Sega was having a weird 1993. It was a moment in the Japanese company’s history where the shift towards the West had never been stronger, since the smash-hit sequel to their strongest franchise was developed by designer Yuji Naka, working with a team that mixed American and Japanese devs: the Mark Cerny-led Sega Technical Institute. The success of that collaboration suggested a sequel, but Naka was having none of it and set his foot down: either they would allow him to do Sonic his way, with his team of only Japanese people, or he wouldn’t do it. After being forced to agree to his terms, Sega was left with the only other team in the world that had experience with the blue hedgehog, but, clearly, did not have the time nor resources to work on a platformer. Thus we come to Sonic Spinball, the first (and, for several years, the only) Sonic title developed by a non-Japanese team.
This post is part of a collaborative Sonic retrospective based around the games on Sonic Mega Collection Plus. To read more, please head over to Super Chart Island!
Designed by future Comix Zone creator Peter Morawiec, together with Hoyt Ng, it was his first project, one still fondly remembered. Ever since the start, Spinball was intended as a stop-gap release, when it became clear that Yuji Naka was not going to complete Sonic III in time for a Christmas release. Since the pinball stage in Sonic II had been pretty popular among kids, Morawiec pitched an idea based on the classic Amiga title Pinball Dreams.
With an allotted development time slot of nine months, the team was left mostly on their own to figure out how to make that idea work, while developing everything from scratch. In the end, Sega sent Japanese staff to help them, with STI being forced to develop Spinball in C, slower than the usual Assembly language that most developers would use, only to save time. A decision that weighs on the final product: it does not really run very smoothly.
Spinball is generally described as middle ground between classic 2D platforming and pinball mechanics, but truth is, there’s little of the first to be had. Sonic is in ball form most of the time, with the player’s interactions limited to gentle nudges in either direction. The platforming mostly comes in how the hedgehog can use his trademark spin dash attack in certain moments, along with moving through some parts of the levels. Still, the gist of the gameplay is, indeed, pinball: control the paddles and avoid the toxic water or the giant enemy at the bottom. The enemies are there as mere obstacles: with Sonic in perennial ball form, they won’t pose much of a threat, rather more of a hindrance. The only way to “die” is exactly like in pinball: losing the ball in the drain.
Early Sonic Spinball beta
The chaos emeralds have been made into a huge part of the gameplay: collecting them is now required to fight the end of the stage boss. They are also all blue, for some reason, and to access them, the player will have to explore and try to find out how to access certain parts of the stage. The bonus stages, which are now emerald-free, are designed as pure pinball, with the only objective that of collecting points. The bosses seem to be, for the most part, some kind of horrific transmutation of Robotnik, which would lead one to believe the good doctor has been carrying out body experiments worthy of Herbert West.
The enemies rooster includes characters from the Sonic cartoon, with Sega that was trying to forcefully introduce it in Japan (and failed miserably). While the overall gameplay design of Spinball is hardly what one would define as refined, with the little time available, there was no chance to develop anything more complicated. It worked well enough for its role as stocking filler to satiate the kids while they waited for the third official title in the series.
The fourth wall breaking in Sonic The Hedgehog has been a thing ever since the beginning, with the main character famously tapping his toes impatiently while looking at the player. Indeed, the blue hedgehog seems to be completely aware of his existence as a mere videogame character. As a logical conclusion, he should also be aware of his null chances of survival, unless someone is guiding him through the traps and enemies.
Thus we need to wonder: has he also recognized that, as it is evident, his main cause of pain is the very same player? Sonic is nothing more than a pawn in someone else’s game and his continued suffering mirrors our fun. This might also explain why he’s so impatient: at least, he thinks, be merciful and make the suffering end as quickly as possible, please. In Sonic’s world, the player imbues the role of an Aristotelian god, the apex of being and knowledge, which knows and sees all, but cares not for its inhabitants.
Morawiec would lament, years later, the lack of Japanese artists on the project (there was only one), which led to a single stage looking in tune with the series, while the others looked quite non-canon. Indeed, Spinball graphically might be described as a bit of a mish-mash, but still, the most jarring aspect of the whole package remains the soundtrack. Not only it sounds nothing like the previous two titles, but it would also be incorrect to say that it would influence in any way the rest of the series.
Adding insult to injury, the Sonic theme could not be used, because Sega apparently forgot to pay the rights, not realizing the theme had been credited to composer Masao Namakura’s band Dreams Come True. The STI musician, Howard Drossin, had to come up with a new main menu theme at the last minute, composing it in a couple of hours. Overall, it sounds like a generic soundtrack to an average Genesis game, with the options menu theme having almost ascended to godlike meme level. Or perhaps, devil-like would be more appropriate.
