The Top Ten Video Pinball Games in the History of the Universe (Finale):Necronomicon

Click HERE for the Rest of the List

#1- Digital Pinball: Necronomicon

When I started this feature, over ten long months ago, my first order of business was to decide the rank each game would occupy on the list. This wasn’t an easy task, and the games did a fair bit of shuffling around until I was entirely satisfied. The only part that was easy was my decision to place Necronomicon in the top spot. In fact, this game was one of the primary reasons for me wanting to make such a list in the first place. Digital Pinball: Necronomicon isn’t necessarily an unknown game (Sega Saturn cultists have been singing it’s praises for years) but it’s been stealthily evading the radar of John Q. Gamer for far too long.

So first, the bad news; this game never made it outside Japan, and, as you may have caught a moment ago, it’s only available for the oft-maligned Saturn.

Yeah, yeah, I know.The typical cop-out conclusion to a top ten list, right? There’s always gotta be some arrogant douchbag (such as myself) who waits until the very end to tell you that you don’t know shit about shit until you’ve played Zigotuma QX Special Edition ’87 for the Amstrad PCW. And of course there were only three hundred copies made and it was only released in Kyrgyzstan etc etc etc. The conclusion is always that you should kill yourself because you’ll never get to play such an amazing game, and also that the list-maker is totally radical for his esoteric knowledge of videogames.

Thankfully, things aren’t quite so grim with Necronomicon. If you can get past the hurdle of digging out your Saturn (which is already import-friendly, right?), the rest of the equation isn’t so bad. The game, while not particularly common, isn’t prohibitively expensive either. Copies routinely change hands on ebay in the $20-35 range, though I’ve seen some go for as low as seven bucks. Also, the text and audio is mostly in English, and, to the best of my knowledge, everyone in the world speaks English. So once you’ve got the game booted up, the hard part is over, and it’s clear skies and smooth sailing from then on.

And when I say “clear” and “smooth,” I mean exactly that. Despite the fact that the game was released in 1996, long before HDTVs became prevalent, the graphics are displayed in interlaced high resolution; quite a progressive move on the part of developer Kaze. Because of this, and the fact that the tables themselves are static images rather than 3D models, the game looks fabulous. The hardware might be a tad antiquated, but the game looks clean, crisp and current. The only thing that looks somewhat outdated are the FMV movies, which use grainy video compression techniques that were standard at the time. No biggie, that.

The second half of this audiovisual extravaganza is the sound. In this area too, Necronomicon sets itself apart. Sound effects are functional and unobtrusive, even understated. But because of the rest of the sound design is decidedly not understated, you probably won’t even notice them unless you deliberately try to.

Musically, prog rock is the order of the day; dark, theatrical and more often then not, pretty damn rockin’. Even for those (like myself) who are rather lukewarm on the genre, I can’t foresee many people not enjoying the soundtrack (which includes two short songs from John Petrucci, of Dream Theater fame). For those who really dig the tunes, you can slip the game disc in your CD player and play (or rip) the soundtrack (just be sure not to play track one, which contains the game data).

There’s one rather bizarre aspect to the audio presentation that might turn some people off. During gameplay, a voice-over spouts a near-constant stream of Lovecraft-inspired nonsense. And while fans of H.P. Lovecraft’s work will undoubtedly eat this up, I can certainly understand how this could irritate the shit out of some folks, especially since there is no option for muting such obscure soliloquizing as:

“He carries the message of the Ancient Ones. He is the first and the last. His dark angels from above will come, and he’ll be worshipped by us all. Through the cities and fields, his shadow we can see. He’s everywhere you turn. Here he comes, marching in triumph.”

Initially I was pretty bothered by this, particularly since there’s a good bit of repetition involved, but I quickly learned to tune it out and concentrate on enjoying the music. In time, I began to actually enjoy these speeches. Their straight-faced campiness gives the game a sort of whimsical personality which only overt weirdness can provide. But, still, it’s pretty jarring and strange at first, so I felt a fair warning was in order.

