The Top Ten Pinball Video Games
By: Krooze L-Roy
Pinball video games get no respect. I believe the reason for this is because video pinball simulates something you can easily do in real life. And, much like driving 170 mph or shooting someone in the face, the video game adaptation of this activity doesn’t quite capture the joy of the real deal. But unlike those other examples, playing a pinball machine can usually be done with minimal risk to your life and liberty. Though they may be the ugly stepchildren of the pinball world, virtual pinball does offer one huge advantage over the real deal; you don’t have to spend four grand just to play some pinball in your living room (naked and on acid, if you should so choose).
So slip off those trousers, lick a few tabs, and prepare yourself, as I unveil the ten best games that this shat upon genre has ever offered (excluding the PC, which simply has too many games to even attempt to sort through, even for one as devoted as your author). This week, let’s start things off with the most modern game to make the list…
#10 – Pinball Hall of Fame: The Gottlieb Collection
Of all the games I’ll be talking about, this one most makes you feel the burn of not playing actual pinball. The tables reproduced in this game are all real machines, and while the average Joe won’t have played (or even seen) all of these games, the chances are that the you will have put a few quarters into at least a couple of them.
The game features eleven tables, from the early 1930s to the mid ‘90s. Cool concept, and it’s interesting to be able to see (and play) the evolution of pinball, but the odds are good that unless you’re eighty-seven years old, you aren’t going to be spending a lot of time playing some of the oldest games, one of which doesn’t even have flippers. There are also two novelty machines that were, and pretty much still are, mainstays of any respectable arcade; Love Meter, and Xolten, the fortune teller.
Even if some of the tables have limited appeal, keep in mind that there are eleven of them (the average number of tables per game on this list is about 3), so you’ll have quite a bit of fun just trying them all out. And unless you’re just a soulless vestigial shell of a human being, you’re going to find yourself pretty addicted to at least one or two of these relics, be it the well rounded Genie, the multiball-centric Goin’ Nuts, or the innovative Black Hole.
Somewhat sloppy physics do hold the game back slightly, as they’re a tad floaty and slow. There are also a couple of spots where the game is liable to glitch. You get used to the feel of things though, so unless you’re the pinball equivalent of Garry Kasparov, calculating your moves well in advance, less-than-perfect physics are no reason to stay away from the Gottlieb Collection. Also keep in mind that I have the PSP version of the game; the console editions may well have cleaner physics. The PSP version is still pretty nice on it’s own merits though, since you can turn your system sideways and play most of the tables in TATE mode.
Regardless of what system you play it on, or where it falls on this list, this is a damn good pinball collection. Just be warned that you might find yourself aching to play the real versions of some of these classics.
Best Table: Victory!
Also check out: Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection, which is suppose to release early next month. This one should be even better than Gottlieb, since the source material is even more top notch (Funhouse… Pin Bot…yeah, it’s gonna be sweet). There will also be a Wii edition that will make clever and appropriate use of that system’s features.
#9 – Pinball Fx
Every once in a great while, a game comes along that is so unoriginal, so void of new ideas, so downright plagiaristic, that you can’t help but put it on a top ten list. Such a game is Pinball FX, for the Xbox Live Arcade.
Now, with other genres, this sort of blatant, unchecked anorexia of creativity is considered a damnable offense. Sonic Shuffle, for example, didn’t fool anybody. Such a bold-faced rip off of Mario Party was seen as an atrocity, an insult to video games as an art form, and as a result, not a single copy of that game was sold. That’s a true figure.
But pinball is a different story. Pinball is more like jazz music. A jazz musician might struggle for his entire career; living in poverty, eating out of a can (cat food, no less), until one rainy day, inspiration strikes him. Countless hours he spends in deep concentration. He doesn’t eat. He doesn’t sleep. Slowly he begins to descend into insanity. But in the end, he’s created a masterpiece, the only one of his life. His mind and soul transmuted into pure wondrous music. The song is a hit. Audiences are amazed.
And then another jazzman starts performing a slightly catchier rendition of the same song and becomes a superstar as a result. The original songwriter doesn’t even get a mention in the liner notes of the plagiarist’s triple platinum record, and no one in the lunatic asylum takes him seriously when he mutters to himself, “but… but I wrote it… that’s my song… I made it.”