Sonic Spinball options theme
Putting the designer’s comments aside, should Sonic Spinball be considered canon? Frankly, in this exact moment in time, I’m completely in the dark on what should be considered canon in the overall Sonic the Hedgehog narrative. Surely, being the first title developed to not follow, if not very generically, the platforming framework laid down by the two classic titles that came before (along with Sonic CD that would come out in 1993), it was already “different”.
Not surprisingly, there is not much to the story: Sonic and Tails are flying on their helicopter towards Dr. Robotnik’s “Veg-o-fortress” (I keep putting it in quotes, because that name sounds scary), when they get shot down. Sonic ends up in the sea and is washed out just at the beginning of the first level, Toxic Caves, which wasn’t originally planned to be the first level, as artist Craig Stitt recalls. So, either canon or not, nothing of what goes on in Spinball seems to really make any difference in the end. But one thing, looking back now, appears painfully clear: the more Sega would stray far from Yuji Naka’s classic groundwork, the more Sonic would drift away from relevancy.
Here we come to an evident puzzler with the world of Spinball. On the screen, there is a single line of text at the top, which appears to mimic the display in pinball games, but instead of just displaying score or cute animations, also contains hints on how to proceed like “Destroy the evil roboiler!” or generic encouragements and slogans like “Total action!”. So, who is sending these messages? Sonic is trapped in Dr. Robotnik’s “Veg-o-fortress”, so I would guess it is not the evil doctor helping him. Is it Tails? It wouldn’t appear to be the case, with the fox busy repairing the plane, as shown in the intro and ending cutscenes.
It could just be the voice of God, which would entail that the Aristotelian divinity not only doesn’t care, but also loves to spout generic 90s nonsense. If we could accept the identification of God in the Player, thus overseeing and deciding the moment that Sonic’s world comes alive, it would entail the hedegehog would be living in a world controlled by a strict and controlling religion. One that requires no church nor beliefs, but just self-confidence. But this is no Thomas Aquinas’ concept of God for sure, since I would venture as far as to say that anger and sorrow are usually a part of our divine experience with the game.
Let us reflect for a moment on the implications behind Sonic being transformed into an actual ball. Sega Technical Institute’s title was the first time our attention was diverted from Sonic being, well, a living being in his platformer titles. Spinball seems to actively demean the hedgehog, turning him into an object in constant tension between paddles, bumpers, and targets. Indeed, its only function is now racking up points, while before, in the Casino levels in Sonic II, the player could avoid the pinball mechanics altogether, in order to reach the end faster.
It might be argued that nothing much has changed: ever since the first time Sonic lost his rings, it had always been into the hands and at the player’s behest. Perhaps, our minds now beginning to wonder, the hedgehog has always been little more than an object for us to play at our leisure. But, in the end, are we not all playthings into the hands of fate? Sega would soon spiral out the downward cycle of its once-dear mascot: from a real character to little more than a materialistic sponge spinning around with no control, soaking up kids’ hard-earned pocket money. Once a synonim for high quality platforming, soon to be a relic that would leave in its downfall inordinate amounts of plastic goods, left to rot on the shelves. Spinball seems, in someway, to anticipate the discussion on anti-materialism.
In 1993, the two Sega 8-bit systems would also receive a late conversion of Spinball, released for both Master System and Game Gear. The title was ported by Sega Interactive Development division, again a mix of Japanese and American developers. The conversion retooled the overall design, tweaking the platforming element, almost removing it altogether, thus transforming into an even purer pinball experience. It features new bonus stages and a completely reworked, and now much more appropriate, soundtrack. Some reviewers point the 8-bit port as the “definitive” version of the Spinball experience; they might be on the right track.
Still, its main point of interest is what happens in the ending, after the destruction of the fortress and Robotnik and Sonic falling to the waters below. As opposed to the 16-bit version, Tails doesn’t show up to save Sonic, thus both hero and villain seem to disappear into the waters below. Is this the real ending, with Sonic and Robotnik deciding to just fall to their doom, thus saving themselves from the years of pain still to come?
