Dec 172011

Note: This started out earlier today as a post with a definite focus and as the day went on and my mental faculties drained it devolved into me talking up my two favorite pinball games. I could apologize, but hey, it’s my blog…

Those who talk with me for any length of time about games will know that not only do I have deep unconditional love for the traditional “video game” but also for pinball. Indeed, when Ground Kontrol hosts their $5 Free Play Night and I occasionally attend (but not nearly often enough!) I usually spend half or more of my time at the pinball area and, specifically, in front of one (now two) tables: Lord of the Rings and, more recently, Twilight Zone.

Unlike most (especially modern) video games, pinball is something that, with an infinite amount of skill, could be played forever. The table doesn’t keep on tilting to make the ball fall faster as the game progresses, nor do the flippers move apart, essentially analogs to the concept of enemies moving faster, shooting more, hitting harder and being more difficult to defeat as occurs in most games as they proceed–if they don’t outright end after a certain number of stages. This alone sets pinball apart from its video game brethren in very significant ways.

Why all the love for these two games in particular, though? Because, more than other tables that I’ve tried, they envision the things necessary for a pinball game to be successful: flash and depth or, if you will, style and substance. When you combine those in a pinball table, it’s a win-win–the visual and aural flair of things happening, the exhilarating feel as you complete objectives, and the plethora of possibilities–it’s hard to go wrong. These games capture the sort of feel necessary for the pinball industry (which now consists of just one company, Stern) to continue surviving.

Take for instance my long-time favorite, Twilight Zone. From top to bottom it’s apparent the game is a labor of love. Almost every inch of the table is crammed with references to the fabled television show, and so are the various graphics and sounds inside the game itself. (Ironically, three of the table’s most remarkable features, the “Powerfield” pyramid, the non-magnetic ceramic “Powerball” and the Gumball Machine, don’t correspond to anything in TZ.) There more than a dozen different gameplay modes or award panels to be lit, and several of those, like The Camera, have a variety of sub-awards that they can give. Playing the game, you really get the feeling that the designer simply ran out of room to put more features and references in there, unlike other licensed games such as, Star Trek: The Next Generation where, despite seven seasons to draw from, there are still many generic-sounding missions, such as exploring asteroids. In that game it’s cool when you encounter Q and fight the Borg, sure, but instances like that feel more like the exception to me than the rule when I play.

Although it was released almost 19 years ago and still runs on old Yamaha sound chips, Twilight Zone’s dot matrix graphics and sound stand up even today, and the design of the table itself feels organic and smooth–targets and ramps are laid out in a logical manner and they’re not placed too close to the drain-holes as obvious traps. Twilight Zone’s “wizard mode,” activated by getting all 14 door panels/awards, is rumored to be a particularly magnificent rush, with unlimited respawning multiball, bunches of special modes active and a timer for that extra special sense of urgency. I say “rumored” because I have never achieved it, coming at best two panels away. But I’ll keep trying because the game is simply great. Unrelated to the actual gameplay, Twilight Zone has one of the best translite art pieces for a cabinet ever: classy, colorful and overflowing with episode references (even more than appearing within the game itself.)

The Lord of the Rings pinball (based on the movie trilogy) came out ten years after Twilight Zone, in 2003 and is a worthy contender for the title of best licensed pinball game. This table shares the same feeling of “how many references can we put into the game?” that TZ did. It features more modes of play (and more complicated modes) than even TZ did before it. There are six different event modes (two from each movie), each consisting of multiple goals and stages to advance through. It has no less than six different ways to activate a multiball and each of those also have their own goals, stages and rules. Peppered throughout all of these scenarios are digitally-drawn renditions of characters and scenes from the movies, along with audio clips.

One thing that LOTR does even better than TZ is in how its play feels like a re-enactment of the source material. While TZ has targets such as the Camera, Piano or Slot Machine which are references and can be hit for awards, LOTR has targets that are hit in ways which preserve the “feel” of the movies. Take for instance, the easiest multiball mode to activate, the Fellowship of the Ring, available after you pick up all nine members of the Fellowship through shots to locations on the board. The meat of this mode, after (optionally depending on settings) fighting the Cave Troll from the first movie, is the Balrog stage. Here, a plastic “balrog” target is swiveled onto the field and your goal during the multiball is to alternate hitting the balrog with one of the balls and then sending a ball up one of two ramps; each ball that goes up a ramp after a balrog hit represents one of the Fellowship escaping the balrog (the screen actually tells you which member escaped.) Proceed far enough with at least two balls in play and you’ll find that only eight members can cross–just like in the stories, Gandalf doesn’t do so and on the balrog hit right before he would, you get his epic shout at the balrog instead. This sort of connection between the gameplay and events is extremely captivating.

Lord of the Rings is also known for having (arguably) the hardest “wizard mode” to activate in any pinball game, requiring you to successfully complete all the goals for all six special modes, activate the multiball for all three movies and complete their goals, destroy the One Ring (a set of actions in itself) and some other things — all within the space of one game. It’s a goal I’ll likely never achieve, but it demonstrates how the game has enough in it for casual players and the hardest of the hardcore.

These two tables are radically different than what the genre was popularized with back in the 70s and 80s, with their digital score counters showing against translite screens and their often-simpler (but no less easy) gameplay. Now we have dot matrix screens with graphics, elaborate multi-stage goals and complete soundtracks to dazzle you with. The technology behind pinball has evolved, but the gameplay must keep up if the genre is to remain relevant in decades to come.

If you’ve never tried pinball, I can’t recommend enough finding a local arcade which sports a few tables and giving it a shot. If you want to take a stab at the games without leaving home, there are a number of decent options available, such as Pinball FX2, which is an extremely accurate representation, but nothing can replicate the tactile experience of a true pinball table.

“You open this door with the key of imagination…”

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