The point of this tiresome analogy is that, with pinball, creativity ain’t worth jack shit. What matters is how well you pull it off.
And Pinball Fx pulls it off like it was Mardi Gras. The physics feel right (though a bit on the speedy side), the graphics are clear and crisp, and two of the three tables are damn fun. The other one is just fun. Not quite worthy of damnation, but fun.
In keeping with the overall generic-ness of the game, the table themes are as follows; racing, secret agents, and extreme sports. Racing has to be the most overused theme in all of pinballdom, but Pinball Fx has modernized it with a tuner car aesthetic that would make even Paul Walker happy. Agents is slightly less generic thematically, but the table design is lifted straight out of another game (a Saturn game called Hyper 3-D Pinball). But back to the jazz analogy; Pinball Fx does it better (in fact, it’s easily the best table of the three). So neener neener, Hyper 3-D Pinball, your shit just got took. Whacha gonna do about it? Cry?
Now, extreme sports is a fairly original gimmick, and while it’s easily the least approachable machine, due to it’s claustrophobic design and the fact that it could also be labeled as “the wigger table”, it’s actually quite fun if you give it a chance. And despite (or because of) the constant battle cries of “yo yo yo, fo sho,” and “yeeeah boy,” the song for this table is actually fairly catchy.
The machines are all fairly short and squat, and there’s an assortment of camera views that allow for easy viewing of the entire table without the necessity of scrolling, though scrolling views are available for those who like to be close to the action. The controls are configurable, but the defaults are probably your best option (with the triggers controlling the flippers and the left stick handling the nudge). There isn’t an option for using the sort of control scheme you’d find on an old school pinball game (like for the SNES or Gameboy), but the Xbox controller really isn’t suitable for that scheme anyway, so no loss.
Pinball Fx does in fact have a few features not usually (if ever) seen in console pinball games. In keeping in step with the relentless drumbeat of technological progress (not to mention the demands of Microsoft), the developer has tacked on a few extras that could be considered standard fare for modern games (rumble technology, online scoreboards, Achievements) as well as a couple of slightly less common ones that serve to enhance the longevity of the game.
For one, there’s online play. On the original Xbox, Tetris Worlds held the honorable distinction of being the game of choice for stoners around the world, and for the 360, Pinball Fx easily secures that title (and they don’t even have to leave the house to buy it). There’s also support for the camera peripheral, so now rather than just hearing people say “hold on, bruh; gotta take a quick toke,” you can actually watch them engage in this activity, and then compliment them on their high quality bong.
The other mind-blowing innovation is the promise of downloadable content, which is still a no-show as of this writing. So I emailed the developer, Zen Studios, to ask if this feature was ever actually going to be utilized. I was surprised to receive a prompt response from the tiny studio, stating that “a new batch of tables” would “be available very soon” and that they were currently in the testing stage. The person who wrote the response, who had the fukken awesome first name of Zsolt (the studio is based in Hungary), concluded his or her email with the following smiley: :o) Interesting…
There’s also one other feature, and I hesitate to even mention it simply because it is incredibly, insanely, embarrassingly retarded. For those few individuals who happen to own the camera peripheral (sexual perverts, most of ‘em), they have the option to *breathes deeply* control the flippers by waving their arms. I haven’t tested this feature out myself, and frankly I don’t plan to. And, with your permission, we shall speak no more on the topic.
Even in it’s current state, with the additional content not yet available, this game is a surefire winner. It might be only nine on this list (which is certainly nothing to sniff about), but if I were to compile a top ten Xbox Live Arcade games list, this would undoubtedly be in the top spot. And for just ten bucks, you really can’t go wrong. It’ll also be ten dollars invested in the future of video pinball, since Zen Studios seems to work exclusively on this venerable genre. And despite the prevailing lack of creativity, you’ll be getting the single best wigger-themed table that money can buy. At least, until someone else comes along and does it better.
