Friday 12 June 2020

Mega Drive Review - Sonic Spinball (Game 186)

With each new 16bit 'Sonic' game the quality threshold was getting higher and higher. So how did a bizarre pinball game become the follow up to one of the most successful Mega Drive platformers ever?

Developed by Sti
Published by Sega
Released in 1993

The Sega Technical Institute was intended to be the perfect fusion of East and West game development. According to Peter Morawiec, a designer on 'Sonic the Hedgehog 2', the studio was "cooked up by Mark Cerny and Sega executives in Japan [and] its purpose was to expose Japanese teams to the western culture and “gaming values.” Experienced Japanese developers could teach new up-and-coming Americans, while creating games that would have global appeal. However, according to Morawiec "there was disparity in skill levels, the Sonic Team were Sega’s top developers while many of STI’s hires were talented kids with no prior experience.”. For many it was their first job in the industry, and they were sitting alongside developers who had made the critically and commercially celebrated 'Sonic the Hedgehog'. Graphic designer Tom Payne says the American staff felt privileged to be in such exalted company. "It was pretty great to work with them all. It was like getting a chance to play guitar with the Beatles." However as Payne notes, cultural differences and inexperience created difficulties. “I don't think in general the Americans measured up very well with the Japanese team" he recalls. “[They] would be there all the time working & we would go home & sleep!" Morawiec also noticed the tensions. "There was a language barrier, and not everyone chose to mingle, as well as their work ethic, many of those guys would routinely pull overnighters, sleeping on the floor in their cubicles." .

Yuji Naka had created the original demo on which 'Sonic' was based, and was also the lead programmer on the first game. Throughout the development of the sequel, he was given more and more responsibility. In 1992 Sega Vision magazine called him "the creator and mastermind behind Sonic", even though the game was designed in collaboration with Hirokazu Yasuhara. According to programmer Steve Woita, "Yuji Naka was in total control of anything 'Sonic' and no one had the guts to challenge him on any issues". Morawiec believes that the end of the collaboration between East and West was at his request. "After "Sonic 2' shipped, Naka pulled the plug. It would’ve been nice if he gave the “experiment” more time, but I also know how it is when you have a big title to deliver under tight deadlines, so no judgment."

Although still working in the same building, teams were no longer of mixed nationality, and for the inevitable third 'Sonic' game Yuji Naka worked alongside his countrymen. "For 'Sonic 3' the entire team was Japanese" remembers artist Chris Skitt. "Naka didn't want to have any Americans on the team, and Naka gets what Naka wants”. While the American employees were side-lined to other projects, Yuji Naka's team were struggling to meet lofty expectations. Sonic was now Sega's official mascot and the first sequel had built on the series' success, almost single handily establishing the Genesis in America. “It would be no exaggeration to say that ‘Sonic the Hedgehog 2’ had ensured that Sonic would become Sega’s most important and lucrative piece of intellectual property” once wrote Retro Gamer magazine.  Sega wanted an annual release of their biggest franchise and Naka was reluctant to submit a third game that failed to exceed what had come before. “I remember fighting against the clock to get it released" Naka recalls. "However, since this would be the final sonic game on the Mega Drive, nobody on the team wanted to end it with a partially completed game." Sega had a solution, and approached the Americans who had worked on 'Sonic 2' with an ambitious idea. "Since, Sonic III' would slip, I was asked to design a "smaller" 'Sonic' game, an offshoot of sorts, which could be completed, in time for Christmas)" says Peter Morawiec. Morawiec knew that a traditional platform game on the scale of 'Sonic 2' wasn’t possible in the timeframe, so working with Justin Chin, he had a novel idea. "Marketing concluded that the Casino stage in Sonic was one of the most popular levels, so I've created a more pinball-like design with 'Sonic' elements, which everybody seemed to like". Even with a scaled back concept, a team smaller than that working on 'Sonic 3' had to build a game from the ground up. "We had only nine months to do it — from scratch, on our own, and without any help from the Sonic Team" remembers Morawiec. " It created some controversy within STI, but I give [new company head] Roger [Hector] a lot of credit for hiring a couple of experienced contractors (Denis Kobel and Lee Actor) to help us deliver the game on time. These guys were knowledgeable programmers and really good to work with; they coded up 'Spinball' in C, which wasn’t the norm back then (most games were still done in Assembly)."

