Sonic the Hedgehog Spinball, better known as Sonic Spinball, was one of the most unique Sonic titles to release in the 90s. It took pinball to a whole new level and gave it the attitude Sonic had become infamous for. However, Spinball was deliberately never given significant development effort. As a result, it is one of the earliest Sonic titles to receive mixed reception.
Sonic Spinball’s story goes like this. The evil scientist Doctor Robotnik has built a gigantic contraption, the Veg-O-Fortress, on top of the volcano Mt. Mobius, and plans to turn the animals of Planet Mobius into mindless robot slaves. The magma within the volcano fuels the fortress itself, along with its pinball machine-like defense systems. Additionally, the volcano is kept in stable condition by a series of Chaos Emeralds. Sonic the Hedgehog and Tails reach the fortress with their airplane, the Tornado, but they are ambushed by the fortress’s cannons. Sonic is knocked into the deep waters that surround the volcano, but manages to avoid drowning and surfaces in the caves below the fortress. These are the Toxic Caves, and it’s where you, the player, comes in. You must guide Sonic through the pinball defense systems and ascend to the fortress at the top. As you do so, you will need to defeat contraptions, save animals, and take back the Chaos Emeralds. Without the Chaos Emeralds, the volcano will return to its unstable state and destroy what remains of Robotnik’s dirty work.
It’s not the first time Robotnik used fortification as ameans of “landscaping”, and it won’t be the last. However, it is the first time Robotnik took full advantage of the pinball system that he has used in his previous plans. In fact, previous levels, such as Sonic 2’s Casino Night, are a factor in the making of Sonic Spinball. The concept of Spinball was partially born out of the need for a Sonic game to make up the void left by Sonic 3 delays. SEGA had the desire to have a Sonic game in stores by Christmas of 1993, but Sonic 3 had been pushed back. As a result, there was no longer a Sonic game to fill that window. Because of this, they asked Peter Morawiec to create a smaller Sonic the Hedgehog title that could be completed in six months. To accomplish this, Lee Actor and Dennis Koble were hired as programmers. Polygames handled around 90% of the programming, while Sega Technical Institute members handled the graphics, design, and music. Sonic Team’s only involvement with the game was for manufacturing. Marketing concluded that the Casino stage in Sonic was one of the most popular levels, so they produced a game centered around a pinball formula.
However, there were drawbacks that ultimately contributed to the “love-it-or-hate-it” quality that even Peter Morawiec said the game got. One was the divided staff. Development of Sonic games were no longer done by a single entity, but by one team in America and another in Japan. Both teams worked on separate projects. For example, as the Japanese group was working on Sonic CD, the American team was working on Sonic 2 (some unused art from Sonic 2’s Cyber City Zone was used in Spinball). Occasionally, outside parties that may or may not be associated with SEGA occasionally lended a helping hand One of these parties was the SEGA Technical Institute, which became more involved in assisting with Sonic titles, partly due to the team’s hiring of Yuji Naka. The American team and STI were the ones who went on to develop Sonic Spinball. This division lasted for roughly three years following the release of Sonic 1. In the meantime, resources were very split and the development hell of Sonic 3 & Knuckles didn’t help matters.
The second drawback was the short development cycle, which had only been nine months long. Things had to be rushed, resulting in some graphical problems, glitches, collision detection issues, and even some frame-rate slowdown. Ideas were also passed, including a map screen. The third drawback was the release itself, which wasn’t consistent. The first version of the game has the classic Sonic title screen music that games such as Sonic 1 previously had and a different tune for game overs and collecting Chaos Emeralds. That Sonic title screen music had to be changed at the last minute as Hirokazu Yasuhara had pointed out SEGA did not own the rights to the music (Dreams Come True owned the rights). As a result, two different versions of Spinball were released with slightly different sounds and the European and Japanese versions are slightly altered from the final American version.
Even the bosses play a part in Robotnik’s plan. Lava Powerhouse’s Robo-Boiler serves some function in regulating power supply to the Veg-O-Machine, which is the animal robotizer boss seen in The Machine. Despite the significant presence of story, gameplay is the element that you will experience the most. It is full-fledged pinball with splashes of platforming. Unlike most pinball games, it is a matter of opening up routes to reach different areas in the level and allowing you to get all the emeralds in the level, which will open up the level’s boss room. The first half of the game has 3 emeralds, and the latter half has 5. Players have more influence over this pinball game than others, as using the D-Pad can alter Sonic’s path. How much his path alters depends on how strongly he’s moving. However, the right shot can allow Sonic to make complete curves or reach areas that he would have a more difficult time doing otherwise. For example, players can reach the emerald guarded by a badnik in The Machine’s left side without bouncing off the badnik or relying on catching Sonic with the flippers and pulling the flipper closer.
Depending on the player, the game can be a quick, easy experience or a long and hard battle. It can be completed anywhere between 16 minutes (the current world record) and one to two hours. This has a drawback, however. The shorter gameplay resulted in a nasty difficulty spike that has been the deciding factor for people’s impressions of the game.
Sonic Spinball had a shaky development and release, but its legacy only furthered that. A downscaled version was released on the Game Gear in 1994 and on the Master System in 1995. Both versions have since popped up in various collections and Sonic game ports, including Sonic Mega Collection for the 16-bit version and Sonic Gems Collection for the Game Gear version. The 16-bit version was later released on the Wii Virtual Console in 2007. The game was even released on iOS devices in Apple’s App Store, and on PC in Steam. A second Sonic pinball game, Sonic Pinball Party, released on the Game Boy Advance in 2003. Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog had an episode named “Attack on the Pinball Fortress”, which was loosely based on the plot of Spinball (Spinball featured characters and elements from both that cartoon and the show Sonic the Hedgehog, better known as SatAM). Lastly, a CD called Sonic the Hedgehog Boom: The Music from Sonic CD and Sonic Spinball was released in 1994. It serves as the OST to Sonic CD and Spinball. Not all of Spinball’s songs are on the record, and those that are were remixed. It was made available to customers who pre-ordered Sonic 3 at Toys ‘R Us.
Perhaps Spinball’s greatest legacy is the Sonic rebrand that the Spinball Whizzer ride received at Alton Towers, which was done thanks to a partnership with SEGA. The ride became heavily Sonic-themed and was renamed Sonic Spinball. This lasted from 2010 to 2015 and also ended up being the first time people got to hear Roger Craig Smith as Sonic after the voice cast changed.
Back to Spinball itself, the game’s promotion was significant. SEGA had advertised the game in places such as magazines and television advertisements. The Japanese commercials became a classic because of the “funky action” line used to describe the game. The American commercials demonstrated what it feels like to be Sonic in Spinball with the exception that Spinball “is faster”. As for the reception to Spinball, critics were mixed. The problems previously described became talking points in reviews.
In conclusion, Spinball has become just another one of those average Sonic games that people either love or hate. But for all it’s worth, it’s a game that took pinball and went where few pinball games had gone before. But most of all, it crafted a legacy that few Sonic games can compare to.