Best Table: Agents
Also check out: Pure Pinball, for the original Xbox (and yes, it is backwards compatible, though the middleware adds the occasional bit of lag to the game). This set of four tables actually manages to be even LESS original than Pinball Fx, though the design for Pure’s mandatory racing themed table is somewhat superior. It was a fairly tough call for me to choose between the two games (both having strong pros and cons), but Fx won out in the end due to better table variety, faster load times and a bit more polish.
Reviews of Pinball Fx Downloadable Content:
#8 – Kirby’s Pinball Land
Admit it. You suck at pinball. It’s not your fault, really. Pinball hates you. You might be on fire for your first ball, and then right when you start to think you’ve got it all figured out – SDTM (for you pinball neophytes, that’s when your ball goes Straight Down The Middle, without you even having a chance to hit it). Just a fluke, you say, as you pull the plunger back on your final ball. SDTM. Fuck. It can get frustrating.
Kirby has always been the slut of the videogame world. The slumpbuster. When Jaquio sends you back to level 6-1… when Bowser cockblocks you from getting some time alone with the Princess…when Pinky and Blinky double team you half an inch away from that last pac-pellet; there’s always Kirby, with open arms, ready to take you in. He’d always put up just enough of a struggle to make it worth it, just enough to make you say “see, I am good at videogames.”
Based upon this long-winded introduction, you can probably guess what the first thing I’m going to say about Kirby’s Pinball Land will be – it’s easy. Even in the off chance that you’re your ball does manage to go SDTM, get this; that’s not necessarily the end of that ball (and when I say, “ball,” I of course mean Kirby himself). There’s a brief timing-based challenge every time the ball – uh, Kirby, goes down the tubes, enabling you to reverse his momentum and fling him back up into the action. You can do this at least a couple of times (with increasing difficulty) before the game risks making you cry by finally ending your ball. There’s also a save feature in the game, and believe me, you’d be well advised to use it, otherwise you could be playing all night on a single credit.
Even without these features though, the game would still be pretty easy. Kirby moves rather slowly (typical Kirby speed) and the game is pretty generous about giving you extra balls. Table nudging is also fairly easy to pull off, though it’s rarely necessary.
But, as with most Kirby games, the low difficulty does little to diminish the fun factor. The three tables (which are all three Gameboy screens high) are fairly wide open (some would say barren), and while there’s little to distinguish the tables thematically, each individual screen offers a unique challenge. There are also boss battles, and some of these are actually fairly challenging. Hey, it can’t all be milk and honey, even with Kirby.
Best Table: Wispy
Also check out: Revenge of the Gator. This was Kirby creator Hal’s first attempt at tackling the silver ball for the old monochromatic Gameboy, and a lot of the ideas that would be later used in Pinball Land originated here. RooG is a bit more of a serious take on pinball, albeit with a lighthearted and original alligator theme. It’s also about ten times harder than Kirby’s game, which is a good thing for when Kirby’s rotund body, which was providing you with immense pleasure mere moments earlier, suddenly fills you with guilt and disgust. Hey, we’ve all been there.
#7 – Sonic Pinball Party
It could be deduced that Sonic has a bit of a thing for pinball. After all, a video game character can’t be fan of video games. Even such a mild breaking of the forth wall would have been simply too much for the children of yesteryear. Thus, most game characters were usually only interested in base activities like eating and sleeping, or, if they were really hip, they could be into things like comic books and wearing sunglasses.
Though it was never explicitly spelled out for you, the astute gamer would realize that Sonic must have been a pretty big fan of the ball and paddle, else why would he always happen to find himself in pinball-oriented locations? Coincidence? Uncle Abner always claimed that it was mere coincidence that you’d always run into him near the cathouses. “Just going out for a drive,” he’d say, with a big grin on his face. Well, Uncle Abner is a goddamn liar, and Sonic the Hedgehog is woven from the same fiber.
First you have the ever-present pinball themed levels in all of his sidescrollers, most notably Sonic 2’s Casino Night Zone, which actually allowed sonic to gamble and play pinball at the same time. Ever notice how Sonic always seemed to lollygag on that level? And doesn’t it seem unlikely that, of all the routes that Sonic could choose to get to Robotnik’s hideout, he literally ALWAYS finds himself in a location filled with springs, bumpers and paddles?
