Sonic the Hedgehog: Spinning Off

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So we’ve already talked about Sonic’s main 16-bit games on the Mega Drive, as well as his 8-bit adventures on the Game Gear and Master System.

But we have a few more games to explore from this early era before we start exploring the blue blur’s oft-maligned jump into 3D space, and those are the numerous spin-offs that appeared to complement the “mainline” platformer experiences.

Turns out there’s quite a few of them. And they’re pretty much all really cool! Let’s take a closer look.

The first Sonic spin-off to appear arrived in 1991 via Sega’s Meganet, an online service for the Mega Drive that only came to Japan and, later, Brazil — presumably since the latter had always been a very strong territory for Sega ever since the Master System. Meganet required the use of an accessory called — what else? — the Mega Modem, and featured a small selection of downloadable games that could be accessed via the Sega Game Toshokan cartridge that was distributed with the slightly more expensive of the two available Mega Modem bundles.

Since the service was based on dial-up networking — domestic broadband Internet was still something of a pipe dream at that point — each of the games was kept as small as possible, no bigger than 128K, but still took nearly ten minutes to download as the modem only had a speed of 1200 bits per second. This slow transfer rate also meant that high-speed action games were out of the question for online play due to lag, so ultimately only two titles featured the ability to play against remote opponents.

Meganet and the Mega Modem were originally set to be released in the West under the name Tele-Genesis, but after a lukewarm reception and poor sales in Japan, that never happened. A number of the games that originated on the service did eventually see a cartridge-based release, however, including Columns, Flicky and Fatal Labyrinth; Japan also saw two Mega CD compilations of games from the service… but all of these were missing Sonic’s first spin-off game, Sonic Eraser.

To be fair, Sonic Eraser’s connection to Sonic is tenuous at best, since it’s a falling-block puzzle game in which our spiky hero only puts in an appearance in the two-player (or versus computer) competitive mode. Still, it absolutely counts, and it’s an enjoyable time in its own right if you like this sort of thing.

In Sonic Eraser, you have a 13×7 grid into which various clusters of coloured shapes drop — similarly to Columns, only with more variety to the arrangements of the clusters. Hitting the C button “rotates” the component shapes around the cluster, but does not rotate the cluster itself, and when it lands, the cluster will split apart if any individual pieces don’t have anything underneath them. The basic aim is to match two or more of the same type of piece to make them disappear. Simple enough.

Where Sonic Eraser gets interesting is in the variety of ways to play. Normal mode simply tasks one or two players with surviving as long as possible without filling their screen using these basic mechanics. Round mode tasks players with matching special predefined blocks with one another in order to clear each stage. Block mode causes the clusters to remain “solid” until any part of them is cleared, making it more challenging to clear the field. And Doubt mode sees pieces that sometimes transform as they fall.

The versus mode uses these same basic mechanics, but gives the two players ten minutes in which to fill up their opponent’s screen. Or rather, ten minutes in which to survive, since although Sonic Eraser, like most competitive puzzle games, features a way to “attack” your opponent, you do not do so by dropping garbage blocks to fill up their screen. Rather, matching sufficient blocks in one go causes that player’s Sonic avatar in the middle of the screen to attack the other, temporarily causing the victim to lose control of their falling blocks for a short period. It’s an interesting approach, and a nice change from the usual way these games do things.

Sonic Eraser was largely unknown until 2004 thanks to the fact it never had a physical release and was only available via Meganet. At this time, Sega released a service called B-Club on its Japanese website, which would allow broadband Internet users to download Sega Saturn and Mega Drive games to play on their PC using Sega’s own licensed emulators. The games would cost 300 to 500 yen each (about £2-3.50 using the exchange rate at the time of writing), and a subscription option was also available, allowing access to the entire game library on a monthly basis.

As you’ve probably surmised by now, Sonic Eraser turned out to be one of the games available on this service, so naturally Sonic fans immediately set about trying to figure out where this peculiar “new” game had come from. The owner of the now-defunct Sonic CulT website (the history of which is a fascinating read for those interested in Internet drama) purchased a number of games and attempted to rip their ROMs in order to make use of them with emulators and distribute them to a wider audience.