Necronomicon consists of three tables, all somewhat squat and almost shockingly simple in design (with one notable exception). This is in sharp contrast to many tables both physical and digital, which are often intricate to the point of fetish, and can have surprisingly steep learning curves. And while that intricacy has it’s own charm, Necronomicon is a celebration of the speed and simplicity that lies at the core of pinball’s classic appeal.

This elegance of design also informs the aesthetics of the tables. Each table has a distinct and eye-pleasing layout, and you’re never left wondering what you’re looking at. Everything is immediately obvious at a glance (again, with one exception), and all three offer very different challenges and visual designs. Further differentiating the tables is the fact that each has a color scheme based on a primary color, which has the effect of endowing them with a bold “classic” appearance.

Eschewing this pervasive simplicity is the third table (Dreamlands), which is much more complex and sophisticated than it’s brethren. For my money, this is the single greatest virtual pinball table ever created. Being a dual-level table (with the top level being a large transparent ramp) it’ll take a few minutes to figure out exactly how everything works, but once you fully understand it, it’s absolutely enchanting and insanely addictive. The game would be worth the price of admission for any of the tables individually, but this one is particularly excellent. I’ve played it for countless hours and it simply never gets old.

As I said earlier, Necronomicon is all about speed and simplicity and, due to a brilliant interface, the learning curve is practically nonexistent. Rather than having to carefully analyze the lights on the table (“okay, was that light lit a second ago?”), all objectives are clearly indicated by an unobtrusive HUD which places arrows where you should try to shoot the ball. It’s very easy to activate the various challenge modes, and each table has a large variety of these objectives, some easy, some devilishly tough. There are a variety of multiball modes, some with two balls, some with three, and some with so many damn balls that I haven’t been able to count them due to the sheer chaos and panic they induce (though I’d estimate there to be about seven).

Even when there are too many balls on screen to fathom, the game always runs at a silky smooth framerate, with no noticeable stuttering or slowdown. The high speed and framerate isn’t in lieu of excellent physics either. The physics feel perfect, and the level of precision and control you have over the ball (or balls) is phenomenal. During multiball, balls clack off one another realistically. The sensation of paddling balls (an area where many video pins come up short) feels tactile and satisfying. Regardless of when it was made, the game feels every bit as “next gen” as practically anything created since.

I’ve gushed about Neconomicon for long enough. My part is done, it’s all up to you now. Dig out your big boxy Saturn, buy this game, and enjoy. Most likely, your Saturn won’t be tossed back in the closet for quite some time.

Best Table: Dreamlands

Also Check Out: Digital Pinball: Last Gladiators, which is the Russell Crow-approved predecessor to Necronomicon. Unlike the latter game, Last Gladiators WAS given a stateside release, though unfortunately, most of the four tables aren’t quite in the same league as those found in it’s sequel. One of the tables, however, IS of the same caliber as it’s Lovecraftian counterpart (the titular Gladiators). The other three tables, while still very fun, simply aren’t as well-designed or balanced. Still, if you want a sampler of the fun to be had from Necro, give Gladiators a try. [Note that an enhanced version called Last Gladiators ver 9.7 was released in Japan. This is probably the version to get].

Also worth mentioning are two other games from Kaze, which I unfortunately haven’t had the opportunity to play. One is Akira Psycho Ball (for the PS2, Japan Only), based on the popular anime and manga. The other is Power Rangers Zeo Full Tilt Battle Pinball (for the PSone, all regions). I only recently found out about this latter one, and naturally I immediately ordered myself a copy. I’ll let you guys know if it’s any good in a future update (maybe).

It should also be noted that the SNES classic Super Pinball: Behind the Mask was co-developed by Kaze (alongside Meldac). While not in on the same level with Kaze’s later output, this is easily the best pinball game for the SNES (sorry Pinball Dreams/Fantasies). Even at this early stage, some of Kaze’s design brilliance was already starting to shine.

Click HERE for the Rest of the List

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~ by Krooze L-Roy on July 27, 2008.

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