People with gambling addictions always find innocent enough reasons to go inside a casino; they want to cash a check, get a cheap bite to eat, have a quick drink. Sonic isn’t even that clever. Every time he finds himself getting shot three hundred feet in the air by a pinball paddle, it’s the same old excuse; he has to go wreck Robotnik’s brand new wheel-chair, presumably just to be a dick.
And then was the great coming out. Just as many celebrities have wrongfully assumed that just because they enjoy listening to music, they would therefore be good at making music, Sonic thought that he could make his own pinball game, starring himself no less (what a pompous asshole). Let’s just say that he was wrong; Sonic Spinball was the result, and it was a disaster.
Sonic did redeem himself somewhat with Sonic Adventure. The game itself wasn’t bad, but the real reason to play it was because once again, by mere “coincidence” of course, Sonic found himself in a casino that just happened to contain, you guessed it, pinball tables. But you really couldn’t blame the Hog in this case, since the two pinball games therein were quite good (one was Sonic themed and the other had a NiGHTS theme). Fans of the steel orb found themselves playing these tables (and the brief platforming segment that occurred when you did shitty) more than the rest of the game combined.
Fast forward a few years, and Sonic is a mere shell of the celebrity he once was. Now he can wallow in his addiction without any pretenses. And wallow he does, with Sonic Pinball Party for the Gameboy Advance. For the most part, this collection covers the same teritory as the two tables in Sonic Adventure. Indeed, the tables once again have Sonic and NiGHTS themes, as well as a “secret” Sambo de Amigo machine that’s gets “unlocked” about half a second after you turn the power on. But these aren’t mere rehashes; these are brand new tables that are pretty stinkin’ brilliant in their own right.
The most noteworthy aspect of the Sonic table is the fact that there are multiple levels. By completing standard pinball-style challenges, you can activate a battle with Robonick, who isn’t even trying to defend himself at this point. Nevertheless, you beat the hell out of him as usual, and then, after a brief opportunity to wrack up some big bonuses, it’s on to the next level. As far as the actual layout of the table, the next level bears a striking resemblance to the level you were just at, but the graphics and music change quite dramatically, and it gives the game a nice feeling of progression.
The NiGHTS table has a level progression of it’s own, though the criteria for activating a boss fight is quite a bit more complex and time-consuming. The boss fights are also more elaborate though, so the extra toil is well worth it. The Sambo de Amigo table features a rhythm-based minigame as it’s primary gimmick. I’m not much of a fan of that table personally, though it does have the distinction of being the most difficult of the three, mostly because there is no ball-saver feature.
Finally, there’s the addition of a Story mode, and let me just say that video games have drastically lowered the bar for what can be considered a story. It’s something about Sonic having to conquer pinball challenges given to him by evil versions of his friends (who hurl verbal abuses at Sonic which push the boundaries of what an Everyone rated game can contain). Obviously, completing these challenges will revert them back to their normal selves. *SPOILER ALERT* That wily Dr. Robotnik is behind it all.
You’d think that if the scientist was going to go through all the trouble of hypnotizing Sonic’s friends, he would at least have them do something useful, like, I don’t know, maybe attack Sonic the Hedgehog! But that’s where the player is mislead; Robotnik isn’t the villain, Sonic is. The good Doctor wants nothing more than to use nonviolent means of preventing wild animals from attacking him. Sonic, just like a real life hedgehog, attacks on sight, thus foiling these plans. It says something really sick about the developer that the player is constantly being placed in this clearly anti-human scenario. If you rearrange the letters in “Sonic Team,” you get “nihilist.”
Why Sega would have opted to only sell this game in Target stores (the slightly-less-poor-man’s Walmart) is beyond me. This game is the best thing with Sonic’s name attached to it since Sonic Adventure, yet in typically boneheaded Sega fashion, only shoppers who “expect more, pay less” would even know it existed. There’s also a version that contains the entire Sonic Advance game as a bonus, which only serves to sweeten the deal further. Either way you crack it, this is some sweet pinball action, and should be considered a must for fans of Sonic, pinball, parties or combinations of the three.
