Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice
Pinball Revived

Allen Varney | 31 Jul 2007 08:29
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As for the many, many later specimens - MobyGames lists over 175 pinball computer games - most are routine, though many make good use of computer-specific features like animation, multiple linked tables and temporary targets. Beyond this, a few games display remarkable originality:

  • Combining pinball with tactical warfare, Nintendo's Odama lets you roll a giant pinball over enemy troops in ancient Japan.
  • The Arthurian game Golden Logres is one of several games that offer mission-based pinball with unusual roleplaying elements. The maker, Japanese indie LittleWing Pinball, is still hanging in there after 17 years.
  • Living Ball.
  • "Original" isn't the word for Metroid Prime Pinball, but it's heartwarming to know this thing exists. It may be the most popular pinball game of the decade.
  • The Metroid pinball game was created by Adrian Barritt and Richard Horrocks, designers of the much-praised Pro Pinball series. These hardcore simulations feature impressive physics, permit adjustment of dozens of "factory settings" and behave uncannily like physical machines.

Lately, like many other kinds of videogames - more so, really, than its physical inspiration - retail computer pinball has stagnated. Xbox Live Arcade occasionally offers new efforts, such as Pinball FX, which lets you control the ball by waving your arms at the Vision Camera. The DS has four or five decent, if unremarkable, pinball games. Otherwise, only a few casual games, like PopCap's pachinkovian Peggle, still push the form in new directions.

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But history repeats itself, as a new pinball community has emerged to save the form.

The real action today is in two fan-made freeware programs, Visual Pinball and Future Pinball. Both platforms aim, not totally successfully, for physical simulation of conventional pinball layouts. (To represent advanced post-1980s machines, they require a plug-in emulator, Visual PinMAME.) No ancient Japanese troops or RPG storylines here; these programs' interest lies not in radical design, but in their feverishly active communities. Enthusiasts have created immense numbers of free, downloadable pintables, an endless parade of faithful replicas and new designs. Some new boards are spectacular carnivals of color and lights that rival the heights of the past.

So the virtual world parallels physical reality. Having drawn close to death in both realms, the pinball platform - the art form - thrives again. But a darker aspect of old-time pinball culture has also bounced back - unfortunately.

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Many pinball sites have a wistful tone. Though they link to the news sites and tournaments, pages like Russ Jensen's Pinball History mainly reminisce of bygone days. Sometimes they mention in passing that pinball was once illegal in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Baltimore and many other cities. The games had a distinctly seedy reputation, fostered by gambling and mob connections. Many pinball manufacturers also made slot machines. (See "Video Vegas" in The Escapist issue No. 94.) Today that Coney Island honky-tonk stigma, that atmosphere of dark, smoky bars, has vanished. Or has it?

This is the other side of the computer pinball revival. You can download many Visual and Future Pinball tables, especially new fan-made designs, from honest, above-board hobby sites. But tables that replicate published games, especially those based on trademarked, licensed properties, are legally dubious at best. These are available mainly through the online equivalent of smoky bars: warez sites. Tomorrow's Heroes links to a few of these dodgy sites, full of flashing ads, pop-ups and urgent appeals to click vote trackers - although many of that list's links are dead.

Now, as before, pinball seems to attract an unsavory element. It seems some things never change.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.

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