Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Pinball in Your Own Damn House!

Ever since I was a young boy, I've played the silver ball.  Pinball combines the addictive, goal and score based game play of video games with the real world sound and light shows of slot machines.  As the machines have gradually faded into obscurity that my fandom has escalated into an obsession.  As much as I love my video games, it's certainly something different when you're actually knocking a ball around in physical space to win.  While I sadly don't own my own, there are still tables out there in the wild for anyone to play if you know where to look.  Check out Pinside for tables near you!

If you are fortunate enough to own a video game console, you can also enjoy the game at home more easily than ever before.  The following 3 games are your best bets for satisfying your long dormant pinball lust... or finding it, if you're new to the world of ramps, flippers, and MULTIBALL!

Pinball FX2 (Xbox 360) / Zen Pinball (PlayStation 3)


Some pinball sims like to do what can't be done with the constraints of real world physics, and nobody does it better than Zen studios.  I'm not sure what's up with the different name on Xbox 360, but I'm thoroughly enjoying Pinball FX 2.  There are a ton of tables available for purchase, running about $2.50 each.  I started with the core set of four tables:
  • Rome (Roman legion theme)
  • Pasha (Persian bazaar / trading caravan theme)
  • Secrets of the Deep (Undersea exploration theme)
  • Biolab (Sci-fi parody theme)
Each of these has some really nifty feature that you couldn't do in reality.  The most impressive at first to me was the ramps on the Rome table that look like Aqueducts, with water flowing down that splashes when the balls runs through it!  My favorite table overall is Secrets of the Deep, which has beautiful dark blue graphics and a complex table flow (my favorite aspect of a good pinball table).  All four of the base tables are fun, and Zen Studio's physics are arguably the best ever seen in a pinball sim.

Zen Pinball will definitely scratch your pinball itch.  True to their name, these tables are the kind that you can just relax and enjoy for minutes at a time.  As such, it's a shame that the demo constantly pauses and nags you to purchase the game.  Honestly, just take the plunge and buy it.  You'll be glad you did.  The graphical and audio presentation is astounding, and the game play backs it up.

Pasha from Pinball FX2.  The detail on Zen's tables is stunning.

Pinball Hall Of Fame: Williams Edition (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Wii, 3DS)


The other shining light for Pinball fans these days is FarSight studios, who really came into their own with Pinball Hall Of Fame: Williams Edition.  The special thing about FarSight's sims their goal of duplicating famous pinball tables to the most accurate degree possible.  It's almost spooky how the memories came rushing back to me when I fired this game up, and you'll feel the same way if any of these titles ring a bell:
  • Black Knight
  • Firepower
  • Funhouse
  • Gorgar
  • Pin*Bot
  • Space Shuttle
  • Taxi
  • Whirlwind
  • Jive Time
  • Sorceror
  • Tales of the Arabian Nights
  • Medieval Madness
  • No Good Gofers
All tables are replicated flawlessly, warts and all, so even the quirky bits quirk up like they do in real arcades.  Thankfully, this collection is full of great tables: Medieval Madness especially, is known as one of the best of all time (and surprisingly hard to find in the wild).  It covers all eras from the early solid state tables to the later whiz-bang effects overkill era of the late 90's.  Heck, Jive Time dates all the way back to the punishing pre-solid state era, with a rolling score counter and everything.

Obviously, FarSight's sims are of more interest to people who are already real-world pinball fanatics.  The old tables simply weren't designed to fit elegantly on a widescreen TV, being more or less vertical.  Thankfully, the camera system is pretty good in PHoF:WC, and there are so many angles that one is bound to suit your needs.  The biggest problem is a few of the more modern tables have so many bells and whistles that they just overwhelm the player.  In an actual table it isn't a problem, but visually processing all of that in a sim is pretty tough ("No Good Gofers" is nearly unplayable at times).  But this problem only applies to two or three at most of the 13 stellar tables.  Any serious pinball fan really ought to own this game.

