Grab Bag: MD/Genesis Pinball!!!
Further back, I looked at the incredibly sick Naxat pinball games, Devil Crash and Alien Crush. Since then, the phenomenon of video pinball has become one of my favorite sub-compartments of video gaming, and the hunt has been on. In the new era of little handheld devices capable of playing emulated classics, it is a great type of game to pick up and burn time with when you're, say, waiting for an appointment or a passenger on a long car trip. Not to mention how gnarly some of these games are visually and soundwise.
In this Grab Bag, I've focused primarily on titles of this nature for the Mega Drive/Genesis console. I've been on a heavy Sega kick lately, between the Dreamcast's 18th anniversary and a new influx of ROMs from various sources. I won't beat around the bush: this is just another excuse to write yet another love letter to the system I grew up playing, but it's also a good look at a sub-genre that oven gets passed over in the vast swathe of titles available for the Mega Drive.
Crue Ball (1992)
Developed by Electronic Arts/NuFX
This is, in fact, a licensed and branded pinball game for the Mega Drive in representation of the hair metal band Motley Crue. It features three of their songs, rendered down into the typical YM2612 sound-style of the MD/Genesis, and also features an artistic interpretation of “Dr. Feelgood” himself. Apparently, Doc Feelgood looks like this, which isn't really a comforting presentation for a man who works in medicine:
Now, This game gets sniped at a lot. I'm not going to say it doesn't have its flaws. For one, the game is pretty basic, without a lot of bells or whistles; it's really just a pinball game. I would not have paid retail price for this game in 1992, but as I said above, in the modern era of portability and data-vaults the size of fingernails, Crue Ball is a good game to whip out on your handheld and kill some time with. The gameplay, while simple and non-embellished, is decently fun. It's... I mean, it's a pinball game. The board is three-tiered, as we see in the Naxat games, and you're given a handful of separate but connected goals to attack in order to rack up the points. The game is also generous with balls, giving you four per play, which I think is nice considering this isn't something you're sinking pocket change into like blood into a loose bandage.
The soundtrack, in my opinion, sits weirdly within the game; the licensed songs come off poorly, but the music written expressly for the game really isn't bad. The intro's rendition of "Dr. Feelgood" is an immediate example of the YM2612's limits being exceeded; it cannot make hair metal sound awesome. Hair metal must do that on its own, as is written in the Ancient Scrolls. Aum Ha. Blessed Be. Every Rose Has its Thorn.
The visual presentation is cool but not over-the-top or absurdly wild. The exception, I would say, is Doctor Goddamn Feelgood, who looks like if you burned an art student's mind on uncut coke and asked them to draw Callisto from the X-Men's Morlocks. Otherwise, there are some classic Genesis-style sprites in here, stone heads and grungy little skull-dudes waiting for you to nail them with the silver ball. It contributes to the fun instead of being apart from it; the overall art-intrusion to the pinball itself is appropriately minimal.
Lastly, I will add an interesting bit from the game's development: it was not initially intended to be a Motley Crue themed product. Its prototype title was “Twisted Flipper,” and since you just read that, let's nod together: yeah, that sounds dumb as hell. MTV was approached for a license but decided they'd take a powder on the deal. Late in development, Motley Crue (perhaps in a bid to regain a little pop-culture traction, or more likely out of the same money-hungriness that compels Steven Tyler to plug in his microphone despite clearly being some kind of lesser undead creature at this point) latched on eagerly.
Sonic Spinball (1993)
Developed by Sega
Let us first note that this title was also released for the Master System and the Game Gear; I am focusing solely on the Genesis/Mega Drive version. (For those of you who play games on your phones, I am told there is also an iOS version available.)
This is another one of the many Genesis titles I had regular and casual exposure to in my youth. I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the blue hedgehog and his saga of ownage against that trick-ass fool Robotnik, despite not really being good at the regular series (in fact so bad at them that our videos for Sonic and Sonic 2 are played by a friend of mine who willingly volunteered to show off his expert chops). Sonic Spinball, however, is a different story; I enjoyed its refreshing change of tone/pace and the fact that I wasn't complete ass at it since it was (mostly) a pinball game.
I say “mostly” because the cool thing about Sonic Spinball is how it mixes in a dash of platformer elements to the typical video pinball scenario. There are times when Sonic will land somewhere and you will have to control him like the good old Sonic we all know and love. In the first stage, if you're lucky, you can do this as a save against “losing a ball” (dying a horrible death in monster-infested toxic waste), and it is also a crucial part of finishing stages by beating the shit out of your eternal foe, Robotnik, who really needs to fucking learn to give up.
The soundtrack is on par with other entries into the franchise from this era; good use of the Yamaha and all peripheral tools, a rich sound, and that distinctive jazzy-yet-mildly-badass theme to all of it. The aspects of platformer and pinball are melded well, tastefully unintrusive toward one another so as to form a really easy symmetry. Once you catch on to the way the game is played, it's good fun.
I guess the only strike against Sonic Spinball to me would be its slight lack of initial approachability. It's not just another video pinball game; it's sort of an experimental hybrid. This can lend it a bit of clumsiness and difficulty, but it's not unlike plenty of other well-liked games with a unique take... it just requires a bit of patience to get into it.
Dragon's Revenge (1993)
Developed by Tengen
This game gets brief mention in my article about the Naxat pinball games (linked at the top of this article). It is a sequel by way of another developer to Devil Crash MD, which was released Stateside as Dragon's Fury. Tengen (which was a subsidiary development house for Atari) handled the American distribution for Dragon's Fury, and enjoyed the results so much that they followed up with a sequel that had no input from Naxat at all. Critics tend to see this sequel as a bland watering-down of the original concept (which had taken some watering-down anyway in the translation from a Japanese PC Engine title to an American Genesis one), but Dragon's Revenge is a solid member of the Video Pinball Club if you can get past all the historical/political bullshit. I, as a solvenly hedonist who just likes to play semi-passive games while my life ticks by and I die one minute at a time, can easily get past it. Way past it.
The table is in no way conventional, unlike its predecessors; it is barely linear and requires appreciable skill to navigate as one wills instead of just ride the currents. In terms of theme and artistic presentation, Dragon's Revenge is decidedly far less horrific and eldritch than its progenitor Devil Crash, featuring instead a gently grim fantasy theme and even a loose plot (which is largely unnecessary and not worth discussing at length here, but if you're curious, check out the manual). The basics are close enough, with a main table, several accessible bonus games, and a secondary fun factor of squashing little monsters and demons along your silver sphere's journey across the landscape.
Four screenshots that exemplify the stark differences between this title and its prequel. Gentle elf forests and a distinct focus on scantily-clad women. Click to enlarge, perv. ;)
The OST gets little mention in other reviews or discussions, but I think it's pretty damn good considering that it's small and seemingly an afterthought. My overall assessment of it, when trimmed to one adjective, would be “adequate.”
While the popular view of Dragon's Revenge is as the worst of the Crush series, it's still enjoyable on its own merit. I wholeheartedly agree that it cannot hold a candle to the original pair of games for the PC Engine, but that's an understatement on par with “Nintendo has sold a few million units over the years.”
LET THEM STAND FOR JUDGMENT
Crue Ball: 5/10 (don't pay more than like $10 for this used, and ideally just get a Rom, but it's okay enough)
Sonic Spinball: 7/10 (it's weird as fuck when you first jump in but it's become memorable all on its own as a really cool combination of ideas)
Dragon's Revenge 6/10 (it is a bastard child, there is no denying that... but it can't really be discarded as bad because, well, it isn't)