Hey Harvey!

Posted on May 16th 2018 at 08:00:00 AM by (slackur)
Posted under Pinball, FarSight Studios, Zen Studios, Pinball Arcade, Pinball FX, no kidding Doom is a surprisingly addictive table

It is pretty amazing, when you think about it, that video games can present practically as many universes as our imaginations can conceptualize.  Race car drivers, ancient warriors, formless deities, abstract observers, mustachioed occasional-plumbers, the possibilities go on and on.  We tend to settle into comfortable niches, as is human nature, but really any medium so tethered to artistic expression can as open as our desire to explore.

Sometimes, that desire is also grounded by the familiar and the known, with some artistic licenses added.  I've always marveled that real-life farmers often buy farming sim games, business and software engineers sometimes unwind to micromanagement games, and given my day-job as a space pirate I still anticipate the physical copy of the PS4 version of Everspace.  Sometimes we just like what we know and know what we like.

Given the decline and relative rarity of available pinball machines, virtual pinball video games aren't quite unusual, but they still occupy an interesting space in modern video gaming.  Those who enjoy an actual table would be the first to rightly claim that a video game version of real pinball table is never close to the same thing.  In the same way that playing a ton of Virtua Tennis won't help on a real court, pinball is it's own experience and can't truly be replicated in a video game for a myriad of reasons.  Still, that isn't to say video game pinball isn't fun for what it is, and not a competitor but a complimentary addition to the classic hobby.

As far back as the granddaddy Atari 2600, we've had pinball video games.  The genre has popped up on game systems as obscure as the Atari Jaguar, 3DO, and the CD-I.  And of course many of us put more time on a Windows computer's 3D Pinball than Solitaire.  As real-life tables phased out over the years (with the occasional resurgence) the video game industry paid homage to the classics (NES's Pinbot and High Speed, Lynx's Pinball Jam with Elvira and Police Force) as well as creating its own authoritative takes on the genre (Devil's Crush/Dragon's Fury, Pinball of the Dead, Metroid Prime Pinball.) 

Also under this umbrella are games that use pinball concepts around other gameplay, with interesting concept games like the PS2's Flipnic, the superb Kirby's Block Ball, the truly odd GameCube title and presidental autocorrect nightmare Odama, and naturally Sonic Spinball.  In fact most of the time unless it is billed as a simulation, video game pinball is roughly based on the concepts of pinball while offering fantastical gameplay elements.  The most notable modern example is of course the Pinball FX series.  Aside from occasional left-field releases (such as the upcoming Yoku's Island Express) video game pinball has mostly settled into two specific strains; FarSight Studio's continuing commitment to digitally replicating real-world tables and the aforementioned Pinball FX series by Zen Studios.

Obviously this is a quick gloss-over, and much has been written by those far more knowledgeable about pinball and video games, as well as their rivalry and integration.  (My Beloved and I recently watched a pinball doc called Special When Lit, and it was a neat overview.)  I just wanted a setup to cover my own experience and current musings over digital video game pinball, of which I find myself coming back to over and over.

I've always enjoyed real pinball tables as well as the certain mystique and passion behind them.  I'm fond of them in perhaps the same way some folks are drawn to steam-engine trains; there is a certain unmistakable aura about them, a history and somewhat haunting air that transcends the thing itself and projects a grander moment.  It is one of the many things in life you kinda "get" or you don't.  Where many would find a clanky, noisy contraption with limited interaction and even more limited rewards, a few others find themselves "in the zone" or in a "zen-like" state where the machine projects into the imagination a larger construct than itself, and the flippers and nudging are natural extensions of the player coaxing the fickle mistress of physics to guide that mirroring sphere to the desired route.

I'm terrible at it, by the way.  Appreciation has nothing to do with natural skill, of which I have little to none in most things including actually playing pinball.  But I do "get it" in my own way, and can lose hours and not a little money on a real table.  This combined with my primary hobby of video games means I'm in a comfortable position to enjoy real tables, yet I don't see digital variants as encroaching on the purity of the experience.   I find each a different if not parallel version on the theme.  In short, I'm an easy fan of most things pinball.