Best Table: Sonic’s table, of course
Also check out: Pinball of the Dead, also by Sega for the GBA. It’s notable for being perhaps the only pinball game in history with an interesting sounding title. And it’s pretty good, though not quite in the same league as Sonic’s Pinball Party. Hopefully Sega hasn’t given up on the pinball genre just yet.
#6 – Metroid Prime Pinball
It’s inevitable. Every successful franchise does it eventually. From Rosanne winning the lottery to Steve Urkel creating a machine that made him cool, jumping the shark, like death and taxes, is a fact of life that we all must try to come to terms with.
Video games too suffer this fate; the major difference is that video games traditionally have no shame about making that jump. Solid Snake sees absolutely nothing wrong with fistfighting cuddly cartoon characters. Mario races go-carts against an infant version of HIMSELF without so much as batting an eye. Hell, Mega Man has based his entire career on jumping the shark; he’s practically humping the big fish.
But the Metroid series, which previously had been the only Nintendo franchise handled with seriousness and dignity, seemed untouchable. It would never, could never, jump the shark.
Welcome to Metroid Prime Pinball. Yep.
Snide comments aside, this game is the real deal. Not only does it contain high quality objective-based pinball action, it also makes great use of the Metroid name, however ill-advised it might be.
There are basically two full-featured tables, supplemented by a few boss tables. The boss tables are a bit more involved than in say, Kirby’s Pinball Land, and add challenge by the fact that your ball can actually die. No, I don’t mean that the bosses can try to knock your ball down the gutters, I mean that the ball (which is actually Samus in sphere mode) has it’s own health meter that must be tended to. This will be irksome for pinball purists, but other than the final boss, you really don’t need to be too concerned about getting killed.
The other minor gripe that these pinball puritans might have with the game is the battle segments, wherein Samus changes out of ball form for some shooting madness. These sections can be pretty intense and difficult, and they tend to be a tad too frequent. Luckily, if you get mauled by enemies during these bonus games, it has no effect on your overall health. You simply don’t get the points.
Now don’t get the wrong idea here. I’m well aware that all I’ve done is criticize and make fun of the game, but I simply wanted to give fair warning to those who prefer there pinball to be as pure as the fallen snow. This isn’t a game for them.
The truth is that the game is excellent, with the best physics yet seen in a handheld pin game. This is the perfect game for those who see pinball as pointless and repetitive (of course, those people probably aren’t going to be reading this list, but that’s beside the point). And despite the fact that the game is objective-based, hardcore fans of the silver ball will still find themselves trying to best their high score.
Best Table: Tallon Overworld
Also check out: Mario Pinball Land. Check it out from afar, that way you can keep a safe distance from it. It sucks.
#5 – Pokemon Pinball: Ruby and Sapphire
I’ve played Pokemon. Matter of fact, I was downright into Pokemon for a spell. I was 15 when Pokemon Red and Blue came out, which was just young enough to be self-conscious about doing things that I felt I was “too old” to do. Thus, my friend and I played covertly, trading pocket monsters with a discreetness that a serial killer would find over the top. Well aware of the fact that our reputations in middle school would determine the rest of our lives, we weren’t nearly as shameless as the other nerds; playing right in the middle of class for anyone and God to see.
Thus it is with a vague yet lingering sense of shame that I, as an adult, play Pokemon Pinball Ruby and Sapphire. The awareness that I should not feel thus serves only to fortify and enhance to this feeling.
In my emotionally fragile state, you’ll have to forgive me if I babble somewhat. And if I suddenly start to cry, don’t try to comfort me; it’ll just make me cry harder. But don’t worry about me, I’m alright. So on with the review.
*Clears throat* The combination of Pokemon with pinball is a marriage made in my darkest, most guilt-laden dreams. The concept of collecting and evolving Pokemon is a great hook, and really gives you reason to keep coming back these two otherwise run-of-the-mill tables. With most pinball games, if you luck out and do too well, it sort of kills your drive to keep playing, since you know you’ll never be able to beat that high score. With Pokemon Pinball, you don’t even have to play well to enjoy it; you’ll still have a tangible feeling of progression. Thus this is the perfect game for those who feel that pinball is too aimless.
