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Armchair Analysis: The Rise of (Video) Pinball Gaming
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Armchair Analysis: The Rise of (Video) Pinball Gaming

Peter Skerritt examines the history of virtual pinball gaming from the NES to present-day consoles.

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Pinball is a form of entertainment and amusement that is near and dear to me. I played lots of pinball machines while growing up, and I progressively got better at them as the years went by. Pinball back then was a challenge in that players wanted to set high scores, but to also stretch out their money. If you had a good run and reached a high enough score, the reward of a free game or extra ball was waiting… and if you scored enough points, machines with electronic scoreboards allowed players to enter their initials for all to see.

Video game consoles had pinball simulations of their own. Video Pinball for the Atari 2600 was the earliest console pinball game I played, and it honestly wasn’t much of a simulation of later machines. The flippers were last resorts and nudging the table was the best weapon that players had. It was more similar to older pinball machines in that regard. It was a raw first effort.

The Nintendo Entertainment System had a few pinball simulations, which were markedly better. Pinball was the most raw of these, with two playfields and a bonus area. Console versions of PinBot and High Speed came later, and these were very good games. They weren’t straight simulations, however. PinBot added features like a monster on the table that could eat the ball in play and falling acid projectiles that could damage the flippers. High Speed had bonus games based on pachinko if players collected enough icons on the playfield. These extras sometimes added to the experience, given that credits were unlimited, but purists lamented the lack of straight simulations. Other non-licensed pinball games like Rollerball, Rock’n Ball, and Pinball Quest also came out for the NES during its run. Rollerball boasted a playfield that spanned four full screens in height. Rock ‘n Ball had several different basic tables to choose from and focused on multiplayer pinball. Pinball Quest was the most ambitious game in the genre, as it was the first pinball RPG.

The NES wasn’t alone in offering console pinball games. Alien Crush and Devil’s Crush for the TurboGrafx-16 were original titles that combined multi-level playfields (like Rollerball) and bonus games. Dragon’s Fury for the Genesis was based on Devil’s Crush, and later spawned a sequel of its own called Dragon’s Revenge. The PlayStation had a few pinball games to offer, including Extreme Pinball and the Pro Pinball series. The Pro Pinball games, in particular, excelled at delivering the full pinball experience. Operator menus allowed players to adjust difficulty, track stats, and perform other functions that arcade operators usually did for their machines. Ball physics were impressive, especially in later games in the series like Big Race USA and Fantastic Journey.

While there were original pinball games to choose from on consoles, the gradual demise of arcades meant that the pinball machines enclosed in their dimly-lit rooms slowly began to become memories and were seemingly lost. In late 2004, however, Crave Entertainment published Pinball Hall of Fame: The Gottlieb Collection for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox platforms. Seven of Gottlieb’s pinball machines were emulated, ranging from the company’s early years with Ace High to later, more intricate tables like Victory and Tee’d Off. Despite a few bugs, Farsight Studios had delivered a solid experience with very good ball physics and all of the sights and sounds that players remembered from arcades.

Nobody realized it back then, but the Gottlieb Collection laid the groundwork for the next console generation –  and the rise of pinball simulations to prominence.

In 2007, a company called Zen Studios developed Pinball FX for the Xbox 360. Pinball FX was a downloadable title that came with three tables to start with: Speed Machine, Agents, and Extreme. The tables were pretty basic designs, though the themes were different and engaging. The biggest problem with Pinball FX was that the ball physics never felt right. Pinballs are weighty spheres, but in Pinball FX, they felt more like ping-pong balls. Six more tables were released over the next three years, and each new release showed gradual improvement. The Street Fighter II table was Zen Studios’ first project with a license, and it used the assets pretty well. The physics model didn’t improve as much as purists had hoped, but Pinball FX was a decent effort nonetheless.

Crave published a second Pinball Hall of Fame installment in early 2008 for the Wii. The Williams Collection showed marked improvements in ball physics and offered ten prominent tables, including PinBot, Space Shuttle, Whirlwind, Taxi, and Black Knight. Later versions of the Williams Collection for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in 2009 added Medieval Madness and Tales of the Arabian Nights to the roster, as well as Achievements and online leaderboards. The Williams Collection still arguably remains the definitive pinball arcade experience to this day.

Zen Studios built on its Pinball FX idea and released Zen Pinball for the PlayStation 3 in 2009. Four brand new tables were included, and more tables were added via DLC in the years that followed. The ball physics model was slightly improved over Pinball FX, but Zen Pinball wasn’t much of a step forward. It was great for PlayStation 3 owners who enjoyed pinball, but The Williams Collection seemed to take a lot of wind out of the sails for Zen Studios, but things would begin to change for the development company in late 2010.

Pinball FX2 was a bold move by Zen Studios. This new platform for the Xbox 360 greatly improved the pinball physics model that had been so light before, plus it offered unprecedented features like Superscore and Wizard Score, which are cumulative scores across all of the tables individually and combined with players on your Xbox LIVE friends list. These new scores have their own leaderboards, which adds another level of competition to what is already a competitive kind of game. Pinball FX2 also notifies players when their scores are within range of another friend’s marks. All of the tables from Pinball FX can either be purchased for migration into the Pinball FX2 platform, or, if the player already bought the tables for Pinball FX, they’re automatically migrated for free.

Support for Pinball FX2 continues today, and there are now more than 30 tables available on the platform between migrated tables, DLC, and Zen Studios’ recent Marvel Pinball project. The physics model may still be just a shade less realistic than in The Williams Collection, it works well for these tables. As I was told in a conversation with members of the Zen Studios team during E3, Pinball FX2 tables are more about skill and talent and are meant to be different from arcade-based pinball machines designed for shorter plays and eating tokens.

Farsight Studios has moved on to a new downloadable platform of its own, called Pinball Arcade. The platform is reminiscent of Pinball FX in that tables can be downloaded over time to build up a respectable collection of tables. Unlike what Zen Studios has done, however, Farsight is offering licensed pinball tables similar to what we’ve seen in the Pinball Hall of Fame titles. In fact, about half of the available and announced tables are re-releases. The other half are new, and it’s an impressive list. Theatre of Magic, Cirqus Voltaire, Bride of PinBot, and Twilight Zone (which was successfully Kickstarted) are tables never before seen in a pinball simulation. Pinball Arcade is lacking the deep community aspects of Pinball FX2 so far, but tournaments and other events have been promised for the future as more tables become available.

After an uncertain time when pinball seemed to be little more than a cherished memory, fans are fortunate to have two talented development teams that are working to provide top-notch experiences like Zen Studios and Farsight Studios are doing. It’s important to note that, while the two teams are creating similar experiences, both have significant differences that make them stand out. Arcade rats may tend to favor Pinball Arcade for its realism, but Zen Studios has made pinball accessible for players of all skill levels and has managed to create a growing community of players and fans.

Pinball is alive and well, and I can promise that more surprises are in store as the months roll on.

About the Author: Skerritt