The 2600 version of Video Pinball was an early favorite Atari game of mine, but it was the NES that really opened my eyes and interest in video game pinball.  In fact, this is where the notable divide between 'simulation' and 'fantastical' digital pinball was first apparent to me. Rare's excellent Pinbot and High Speed were not direct translations of the original tables and featured a few thematic liberties, but it was Pinball Quest that really sold me on using the medium to expand in different directions on the theme.  The structure and design of the game uses pinball as an interaction method, but the tables scroll and progress, objectives and obstacles physically change, and design elements are introduced that would be impossible (or so impractical as to be nearly so) in real life.  Our modern Pinball FX has a traceable line from those early pinball games into the modern fantastical tables that couldn't practically exist, but still use pinball themes and rules.

Its always been one of my favorite genres and the fun and interest in video game pinball has stayed with me since that early beginning.  Over the years I would jump between simulation and fantastical; I've used Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection on the 360 to practice my game for the real tables (particularly my favorite, Medieval Madness) and I probably lost a bit of eyesight after so many hours on the Virtual Boy's Galactic Pinball.  Through somewhat dry release seasons, I took it upon myself to import interesting oddities like Akira Psycho Pinball on the PS2 and Dreamcast's Neo Golden Logres.

Impromptu multiplayer video game pinball tournaments happen sporadically at our house, and the best part for a couch multiplayer aficionado like me is that anyone can jump in and play a round, regardless of their skill level.  Pinball really is a one-size-fits-most kind of genre.  It often fits that perfect niche of both casually goofing off for a round or spending hours chasing high scores.

Gamers have had it pretty good this generation when it comes to video game pinball options.  On the physical disc side FarSight continues their tradition with The Pinball Arcade (with Season 2 available for import across the pond) and the Stern Pinball Arcade.  Zen Studios finally put some of their pins on disc with the Marvel Pinball Epic Collection Vol. 1.  And both FarSight and Zen Studios have dozens more tables for download. 

Nowadays I find the Switch to be my go-to, especially since the Stern Pinball Arcade received a tate mode patch and Pinball FX3 also received a performance patch.  The clarity of the Switch's screen and smooth framerate means its tough to go back to my other portable pinball games, where the genre has been represented on every other Nintendo handheld as well as the Game Gear and Lynx.  I've certainly never been starved for pinball on the go, all the way back to one of the best early classics, Revenge of the 'Gator.  Although if I had to pick a current favorite video game pinball table right now, it would be the Doom table from the Pinball FX3 Bethesda compilation; it has that perfect fusion of integrated source material for the theme, music and sound that set and keep the mood, and a fun and fast table design that flows much better than most FX tables I've played.  Plus the colors are bright, vibrant, and distinct on the Switch's handheld mode.  I just have to remember to grab decent headphones.  I was understandably skeptical of it at first (I mainly picked up the compilation for Fallout) but after one play it has its hooks in me.

I was inspired to write this little ode to a largely overlooked niche of gaming after reading that developer FarSight will be losing the licensing to Bally and Williams tables, and therefore they will no longer be sold.  That's a shame, as I've greatly enjoyed pretty much all of the studio's output and their Williams Collection probably saw more gameplay at my home than any other pinball video game compilation.  Still, it isn't as though video game pinball has ever been a huge money making property and even Farsight admits it is largely a passion project dedicated to keeping these classics around in one form or another.  Thankfully, much like the real life pinball tables it is doubtful video game pinball will ever completely disappear.  Especially when there are fans like myself to pick up and champion this small pocket of fun gaming.


