Can you believe that Sonic the Hedgehog, a game series whose design has often been compared to the physics of pinball, has never had a ball-flipping table to call its very own? Not even SEGA, who once dabbled in producing licensed pinball machines, thought to build a table for its very own Casino Night-visiting mascot. This is a matter that Ryan McQuaid, avid Sonic fan and pinball restoration wizard, hopes to rectify with his award-nominated homebrew project, ‘Sonic Spinball’.
Ryan, who had been largely restoring old “pins” before he started work on Sonic Spinball, remembers vividly the moment he decided to make his very first pinball machine: by receiving a large piece of wood from a friend in the community.
“All of us in the pinball scene, as soon as we see someone that we think can be convinced to take that step [from hobbyist restoration to full-on homebrew creation], we do as much as we can to push them over the edge,” Ryan laughs. “For me… well, every time I finish a pinball restoration, I’d have a party and invite people over to play it… at my last party my friend Mark, who made the Metroid Pinball homebrew, showed up with this big bit of wood and said, ‘here you go, get working… you have wood, now you have no excuse to start on it!'”
This rite of passage was special, because both Ryan and his fellow pinball fanatics all knew exactly what that first homebrew project was going to be. And Mark wanted to make sure that Ryan didn’t waste any time getting started.
“There was no thinking about what theme I wanted to make for my game, that was obvious from the very beginning,” Ryan explained to The Sonic Stadium. “There’d be no other game I would make other than Sonic. I also didn’t have to think very hard about what would work on a Sonic pinball table – the elements are already there in any Sonic game you can think of. So I think it all fits quite well.”
A fan of the blue blur ever since he could hold a controller, and a pinball enthusiast from childhood, Ryan was drawn in by the bright colours, intuitive physics-based play and satisfying feedback loop of both types of games. “Sonic, I’ve been a huge fan since day one… I can’t remember when I first played because I was so young, but it’s just always been a part of my life.
“Pinball was something I was drawn to when I was little but never really serious about until I was older. I liked physics, so I was always going to the Science Museum in Boston to watch the big moving ball sculpture there. It wasn’t until one summer, when a friend of mine invited me to an unofficial pinball tournament at my local arcade, that I started getting into it. I won that contest and had so much fun that I kept playing competitively, and then discovered this huge underground scene of pinball fans. All really nice people, almost every last one of them.”
Ryan’s Sonic Spinball homebrew table is the philosophical mashing of two fandoms made real – one look at the cabinet and you can tell that this is the work of a dedicated Sonic the Hedgehog fan.
From the game’s objective (increase and maintain Sonic’s speed for maximum points and level progression) to the table gimmicks (elemental shields can be obtained, as well as Chaos Emeralds)… even the whitewood concept-style artwork, lovingly inked by Amber Cyprian (“I asked them to just doodle me up some terrible Sonic art in an hour, and they ended up spending ten hours on it because they were just having so much fun with it!”) screams ‘passion project’.
The primary goal of Sonic Spinball is simple: go fast. You build speed by flipping the spinners on the left and right orbits; that speed drops over time, so you need to make sure you’re constantly running the ball through those channels. Flipping Sonic up the ramps also charges a Spindash counter, which can help propel the blue blur to nefarious speeds.
Your MPH acts as both a progress multiplier and a score multiplier, meaning that if you’re able to keep Sonic’s momentum going for longer, it may take you a shorter time to actually complete Zones as you blast through the checkpoints. Gain enough points, clear a Zone. Clear enough Zones, battle Eggman (who, at the moment, is comically represented by a Death Star toy with a moustache daubed on it).
There are other gimmicks at play – collecting certain shields will prevent you from having a ball drain, for example – but the overall simplicity of the game is intentionally designed to avoid the pitfalls of what Ryan describes as an exploitable problem in competitive pinball play: playfield multipliers.
“I usually don’t like them,” he said. “Playfield multipliers are actions that multiply every score in the entire game. If you have one, that means all scoring is doubled or tripled… but depending on the game [the method to activate these multipliers] is always different, sometimes really complicated. If you don’t know how to activate them, you’re going to lose to someone who does – even if that person is generally playing worse than you.
“So I wanted to make it really easy – that was something I was able to bring over from Sonic. Your speed. The faster you’re going, the higher your playfield multiplier will be. There’s no combination or order of things you need to do; just hit the spinner, and go fast.” Ryan characterises his approach in his video as “easy to understand, fun to target.”