Working alongside a renowned Sonic hacker known as Nemesis, the intrepid fan managed to extract the Sonic Eraser ROM from the encrypted CD image file Sega distributed it through, and the game was released via Sonic CulT. It was a matter of days before a fan translation appeared courtesy of one Derrick Sobodash, better known at the time simply as “D”; it was a relatively straightforward job, since there was no in-game dialogue, and the only translation required was to the brief in-game instruction manual that appears before starting to play.

Sonic Eraser hasn’t been seen in any official capacity ever since its original release — or indeed at all in the West. File references curious hackers dug up from Sonic Gems Collection for sixth-generation consoles suggested that the game was originally intended for inclusion in that compilation, but it never made an appearance. As such, the only way to play it today is… well, you know.

Thankfully, Sonic’s next spinoff title not only got a much more widespread release, it also made far better use of our favourite blue hedgehog. 1993 saw the worldwide release of Sonic Spinball on the Mega Drive, with Game Gear and Master System ports following in 1994 and 1995 respectively.

Sonic Spinball was a game intended to tide Sonic fans over until the release of Sonic 3. As the overly ambitious plans for Sonic 3 — eventually necessitating the game’s split into Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles — meant that it was unlikely to release in time for the 1993 holiday season, Sega Technical Institute (who had previously worked on Sonic 2) threw together Spinball in just a couple of months. The result was a game that garnered something of a mixed reception, but which remains enjoyable to play today — particularly if you like computerised pinball.

Yes, as the name suggests, Sonic Spinball is a pinball game rather than a traditional platform game, though unlike most pinball simulations, you actually have a degree of control over your “ball” (i.e. Sonic) while playing. This makes aiming for specific spots on the various “tables” much more straightforward and accessible for those who, like me, have absolutely no idea how to pinball properly.

Making a full-on pinball game featuring Sonic was a natural extension of the series. The games had, after all, incorporated pinball-inspired mechanics right from the very first installment, particularly in their 16-bit incarnations, and so ramping up that aspect of gameplay wasn’t a particular stretch, especially as Sonic 2’s Casino Night Zone had proven to be one of the most popular levels in that game.

Designer Peter Morawiec drew particular inspiration from a 1992 Amiga game called Pinball Dreams, However, while Pinball Dreams and its subsequent follow-ups were mostly attempts to create accurate pinball simulations, Morawiec sought to combine the basic mechanics of the genre with aspects of Sonic the Hedgehog. The result was a series of pinball-inspired challenges that made use of familiar mechanics, but which would be physically impossible in reality — a concept which a few other developers would explore over the years, including Sony nearly ten years later with PS2 title Flipnic.

Spinball’s development was something of a chaotic mess. Sega brought veteran developers over from Japan to assist the US-based STI with development, but work was still behind schedule. Mega Drive games were typically coded in assembly language at the time, but STI decided to change to C, which allowed development to progress more quickly but caused some of the game’s more notorious performance and frame rate issues. Ultimately it took just 61 days for the game to go from initial, almost totally broken build to fully playable, completed game.

Morawiec’s woes weren’t over when the game was complete, however. It turned out that, bizarrely, Sega didn’t own the rights to Sonic’s distinctive theme tune — they belonged to Masato Nakamura, the bassist and founding member of a band named Dreams Come True, and the man who had composed the distinctive soundtracks to both Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic 2 on Mega Drive. As such, at the twilight hour, Sonic Spinball’s poor composer Howard Drossin was given just two hours to come up with a new theme for the game. He didn’t do too bad a job, considering!

As for the game itself, it did quite well, fulfilling Sega’s need for a Sonic game for the 1993 holiday season, though critics gave it a bit of a mixed reception — primarily due to its performance issues that were a result of the switch from assembly to C. The performance of the game also led some to feel like the controls were a bit sluggish and that its physics were unconvincing, and the fact there were only four (admittedly large and challenging) levels raised some questions over its replayability.

But, like most of the early Sonic games, it’s important to remember that Sega still had arcade games firmly in mind, and thus Sonic Spinball isn’t just about playing it to “beat” it; it’s also about playing it to attain high scores, to see how quickly you can beat it, and to see whether you can pull off a “no miss” run. Consider it in those terms, and it remains an appealing, enjoyable title in the series, well worth your time — even if you don’t generally rate your own pinball skills.

