A while ago I made a series of excited posts here about one of my favorite games, Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection for the Wii, which gave us faithful simulations of several classic pinball machines, mostly solid-state ones from the 1980s. Later there was an XBox 360 version that added some later, more elaborate tables, including Medieval Madness; I don't have that one, though I've played it briefly.
But lately the same developers have come out with a lower-priced sim released across a large number of platforms, called simply Pinball Arcade (warning: site has auto-playing video with sound). It's available for XBox 360, PS3/Vita, MacOS, iPhone/iPad, and Android.
I have the XBox 360 version, released on XBox Live Arcade. It's got just four tables, produced by different companies (Theatre of Magic, Tales of the Arabian Nights, Ripley's Believe It Or Not!, and Black Hole; I think the last was already featured in PHoF: The Gottlieb Collection several years ago). I think the idea is to release more tables as downloadable content, though there haven't been any yet.
I like Pinball Arcade a lot, despite the thinner table selection. It's great to see these simulations move into the 1990s age of crazy-elaborate tables with multiple playfield toys and dot-matrix displays. As with the earlier game, the simulations themselves feel extraordinarily faithful to real pinball, while the UI outside of the simulations seems kind of awkward and a little buggy. It's more stripped-down than PHoF. They got rid of the potentially irritating credits system and just give you free play on all the machines (it's still a moral victory to win a replay, after all).
There are fewer camera options than before, and the mapping of the controls to the XBox controller is pretty simple. On balance, I think I actually preferred the Wii controller mapping, which allowed you to hold your hands far apart as if you were playing a real machine, and simulated nudging with motion control. But this is going to be a matter of taste. You can map the flipper buttons to either the triggers or the left and right bumpers; the former feels ergonomically better but the latter gives you faster response.
With free play, it makes sense that there's no mapping to the coin slots or start button, but there's a bug (I think it's a bug) that occasionally keeps the external UI in "playing the game" mode at the end of a game. You end up looking at the machine's attract mode, and it's kind of nice that you can see it; but it inevitably prompts you to "press START" which you can't actually do, and that's confusing and frustrating. You have to explicitly "quit the game" and exit back to the table-selection menu.
On the other hand, I haven't once seen the "ball fell off table" error that occasionally cropped up in Wii PHoF, when a fast-moving ball would somehow defeat collision detection and fly through a wall into the void. They've improved their physics model, or else the greater processing power of the XBox just allows a better one.
Of the four games, the two I really like are Theatre of Magic and Tales of the Arabian Nights. Both of them were designed by John Popadiuk of Bally/Williams, a guy I hadn't heard of before. They're ramp-filled, flowing designs with lots of interesting play modes that remind me very much of Steve Ritchie's Star Trek: The Next Generation, my favorite pinball machine ever, and one that doubtless will never make it into a legit commercial sim for licensing reasons. Theatre of Magic also has some of the best voice acting I've heard in a pinball machine not featuring Raul Julia; the actors playing the ridiculously overdramatic magician and his sexy assistant really give 110%.
The retrograde politics of Pinball World are somewhat on display in both of these machines, but it's nowhere near as bad as in Ripley's Believe It Or Not!, with its profusion of cartoon booga-booga natives and its shrunken head that talks with some kind of attempt at a funny rasta-man accent. Ripley is a post-2000 game made by the current incarnation of Stern, the only company in the world that's still making new pinball machines. It's a Pat Lawlor design (he's the one who did Funhouse, Addams Family and Twilight Zone), and the gameplay is all right, but its sense of humor is obnoxious. I hope the current ones are better-conceived than that.
Black Hole is a Gottlieb game from the early days of solid-state. It's... really hard. Or I haven't gotten the hang of it yet. Its novel feature (besides being the first successful machine to have 50-cent play, which meant it drew in a lot of money) is a lower playfield area with a reverse slope. If the ball gets in there, you'll lose it unless you hit a specific set of targets and then intentionally drain the ball, which is surprisingly hard. They didn't make them so forgiving in those days.
Matt McIrvin's Steam-Operated World of Yesteryear
- Pinball Arcade for the XBox 360