The table even includes a working spinpost for clearing stages and a fully functional loop-de-loop on the playfield – two features that aren’t just novel for a Sonic pinball machine, but are in fact a couple of bona fide pinball innovations in their own right.
Ryan explained that the iconic loop-de-loop “has only been done once before in pinball, ever, and it was not done well at all.” As a result, he had next to no existing tables to reference from, instead having to figure out through trial, error and sheer mathematics how to get a loop working well on the track. A loop that could withstand the speed and weight of a zooming pinball.
“The loop was maybe the only thing that I’d say I took from Sonic and introduced to pinball, rather than the other way around. The loop might as well have never existed before now. In the one game it was in, the loop was like, three inches tall, had metal walls and you couldn’t see the ball go around. Doing the loop on Sonic took a lot of effort and planning; the mechanism is fully original, had to be built by me – and its inclusion wasn’t optional, as you can’t have a Sonic pinball table without one!”
The signpost is just as impressive a feat, given that its mechanism counts as a new invention in the world of pinball. “I’m actually going to have to patent that, as it’s an original pinball design,” Ryan said. “In classic pinball, you have the spinners that spin vertically, and you have horizontal spinners too. That’s not new – what I did was put a spinner on the post mechanism, which can go up or down. Normally, the sign post sits too high for the ball to pass through, but when it’s lit and you’re done with the level, the mechanism pulls it down so the next time the balls goes up the ramp it spins the signpost.
“That has never been done before – it’s truly original, whereas the up or down spinner… those have been done separately, but never quite in this combination. In pinball, there’s only so many things you can do with a steel ball and a certain amount of room, so even that combination is enough for a patent in this world!”
Figuring out the logistics of some of these new-to-pinball features would be a challenge for anyone building their own machine, but Ryan has managed to introduce all of these on his very first homebrew project. He attributes that to both careful planning using computer software, and his experience restoring old pins to their former glory – admitting that any kind of mistake in the process could be costly for anyone wanting to jump into the hobby.
“[Sonic Spinball] is my first homebrew! I did do a restoration on a Twilight Zone machine just before this, and I nearly had to rebuild that one from scratch just because it was missing so many parts. So, I got a little experience in putting together a pinball machine almost from nothing, there. I mean, I did have to do things a certain way because the game already existed, but I still had to have someone make me a cabinet, fill that cab with the parts it needed, staple grounding wire around the whole thing… I had to know how that all worked, and all of this is stuff I would have needed to know when it came to building my own pinball machine.”
“Now, when I build Sonic’s cabinet I’m realising, ‘oh, I know exactly how to do this, I know what part that needs’… there’s no other game that I’d have this level of motivation to make either because… it’s expensive. If you’re going to do it yourself, non-professionally. A brand new pinball machine costs around $6000. To build one from scratch is only about half that, maybe more once you add in all the electronics.
“So it’s not cheap to get into, there’s a lot of stuff involved in homebrew pinball that many people don’t really think about, like how to populate a cabinet… and the only reason I was really able to afford it was because of the restorations I was doing. I would buy something cheap, put a lot of work into it and then if I didn’t want to keep it I’d sell it for what it’s now worth.”
Part of Ryan’s goal of raising awareness of pinball homebrew creation is by documenting the progress of his projects. When working on the Twilight Zone restoration, he used regular blogs and video updates to detail the work he was doing, and he told us that he enjoyed the process so much that he did the same for Sonic Spinball. He generated a lot of interest in his Sonic updates, partly due to the Coronavirus pandemic forcing people into lockdown.
“When I started this big Sonic project, it was during COVID-19, and so everyone was [stuck at home] starving for content and human interaction, so I felt it was the perfect time to start posting what I was doing. People couldn’t wait for the next update, whereas normally they’d probably be busy with their normal lives. I think it helped them – it certainly helped me!
“I’d work on the table with more enthusiasm if I knew I could show people this thing, and they could watch it and give me feedback. I mean, I watch a few artists on YouTube and they do these big projects; their update videos are some of the highlights of my week because I love watching their process. I figured I could do that for other people’s entertainment, and the following got bigger and bigger.
“The next thing I knew, I had a lot of people asking me about updates,” Ryan joked. “If I stopped updating for a few weeks, I’d have a few messages asking me if I was okay!”
