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Retro Review: Sonic Spinball Game Gear Version

Sonic Spinball was one of the first games to feature Sonic the Hedgehog in something other than a platform title.

Sonic Spinball was one of the first games to feature Sonic the Hedgehog in something other than a platform title. I have a love-hate relation with the Genesis version. While it had some cool music, nice challenges, and even appearances by characters from Sonic’s Saturday morning cartoons, it also had a rather unforgiving difficulty level and a final boss that was simply too hard to defeat. At least the 16-bit version had more going for it than the Game Gear version released in 1994. This version brought changes that would dumb down the challenge and try to give the game a different feel as a result. The alterations, however, would largely make the game far inferior to its 16-bit successor and would become yet another mistake in Sonic’s career.

Our hero is on yet another quest to foil Dr. Robotnik’s schemes. This time, Robotnik has set up a volcanic fortress in the middle of the ocean and has also built a machine designed to change animals into robots to work from him. Sonic and Tails try to infiltrate the fortress with the aid of their plane, but Sonic slips off and falls into the water. Nevertheless, he manages to get inside the volcano and begins his mission to get past its pinball defense systems, collect the Chaos Emeralds, and stop Robotnik yet again. In other words, the same basic Sonic story told differently yet again. Interestingly, Tails is not seen again after the opening cut scene, and unlike the ending of the Genesis version, is not seen saving Sonic after he falls out of the volcano.

The objective of every stage is to grab the Chaos Emeralds that unlock the doors leading to the bosses. Of the four stages, the first two each have three emeralds, and the other two each possess five emeralds. Getting to the jewels will not be easy, though, as Sonic will need the aid of pinball mechanics to succeed in his mission. Pinball flippers are everywhere, and Sonic must use them to get to other parts of the levels. There are rings to collect and enemies to defeat, like always, but Sonic will die if he falls to the bottom of a pinball chamber and lands in lava, toxic slime, or some other hazardous material. However, special force fields can be activated between the flippers to prevent such a disaster from happening.

Flippers are not the only things that Sonic utilizes in this game. Occasionally, he will need to use mine carts, cannons, and other devices to get to where he needs to go. This gives the game a fair bit of innovation and makes hunting down the emeralds a bit more interesting. Once all of the emeralds are accumulated, Sonic can then take on one of Robotnik’s creations, and eventually, Robotnik himself. These bosses range in difficulty from being quite easy to taking a while to beat. Fall out of the area, and you will not die, but you will have to restart the battle when you go back in. Defeat the boss, and you will be whisked away to a bonus stage (in the case of the first three stages).

In every bonus stage, you can destroy cages that hold such prizes as extra lives and continues. The catch is that you will need to use Sonic’s spin dash to reach them, and there are three parts in every bonus stage. Additionally, there is a time limit in each bonus level, and if you do not escape from all three areas before it expires, you will lose all of your prizes. These levels are rather awkward in their set up, and they are not particularly interesting, either. I much prefer the bonus levels in the Genesis version…at least those had more to do with pinball and gave us cameos by the Saturday morning series characters as an added treat.

In fact, this Game Gear port is full of problems. As mentioned before, the difficulty level is dumbed down considerably, even on the harder setting. As with the Genesis version, it can be tough to aim Sonic to where you want him to go at times, leading to needless frustration. You do get the option to give Sonic continues, which would have been a welcome feature in the original version, but this makes the lack of a challenge even more profound when you realize that you can give the hedgehog up to seven continues from the start of the game. The bosses and level design have also been made easier and lack the thrills and excitement of its predecessor.

The text messages, which were common in the Genesis version, pop up less often here, but when they do show up, they scroll rather slowly. At times when you are unable to skip them, this can be annoying. This becomes especially profound in the credits, which scroll from right to left quite slowly, thus making them last forever. No other Sonic game that I have ever played had a boring ending like this one. Fittingly, the game actually tells you at the end of the credits to-I kid you not-go to sleep. After spending ages watching what may be perhaps the slowest credit sequence I have ever experienced, I might as well take a nap.

The problems extend to the graphics and music. There is a lot of slow down, which does not quite make the game unplayable, but which is still rather bothersome. Understandably, the game looks worse in eight-bit than it did in 16-bit, but it is forgivable save for some ugly-looking bosses and bonus areas. The only tune carried over from the Genesis version is the title screen track, and as can be expected, it loses its coolness factor in the translation. While some of the new tracks are good, others are boring and do not really fit the action, the Machine stage music being particularly guilty of this characterization. As a whole, the game does not have a lot going for it, and what could have been a decent port became yet one more Sonic Game Gear title that should have never been made.

While Sonic Spinball for the Genesis had at least a good amount of redeeming qualities, the Game Gear version was largely lacking in anything that would make it worthwhile. From somewhat poor mechanics to being made a bit too easy to the most boring credits sequence I have ever seen, it is nothing short of a terrible port. Not every Sonic Game Gear title was bad, but this game should have been thought through a lot more before it saw release. Stick with the Genesis version if you wish to see how a good Sonic pinball game more-or-less should be made. There have been far better games with Sonic in genres other than platform games, but I will save those for other reviews.

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