, use buttons 1 and 2 for the flippers.  Getting Sonic to where you need him to go doesn't rely entirely on luck or traditional pinball wizardry; you have the limited ability to steer Sonic in midair with the D-pad... in theory.  In practice, the midair "controls" are a little floaty and, while better than what you'd expect an after-touch ability in regular pinball to be, don't always get Sonic to hit the target you wanted to.  The real trouble lies in the general ball physics; sometimes Sonic will stick along walls when it seems he should've bounced off them, and on certain rare occasions you can even pass through objects.
On-foot controls are just horrible.
As less-than-passable as the pinball segments are, there are brief periods (albeit more prevalent than in the Genesis version) where Sonic can travel on foot, such as in the aformentioned bonus stages.  In these, you progress through a series of three chambers, unlocking the next one by collecting enough rings.  Item boxes (which you have to hit three times in a row) yield extra points, rings, lives, or continues, but since you start off with five lives and three continues on the hardest setting, you may not always need them.  Good thing, too, because trying to get to them is a feat worthy of a pro acrobat.  Sonic's floaty mid-air controls carry over to on-foot segments, making it nigh-impossible to land on the desired platforms, and the many bumpers littered around the bonus rooms only make matters worse.  Much worse.

In the audio/visual department, Sonic Spinball does little to stand out, for better or worse.  The graphics are par-for-the-course by Game Gear standards, although the smaller size of Sonic's sprite in this game is a blessing in disguise, since it gives you the illusion (?) of seeing farther ahead.  The music is even more boring than the Genesis version's already non-catchy (albeit screechy) score.  Speaking of which, as far as all the Sonic ports on Game Gear go, this one bears the greatest similarity to its big brother.  Not only are all four stages shared between the two, but the map layouts themselves are rather similar, too.  Of course, I can't really give any props to the developers for going the extra mile in that direction, not when the rest of the game is so flawed.  It would be holding-your-hand easy if not for the atrocious physics and frustrating, luck-based navigation methods.  For anyone wishing for pinball action on the go, you would be far, far better served by tracking down the real thing - by which, of course, I mean a real pinball machine.

+ A faithful port of the Genesis version.
+ You're given a lot of lives and continues.
- Nigh-broken physics engine.
- It's tough to control Sonic to where you're supposed to.
- The soundtrack is not up to the series' catchy standard.

Control: 1 Chaos Emeralds out of 5
Design: 2 Chaos Emeralds out of 5
Graphics: 2 Chaos Emeralds out of 5
Audio: 2 Chaos Emeralds out of 5
The Call: 30% (F)

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