Having worked in two arcades and currently living near a pinball museum
(what used to be called an arcade…) in Seattle, it has always been a bit difficult for me to get excited about pinball games inside a small CRT window (or worse, emulation). Playing a physical pinball machine with analog and digital effects, real flippers, bumpers, sounds and lights are half the fun. The theme and design are the rest. The tighter the design is integrated with the theme, the better the overall experience.
A perfect example of theme and design perfection could be Williams' Cyclone
(1988), or Williams' FunHouse
(1990). If you haven’t had a chance to play these masterpieces, they are worth hunting down as some still exist in the wild.
Cyclone is such an epic audio/visual experience, it was even used for background sound effects all throughout Mr Bungle’s “Carousel” track from their self-titled debut album. The lead singer of Mr Bungle, Mike Patton, was also the lead for Faith No More. Mr Bungle created much more interesting music, for what it is worth, while FNM gained more fame and popularity, albeit brief.
The visual as well as physical experience you get from real pinball machines is a major part of the allure. Even the simple act of pulling the spring and shooting the ball can bring pleasure.
Over the years, pinball machines have crept closer and closer to digital experiences - particularly with LED-style displays that interact with the action on the tables (Addams Family
, 1992, is a great example of how to do it right).
But going full-digital onto a computer screen… well, there are pros and cons going full digital.
Pros for pinball computer video games:
-) Your clothes won’t smell like smoke when you’re done playing because these days real machines are usually found in dive bars (unless you smoke in your house in front of your computer).
-) You don’t need a stack of coins to play. To that end, you can play forever and not go broke.
-) Game designers can literally do whatever they want from a design perspective, including altering the laws of physics should they so desire and the hardware can handle it.
-) You don’t have to stand up forever to play (or find a tall barstool, for the tired or slightly lazy).
-) Small kids can play more easily because their little wingspans can manage a keyboard much better than a full-size pinball machine.
-) You never have to wax the table of a digital version of pinball. The cuts I used to get on my hands! (and the complaining from the ‘serious pinballers’ that my tables were dirty, which affected their precious ball speed…)
-) On a system like the Amiga, the sounds can kick some butt and be at an arcade level if you turn up the volume.
-) The entire presentation is a fraction of the classic size, which can immediately feel a bit underwhelming.
-) There are no real lights, so the idea of a “light show” is virtually gone.
-) If the ball physics are even slightly off, it is immediately apparent and can ruin the experience.
-) When you take the coin-based economy away from pinball, the idea of winning a free game becomes meaningless and is often removed from the experience entirely. But in the arcade, that exhilarating random “pop!” after a long sweaty game is pretty important.
-) Due to the small screen real estate, the back board (a huge element in many pinball games) is often eliminated completely, too.
The year was 1992, and Pinball Dreams
made its way to the Amiga.
All of the above Cons still hold true. And, as for “game designers can do whatever they want” the designers of Pinball Dreams decided to keep the game as close to “real” as they possibly could. No teleporting balls, no weird tricks.
That being said, no animatronic actions ever occur, either. That same year, the Addams Family pinball game was released where a plastic hand (Thing) could be activated to reach out of a box and grab your ball through the use of a very strong magnet. Or in Funhouse, you could knock your ball into Rudy’s face
and make him cry out in pain. Or you could shoot a ball into his mouth while he slept, which he would swallow to start multiball. Nothing like these examples from the same era were to be found in Pinball Dreams.
What Pinball Dreams could offer, though, was just enough fun to keep most gamers hungry for more. It offered really clean graphics. It pumped out very good sound. And the ball physics, for being digital, were very believable, and more importantly “fair”. You never lost a ball due to a weird change in speed or anything like that. The ball felt pretty good overall.
The game offered four different tables - sci-fi, train, music/band, and horror. Oddly, there are only ever two flippers regardless of the table’s theme. To that end, each table feels remarkably similar to its brothers. For my money, there just isn’t enough difference between them to really care too much. Bafflingly, there’s also no multi-ball potential on any of the four tables.
But the game is very fun, fast, and really smooth. To that end, you’ll be surprised at how easy a short addiction can be created from what feels like a rather simple design pattern. It is a bit surprising that a game of this quality wasn’t produced before 1992 on the Amiga.
All in all, its no surprise that this game set off a series of sequels where some of the most glaring deficiencies were addressed (especially only having two flippers).
And the game is a lot of fun. But for some purists, the fun can only take you so far.