When I was seven, my dad sold his business and, with three other partners, bought a bowling alley. Bowling was fun, but even more fun was crowding around the pinball machines to watch the people play. Barely able to see over the side of the machine at the time, I watched in fascination as the ball zoomed around the table, careening off bumpers and flippers, occasionally popping up and smacking loudly against the glass. As I grew older, I began to play myself, learning how to place the ball to hit targets and score the most points possible. Though the tables have changed, the basic game and the fun remains the same.
With Pinball Arcade, Microsoft attempts to bring back some of the nostalgia associated with these classic games. Pinball Arcade presents seven pinball tables spanning the history of the game, from the very first pinball prototype to Cue Ball Wizard, a table from 1992. In order to insure authenticity and accuracy, Microsoft enlisted the aid of Gottlieb, the company that created the tables portrayed in this game.
Graphically, the tables are superb. The art from the original tables has been reproduced in exacting detail, from the background images to the 3D representations of the flippers and bumpers. Even the install program, which uses the venerable InstallShield, has been customized with a pinball look. The audio is excellent as well; sounds of the ball bouncing of f bumpers and striking targets are authentic and perfectly timed. From a physics standpoint, the ball moves just like it should, gaining and losing velocity at the correct rates for the objects it encounters. The control interface is completely customizable, but the default layout is logical and very usable.
I was particularly impressed by the games "bump" feature. By hitting a certain key or key combination, players can simulate striking the table from one of three directions left, right or center. This allows you to alter the path of the ball as it strikes an object or even as its moving in the open. This feature is startlingly realistic; the bumps caused just the reaction I expected. Be careful, though bumping the table too much will cause a tilt, just like in the arcade.
Though the ball physics are excellent, I did notice one glaring problem that occurs when the ball is rolling along the guide towards the lower flippers. The acceleration is double what I expected it to be. This caused several balls to drain down the middle as they shot across the flippers before I reacted. Even after experiencing this motion, I still had trouble placing the ball where I wanted. Maybe this was done to keep the game from being too easy, but I feel that it is challenging enough without this extra velocity.
The tables represent real tables throughout the history of pinball, and include several that most of us will never see. The first table chosen, however, has no flippers and is not very interactive at all, reducing play to an exercise in table-bumping. I had the most fun with Haunted House, but even on that table it took me awhile to get used to the multi-level portrayal. The three-dimensional effect doesnt quite come through the way it does in the actual machine, giving me problems as I tried to track the ball and anticipate where it would go.
Despite these flaws, Pinball Arcade was a fun game, providing a nice departure from real life or long, engrossing games. It lacks the flash of most computer pinball games, but makes up for it with excellent graphics, sound and physics. Hard core pinball fans and gamers interested in pinball history should definitely give this game a try.