It was this increased attention and hype that later resulted in interest from huge pinball expo organisers, and even a nomination for a TWIPY Award – the pinball community’s Oscars. Sonic Spinball’s placement at Pinball Expo 2020 meant that Ryan had to quickly make a video outlining his project, which would then be showed to the world.
And, while there is no prize for winning the TWIPY, Ryan hopes that the notoriety could propel him to a status that will allow him to professionally design pinball machines – or even get Sonic Spinball realised as a fully-licensed cabinet!
“I never made Sonic Spinball for that purpose – this was always a passion project of mine – but if I get enough people to look and vote for the project it can be one more thing I can bring to the table when I talk to a pinball manufacturer,” he said, adding that past winners have been approached by pinball companies to realise their homebrews as commercial releases. “If that was gonna happen, that would be awesome.”
Another way that Ryan aims to give back to the pinball community is by promoting cost-effective ways for enthusiasts to get started with their own projects. In fact, Ryan designed almost every aspect of Sonic Spinball – from the coding to feature testing and even graphics placement – using a free PC program before he set foot in a workshop.
“This free program, Visual Pinball 10, it’s been around for ages, actually one of the old relics of the internet… but this is actually something I’ve been pushing as part of homebrew, because I feel it can help make things more accessible. You’re never going to get rid of the cost barrier to start building a physical machine, but you don’t need to have any money to get started.
“Visual Pinball lets you drop real pinball parts all over the place, and see how they would react to each other. And my game is programmed with something called the Mission Pinball Framework, which is built on Python specifically for people who don’t know how to program a pinball machine. You don’t need any underlying knowledge to make certain events work. There’s also a bridge that was added recently, that will let that programming talk to a fake pinball machine in Visual Pinball. So, not only was I able to design the game before I started building anything, I was able to start coding it for real before I ever stuck a drill into a piece of wood.”
So enthusiastic is he about the virtual side of the process, that Ryan is looking to splitting out the Visual Pinball project as an interactive fan game that can be showcased at the Sonic Amateur Games Expo. “Of course, as soon as we’re able to have expos again, I’ll be bringing the cabinet to every last one I can… I did consider submitting the project to SAGE but I didn’t know how, at the time it was too late to ask them how I could bring a physical game to the show!
“I do have a playable demo – it doesn’t have all the rules in it, though. I want to get the real rules on the virtual game, but there’s some software limitations that are stopping me right now, like a lack of support for multi-coloured lights. So if I can figure that out, I might be able to port the full code experience to the virtual game, in which case there’s no problem! I’d love to get something out there for people to play.”
Anyone hoping that Ryan would be making more physical Sonic cabinets will be disappointed though – without official licensing and SEGA’s blessing, there’s no way Sonic Spinball can be sold or re-made. “I’ve already had a lot of messages like this, and can say right now, the answer [to sell] is ‘no’. I can only make one, for myself, unless it ever gets produced and officially licensed by SEGA. I should not sell any, and I will strictly abide by that.
“I am actively searching for partners to produce it though, because I think it’s good enough and a lot of guys in the pinball scene think it’s a good enough pinball game to get made. And as we know, SEGA’s been pretty open with their licensing for Sonic lately. They like collaborations…” So, maybe one day!
Until then, the Sonic Spinball pinball table remains a work in progress. And like most hobby pinball projects, is likely to be so for quite some time. In recent months, Ryan has completed the cabinet build and inserted the whitewood to complete the physical unit, and aims to produce more visuals for the monitor such as the tilting animation (which is an area where pinball creators have started to get a lot more creative and comical with their new releases). The last big thing to work on is final custom artwork to replace the stick-Sonic whitewood, which Ryan doesn’t plan to figure out until the very end of the process.
“So, I don’t know when I’m finally going to be happy with everything exactly as it is, and stop rebuilding it. I plan on rebuilding it at least once this year, where I cut a new piece of wood that has everything I learned from the last one and integrate it. If I’m happy with it, then we can call that one done, but in all likelihood I’ll have to rebuild it again in order for it to be perfect. To completely finish the project, we’re looking at years, but for something playable and enjoyable, it’s here now.”
The Sonic Stadium thanks Ryan McQuaid for his time. Check out the project using the links below, and be sure to VOTE for Sonic Spinball in the TWIPY 2020 Awards.