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Sonic Jam - "Sonic Spinball" (1993)

Less than a month before I was born, a game with one simple concept was pushed out onto the Sega Genesis. That idea?

"What if Sonic were a pinball? Like, Casino Night Zone, but a whole game?"

It's about as good as that idea sounds.

Don't get me wrong. I like the idea of pinball spin-offs, when they're done right. The Pokemon Pinball games are legit. Mario Pinball, outside of a thoroughly garbage-y save system, was great. Even Metroid Pinball is pretty cool. Hell, Sonic's had a good pinball game, too, although that wouldn't happen until almost a decade later.

Point is, I'm not some joyless fuck who doesn't want to see fun twists on a franchise. But that's just it: Sonic Spinball isn't a fun twist. It's a dumpster fire of poorly executed mechanics thrown onto a rickety framework of an idea, squeezed into a Genesis cartridge and shat onto the marketplace with the Sonic logo slapped on it. Because, hey, kids are dumb, they'll buy anything, right?

Granted, it was hard to know, back in the early 90's, how a game worked, pre-release. YouTube wasn't a thing. Vertical slices of gameplay were saved for the Consumer Electronic Show. All kids really saw were some screenshots in a magazine, if even that, before they saw box art and some catchy buzzwords shoved in their faces. And let's be honest with ourselves. During the height of Sonic's popularity, if a kid in the 90's saw the box art, they'd lose their goddamn minds.

It makes me lose mine for a very different reason.
Do you see that shit? Sonic surfing on a plane? 3D pinball tables? "Pinball Defense System"? Sounds like a surefire winner right there. And that box art is pretty rad too. Sonic's clinging to a thin metal rail above crashing waves of lava, smirking at us, as Robotnik glares and shakes his fist in rage. It's like the little guy's starting right at us, gazing into our souls. As if he's saying, "hey, you little fucks, you see this shit? You can do this shit. Buy this game and let's fuck shit up on the real, dog."

In other words, it's pure 90's box art gold.

Unfortunately, "gold" doesn't describe anything else about this game. A gold standard of garbage, maybe, but that's about it. See, the opening is promising. Sonic finds himself on a island and enters through a toxic sewer inhabited by robotic snakes and shit. He walks to the right, and it looks like another great Sonic adventure on the Genesis is about to begin. Unfortunately, that's about the time the game actually wants you to start playing.

And that's when things go wrong. 

So very wrong.

So, so, so very wrong.

As you can probably tell by these two, erm, special screenshots, there's an immediate problem with Sonic Spinball that renders it a confusing junk heap right off the bat. In true classic Sonic fashion, the levels are crammed with bombastic colors that try to replicate the illusion of 3D on a 2D plane. That's nothing new, and is something that started with the first game. The problem is that in those games, players have direct control of Sonic, and can more or less progress through the levels at their own pace. In Spinball, that goes out the window, due to the fact that it's, well, a pinball game. Players have no real direct control of Sonic, outside of slightly influencing his direction after hitting him with the paddles. So, for most of the game, he's careening through the air, bumping into things, flying every which way, leaving players to guess what's a boundary and what's not. It's exactly as fun as it sounds.

Which is not very, if you're not clear on that point.

The physics are also pure ass. Hitting Sonic with the paddles sends him in wildly different directions than intended. It's not because of the frantic nature of the game itself, either, because it often slows down to molasses for next to no reason. See, no matter how perfectly you line a shot up, it's no guarantee that the little blue fuckstick is going where you want him to. Most likely, you're going to get him caught in an obnoxious loop of getting knocked back to the paddle every five seconds, a regular occurance in this game. That's not to mention the weird collision detection, no internal rhyme or reason to the physics, or the downright awful level designs.

Actually, let's talk about the level designs, because Jesus Christ, they're awful. Players are given oblique goals to progress and not given any indication on how to complete them. I'm fine with unclear direction in role-playing games, but obfuscated progression isn't a great selling point of your pinball game. It's actually just fucking obnoxious. You'll find yourself progressing for unclear reasons, or racking up a large score while not actually going anywhere. It often just feels up to chance. I mean, yeah, I know it's 2016 and I could just look up a walkthrough, but should I really have to? For a pinball game? A goddamn pinball game? I mean, I'm sorry, but I don't think of that when I think of this:

I'd hazard to guess most people don't either.

And again, I'd like to emphasize that I really don't mind wacky pinball games. I like a lot of them. But I like ones that have good physics. I like ones that have some sense of internal logic. I like ones that are... you know... actually good. None of the above apply to Sonic Spinball. It just feels like a shitty idea thrown together from a pile of rejected Sonic levels and pasted on top of the Casino Night Zone level from Sonic 2. Which, by the way. Isn't actually that great of a level in retrospect, I'm just saying. But I digress.

See, the reason Sonic Spinball feels like a rushed, buggy, insipid experience is because of why it exists in the first place. Sonic 3 was deep into development, but Yuji Naka, being the notorious perfectionist that he was, kept pushing the game back further and further. This aggravated Sega of America, who just wanted a damn Sonic title to sell during the Holidays. And because this was the 90's, Sega got what Sega wanted. The gaming giant outsourced a spin-off to an American team, telling them to slap something together in under six months. It really shows, doesn't it? But why, exactly, did it have to be pinball?

Because Sega heard that kids liked the Casino Night Zone, that's why.

No. Really. That's literally it. Kids liking one level in the last game made Sega think that an entire game based around a singular gimmick was actually a good idea. And, of course, in terms of sales, it was. It sold like hotcakes. But in terms of actually being a good game that aged well? Nope. Not in the slightest. It feels like a game cobbled together to meet a deadline and churn out a product with a popular mascot. Which, hey! It is! Mystery solved.

Look, there are lots of mediocre Sonic spin-off games out there. Plenty of 'em. But this? This isn't just mediocre, it's outright awful. When I was a kid, I loved the gimmick, but now, as an adult, I can't think of many games I'd want to play less than Sonic Spinball. It's a thoroughly unpleasant experience that's broken to its very core and is best left in the annals of history. The kind of annals that people look back on and go, "huh, that's a thing that exists," then proceed to play a better game. One can only hope.

The lesson today, kid? A one-level gimmick from a year-old game can't carry a whole game.

Next Time: Yuji Naka finally finishes his magnum opus with Sonic the Hedgehog 3, and-

Whoa, whoa. Wait. What? He still wasn't finished? 

Shit. Well, that's a bummer. Looks like Sonic Spinball was as good as it got in 1993, kids. Better luck next year! 

Or so you'd think. As fate would have it, while Naka was hard at work in America, Sonic's oft-forgotten original creator, Naoto Oshima, was hard at work with an entirely separate team in Japan. The result? Well...

Next Time: We go back in time with Sonic CD!


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