Questionable physics hold back this loving tribute to pinball
I'm a pinhead, an absolute fanatic for all things pinball. I have the good fortune to not only live in a city where pinball is still alive and well, but also to have the privilege of owning and maintaining my own personal collection of pinball machines from pinball's illustrious decade of the 1990's.
The folks at Farsight are in large part responsible for getting me into the hobby. Sure, I had a chance to play the silver ball with some frequency growing up, but after the industry declined in the late 1990's, pinball became pretty hard to come by in the wild. Enter Farsight's Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection. Crammed onto one disc were fantastic recreations of classic pins that ran the gamut of Williams' storied pinball history. My friends and I were hooked, and played the ever-loving crap out of that game.
It is with those fond memories that I approached Pinball Arcade with high hopes. After all, with an exclusive deal to reproduce classic pins from all of the major manufacturers, Pinball Arcade held the possibility of being the definitive pinball title on XBLA. And, while the four pins offered in this modestly-priced package are indeed a feast for the eyes and ears, I can't help but feeling that Farsight has fallen short in their goal of bringing an authentic pinball experience to the masses.
Don't get me wrong: the playfields are lovingly crafted down to the last machine screw, and the ROM emulation for the dot-matrix display and the sounds is absolutely spot-on, so much so that TOTAN manages to generate a credit dot (indicating a mechanical error)! However, when it comes to actual gameplay, Pinball Arcade doesn't quite get it right.
The main problem with Pinball Arcade is the physics. Quite simply, the ball does not interact realistically with the objects on the playfield, most notably with the flippers, without question THE most critical aspect of pinball.
To be more specific, the ball itself does not seem to be modeled as an actual sphere, as it is in the Pinball FX series (also known as Zen Pinball on non-console platforms). Rather, the ball handles more like a bitmapped puck that has no spin, and no sense of weight. To make matters worse, the flippers behave as rigid bats, with no apparent provision made for the fact that real flippers are covered with a band of rubber, which, depending upon a number of factors like flipper position and motion, as well as the speed and spin of the ball, can either enhance OR deaden the momentum of the ball.
As a result of this oversight, Pinball Arcade is stripped of pretty much any semblance of control. Drop catches, live catches, cradle separations, hold passes, and post transfers are nigh impossible in this game. Even bounce passes don't quite work the way they should. What more, every shot rockets off the flipper as if it were hit to repeat the angle (translation: hitting it back at the same angle as the return, which in real pinball adds velocity to the ball), even if the ball is just rolling down the inlane.
The net effect of the poor physics is a pure run-and-gun game, which would work well for games designed with flow in mind. This is probably why Medieval Madness was such a standout in the Williams Collection, and why Black Hole is probably the best of the bunch in this initial offering. However, for pins that emphasize precision and control, like Tales of the Arabian Nights and Ripley's Believe it or Not, the gameplay devolves into a mess that is nowhere near authentic.
The implications of this do not bode well for future releases for the platform, especially when it comes to many of the pins considered absolute masterpieces of the art form, particularly those by legendary designer Pat Lawlor, who created many of the top-rated pins of all time. His stop-and-go designs, which favor offloading the ball to the left flipper, and making incredibly precise shots through bumpers and cross-table jackpots from an upper flipper, will simply not perform well on this platform. Those who doubt me need only try Whirlwind on the Williams Collection.
This physics misstep is such a shame, as Pinball Arcade's main competitor, Pinball FX/Zen Pinball has had extremely realistic physics for several years now. The balls in those games are modeled as spheres, and roll with weight and heft, playing off of flippers which have very accurate elasticity modeling. All of the moves I lament being unable to perform in Pinball Arcade are a snap to pull off in Pinball FX.
There are a few other minor issues that keep Pinball Arcade from being as enjoyable as it should. The camera is a real problem. Gone are the 5-7 camera options from prior Farsight releases. Instead, you are limited to three, which can either be locked or allowed to zoom and scroll when the ball is in the upper playfield. The zoom would work well, were it not for the fact that the ball is always moving at absolute top speed, and none of the fixed angles give you quite the right perspective. The result is an inability to find a playing angle that feels comfortable. Also curiously missing is the ability to change the camera angle for the plunge. Whereas in earlier releases, there were three or so different angles, Pinball Arcade features just one, situated at almost eye level with the playfield. This makes pulling off skill shots with precision very difficult to do.
I really wanted to love Pinball Arcade more than I do. To have the potential for scores of classic pins at your fingertips is a proposition that is almost too good to be true, and Farsight has done an absolutely phenomenal job on the audio/visual front. It's clear that a lot of time and effort went into securing the rights to reproduce these pins, and it really is amazing to see how right they got the dimensions and the artwork. It's such a shame, then, that the physics absolutely ruin the gameplay.
Maybe my impression is soured by my access to the real thing, and maybe more casual fans--or those who are too young to have ever even seen a real pinball machine in the wild--won't be so put off by the way the game handles. But, the absolute lack of control really kills it for me.
Casual pinball players are likely to get a big kick out of Pinball Arcade, and at $10 for 4 individual pins, this is still a very good value. However, seasoned Pinheads who are looking for a game that feels like the real thing would do better to check out Pinball FX/Zen Pinball, which--despite not having any actual machines in its lineup--is far superior from a gameplay perspective. Here's hoping Farsight can finally fix their physics issues with a patch in the very near future.