A sudden shaking disturbs the calm ocean. A strange, dark structure slowly rises from the dark blue sea up towards the sky, which has turned into a foreboding scarlet colour. The weird mountain, completely black except for where it is lightened by the setting sun and from a hot glow at it’s base, grows to a huge height.
A small aeroplane, piloted by Tails with Sonic hanging from the bottom (an economy class ticket in his hand), flies over the sea, passing distant mountains. Somewhat nearing the mountain, Sonic jumps off from his place on the aeroplane and into the dark water.
Sonic climbs the mountains through the Toxic Pools, Lava Powerhouse and The Machine before reaching Dr Robotnik in a Final Showdown at the top of the mountain. Sonic fights Dr Robotnik, who uses a flying vehicle to attack Sonic.
Sonic defeats Dr Robotnik. Following the fight, both Sonic and Dr Robotnik’s empty machine fall spinning, through space, to the ground. From a distance, a glowing red shape is seen to fall into the mountain. Explosions suddenly break out around the mountain, which sinks back into the water.
That is how to create a story based on pinball action.
This is a review of the game available as part of an extra feature in the Sonic Adventure DX game.
The main idea for this game (and the version released on the Mega Drive) was to create a Sonic game based on pinball. Many Sonic games use pinball elements in some levels, either as a mini-game or using flippers to propel Sonic upwards, particularly in levels based on a Casino theme. This game, however, with the vertical level design, use of flippers and rounded edges to send Sonic in different directions, seemed to resemble a digital pinball game.
The story for the game is simple, the game began with an animated sequence showing Sonic reaching the mountain, the player completed each level in turn to reach the Final Boss and then an animated sequence showed the end of the game. Like most early Sonic games, the hero was silent and there was no description of the events at any point of the game. Each level began with a screen showing the player’s progress through the mountain (basically each level was the next floor higher in the mountain), which I liked as it added context to each level.
The gameplay was similar to playing a digital pinball game. For much of the game, Sonic was curled into a ball and launched across the levels. The player could slightly control Sonic’s trajectory through the air and activate the flippers used to propel Sonic. Each of the levels used curved edges (to help Sonic move around the level), features to force Sonic upwards at an accelerated speed and used suspended obstacles to impede his progress. The bottom of each level consisted of a hazard that will kill the player. There were also some parts of the level where Sonic was able to walk.
There were also a small amount of items in each level which aided the player. Small flags were placed in each level, which, when all were collected, sometimes caused a change in the level to help the player (such as draining liquid from a container). There were also small, glowing orbs which, if the player touched them, caused lightening to appear between pairs of flippers located above a fatal hazard, which prevented the player falling in. There were also a few monitors (which were more commonplace in other Sonic games) placed in secret locations, which gave the player extra lives, continues and part of a code.
Each level required the player finding a specified number of Chaos Emeralds hidden in the level. Within each level was a pathway, which allowed the player to reach the boss if all the Chaos Emeralds had been collected. The pathway would lead the player to a separate room to fight the level’s boss. Falling to the bottom of the room caused the player to return to the level and they would have to reach the path to face the boss again (I am not sure, but I believe the boss is still weakened by the player’s attack from before they returned to the level). The bosses would also need to be fought using pinball methods. I found the bosses to be quite enjoyable and it required skill to force Sonic to a specific area where the boss could be harmed.
After completing the boss, Sonic would enter a bonus stage. The bonus stage consisted of a series of connected rooms which ended in a tunnel. All the rooms were oval-shaped (which allowed Sonic to roll along the floor and climb the walls) and contained a series of platforms. Situated on the top of the platforms were large, robotic eggs. Hitting the eggs enough times caused them to open and the player was rewarded (with extra rings, score or lives). Bizarrely, each room seemed to be themed around an ancient civilisation, one room contained animal-headed statues resembling ancient Egyptian sculptures, one had a background consisting of an ancient Japanese pagoda and one seemed to contain columns from ancient Greece. The extra items obtained by destroying the eggs could only be implemented if the player reached the end of the tunnel.
