Pinball Arcade: Season One

Pinball has always been somewhat sketchy in video game form.  It is as much of a tactile experience as it is a visual and audio one.  The feel of the flipper buttons on your fingers, the resistance of the spring as you pull back the plunger, the gentle bump that you give the machine as you try and prevent the ball from going into an out lane – these are sensations that can’t be replicated using a controller and a television.  Despite this handicap, Farsight Studios’s Pinball Aracade still comes pretty close to pulling it off.  What it lacks in physical form, the Season One Table Pack of Pinball Arcade makes up for with its perfect modeling of physics, its faithful attention to detail, and its photorealistic recreations of a huge variety of pinball machines.  There are a few missteps in the package, and Season 1 would have benefitted from having a more balanced portfolio of machines.  Still, whether you have fond memories of the pinball glory days or if you are just experiencing this hobby for the first time, the Pinball Aracade: Season One Table Pack is a great way to jump into the world of virtual pinball.

For free, you can download Pinball Arcade and get one free table: Tales of the Arabian Nights.  The remainder of the tables are also available in demo form, with the full versions locked behind a paywall.  If you are interested in trying the game out, Tales of the Arabian Nights is a good way to test it  The machine is represented vertically on the screen, with a couple of different camera zoom levels possible.  In addition, the score board (and with games from the ‘90s, the dot matrix display) is shown on the left side of the screen.  You use the right analog stick to pull and release the plunger, and you use the left analog stick to “bump” the machine.  To use the flippers, you tap the L1 and R1 buttons.  It is a pretty simple setup that allows you to shoot targets, ramps, chutes, spinners, and just about anything else that lights up, flashes, or makes noise with a little metal ball.

Pinball video games have been around for a while now, but only in the last generation has graphical technology and physics modeling advanced to the point where this game’s level of quality is possible.  A lot of these tables appeared in previous collections, but they didn’t look this good.  Graphically, this game is beautiful. The artwork on just about every machine is incredible.   I had almost forgotten just how colorful, imaginative, and cool pinball machines looked, and this game gave me an instant reminder.  The tables in Season One have been rendered with the hardcore enthusiast in mind.  A screenshot of a table in this game is indistinguishable from a photograph. The uncanny valley never becomes a factor.  It is obvious that a lot of hard work went into making sure that these experiences were recreated with the love and care that they deserve.

This attention to detail is not only evident in the game’s visuals, but also in its audio and gameplay.  The sounds of each game have been recreated perfectly, from the dings and dongs of older machines to the slightly cheesy dialog and primitive electronic music of the ‘90s machines.  Rudy’s dialog in Fun House makes that game a classic, and you will be happy to know that it is all there.  Thankfully, none of the machines got any undesired “improvements” in their sounds.  More importantly, though, the physics and gameplay of these machines hit the proverbial bullseye.  The friction, the bounciness of flippers and bumpers, the strength of the plunger, the force of traps as they eject the ball – these subtle aspects of pinball are all flawlessly reproduced, and so is pinball’s blend of skill and chaos.  Like weather, cause is only loosely tied to effect.  You will have a game that ends frustratingly after 30 seconds, and then you will have one of those games where you play unconscious and can seemingly do no wrong, hitting target after target and completing all of the machine’s sequences.  The simulation is so superb that it becomes virtually transparent to the game – a feat that will probably go unnoticed by a lot of gamers.  You might almost forget that you are playing a video game – almost.  Unfortunately though, Pinball Arcade has a few problems that can’t be ignored.

The first problem is that there is a split second delay between a button press and the response of a flipper.  Pinball newcomers probably won’t pick up on this issue, but old school enthusiasts definitely will.  It isn’t much – maybe a tenth of a second, but it is enough to throw off your timing on a lot of shots.  You can adjust, but this delay makes it much more difficult to make great saves and shots that you don’t have time to set up.  I don’t know if this is something that is in every video game (but I don’t notice it because those games don’t require precise timing), or if it is just a problem with this game, but it is definitely a problem.  It isn’t a deal breaker, but it keeps the game from reaching its true potential.

Another problem with this game is that all of the camera angles are from down low, looking up from the flippers.  As a result, you can barely see the top of the field.  For some machines, you can’t see it at all.  Skill shots on machines that are less than 20 years old are all but impossible.  This problem also rears its head in any game that makes extensive use of upper flippers.  Since you can barely see where the ball is on some machines, you can’t time shots with these flippers.  This game sorely needed an additional camera toggle to deal with this problem.

The other issue with the game is that although it has a lot of great machines, this table pack is heavily skewed towards games that were made in the early to mid-90s.  The ‘70s and ‘80s are underrepresented, and there is an abundance of relatively obscure games like No Good Gofers and Cirqus Voltaire that didn’t sell many units.  More of the popular classics from the ‘80s like Comet and High Speed would have been welcome here.  It is my opinion that pinball didn’t necessarily get better when dot matrix displays (DMDs) were added, so it is a bit disappointing that 12 of the 21 tables are DMD games.  They are good machines, and some of them, like Medieval Madness and Attack from Mars are incredibly fun.  In the flip side though, there is also something to be said for the refined simplicity of the machines that predated Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  The mini video games on later machines (i.e. video modes) have also aged poorly.

Despite the flaws with Pinball Arcade and The Season One Table Pack, nostalgia-minded gamers should be very pleased with what they find in this package.  Relative newcomers to pinball should also take a look.  The hobby itself might be old, but video games didn't make it obsolete.  The 21 tables that you get are a great value for the $30 price tag too.  Nothing will ever replicate the actual experience, but this simulation comes about as close as anyone has.