"There was a very good pinball game on the Amiga called 'Pinball Dreams ' which inspired me to try to design the levels more like actual pinball tables." This served as a launching pad for the game design process. “I envisioned more of the real pinball mechanics brought into Sonic’s World. We were given pretty free reign to brainstorm” adds Morawiec. 

Unlike other straight pinball games that had enjoyed success on home computers, ‘Sonic Spinball’ is actually a narrative driven adventure with each of the four tables advancing the plot. As always with a 'Sonic' game, your goal is to collect Chaos Emeralds, complete a boss battle and ultimately save Sonic’s planet Mobius. Dr. Robotnik has set up a fortress base on Mount Mobius, the highest mountain on the planet. Like previous games, his evil scheme seems to largely involve imprisoning adorable animals and turning them into the evil robotic badniks. Continuing on from the conclusion of ‘Sonic 2’, Sonic and Tails are chasing Robotnik on a biplane. Sonic, yet to realise the perils of riding on the wings of a moving plane, falls into an ocean. Despite water being a notorious obstacle to the blue blur, he survives surfacing at the first level of the game; the Toxic Caves. 
Unlike traditional pinball tables, where the sole aim is to accumulate as big a score as possible, in ‘Sonic Spinball’ you are aiming to find and procure a number of Chaos Emeralds. Once you gather a specified number, you'll be able to enter a boss chamber and defeating the boss allows you to move on to the next stage. For the first two stages, you have to collect three Chaos Emeralds and you’ll be sourcing five in levels three and four.  To do this you have to bounce Sonic around; launching him off a variety of different flippers or see-saws, bouncing him off bumpers, sending him through tubes and using him to activating specific switches in a designated order. When on a platform you do have some control over Sonic, but his move set is somewhat limited when compared to ‘Sonic 2’. He can only really walk and jump, something Morawiec regrets; “Looking back, I wish we incorporated a bit more platforming“. While the levels themselves have machines that can crush Sonic, the real struggle in a ‘Sonic Spinball’ level is finding the Chaos Emeralds in the first place. The levels are sprawling, and the location of each gem is very rarely sign posted in an obvious way. Like the worst part of the mainline ‘Sonic’ games it’s often impossible to know if a fall through a tube will lead to unavoidable death or if it will lead to reward.
There’s a frustrating amount of trial-and-error and the cost for getting it wrong is great.  When Sonic dies by plummeting into lava or polluted water the level resets; any emeralds acquired will have to be found again. Unlike prior 'Sonic' games you don’t use rings to keep Sonic alive since enemies and bosses can’t really hurt Sonic. Instead, you can earn additional lives by amassing points, but once all your lives are exhausted it is game over. Consequently, ‘Sonic Spinball’ has a reputation for being exceptionally hard. “I wish I had made it easier”, says Morawiec “I just recently played the GBA version on my son’s DS, man, it is HARD!” Sadly, what you do on each stage is pretty similar, so it lucky the four stages are visually quite distinctive.

The opening stage throws Sonic into a level that could have been lifted directly out of ‘Global Gladiators’. Here you're collecting three Chaos Emeralds while rowing through acid and avoiding waterfalls of sewage. The boss is a very odd looking giant Robotnik scorpion fusion. Considering the game is set in a mountain, the second stage is aptly filled with lava. Apparently volcanic lava is the perfect fuel to power Dr Robotnik's fortress. So logically, the level culminates with a battle with a rogue boiler filled with multiple copies of the Eggman’s face.
The third stage see Sonic entering a machine, filled with cogs, levers and containment chambers. The game concludes with a battle on a spaceship as it launches. As might be obvious, 4 stages don’t make for a long game but the duration is artificially elongated by cheap deaths and deliberately obtuse level design. You can finish the game in less than half an hour when you know what to do, but the problem is that working out what to do is laborious and frustrating.

As per tradition, In between stages there's a bonus game for you to participate in.  Without the focus on rings, there's nothing that you need to do in order to get these bonus games, just completing a stage is enough. While you’re still flinging sonic about using pinball table flippers, the angle of play is different. It feels slightly like you’re playing a rejected prototype for ‘Sonic Spinball’.
It would make sense, as the tight development schedule meant that work had to be focused with all assets created finding their way into the game. ‘Sonic 2’ was an embarrassment of riches, with many practically finished stages dropped from the final build. However, accordingly to artist Tom Payne, ‘Sonic2’s offcuts were actually repurposed in ‘Sonic Spinball’. “time constraints were paramount I got to recycle some of the art for [the dropped level] Cyber City Zone into ‘Spinball’”. According to Payne, another artist finally got to see his hard work on a cartridge  too, as ‘Sonic 2’s most famous cut level became the blueprint for a stage here. “Craig Stitt did the first level. It uses some leftover tile patterns from Hidden Palace Zone”. The ‘Sonic’ series had become synonymous with fantastic visuals; however ‘Sonic Spinball’ looks dark and dingy in comparison.