Next up came 1993’s Dr Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, a game which only came out in North America and Europe. Why? Well, because it already existed in Japan as another game you might have heard of — Puyo Puyo. Sega felt that the cast of Puyo Puyo — who were drawn from Compile’s earlier series of RPGs Madou Monogatari, which in more recent years was re-imagined as Sorcery Saga: Curse of the Great Curry God — would be less familiar to Westerners, and thus the decision was made to give it a Sonic-themed skin.

Specifically, the game was themed around the 1993 TV series The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, which introduced a number of new characters to the franchise as well as featuring distinctive designs for characters such as the titular Dr Robotnik. Sonic actually doesn’t appear in the game at all, hence his absence from the game’s nomenclature; the player takes on the role of a character called “Has Bean”, who is actually just a straight port of the Carbuncle sprite from Puyo Puyo rather than a character from the TV show.

For those unfamiliar with Puyo Puyo, the concept is simple, devilishly addictive and very challenging to get good at. Pairs of coloured Puyos (or Beans in this case) drop from the top of the screen, and the player can rotate and drop them. Connecting four like-coloured Beans causes them to disappear and the player to score points, with significantly larger amounts of points on offer if you can set up chain reactions — i.e. laying things out in advance so setting off one match causes Beans to fall into place and set off another one, and another one, and another one — but this is, of course, easier said than done.

Puyo Puyo has always been a puzzle game based around competitive versus play, either against a computer opponent or another human player, and Dr Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine follows suit. Successfully setting off chain reactions causes “refugee Beans” to appear on your opponent’s screen — longer chains, of course, mean significantly larger amounts. These colourless nuisances cannot be cleared via normal means; instead, they only disappear when you create a match adjacent to them.

The main Scenario Mode of the game sees the player battling against 13 progressively harder opponents, with the final battle being against Robotnik himself. Each opponent has their own introductory cutscene, and both the overall difficulty and speed increases with each subsequent opponent. Elsewhere in the game, the two-player versus mode allows each player to set their difficulty independently of one another, allowing experienced players to handicap themselves when playing against newbies, and there’s also an “Exercise” mode that challenges players to meet various score targets. The later Game Gear and Master System versions of the game also added a Puzzle mode, in which players were given a limited number of Bean pieces to completely clear a predefined layout — now a staple addition to most puzzle games.

Puyo Puyo is a timeless classic, as perhaps best evidenced by its latest incarnation Puyo Puyo Tetris, and consequently Dr Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine likewise remains well worth playing today in any of its various incarnations.

The next Sonic spinoff to release was a Japan-only Game Gear title from 1995 called Tails’ Skypatrol. This was the first of two Tails-centric games to hit Sega’s handheld, and eventually came West as an unlockable extra in Sonic Adventure DX: Director’s Cut and as one of the included games in Sonic Gems Collection.

The two Tails games are particularly interesting in that they eschew what we’d think of as traditional Sonic gameplay entirely in favour of their own unique mechanics. In the case of Skypatrol, what we have is something akin to a horizontally scrolling shoot ’em up with a bit of a twist.

Tails is constantly flying in this game, as well as constantly moving forward, though the player is able to control his speed to a certain extent. Rather than shooting, Tails holds a single golden ring that can be thrown as a projectile to damage enemies, or used to latch on to various environmental features to interact with them in various ways. Hooking onto poles lets Tails slide up or down them according to the arrow markers near them, for example, while latching on to a mine cart allows him to hitch a ride.

The game actually has a certain amount in common with Namco’s Sky Kid, which had come out some ten years previously. Tails will immediately lose a life if he collides with a piece of solid scenery or falls down a pit, but if impacted by an enemy or projectile, he will just spin out of control and fall, necessitating rapid button-tapping to recover before he hits the ground. The game also demands precision and learning of the levels in order to progress successfully — though its infinite continues mean you can credit-feed your way to the end easily, unlike most early Sonic games.

The level designs are consistently interesting to explore, with a variety of interactive objects allowing you to access seemingly hard-to-reach areas. Balloons let him float up and completely halt his forward momentum for a moment, for example, helping you escape vertical passageways, while heavy weights cause Tails to drop quickly once he falls off an edge, allowing him to reach sections of the level “below” himself that he would otherwise be unable to get to without hitting a wall. There’s even a light element of “depth” to the stages — a commonly seen hazard is a large rotating plank on a pole that can only be passed when it is flat against the background; attempting to fly through it while it is “sticking out” of the screen will give Tails a nasty headache.

