Sega needed a hit for the 1993 holiday shopping season. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was old news by this point, and Sonic the Hedgehog 3 was still months away. What was Sega to do? They took the fan-favorite pinball segments of the "Casino Night Zone" level from Sonic 2 and made a whole game based on them. It's Sonic Spinball, and it's one of the most unusual Sonic the Hedgehog games ever.

Dr. Robotnik has another crazy scheme to rule the world. From atop his Veg-O Pinball Defense Fortress he plans to use the Chaos Emeralds to reign horrible terror upon the land by turning innocent animals into robots. It's up to Sonic the Hedgehog to infiltrate the fortress and stop the mad doctor once again.

What we have here is another mascot-based pinball game where our hero is the pinball itself (such as Kirby in Kirby's Pinball Land). Sonic is launched and batted around large levels based on a pinball machine, only with the usual Sonic enemies and items. The main goal of each level is to collect the Chaos Emeralds which open the boss room. Defeat the boss and move on to the next level.

Sonic will travel through four levels in his quest, each with its own hazards and traps:

  • Toxic Caves
  • Lava Powerhouse
  • The Machine
  • Showdown

When Sonic isn't being shot around the level by bumpers, he's somewhat controllable as we all know and love him, with the control pad steering him and the A, B, or C button causing him to jump. This allows him to return to the pinball areas should he find himself stopped somewhere. While in play as the ball the control pad steers Sonic, the A button flips the left paddle, the B button flips the right paddle, and the C button flips them both at once. Should Sonic fall below the paddles he can usually jump back up to the play area (but not always, resulting in a lost life). The pinball levels themselves consist of somewhat repetitive tasks, such as busting barrels or flipping switches while zooming around the level. In between levels Sonic takes control of an actual pinball machine as he tries to free his captured friends and stop Dr. Robotnik. Win or lose, these bonus rounds are all about points and have no bearing on the plot or level structure.

The graphics and sound are nothing special and pale in comparison to the other games in the Sonic world. The hedgehog himself appears smaller and fatter in this go-round, and the dark moody feel of the game fits the atmosphere Sega tried to set, but overall doesn't fit into the usual sunny brightness of the other Sonic the Hedgehog titles. It should be noted that Sonic Team did not work on this game and is considered by fans to be a quick hack-job for the holiday shopping season. The game suffers from immense slowdown and only runs at half speed sometimes in Normal mode, although increasing the speed level to Fast in the Options screen does help. The game also suffers/features a high difficulty level, as dying resets the entire level, forcing Sonic to re-retrieve all previously collected Chaos Emeralds.

Interesting Sonic Spinball factoid: the team behind the game was celebrating the release of the game when a member of Sonic Team (who was uninvolved with the game's development) came in to see how the game ended up. The developers turned on the final release version of the game and a techno-version of the classic Sonic the Hedgehog theme song rang out. The Sonic Team member asked how the team had persuaded Sega to shell out the money to license the rights to that theme song. The team was confused; didn't Sega own the theme song to their own mascot? The Sonic Team member explained that a now-famous band in Japan owned the rights to the song and, after becoming quite famous, demanded that Sega pay them royalties for each cartridge (not game, actual individual cartridges) that the song was used on. The SS team panicked; they hadn't asked Sega to license anything. They had just assumed the song was free to use. Shortly after midnight that night the team's music composer dashed back into the recording studio and put together the song that now grace's the game's title screen. A handful of copies of the game that contained the traditional theme song did escape from manufacturing and are now considered collector's items. ROMs of both versions of the game are floating around the Internet for those out there who'd like to compare the songs.

Sonic Spinball began life on the Sega Genesis in 1993 but soon after spawned scaled-down versions for the Sega Master System and Sega Game Gear. The game also appeared in the 1995 Sonic Two-in-One collection, the 1996 Sega Saturn compilation Sonic Jam as well as the 2002 Nintendo GameCube titles Sonic Mega Collection and Sonic Adventure DX, plus the Game Boy Advance rendition of the Sega Smash Pack. The original versions are somewhat hard to come by outside of used game stores, but the Nintendo ports are brand new and easy to find.

References:
Playing the game (Sega Genesis version)
GameFAQs.com
The Sonic Database

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