I’ve always had a fascination with Pinball despite growing up in a time when its heyday was dying and video games were the hot new thing. Perhaps it was Sesame Street’s “Pinball Number Count” video that did it?
However, pinball hs found a new life in the virtual world via titles such as Pinball Arcade and Pinball FX2/Zen Pinball, and has developed a cult following.
I today’s world of complex gaming, there’s something I find endearing about the simplicity of Pinball, with essentially three controls (flippers, nudge and launch) it takes moments to pickup, but perhaps a lifetime to master. Hiding under each table’s initial simplicity, the gameplay is more complex than just trying to get the ball to hit as many scoring parts of the playfield as you can.
From launching the ball there is the possibility of a skill shot (getting the ball to hit a certain target as soon as it’s launched); then there are goals/missions whereby hitting a target triggers a sequence that requires you to send the ball down certain lanes or to hit specific targets within a limited timeframe to score. This means you need to learn how the table works, and know where to shoot the ball to get the highest score. Some tables also give you mini games via the dot matrix screen on several tables, and sometimes mini games that take place off-table.
There are various techniques you can learn to help you aim the ball with the flippers. Subtly using the nudge feature (which is named after bumping the physical pinball table around) allows you to manipulate the ball to score more and helps stop you loosing the ball (draining). Finally, there are your reflexes — things can get crazy, especially if you’ve managed to trigger ‘multiball’ where more than one ball is present on the table.
There are two main players in the world of digital pinball:
Pinball FX2/Zen Pinball by Zen Studios is a really polished game with a huge wealth of tables (available as paid downloadable content). Zen have some pretty impressive licences for their tables, including Star Wars, Marvel, The Walking Dead, Aliens, but they’ve also created a decent range of original tables.
Zen’s tables are gorgeous, being intricate and colourful, with smooth animation and good sound. There are lots of options for the visuals, controls, and camera angles. Because Zen’s tables are designed for the digital medium, they go beyond what a mechanical pinball table could do and often feature arcade-style mini games, fully animated characters, changes in table physics and even pinballs with different properties. This all makes for interesting advancements in the game of pinball and adds variety across the range of tables.
Pinball Arcade by Farsight Studios is different. Its ‘mission’ is to accurately replicate classic mechanical pinball tables that were actually manufactured. Because of this, the appearance of the tables and the sound effects/music can seem to suffer a little in comparison to Pinball FX2 because they are authentically replicating the technology of the time, but that said, I find this to be extremely endearing as it gives a solid retro feel – especially as you can view flyers, artwork and history for each table via the menu.
It’s a close call between the two games. Both run at a smooth 60 frames per second and are fun to play, but my favourite is Pinball Arcade — perhaps because of the nostalgia factor being a child of the 80s.