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Great article, slackur! I'm also partial to video pinball. I enjoy playing regular tables in real life, as it were, but because I lack skill in the genre, I often find real tables daunting, because I will go through my quarters (or tokens) very quickly. That's especially true in the modern era, where you'll often find janky, half broken down pins that will steal your money faster, because of sticky flippers, or tables that just don't work properly any longer. Video pinball helps fill that void for me, because I can get the thrill of playing, without the agony of defeat that is coupled with me losing my shorts because I keep pumping quarters in. I also appreciate the fantastical nature of tables that aren't possible IRL, and that's definitely part of the attraction. I played quite a bit of Pinbot on NES back in the day, because a friend had it, and also spent a lot of time on Space Cadet Pinball on Windows, and a demo version of Pinball Fantasies on PC. Specifically, that had the "Party Land" table, which I played endlessly. I've taken to grabbing as many video pinball games as I can in the past 3-5 years, soaking up all the budget PS1 pin sims (Austin Powers Pinball - yeah, baby!), and the surprising number of pinball games on the Game Boy, as well as the Williams and Gottlieb collections on the 6th gen systems. I don't dedicate a lot of time to these games, but when I pull one out, I know I'm going to have fun.
As a pinball hobbyist, I've always been leery of pinball video games. There's really no way to capture the actual physics of a table, the randomness, and the physicality (i.e. nudging) needed by the player. However, I can say that FarSight has done the best job by far in recreating these classic tables and their physics are miles better than any I have ever encountered.  This is wonderful, since there are so few places to still play pinball and the hobby has gotten more and more expensive as of recent years. It's a shame that the Bally/Williams license has expired and that these tables (unless downloaded) will be gone at the end of June.

One suggestion, if you haven't played Necronomicon for the JP Sega Saturn, it's worth a go. Good play physics, great theme, and some weird FMV. 
I was super disappointed to hear FarSight is losing such a huge license. I've had a lot of fun with Pinball Arcade over the years. My only consolation is that there's enough time and space in my budget to buy all the tables I haven't purchased yet before they go away. I haven't tried much Pinball FX, but I like the idea of fake tables with no restrictions in terms of the practicality of having to make the tables in reality. I want to try that Doom table! Thanks for the article!
If you're looking for more authentic tables, there's an app where you can download the Zaccaria tables.
After thinking about it, I can say that I have enjoyed the VG pinball games I've played over the years.  It isn't something I've actively pursued, though, likely because, like you Jess, I am terrible at real pinball tables.  So many years of sucking at pinball and I just kind of smile and keep my distance, only approaching when someone comes over to play. But, I don't think I've ever really played any of the realistic VG pinball games, so I will have to check that out.  I don't think they will replace my classics, but at least I can play without some stranger shouting instructions at me ("Now quickly hit the left side! THE LEFT!") because I am stink at the Star Trek pinball game.
Thanks for reminding me I need Revenge of the Gator on 3DS VC!! Good read as always.
@singlebanana: I did pick up the Saturn Necronomicon, but for whatever reason I just couldn't get into it; it kept reminding me of Devil's Crush, into which I sunk so many hours, not to mention I also got Akira Psycho Ball around the same time and that one really stood out too.  Maybe I should give it a go again based off your recommendation!

Also, hadn't heard of Zaccaria, will give it a go, thanks!

@zophar53:I would like to pick up the Farsight Tables I don't have, but right now my purchases are split between the PS4 and Switch, and I just don't like sinking to much into non-physical media, and they aren't going on sale, so I'm just kinda torn. Tongue

Do try the Pinball FX though; the initial download is free and it comes with an OK table.  The Bethesda set includes Fallout, Skyrim and Doom for 8 bucks total.

That Williams collection comes highly recommended, especially the 360 version with Medieval Madness.

@bombatomba:I'd track that Pinball Arcade: Williams collection down, especially the 360 version with Medieval Madness.  If any 'realistic' set of tables will make you a believer, those would be my recommendation!

@Link41:Thanks!  Yeah, 'Gator is an evergreen classic for me.

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