It’s also good for those who suck. Much like Kirby’s Pinball Land, this game is a bit on the easy-as-fucking-hell side. Now, your ball will actually go down the drain quite often; so it’s not the table designs themselves that are easy. It’s that the game is so generous with the ball-save feature. Anytime you’re in the process of trying to catch or evolve one of the little shits, the ball save feature is there to save you some frustration. Other times it’s just on for the hell of it. Pinball purists might scoff at this lack of difficulty, but piss on ‘em. The game is fun and addictive, so who cares if you might be able to play for a day or two on a single credit, as ridiculous as that sounds. The fact that you won’t mind playing for that long is a testement to the game’s greatness.
There are two tables available; Ruby and Sapphire. And much like the game’s predecessor, one of them is more difficult than the other (though the difference isn’t nearly as pronounced this time around). The tables are also a lot more complex now with tons of clever little touches.
They certainly have added a lot of monsters since my in-the-closet days of collect-em-alling abandon. I haven’t seen many of my old favorites; just a bunch of imposters with crappy names like Wynaut and Torobiusu. Where’s Bulbasaur, damnit?! They kept Magikarp’s worthless ass!
This minor grievance aside, I should also add that there are a number of boss fights. Some of them are rather irritating too, but luckily you can opt not to fight if you’re get sick of them, or are just a pacifistic coward. And I’m not positive, but I’d swear that the big dinosaur pokemon actually ended my ball once by stomping it. That’s either awesome or total bullshit; I haven’t decided.
Best Table: Tough call, but I’d have to go with Ruby
Also check out: The original Pokemon Pinball, for the Gameboy Color. The tables are a lot simpler, but it’s still fun, and the characters are more nostalgic (for me, at least). The rumble feature is a nice touch; unfortunately the added size of the cart enables anyone to see that you’re playing a Pokemon game. And that’s the kind of humiliation a young man might never recover from.
#4 – Rollerball
I’ve noticed that a lot of readers (as in, 1 or 2) are wondering what the best pinball game for the classic NES is. And it’s an understandable quandary, since most of the games for the system don’t even have the word “pinball” in the title, making Internet searches a headache. Sure, plain old Nintendo Pinball is a good time, but it’s about as shallow as the moisture on an eyeball.
But there is a gem out there for those who look hard enough. It’s called…
Okay, so maybe it isn’t based on the award winning movie of the same name. Luckily for those who can overlook this admittedly glaring flaw, Rollerball the game is almost as awesome as the movie. Almost.
Like most NES pinners, Rollerball features just a single table, but what separates this otherwise standard-looking table from the pack is sheer size. Towering in at a whopping four (4) screens high and sporting an Empire State Building theme to match, Rollerball is a real behemoth. Just look at this sucker!
Just like you keep telling yourself, size isn’t everything, but it’s not the impressive length of the table that makes this game so excellent. The layout is wonderfully balanced, there’s a ton of stuff to do, and the physics feel just right, if a bit on the slow side. There’s a pervasive feeling of being in total control of the ball. That feeling’s an illusion, of course, but it’s also an indicator of an excellently designed table.
I should say “in control of the ball or balls.” There’s a multiball feature in the game, which is unusual for a multi-screen game such as this. It’s very cleverly implemented and flexible, so that you don’t lose your extra ball just because one of them goes off the screen.
I was also being somewhat inaccurate when I said there was only one table in the game. There’s an option called Match Play, wherein two players both control a pair of flippers on either side of the same table. See it here. It’s not exactly deep; the winner is determined more by sheer luck than skill. But it’s a pretty fun time, and a great bonus for an era in gaming that isn’t known for very elaborate bonus features.
Aside from some lackluster music and a lack of table nudging, there really aren’t many flaws with Rollerball. You can get it off ebay for about the cost of a cheese burger. And I strongly suggest you do. Fat ass.
Try to beat: Terence O’Neill’s world record of 5,181,110. Or, if you prefer your challenges to be possible, you can go for my personal high of 1,770,480.
