“But I love arcades. Pinball was the best. I was the highest scorer out there. Course, I was the ball. … You see, I… was the ball. All right kid. (swallows chili dog whole) BAAAAAAAUUUUUURRRRRRP” – Sonic
So I’ll be covering a few spinoff games in this “16 Days of Sonic X-mas” thing I’ve got going on. What better spinoff title to start with, than Sonic Spinball? Well, it was the first spinoff title, so it makes sense chronologically at least. Released in late 1993, it was the game the Sega Technical Institute put together in America (after they finished Sonic 2), making sure there was something for kids to get that Christmas before Sonic 3 showed up early 1994. I guess the idea stemmed from the levels featuring pinball flippers in the regular Sonic games.
I like pinball well enough. This isn’t really a normal game of pinball though? Sonic is the ball, and you can adjust his trajectory with the D-pad ever so slightly as he bounces about the (fairly large) levels. It’s kind of weird and takes some getting used to. The three action buttons, meanwhile, are used for the flippers. A is left flipper, B is right flipper, C is both flippers. This is a time where it would have been really helpful to have a Saturn controller instead, because shoulder buttons work way better for this sort of thing. I ended up always just using C for both flippers, though that does screw me over from time to time.
So the game plays okay, but I’m not sure I’d call it a lot of fun. You have to accomplish a number of pinball-esque tasks in order to advance and obtain Chaos Emeralds, which you have to collect in order to access the boss room. Once you get good at the game this works out okay–but this can be a surprisingly difficult game for beginners, who will spend minute after minute just bouncing around the same room, hitting the same few targets over and over again. And if you die somewhere three rooms away? That’s right, you start over at the very beginning.
LONG FUN FACT: This game features characters (either robot enemies you defeat or animal friends you rescue) from the two Sonic cartoons that were airing at this time. That’s right, there were TWO Sonic cartoons. One was a horribly-animated Looney Tunes sort of show, and I’m pretty sure the whole thing with the chili dogs spawned from that. It featured an admittedly amusing rendition of Dr. Robotnik, and the show lives on to this day largely through memes. MEANWHILE, there was another cartoon that had a plot(???) that was basically Star Wars. A more menacing rendition of Dr. Robotnik conquered the world, and it’s up to the rebel alliance (Sonic and friends) to overthrow the robot empire. Sonic was a wisecracking Han Solo, and he had a chipmunk(?) girlfriend named Princess Sally (Leia). These cartoons did well enough to spawn a comic book series, and I’m not sure which is more surprising: the fact it’s made by Archie comics (yes… Jughead), or the fact the damn thing is still running to this very day. Based on my impressive internet searching skills, Sonic apparently even battled Megaman at some point???
Anyways, the point I’m getting at is I’m not sure how canon this game is supposed to be–not that it really matters. What does matter, is just how thoroughly Spinball’s tone does not fit with any of the other Sonic games from that era (or any era?). There are (only) four levels, and they all have the feel of a final level. They’re all Robotnik’s lair zones! (Where’s a friggin’ Green Hill?) And even more startlingly, everything in these levels is way creepier than anything you’ll see in any of the other old Sonic games. It’s straight up Sonic Creepypasta: The Game. The depths of a toxic sewer, the hells of a geothermal power plant, and even the prison factory that turns animals into robots. It’s all a little messed up… especially when the bosses enter the picture. Absolute freaking nightmare fuel. The blood-curdling 16-bit screeches of the giant Robotnik-faced scorpion still haunt me to this day, and that was the damn introductory boss. Don’t walk, run!
(If you must.)