Enjoy the sound of chewing tinfoil, as Sonic goes down the drain

Sonic the Hedgehog Spinball (1993)

I’ve come to the conclusion that I hate pinball. Saying such a thing would have been considered sacrilege in the 90s, or 80s, or basically any other decade without widespread internet access. The idea of a pinball table is great… in theory. As a form of entertainment found in the arcade, it leans much more heavily towards a mechanical rather than a computer operation.

This is good, at least, because it means the whole thing will never become non-functional thanks to some stupid glitch or file error – it’s far more likely to be that the skeletons’s head is stuck in the closed position. It’s a double-edged flipper though, because unfortunately pinball technicians are in about as short supply as stained glass designers for Notre Dame cathedral, so it ain’t ever getting fixed.

Even if you find yourself a pinball table in perfect working order though, it’ll give you the worst three minutes of your life. Yes that’s right, an even worse three minutes than I’d give whoever the Pinball Queen of the West is. If there really was a Pinball Wizard, shouldn’t there be a Pinball Witch too?

You’ll want to stick a whole quid into the machine these days – 20p will no longer cut it – for three ball bearings, a trio of steelies. Now, you might have reckoned yourself a shark at the classic 3D Space Cadet Pinball on the older Windows machines, still the best that pinball has ever gotten. But when you step up to the Metallica table, or the Addams Family or GoldenEye machine, the novelty is exceedingly short-lived. 

Actually it barely matters what table you rock up to, because you won’t be able to hear a thing – those tables get mighty loud, and you’re probably surrounded by many other gabbing neckbeards – but you’ll also be so focused on protecting your ball, your baby, your metallic pride and joy, that you won’t get any kind of opportunity to even look up and decipher what the unique flower text is shouting at you.

“BALL ON!” “ROCK AND ROLL!” “TOTAL WIPEOUT!” All that is happening, and everything is flashing and targets are bouncing and the ball is going this way and that and it’s a total sensory overload, and you’re almost out of breath just trying to keep up with it all. 

But here’s the problem: even if you’re giving it maximum concentration, no mistakes, you’ll still lose. Gravity, or perhaps some rogue magnets applied under the gulleys, will drag your ball down into an unrecoverable situation and there ain’t a goddamn thing you can do about it. 

It is so unbelievably aggravating when this happens that it’ll take all of your self-control not to plant one on the machine itself, or rip the plunger right out or something. It’s at this point that I’m often tempted to try physically tilting the table, like you can do in video games to try and get your retaliation in on the dreadful, primitive machine.

But personally I’ve got such a deep-rooted fear of authority resulting from a strict upbringing, not to mention an immense aversion to the shameful spotlight, that I make sure to leave the machine well alone, just in case. After all, can you imagine if I tilted the bugger and an alarm went off somewhere? Hardnut arcade security squaddies come after me? So I always think it better to swallow my pride and leave the machine alone. That pride does stick in my craw, and I know I’m only down 33 cents, but that’s not the point.

No, the point is that you nearly always come away from the pinball table feeling conned. It’s not to do with the fact that it involves almost no skill, because the same can be said of bingo but you always get a laugh out of that. I’m telling you, if pinball tables haven’t gone completely extinct near you, then pop down and have a go for yourself. Almost before you know it, you’ll be left like I am after a night out with my missus – balls gone, money gone, not that many p(o)ints and a bewildering sensation where you’re left wondering what just happened.

I will concede that the multiball features that most pinball tables give you is tremendous, unabridged fun when it does occur, that’ll leave you with a beaming style on your face. The only problem of course is that even if you manage to interpret the esoteric nature of the table, progressing far enough to actually unlock multiball is vanishingly rare. It really is a case of trying to put up with 99% disappointment for a 1% chance at joy. But then, isn’t that life in a nutshell?

For the above reasons, I may have to hold Sonic Spinball up as the greatest, or at least most realistic, pinball simulation of all time. Yes, even ahead of the much vaunted 3D Space Cadet. In 1993, Sega would have put out Sonic-themed jockstraps to keep the hedgehog coffers topped up. But there emerged an unfortunate gap in the Mega Drive’s Sonic library, as Sonic 3 was learning how to moonwalk, and Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine wasn’t about to pull it all together.

Hence a Sonic pinball game, which probably only came into being as a clever name that they then decided to construct a whole game around. While the platformers ploughed their own furrow, and Mean Bean Machine took cues from the Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon, Sonic Spinball leans towards the Saturday AM Sonic cartoon, the one where Dr. Robotnik was genuinely sinister.

And bloody hell, everything is sinister in this game. I mentioned before that your senses can get fully overwhelmed by a real-life pinball table, well in Sonic Spinball, no sooner have you started then some awfully shrill, nightmare inducing sound effects start screaming at you. They’re usually imploring you to haul ass away from the bottom, or get into a new cubby hole until everything starts flashing again and you don’t know what’s going on.

Before the pinball game starts, you control Sonic normally for a brief few seconds, perhaps to fool you into thinking that this is a standard Sonic game. Once you’ve launched into the table itself though, it’s anyone’s guess what to do from there. You have a bit of control over little Sonic Spinball, but not much. I suppose it’s still a notch up from being at gravity’s mercy in real life. You can (in theory) progress higher and higher up the tables and beat them like levels, but chances are that 99% of players won’t have any idea what to do, especially kids who will have run out of the room, screaming in terror.

This is definitely one of those games that’s dark, sinister and foreboding enough to terrify children. A lot of the music and sound effects are the worst things I’ve ever heard in my whole life – imagine sitting on a ferret that’s chewing on tin foil, while you’re watching the entire Eton student body running their nails down a chalkboard and giving you their views on politics.

It is some of the most alarmingly violent, offensive sound direction I’ve ever heard in a game, eliciting an almost primal response that makes you beg for it to stop. I believe humans are hard-wired to cringe and be repulsed by the sound of the crying baby, well the guys have replicated that instinctual discomfort here. I went into the Options Menu and I thought someone was pouring mercury through my ears and static down my throat. It was instant regret.

But then, ‘instant regret’ perfectly sums up pinball in general. You never have to wait long for it to disappoint you greatly. Chalk up another point for Sonic Spinball then – it encapsulates that feeling beautifully, in 16 drab bits. If you have the luxury of save states and rewinds, as the seven million Mega Drive collections out there usually give you, then you might extend your play with this game from ten seconds to ten minutes.

It still won’t be long before you find yourself to be just like a pinball steely, or balled up Sonic himself – bouncing around absolutely helplessly between flashing beams of disappointment, regret and discomfort, all on one Mega Drive cartridge. Far from feeling shortchanged at this table, you’ll be glad as hell when your luck and balls eventually run out.

22 February 2021

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