In the early ’90s I couldn’t get enough Sonic the Hedgehog. I loved the flagship series as much as any good Sega fan boy would and I was over the moon about my hardware manufacturer of choice having a mascot to rival Mario, something I would’ve never thought possible before the Genesis.
When Sonic Spinball was previewed I was confused but hyped. It was a little disappointing that this wasn’t a tried and true installment to the series, but it was something different and my young brain wasn’t familiar with what a spin-off was at the time. By Christmas of 1993 I was the proud owner of a new Sonic game that had me skeptical but excited for a new take on my then-favorite video game character.
When I first booted it up, I was intrigued. Sonic looks cool and colorful, even a little different from before. His blue spikes had more of a Knuckles, dreadlock look, and he was bouncing off a bumper just like in Casino Night zone! Everything about the art was more detailed and three-dimensional though. I still didn’t really know exactly what I was in for but I was pumped.
So it turns out Sonic Spinball is a pinball game. Obviously I was a little slow on the uptake in my formative years. It all made sense now. Apparently our hero (along with Tails for better or worse) are in some kind of castle/fortress where pollution stuff is happening. Everything is a pinball machine too apparently. You have to progress through each table collecting gems and opening hatches to get to the next screen and eventually drain the levels of all the gross stuff. That’s just the first level though. Each of the four are unique, though don’t let the number fool you. Each table has multiple screens and a boss battle. If you keep chanting “this is a spin-off” there’s probably enough replay value here.
The tables themselves are colorful and for a pinball machine, maze-like. There’s a lot going on and even though things are displayed on the faux-LED screen to explain everything it’s still a little difficult to get ahold of what does what. Given each table is split into more than one screen also makes it a little more challenging because you could be hitting drop targets on one screen that affect something on the one above that you’re not seeing at that moment. It’s a little wonky in general and since fantastical objects sometimes represent familiar parts you’d see in a real machine there can be confusion. Overall though this is a pinball game with above average gameplay for its time.
There’s one big issue with Sonic Spinball though: the framerate is horrendous. See back then, we didn’t know what framerates were. We just thought you put games in and they worked. If there were any glitches, stutters, or flickering we just chalked it up to the general limitations of the technology of the game. Never did we think to compare it to this game or that on the very same system. Now that we know, it’s safe to say that this game has one of the worst framerates I can remember from the 16-bit era.
It simply isn’t smooth and the Genesis arguably can’t run it optimally. It’s essentially pinball in slow motion. Disappointing considering how fast Sonic had moved in previous games. My only conclusion is that this was a bit of a half-hearted effort. “Get another Sonic game out there………no it doesn’t have to be a full-fledged installment just SOMEthing,” is what I picture a Sega exec more or less instructing a development team to produce. How else to explain that Sonic quite simply moved and played better in other games on the same system?
It’s a bit of a black mark on an otherwise fun game. Even with a good frame rate this probably wasn’t going to be anyone’s favorite Sonic game, and one could argue the necessity of it at all, but the little fan boy in me still wishes it was everything it could’ve been considering how many successful Mario spin-offs have come and gone. For what it’s worth though you can still have fun with this one. It’s just a bit of a missed opportunity.
***Sonic Spinball is currently valued around $5 cart only and $8-10 complete in box. I would recommend it at either price point depending on your preference. A cheap addition to your collection that, while very imperfect, will provide more enjoyment than many games that will cost you far more***