The Sonic sprite feels slightly off; like a tribute act or an impersonator. It’s a shortcoming that’s even been acknowledged by Peter Morawiec. “Ultimately, the short development cycle shows and the graphic quality is not quite on par with the work of the Sonic Team [...] the westerners had difficulties matching the art style and coding practices of the Japanese”. STI developers were making ‘Spinball’ while Sonic Team made the third game, and it’s easy to pick the more attractive game. “I sometimes wished that we had more Japanese artists on ‘Spinball’ because I found the disparity in art styles throughout the games pretty jarring” says Morawiec. “We had only one artist from Japan (Katsuhiko Sato) who did a couple of great stages — geometrically clean, colourful, and very ‘Sonic’-like — but those stages don’t quite match most of the other art in the game. It’s not bad art, but it’s inconsistent and just not as tight.”

Along with striking visuals, the music of a ‘Sonic’ game is often applauded and studied, even though that’s mainly trying to determine if Michael Jackson had a hand in their creation. For ‘Sonic Spinball’ it does feel like you’re listening to B-sides. Stage music isn’t bad; it’s just not comparable to the great tracks you hum when someone mentions the name Sonic. Interestingly the game did include the original theme tune from ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’, up until the dawn of the game being considered complete. “We were all sitting around eating at the 'wrap party' when the Japanese came in from working on Sonic 3” recalls Craig Stitt. “[Lead Designer Hirokazu] Yasahara, while watching the opening sequence of ‘Spinball’, made an off-hand remark asking how we talked Sega into paying for the rights to the original ‘Sonic’ Theme. We all looked at him very strangely since we didn't have a clue what he was talking about.” Evidently, Masato Nakamura who wrote the original 'Sonic' theme, still owned the copyright to the track.
Between the releases of ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ and ‘Sonic 2’ his J-pop band Dreams Come True, had enjoyed huge success in Japan. When Sega approached him to use his existing music in subsequent ‘Sonic’ games the price Nakamura demanded was hard to justify. “Well, no one had told us about this and we had used the original music” says Stitt. “Howard [Drossin], our music guy, quickly ran to his little room and started writing a new piece of music. At about midnight that night we released a NEW gold master version of the game, this time with our own original theme song.”  As Peter Morawiec puts it; “it was quite a fiasco [...] a brand new theme in something like two hours!”

This episode serves as a good analogy for the entire development of ‘Sonic Spinball’. A relentless rush, where corners got cut and liberties were taken, but the end result is original and effective. Reviewers at the time were harsh but fair; praising the ideas but criticising the length and the repetition. ‘Sonic Spinball’ may not have been able to stand up to the ‘Sonic’ games that came before, but it’s certainly never considered the worst ‘Sonic’ game today. However, this may well be reflective of the amount of dire games that have been released bearing the imaging of the Blue Hedgehog!  Sega have seen fit to re-release the game on over a dozen consoles, so they certainly see some merit to it. At the time of release it would be hard to justify spending £40 on the game, but today when you can try it for a few pounds it’s a game worth playing. 

“Considering what we had to work with, I think the game holds up well” says Morawiec.  “It was the first major departure from traditional ‘Sonic’ gameplay, so it’s not surprising that some fans and reviewers didn’t like it. Nonetheless, it sold extremely well and I’m grateful for being able to work on it.”  For the team at STI, 'Sonic Spinball' was proof that 'Sonic' games could be made without the involvement of the self-proclaimed series creator. Even the perfectionist Naka seemed to approve of the bizarre concept. “I’m sure if Yuji Naka didn’t like the game, he would’ve done something about it” claims programmer Steve Woita. It shows that from the most unlikely of circumstances, creativity is allowed to thrive.

Where did I get this game from?
At a time when people believe any retro game is worth hundreds of pounds, I still managed to get this for less than £5 on eBay. I did however already own multiple digital copies since it seems 'Sonic Spinball' is on every Sega compilation ever released!

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