I found the gameplay quite enjoyable. It required skill to use the flippers to progress through the level and it was fun to explore levels using this mechanic. The bosses were particularly fun. It was, however, frustrating to repeatedly attempt to launch Sonic in a specific trajectory, particularly if it needed effort to reach the launching area. Because the levels were vertical and the ease of propelling Sonic into the wrong area, it was also quite frustrating to accidentally reach an unintended location and spend time to return to the area before the mistake was made.
The level designs for the game were quite interesting. The game began in the Toxic Caves, which resembled a cavern with light blue water at the bottom and a background of stones, coloured using muted colours. The second level was Lava Powerhouse. This level consisted of steam-powered machinery and stone background, with bright red and yellow colours featured prominently. The third level was The Machine. This level used a mechanical design and a colour scheme mostly consisting of grey and purple (unlike other levels with a tangible hazard at the bottom, Sonic died after touching nothing). The game ends with the Final Showdown level, which resembled a construction site above lava (with a square pattern background), before Sonic flies upwards through the night sky and fights Dr Robotnik in a mechanical structure. The graphics did seem to be of a lower quality than other Sonic games on the Game Gear, with indistinguishable shapes, fuzzy outlines and box-like designs. I enjoyed the level designs as they felt different to each other and used features unique to each level.
The music for the game was quiet and repetitive. The music was slightly tense, but did not really stand out. I did not think this music was as good as soundtracks used for other Sonic games.
I have observed that the Sonic games released on the Game Gear contain some unnecessarily difficult elements and bizarre features.
A lot of the game’s difficulty seemed to come from the gameplay. The game requires the player to launch Sonic from flippers. I found it very difficult to eject Sonic at the correct angle to reach the desired areas, particularly if the target area was a narrow corridor. It was also difficult to find the Chaos Emeralds in the levels because it was difficult to explore using pinball methods. Another difficulty was preventing Sonic from falling between two flippers into a fatal area, as there was no way to transfer Sonic from one flipper to the other, so the player had to rely on catapulting Sonic to a part of the surroundings which would lead him to the other flipper.
There were also some bizarre aspects of the game. As previously mentioned, the bonus stages had a strange, ancient aesthetic. Weirdly, one of the bonus stages showed consisted of room connected vertically. Upon entering each room, Sonic would sink through water to the bottom and hit a plug, which caused the water to drain and allow Sonic to move. Entering the pipe at the bottom of the room lead to the next room.
There was also a strange, unique feature added to the game. If the player lost all their lives, the game created a mini-game before allowing the player to choose to use a continue to keep playing. Part of the score (accumulated while playing the game) would be highlighted, along with an continually increasing number. The idea of the game was for the player to push a button so the number would stop changing and resemble the highlighted number (eg. if the score was 13400, 400 would be highlighted and the player would need to stop the count near to 400). If the player is successful, they continue the game with the same score, but replenished lives. If they fail the challenge, the player has to use a continue to keep playing. I enjoyed this feature, it gave the player an opportunity to keep playing the game with the accumulated score, even if they lose all of Sonic’s lives.
The ending credits of the game were also slightly eccentric. Following the final animated sequence, a pinball machine appeared on screen and credits were shown across the top of it, which seemed to suggest that the game’s story took place within a pinball machine. The credits ended with the phrase “Thank you for playing Sonic Spinball!!! Now go to sleep”, which seemed to suggest that the developers considered the market for the game was kids playing it clandestinely at night (which gives me the image of a kid hiding in their bed sheets, eagerly completing the game at the dead of night and finally sleeping at the end).
Hidden in each level was a monitor which, when destroyed, causes a banner to appear at the top of the screen and reveal part of a secret code. I destroyed all the secret monitors (which were all located in hidden rooms in one side of each level) and the code was shown to be “08-31-71, SFX Get that???”. I have no idea what this means, I have attempted to play each of the corresponding numbers for the sound effects in the Options menu, but this seems to have no effect on the game.
In conclusion, the game was enjoyable. The story was almost non-existent. The gameplay was unique, enjoyable and required skill, although it presented with some difficulty and frustration. The bosses were enjoyable and used the gameplay well. The level designs were interesting, but the graphics were of a lower quality. The music had little impact on the game and was quite repetitive. The extra features, such as the mini-game and the secret rooms, were enjoyable and added to the game.