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With the success of the original Sonic game Sega used the Sonic brand to launch a new rival to Tetris the Nintendo puzzle powerhouse. With the semi-success of the terribly boring Columns game Sega tried to give the puzzle genre another shot. Although puzzle games of this sort have pretty much gone unchanged in around 20 years, the connect the similar blocks/crystals/gems or in this case beans have always found themselves as addictive, simple and thoroughly time consuming. The "one more go" quality of them strike both the old and new.
So what did Mean Bean Machine bring to the party other than the Robotnik name and the Sonic cartoon characters (from an early 90s cartoon)? Well it was one of the first to truly bring in "competitive tactics", it was more complex than the simple linear variations of its contemporaries and it featured a single player "story mode" with passwords used to take you to where you were (the game was released long before battery back up was introduced as a save format).
So what was it if it was so different?
The game featured a split screen they with the player (in single player) competing against the computer to out last them in a game which sees players connecting same coloured beans to get rid of them. The player must link 4 (or more) beans of the same colour to have them taken from their screen, as the beans fall from the top of the screen and the player needs to position them.
Of course the best tactic was to pet up long chains of connections that took out most of your beans. When a long chain is completed the opponent get waste beans rewarding the player who made the long complex and sometimes risky chain. Unlike Columns which was 3 or more of the same colour in a single line, or Tetris which was an unbroken line horizontally, Mean Bean Machine was just 4 adjacent beans so you had more options, and the beans came down in 2 that could be placed horizontal or vertically. Whilst Columns was blocks of 3 just vertically and Tetris came down in 2 variety of 6 shapes each with 4 blocks.
The games story sees the mad Dr himself trying to turn beans into his minions and put then into his machine. So the player needs to complete the level (by out lasting the computer on each level) to progress to the next, before a final face off with the Robotnik. With each level the person is given a password to return to the level in the future. Each level gets progressively harder as the computer gets better and the beans fall quicker making long combinations much more difficult. In fact the game gets almost impossible later on, even on easy.
On multi-player its a straight head to head of fast paced gameplay which is actually really fun in short bursts though it's hard to keep playing as usually one person is significantly better than the other and as a result the matches can be come rather one sided, it's a lot more skill than luck.
Overall the game is fun and addictive but isn't quite a match for Tetris. As a single player puzzle game it might have you for a few hours over a few sittings, as a multi-player game its a fun one to play occasionally. The competitive edge to the game of "my actions effect you" was brilliantly done and does separate it from the others of the time, a concept that was later copied by things like Bust-A-Move games on the PS1 some years later.
Though they idea had been done in Japan for years previous, this was the first game to be played in such a way in the west and although it was perhaps a bit too difficult, it still managed to have a greatly pleasing ability to keep you coming back for more. Funnily it was one of the very few "Sonic" universe games not to feature the little blue god himself.
An example of franchise licensing gone mad and pointless, Dr. Robotniks Mean Bean Machine coats a boring puzzle game in a completely unnecessary Sonic the Hedgehog background. There are two possible reasons for its existence: either the creator of this tedious Tetris-style game impressed Sega so much that they added the Sonic frills to help it sell, or Sega were desperate to squeeze as much money as they could out of kids who already owned Sonic games 1, 2 and 3 and the similarly arbitrary Sonic Spinball, and were awaiting the not-so-long-awaited Sonic and Knuckles, and made this up on the spot. Either way, Dr. Robotniks Mean Bean Machine is not a game that was ever worth noticing, let alone writing a review on thirteen years later.
DRMBM (which I pronounce drm-bm) was produced by Sega, although like Sonic Spinball not by the talented Sonic Team themselves, for both Sega and Nintendo systems. This decision to sell out part of a popular franchise to their biggest rivals is amusing in the 21st century, as all Sonic games are now produced solely for Nintendos GameCube and GameBoy systems. Despite Dooyoos categorisation, this game was never released for the Amiga: the site categorises all old game systems under this title, with photos of each respective console determining which is which.
There is a get-out clause that avoids Nintendo having too great a victory, in that the principal characters Sonic and Tails dont feature at all, and the source for Sonics enemy Dr. Robotnik and his badnik robot creations is the cartoon series of the time, Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog. (You can tell this by Robotniks goofy rather than menacing appearance, and the presence of his henchmen created for the cartoon). If anything, this only makes it less appealing as a double cash-in of the original games.