Incidentally, the Xbox 360 version is far and away the best.  The PlayStation 3 version is just as good in the graphics and sound department, but has some bad load times.  Plus, the flippers on the PS3 occasionally glitch up... not constantly, but just enough to be irritating.

Pinball Arcade (Playstation 3, Xbox 360)


Pinball Arcade is the newest release from FarSight, and my hope for the future, with a few caveats.  It uses the Pinball Hall of Fame engine, but this time they've gotten every major pinball manufacturer on board, and with future downloadable content the plan is to faithfully replicate as many classic tables as possible.  I really wish them nothing but success in this endeavor, and I'm optomistic that it will succeed.  That said, I have a few quibbles with the initial release, which consists of the following tables:

-Ripley's Believe It or Not! (Stern)
-Tales of the Arabian Nights (Williams)
-Black Hole (Gottleib)
-Theatre of Magic (Bally)

Three out of those four are of the latter day "gadgets and overkill" school of table design.  It's not that I dislike that style particularly, but those tables are notably harder to enjoy in video game form.  The tables are so busy that it's tough to even follow the ball.  For some reason the camera system has been actually made worse since PHoF, with fewer angles and no description of which one you're currently using.  There's also only one view for when the ball is being launched, and it makes skill shots unreasonably tough.

The Ripley's and Theatre of Magic tables are really hard to follow, partly because it always looks like I'm staring down at them from 100 ft up.  Things would also be much easier to follow with a simple dimmer switch for the table lighting.  Everything is so damn bright!  Still, these flaws are nothing that a 1.1 version patch couldn't easily fix.  Besides, the physics and presentation are stellar.  Video pinball and real life pinball will always feel different, but these tables play great.  Most importantly, the graphics and sound are so damn authentic.  Arabian Nights looks notably crisper with the new engine, but the great success here is Black Hole.

Black Hole, from Pinball Arcade... my new obsession.

Let's be clear about Black Hole: I. Love. This. Table.  I have actually never played it in reality, but I swear to before I die.  It's not friendly to novices or casual players, and it's nearly impossible to figure out what the hell you're supposed to do.  Once you do, it's fascinating.  There's actually a second table BELOW the main one, under glass.  It's dark until you enable it, when it finally lights up to reveal a mini-table that's upside down.  That's right, the flippers are at the top, and the ball flows up.  To get a good score, you need to strategically enter the lower table, open the airlock and re-enter the main table without dying.  It's gripping, and the atmosphere is so early 80's and TRON-like that I'm fascinated with it.

Mostly, I encourage pinball fans to download Pinball Arcade for the promise that it represents.  The downloadable tables in the works look like they're skewing new and complicated, but that seems to be what the fans want.  Here's hoping that a few of the older tables make it in, because I love what FarSight's doing here.  It really is a good time to be a Pinball fan.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Dude! Don't be shy! Speak up!

      I have no idea what you originally posted, but whoever you are, I'd love to hear from you.

  2. While I've played and enjoyed pinball games on computers before, they've always felt very different than real tables. Without the physical clang, it's a different beast entirely. Although it does look like graphics have taken a major step forward, so maybe I should try it again.

    On the other hand, while I don't have a pinball machine in my house, I do have pachinko. That's almost as good, right?

    1. I have to agree with you, pin sims will never feel like the real thing. The Pro Pinball series on PC tried to duplicated a pinball machine, complete with DIP switches, diagnostic tests, configurable slope, and everything else on earth. It did that really well, except for one problem: The tables were really, really boring.

      The best pin sims evoke the thrills and excitement of pinball, rather than the exact experience. PHoF: Williams Collection is my current favorite, because the sights and sounds are so completely spot-on. Just listen to the CLANK that plays when you score a replay on any of the tables... it's just like the real thing.

      For what it's worth, some people claim that the Zen/Pinball FX games have the most realistic pinball physics ever achieved, despite the fantastical nature of the tables. All three of these play just fine to me.

    2. And Pachinko is awesome! I still have yet to actually play it.