Sometimes, people really love sports games. And sometimes, those people are mocked. “Why don’t you just go play the real sport outside?” I’ll tell you why. Because playing football in real life gets your bones broken. And football players are big and scary and occasionally serial killers. Plus, running is hard.
The same stigma exists with music games (even after Rocksmith, which uses a REAL GUITAR). “Why don’t you just learn to play a real instrument?” The “instruments are expensive” excuse hasn’t been valid since the $250 Rock Band Special Edition, but “instruments are hard to learn” and “I’ll never be this famous in real life” are still valid arguments. Most of us will never get the rush of performing in front of an entire room of people there just for you. Most people can’t play the “Freebird” solo, and never will. But having the rock star feeling, and having fun with a bunch of friends in your digital band? People can do that.
My thing right now is pinball video games. You have to remember, a game of pinball costs a whole quarter (sometimes more!), and the nearest machine is waaaaaaayyyyyyy over there. —–> The neat thing about pinball games is that we’ve come a long way since the days of Pinball on the NES. The physics are spot-on now, a new table is just a few bucks, and you can even bring it on the go. But the quality… varies.
There’ve been a few pinball collections on modern consoles. Pinball Hall of Fame: The Gottlieb Collection and Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection both seem more interested in educating the masses than actually being a ton of fun, with classic tables from the last half century and a variety of “Museum”-type historical interest modes. Both are also already out of print and cost prohibitively expensive. The big problem here is that pinball machines with 1950s limitations just aren’t that exciting when compared to what is possible today. So it’s interesting when you compare the only two games still adding new tables today through DLC: Pinball FX2 and Pinball Arcade.
The one I’ve been digging into all this week is actually free right now on PS3/Vita for PlayStation Plus members: the generically named Pinball Arcade. Unlike Pinball FX2, which focuses on recognizable licenses being paired with video game-y tables (read: lots of bells and whistles that wouldn’t be possible on a real-life table), Pinball Arcade instead offers more classic “real” tables than have ever been offered in one collection before. I’ve become kind of a pinball nerd since moving to the Bay Area over a year ago – between annual pinball expo Pin-a-Go-Go, the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, the Las Vegas Pinball Hall of Fame, and Musée Mécanique on the San Francisco pier, there have been a lot of ball-paddling opportunities, and I’ve taken advantage of all of them. I’m far from a pinball expert, but I’ve been around the block once or twice, and Pinball Arcade‘s dedication to the history of pinball is, personally, quite appealing.
The look and sounds of classic tables like Black Hole and Tales of the Arabian Nights are spot-on. But there’s a few things a bit… off, and they seem like pretty easy fixes, too. Take, for example, Black Night: my personal favorite old pinball table, because it will destroy your soul. On the PS3, the ball will occasionally skip through the paddle and cut some corners, but worse is that when you push the buttons on your controller, the top paddles won’t always activate. There’s two levels on this table, see, and the right trigger button should flip both of the right paddles, right? It doesn’t always work like that. The top paddles often just… sit there, and that is just unacceptable. I thought maybe the jankiness was supposed to replicate the original machine, or something…? But no. The Black Knight’s flippers have always worked flawlessly. It’s a game of skill, not random luck and malfunctions.
The Vita, though, has this cool Pinball Arcade mode where you can turn the system on its side, and the gyroscope will detect that the system is sideways and turn the playfield, giving you twice as much vertical area to work with. This, by the way, is an amazing idea, and perfect for pinball games. Unfortunately, when it’s in sideways mode, the back touchpad registers any slight movement as a table nudge. I’m barely able to get the ball launched before it yells TILT TILT TILT at me and I lose. I tried putting a napkin on the back, and holding the console in that weird way Apple told you to hold your iPhone in order to get reception, but no. It is broken with no way to fix it besides an eventual patch. Please, Pinball Arcade developers, if you’re reading this: patch out the touchpad usage. I’m never going to nudge a pinball table and you’re keeping me from playing the best pinball mode ever invented. I guess there’s always the iOS version.
However, if you keep the Vita in its regular missionary position, it will provide hours of entertainment. The graphics are beautiful, the controls are tight, and there’s even a comprehensive set of tutorials, telling you how to achieve the high score and find all the secret bonuses on each table. The tables’ age doesn’t override their pedigree, and you can add 18 more for only $30 right now. Not a bad deal for a quick education in pinball history.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have Zen Studios’ Pinball FX series. Instead of trying to accurately replicate “true” pinball tables and physics, they understand that nothing they design has ever or will ever exist in the real world, so they’ve gamify’d the crap out of it. You’ll fly off to other worlds, gravity and physics can be turned on their heads at any second, there are comic book characters jumping all over the playfield, and literal explosions occur right beneath the glass. Plus, you can see an obvious leap in quality from FX to FX2. The tables have gotten bigger, better, and crazier, with multi-part missions requiring not only split-second reflexes, but also an understanding of exactly what the game is asking you to do (which will often take more than a few credits as you explore all that each stage has to offer).
The licenses spread across Marvel comic books, Star Wars, other games such as Ms. ‘Splosion Man, and there’s even a bunch of original tables. Almost all can be bought as either a themed pack or individual tables for just a couple bucks each, and the monthly(?) tournaments let you compare scores with your friends and others across the world. This in particular is one aspect of pinball that Zen Studios nailed. There’s scores for today, weekly, and all-time, and you can compare scores with just friends or everybody who’s ever played the table. Since you can’t “beat” a pinball game in the same way you can with most traditional video games, the scoreboard is really the only way to know when you’ve won. Pinball Arcade, on the other hand… their friends leaderboard doesn’t even work. At least they included goals on each table to test your pinball wizardry and really force you to explore every aspect of a particular table. Still.
I just wish Zen’s pinball prowess extended to the handheld realm. I picked up Marvel Pinball 3D when it was on sale on the 3DS eShop the other week, and… weeeeeow. Nowhere has it been more clear just how technologically inferior the 3DS is compared to the Vita than when you compare something that – seemingly – would be totally achievable in the second decade of the 2000s: pinball video games. The dark, muddy graphics, the tinny sound, even the physics all take a hit. Sure, the Marvel tables are pretty much the same compared to the home console counterparts, but that’s where the similarities end. Avoid it.
Luckily, there is a Zen Pinball 2 on the Vita. Unluckily, I haven’t been able to try it because the PlayStation Store on my Vita hasn’t worked for a week. (Although it has cross-buy with the PS3 version, just like Pinball Arcade, meaning that purchasing additional tables will unlock them on both the handheld and home version.) So we are left with the unfair comparison of the just-short-of-perfect Vita Pinball Arcade and the far-less-than-perfect 3DS Marvel Pinball 3D. However, I expect the same high quality of Zen on the Vita that I’ve seen on 360 and PS3 (especially with cross-buy/cross-play)… which really makes the Vita the go-to console if you’re looking for both a quality classic and modern pinball experience. Go figure.
Man. I hope Sony pumps some life into the Vita at E3. It deserves it.