The important thing to realise about DRMBM then, especially for Sonic fans, is that its relation to the other Sonic games is purely by its title, crude animated opening sequence and the look of a couple of robots. Thats it. Its unclear exactly who the player controls, there may be an unstated hope that this lack of information could lead players into thinking they were controlling Sonic, but its some benevolent force trying to beat robots of increasing difficulty.
So your parents have bought the game you wanted, and you insert the cartridge, eager to indulge in another high-speed hedgehog adventure.
The opening sequence does the expected job of attempting to craft a link between the game that is about to start and the reason for the Robotnik in the title. Also as expected, it does a very bad job. The Doctors first line is: Witness my evil dream to rid Mobius of music and fun forever! and it only gets worse from there. Robotnik explains his plan to his bumbling henchmen Grounder and Scratch, flawed chicken robots and travesties of the original games enemy designs, and the plan is this: Robotniks Mean Bean Machine will turn the fun-loving jolly beans of Beanville into robot slaves... but there are so many of them, Robotniks badniks are going to have to collect them.
The game screen is split into two equal areas: the players on the left, and the opponents on the right, whether this is a second player or the computer. Like Tetris, objects (the jolly beans of Beanville) fall slowly from above and have to be arranged so that similar colours go together and disappear (are saved). The opponent is presumably doing the same thing, but their contrived scenario is that grouping colours captures the jolly beans. Of Beanville, remember.
Its all a little unclear and stupid, but leaving the story aside, which isnt hard to do as it actually plays no part in the game, there is only very limited appeal here. The lack of addictiveness is surprising, considering its based on Tetris (I hate you Tetris, you life-stealer), but the controls are so awkward that it becomes frustrating very easily. Leaving the title screen running, a demo begins which is helpful in explaining the few things the player needs to know:
The A, B and C buttons on the MegaDrive pad (thats red, yellow and blue on Super Nintendo) rotate the jolly beans of Beanville clockwise as they fall. The jolly beans of Beanville are different shapes and arranged in either twos or threes, and gravity acts on any jolly beans of Beanville that are left poking out to the side once they have settled. Pressing down on the pad speeds their descent, as with most games like this.
Progress is made by grouping four or more jolly beans of Beanville, which at least means the player has to use their head a little when arranging them, and the level ends when the jolly beans of Beanville reach the top of one of the screens game over if its yours, or continuation if youve beaten the opponent. There is one final addition in the form of refugee beans (Im not making all of this up, honestly) which look like rocks and cant be destroyed / saved by themselves, and can only be taken away when caught in the removal of surrounding coloured jolly beans. The refugee beans are sent to a player when their opponent does something clever, like remove two sets of coloured jolly beans in one move by using gravity and their brain, and if youre playing against an adept player, these can stack up quickly and lead to a fasts defeat.
As well as an exercise mode that allows players to practice by themselves, taking as long as they like to get used to the controls and the gameplay without being rushed by a second player, the game is split into scenario mode and 1p vs. 2p mode. The latter is obviously the most enjoyable, and perhaps the only reason to dig this game out for repeated plays, but if a player doesnt have any friends or siblings, or wants to pretend that theyre playing a real Sonic game with a storyline, they can opt for scenario mode and face badniks in a sequence that starts off quite hard and only gets harder. This mode rewards players with passwords each time they complete a stage, and these simple four symbol codes can be entered whenever the game is loaded.
A final note on the graphics and sound, which arent memorable or impressive but serve their purpose. The music isnt very fitting for a Sonic game, reminding the player that this isnt one, as its less melodic and simplistic, but as it isnt essential to gameplay, early 90s children could listen to their Right Said Fred or MC Hammer albums or whatever else they had. The sound effects arent much better, as even a two-player game against the computer makes no distinction in either volume or tone between the players actions and those of their opponent, so sometimes it becomes a flurry of annoying beeps and boops. The characters arent required to do much in the way of animation, and probably the most active sequence is Robotniks madman jumps in the opening sequence, which are animated in about five basic, slow-paced frames. The beans all look identical apart from their colours, with two eyes staring out of the television screen at the player to elicit sympathy, but as these are the only thing that need to be concentrated on, theres no real problem here.
Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog was a poor cartoon that had very little to do with the worlds crafted in the original games (which was continued excellently by Nigel Kitching of the UKs long-running Sonic the Comic), and as such this is a fairly fitting if ridiculous game adaptation. The story is stupid and patronising, and the game itself pales in comparison to its influences. Every Sonic the Hedgehog collection is complete without it.