Tails’ Skypatrol can be frustrating at times, but it definitely has that distinctive Sega addictive quality, and is well worth playing if you get the opportunity. Thanks to its aforementioned inclusion in both Sonic Adventure DX: Director’s Cut and Sonic Gems Collection, it’s not hard to track down if you’re keen to enjoy it in an “official” capacity.

Tails’ next adventure was, err, Tails Adventure, which also came out in 1995 for Game Gear, but got a worldwide release this time around. Once again, the game eschewed the series’ trademark high-speed platforming in favour of something rather slower-paced, which combined elements of puzzle-solving and role-playing games alongside the traditional platforming.

The narrative of Tails Adventure concerns the invasion of the idyllic Cocoa Island by the bird-like forces of the Battle Kukku Army. Said army — who are nothing to do with Dr Robotnik, for once — are after the Chaos Emeralds that are hidden on the island, so it’s up to Tails to find them first and prevent the Battle Kukkus from fulfilling their goal of world domination.

There’s a strong focus on item use in Tails Adventure, often emphasising the young fox boy’s passion for engineering. He begins the game with the ability to throw bombs, but unlocks 25 other items over the course of the entire game. Four of these can be taken into a stage at a time, meaning you’ll need to figure out what the best tools for the job are in any given situation — and sometimes backtrack to earlier stages with new items to uncover new routes.

Of particular note is a Remote Robot that Tails can take control of; since this device is smaller than Tails, it can fit into tight passageways and must often be used to open pathways and retrieve items in order to progress further. Tails’ submarine from Sonic Triple Trouble also puts in an appearance, and can be upgraded with various different weapons.

The light RPG elements come in the form of Tails having a HP counter rather than the series’ traditional use of rings as protection against one hit, and the ability for him to upgrade his abilities as he successfully locates the Chaos Emeralds. With each new Emerald, Tails’ max HP and length of time he is able to stay airborne increases; by the end of the game, he can have up to 99 HP and stay in the air for 15 seconds at a time.

Tails Adventure is a very different experience to what you might typically expect from a Sonic game, but it’s a genuinely excellent game in its own right, and a definite shining star in the Game Gear’s library. Thankfully, you don’t need to track down an obscure handheld to play it today; it’s available once again as part of the Sonic Gems Collection and as an unlockable extra in Sonic Adventure DX: Director’s Cut, and it’s also available for download via the Nintendo 3DS’ Virtual Console service.

Finally, we come to Sonic’s two dalliances with an isometric 3D perspective, beginning with 1995’s Sonic Labyrinth for Game Gear — a game seemingly somewhat inspired by arcade-only release SegaSonic the Hedgehog.

Sonic Labyrinth’s concept is pretty simple: Sonic has been stripped of his super speed because Eggman has stolen his iconic Power Sneakers. The only way to remove the Slow-Down Boots he has become lumbered with is through, of course, Chaos Emerald energy, and as such it’s up to you to negotiate four zones to get our hero back to his full speed.

The concept of the “Slow-Down Boots” is manifested in gameplay terms as Sonic only being able to move relatively slowly when walking normally. Instead, getting around the stage quickly is achieved by making use of his Spin Dash move, at which point the game takes on something of a resemblance to a high-speed Marble Madness. The aim for each level is to locate and collect three keys and take them to an exit door; these keys may either be simply lying around or in the possession of enemies, so fully exploring the level is necessary to track them all down. There’s also a time limit that drains more quickly when you take damage — though it can also be extended by defeating enemies and collecting the keys.

As the game progresses, a variety of interesting hazards and environmental features present themselves. Not only does the basic geometry of each level become more undulating, you also have to contend with moving platforms, teleporters, doorways to different areas and cannons that fire you around. At the end of each zone is a boss fight that begins with a high-speed descent down a steep slope, followed by the confrontation itself.

Sonic Labyrinth has had somewhat mixed reception over the years thanks to its challenging controls in particular, but with a bit of practice it becomes possible to feel completely in control of Sonic when he’s bouncing around the levels — particularly once you realise hitting the spin dash button again causes a quick brake manoeuvre. Those levels are consistently interesting to explore, too, with more and more gimmicks being introduced as you progress further; while the game seems quite simple at the start, by the time you reach its later stages, you’ll be facing a stiff (and occasionally head-scratching) challenge to reach the goal before the time limit expires.