Designer Peter Morawiec concludes: “Sonic Spinball was the first major departure from traditional Sonic gameplay, so it’s not surprising that some fans and reviewers didn’t like it.” Still, he might be remembering slightly incorrectly, since most reviews I have managed to track down seem to be pretty positive, with Sega Magazine UK awarding it quite a high rating (82%), while still noting the relative few stages available (four). Other magazines were even more positive, describing it as a quite fun pinball game with bonus “Hog”. GameFan US were among the more lukewarm, commenting how it really was nothing more than an average game, and that Sega should do well in the future to leave Sonic out of such meh titles. Indeed, someone should have been paying attention.
After the development of Spinball came to a close, Morawiec was invited, along with the Sonic Team, to a premiere of the pilot of the cartoon, soon to be known as Sonic SatAM (which was co-produced by Rete Italia, since they had already a TV ad with an animated Sonic). He remembers: “The Sonic Team guys sat through the spiel all stone-faced, so I don’t think they liked it very much. Roger [Hector, STI’s head after Mark Cerny left -ed’s note] was interested in having STI create a spin-off game based on the show, so I tried to come up with a gameplay format allowing for more story and adventure than the original Sonic games.”
That title, temporarily called Sonic Mars and developed with an entirely new engine, will never be released. Part of its design will flow into the notorious prototype Sonic X-treme, originally planned for Sega 32X then moved to Saturn, then, in the end, mercilessly scrapped.
Sonic Spinball is a fine little divertissement, interesting to look at today for its original development history and the overall moral implications. STI’s first foray into blue hedgehog waters did prove they had the skill and experience to bring a title to fruition in just nine months. But, most importantly, Spinball signaled the first time that Sega thought of Sonic as a tradable good, rather than a character.
Going back for a moment to the year 1993: as a kid, one would be only familiar with Sonic being a star in its two titles, both of which – unarguably – still rank among the greatest 16-bit platformers of all the time. Even the 8 bit conversions could be easily identified as the the more entertaining titles on the Master System (and Game Gear). That very same child who, ever since 1991, had learned to put themselves, eyes closed, into the spiky hands of Sonic – and Sega – would see Sonic Spinball on the shelves, at Christmas to boot. What other conclusion would there be for that sweet untainted mind and starry-eyed gaze fixated on that plastic box, except to conclude it was another title in that fantastic saga and, thus, an instant buy?
Sonic Spinball represented the green flag for the Japanese company to finally convert the blue hedgehog into a Micheal Jackson-fuelled money-making erinaceinae, implying that its once precious mascot could now be free to slowly circle down that same drain which would swallow not only the former King of Pop, but also the prince of Radaxian, Alex Kidd. The hedgehog wasn’t supposed anymore to only star in its own high-valued, Naka-designed “triple A” platformers, it could also be unceremoniously dumped into smaller titles, which may or may not have implications on the overall story arc and world-building of the franchise.
Because, in the end, who cares? It’s just video games, made for kids. With different timelines and events, both Sonic and Alex Kidd, would end up sharing a similar fate: first being carouselled around different gameplay styles and genres, milked for all they were worth, then left to slowly circle down that inevitable pinball drain.
Drawing a comparison with our neverending faith in the mascot, economist Ludwig von Mises argued that the initial expansion of trust in a certain business, encourages investment, but, without continued (and eventually accelerating) injections of credit, these projects would prove unprofitable, lose value and would need to be liquidated. Between 1993 and 1994, Sonic would complete its transmutation from cool and hip mascot to cog in the neverending process of correcting the distortions introduced by macroeconomics in a capitalistic system.
Could we ever, as children, accept the possibility of ethical consumption in a capitalistic system? Swallowing Sonic Spinball is accepting that, in a way, our minds as children could and would be exploited by companies that decided that their mascots could just as easily function as nothing more than pixelated lubricant to oil the merciless machinery of the capitalistic system.
While Sonic III would finally come along, in 1994, to remind us how the classic 2D platforming action was still worthy of attention, the damage done with Sonic Spinball seemed to be already irreparable. The blue hedgehog’s once untainted narrative and legacy would be tarnished with inexplicable marketing decisions, along with an ever growing number of scrapped Sonic “mainstream” titles, showing that the Japanese company was fuddling around in the dark.
Pretty soon, in a fall from grace typically punctuated by greed and lost dignity, Sonic the Hedgehog would lose its main public: the adoring kids fans. In a few years, it would become nothing more than what Emma Goldman would define as a “hired slave”. A shadow of its former self, brought down by a system which trappings did not realize and never intended to fight. It was already clear then, but it is ever more clear now, that Sonic could come back only by freeing itself of its shackles, revolting against its masters and stripped of all pretence.
He might finally win that war, by remembering that to the daring belongs the future.