Also check out: Flipnic, for the PS2, which just barely didn’t make this lil list of mine. If Pee Wee Herman had a pinball machine in his playhouse, it would probably be a lot like Flipnic (in lieu of a pornographic table that can be played one handed). The game’s three tables (and one Arkanoid-style minigame) are absolutely insane, and any pinball fan needs to play it just to experience it for themselves. Even if the pinball fundamentals aren’t rock solid, it’s a pretty entertaining play.
#3 – Ultimate Pro Pinball
Now here’s an innovative new feature exclusive to Krooze’s Haunt – reviews of games I’ve never even played. Nowhere else, folks. Nowhere else.
Here’s the thing; When I originally picked the order of the games on this list I was really smitten with a little game called Pro Pinball: Big Race USA, and placed it in the coveted #3 spot. But with time, the game’s flaws and shortcomings began to annoy me more and more until I no longer felt it deserved a position of such honor and veneration. My list thusly reached an impasse. Laziness had absolutely nothing to do with it; this site hasn’t been updated for over two months due to my rock-solid principals, dammit.
Which brings us to Ultimate Pro Pinball, which, while being somewhat deceptively titled, does have enough merit, fight and gumption to claim this spot as it’s own. At least I hope it does; Like I said before, I’ve never actually played this one, though I have played all the games contained in this collection.
I should probably explain why I say this game is deceptively named. You see, the Pro Pinball series is four games strong, and each game was originally a stand-alone release for the PC, eventually receiving console ports during the 32-bit generation. Each of these four games featured a single excellently designed table, which was unfortunately stuck in a non-excellently designed interface. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
This collection only features three of those games. Excluded from the package, for some nebulous reason, is the first game in the series; The Web. This is truly unfortunate, because The Web was probably the second best game in the series, second only to the previously mentioned Big Race USA. So calling this collection “Ultimate” is the very definition of a misnomer, since it’s clearly only 75% ultimate. Note: There was also a Dreamcast version called Pro Pinball Trilogy, which is a more appropriate title.
This misgiving aside, what is contained in the collection is uniformly excellent. The lucky gamer will receive Timeshock, Big Race USA, and Fantastic Journey for their trouble. All are worthwhile on their own, but together they form a Triad of power that’s hard to beat.
No other video pinball games are as realistic as the Pro Pinball games. It’s almost like owning a real pinball machine, albeit one that’s stuck in your 13 inch television quite permanently. Most anything that can be done with a real table can be done with these virtual machines. Lights and bumpers can be tested at will, which is cool despite serving absolutely no purpose other than being cool. Almost all options can be changed and tweaked, from number of balls, amount of wear on the playing surface, and other things that are probably best left to the defaults. It’s mostly pointless stuff, present only to make you feel like you truly own the tables in the same way you would own a real table, minus the massive expenses.
What isn’t so immersive is the inelegant way in which this is all put together. The front end of the game is a bit tedious to work with, and thus you probably won’t be spending much time tweaking the options. There are also a few flaws that no amount of tweaking can seem to rectify.
Most annoying is the HUD, which, while authentic and well-done on the design side, always seems to be right in the player’s face. You can adjust it’s placement, but it’s always a nuisance and a distraction. It’s redeemed quite a bit by the cool minigames that play out on it, but it really would have been nice if the designers had come up with a way in which it wasn’t so conspicuous all the time.
However, the most glaring grievance i have with the games are the camera angles. All are completely usable, but none quite feel right. I know it sounds rather nitpicky, but I want a camera that fits like a glove, and pans around the table just as my eyes would naturally pan around a real table. None of the available cameras in the Pro Pinball series can replicate this feeling. But I suppose some slack must be given to games that are nearly a decade old.
I know that all I’ve done so far is bitch, but the fact is that most of the people reading this will already be familiar with the series, and are likely already big fans. I’d go more into why the games are great, but I fear this review is getting a bit long in the tooth, for the reader and writer both. I will say that the series has probably the best pinball physics of any game to this day, and that the table designs are just as intricately detailed and well-balanced as most real-world pinball tables. But I’ll leave it to the player to experience the specifics for themselves. Again, not because I’m lazy.