Finally, we come to Sonic 3D: Flickies’ Island (also known as Sonic 3D Blast, despite having no connection to the 8-Bit Sonic Blast). This is an unusual game in a number of respects, not least of which is the fact it was released as both a Mega Drive and a Saturn game, with the latter version featuring a new soundtrack, enhanced visual effects, a polygonal special stage and analogue controls. The former was developed as something of a swansong for the by now ageing 16-bit platform — and as a result, it’s actually one of the most technically impressive titles on the console.

Sonic 3D (as we shall refer to it hereafter) was actually developed after Sega had officially discontinued support for the Genesis in 1995; the canny console manufacturer was well aware of the fact that games for a particular platform continued to sell well after it was discontinued, and thus it was decided that Sonic should have one final 16-bit adventure before leaping into the great unknown.

The concept of the game originated from Sonic Team during their development of Sonic 3, but the bulk of the game was the work of UK-based outfit Traveller’s Tales, a company primarily known at the time of writing for its seemingly limitless capacity to continually churn out Lego games. This turned out to be a very wise decision indeed, as Traveller’s Tales founder Jon Burton very much enjoyed the challenge of “making a machine do something you haven’t seen it do”, resulting in the impressive technical feat that the final game ended up being. He also incorporated an error handling routine so robust that even if you actually punched the cartridge in your console, the game wouldn’t crash; instead, it would trigger a secret level select menu. Burton later explained that this was an attempt to circumvent Sega’s extremely strict and time-consuming certification process, and was never intended to be an “official” cheat.

Burton and his team drew inspiration from a number of sources when designing the game. The isometric perspective was inspired by both Sonic Labyrinth and Square’s Super Mario RPG for Nintendo; the prerendered sprites by Rare’s Donkey Kong Country and the overall structure by Sega’s 1984 arcade title Flicky. In fact, in many ways, Sonic 3D can be considered a sequel of sorts to Flicky, in that you’re doing the same things as in that game — just in a more complex, impressive environment.

In Sonic 3D, you take on the role of Sonic as he explores a series of isometric levels in an attempt to rescue the Flickies, small birds who have, as usual, been enslaved by Robotnik. Defeating an enemy releases the Flicky within, and they will then begin following Sonic around much as the baby Flickies would in the original Flicky arcade machine. Taking the Flickies to an exit ring scores Sonic points — with more points earned for bringing more Flickies at one time — and, when all Flickies in an area have been successfully tracked down, Sonic can either move to the next area of the level or complete the stage.

The open-plan form of the stages makes for a very different feel to traditional Sonic games, and some critics found this somewhat offputting. But there’s a lot of recognisable features in here — most notably the presence of secret areas that house power-ups, and sometimes guest appearances from Knuckles and Tails. And the focus on exploration is very enjoyable, particularly when combined with the smooth, slick animation and flawless frame rate.

Interestingly, in late 2017, Burton decided to revisit Sonic 3D and revamped it somewhat with an unofficial “Director’s Cut” patch that can be applied to a Mega Drive ROM file or the Steam version of the Mega Drive Classics pack via Steam Workshop. This update features a new map screen, a time challenge mode, a new enemy, improved controls, the ability to transform into Super Sonic, a level editor, a password system to “save” your game and a number of bug fixes. While unofficial, it is arguably now the “definitive” way to experience the game — at least in its Mega Drive incarnation.

Sonic 3D remains an extremely underrated installment in the series as a whole, and is definitely well worth exploring if you’ve never tried it before. It plays well, looks great and has one of the best soundtracks on the Mega Drive; in fact, a couple of the tracks were even incorporated into Sonic Adventure simply because composer Jun Senoue, who worked on both games, was particularly pleased with them, but was disappointed that the Mega Drive version never got released in Japan; that region only got the Saturn version, which had a new soundtrack by frequent Sega collaborator Richard Jacques.

And there we have it: the end of the 16-bit era, and the beginning of a brave new world for the blue hedgehog and his friends. From here, it’s time to make the jump to 3D… and a world of adventure.

More about the Sonic the Hedgehog series

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6 thoughts on “Sonic the Hedgehog: Spinning Off”

  1. Like you I don’t know how to properly play pinball either. I actually did play Sonic Pinball over on my psp again for the sonic megadrive collection, and I really had fun with it as well 😊 Did not know there were so many other spin off games for Sonic though😱

    Liked by 1 person

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