Sadly, neither Ultimate nor Trilogy were released on American consoles. Those interested must either import or obtain the PC version. And of course, you’ve always got the option of buying the games individually, as I have done. Regardless of the route you choose, don’t sleep on the Pro Pinball series. They’re some of the best, most realistic pinball games around, even today.
Best Table: Big Race USA
Also Check Out: Pro Pinball: The Web for the PS1, Saturn and PC. Don’t overlook the original just because it’s not included on the compilation. As I said, it’s the second best table in the series. The physics aren’t quite as tight as the later games, but they’re still quite realistic and a blast to play.
#2 – Devil’s Crush
I’m sure no one saw this one coming.
Devil’s Crush, for the Turbografx-16 (also known as Devil Crash outside North America) is the touchstone upon which, even today, pinball videogames are compared. Most contenders to the throne don’t fare well in this comparison, and, perhaps as a result, the genre has been fodder for bargain bins ever since.
It’s hard for me to put my finger on what makes this game so great. The formula used in DC isn’t all that different from say, Pokemon Pinball, or more appropriately, Pinball of the Dead; you play some pinball, then you get sent to another room for a minigame, then you play some more pinball. That pretty much sums up the whole non-realistic pinball subgenre. Though it arguably perfected it, DC certainly didn’t invent this concept [I believe that honor would go to Nintendo’s simply-named Pinball for the NES, with it’s Breakout-styled Princess-rescuing minigame. I could be wrong though]. So after all these years, what makes this game continue to be the popular high water mark for the genre?
Well, for one, the music kicks all kinds of ass. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that inescapable fact. How developer NAXAT Soft made 16-bit hardware rock this hard is still a mystery to this day.
The table design is equally outstanding, and is filled to the chin with cool little details (such as the skull’s eye following the movement of the ball) and more fun objectives than most real-world tables possess.
The minigames too are a step above the rest. While not nearly as creative as the diversions found in other pin games, DC’s minigames uniformly revolve around killing or otherwise breaking shit with your steel ball, just as they should. In other words, there’s no gimmickry here. The game realizes that you want pinball dammit, and only pinball. Look elsewhere if you’re want fancypants basketball or driving subgames. Most of these side tables are also very nice from an artistic perspective, assuming you consider skulls with eyeballs as being the pinnacle of high art.
But you already know all this stuff, because you’ve played Devil’s Crush to death, or else you wouldn’t be here, looking for fresher pinball pastures. I understand that, which is why I’m gonna shut the fuck up sooner rather than later about this game that needs no hyping whatsoever.
If you haven’t already played Devil’s Crush, get off your ass and buy it. All you kids with your newfangled Wiis have absolutely no excuse not to play this classic, since it’s available through Nintendo’s Virtual Console service. The rest of you need to dust off your TG-16, or you Genesis. That’s right, Genesis; the game was ported to Sega’s system under the decidedly less cool moniker Dragon’s Fury. Though the graphics are arguably less clean-looking, the meat of the experience (the gameplay) is present in full effect.
Also check out: Lots of stuff. Alien Crush is the most obvious recommendation, and it’s also the one I can most heartily recommend. But there are also two other games that, while not from the same developer (and thus not as good), can be seen as spiritual sequels to the Crush games.
The first one is Fantasic Pinball Kyutenkai, by Technosoft, which is only available on the Japanese Saturn. It pretty much takes the formula and general layout of the Crush games, adds a few new wrinkles, and plasters it on an EXTREMELY Japanese aesthetic. The theme is still Hell and Devils and such, but now it’s all in a cutesy anime style. Kinda blah in that respect, but the game itself is fairly solid.
The other game, called Dragon’s Revenge, is a direct sequel to the Genesis port of Devil’s Crush (which, if you recall, was renamed Dragon’s Fury). Between crazy physics and a strangely designed main table, the game is somewhat of a mess, but it still manages to be a fun time despite it’s flaws. This is due in part to the really cool artwork seen in the bonus games, which feature a winning combination of unconventional background designs with the sure-fire addition of a bunch of comely wenches.
#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.