zsciaeount's Pinball Arcade (Xbox 360 Games Store) review

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  • zsciaeount has written a total of 4 reviews. The last one was for Pinball Arcade
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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.

Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection: The game that got me hooked

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.

Tales of the Arabian Nights showcases Farsight's attention to visual detail

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.

They may not be "real" pins, but Pinball FX manages to capture the real pinball experience

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.

Pat Lawlor

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.

12 Comments
Posted by Brackynews

Glad to see someone giving the straight dope. Even my amateur perceptions can tell the flipper difference between the two competing physics engines. I love me some Zen.

It seems reasonable to think that physics modelling is something they can tweak post-release. I'm willing to bet everyone at Stern has tried it by now, and if they intend to license their newest tables, they will probably have the same feedback for "tablefeel". I also wish the camera angles were a little more varied, but I'm one of the few people I know with second-monitors in portrait mode, and I would have no complaints rigging a TV vertically to play console pinball. I've played UltraPin cabs, and that's a lifestyle I could lead.

Posted by Goldanas

Very helpful review. I'm an intermediate with real pins and even I can notice the majority of physics blunders in most virual pins. The Zen series has been the most accurate in recent years.

What always has baffled me is when people put Pinball FX ahead of the Zen Pinball title. It is Zen Pinball on every other platform, including PS3, Vita, 3DS, Android, etc. It's named for Zen Studios, the developer, after all.

I suppose that just speaks to 360's proliferation.

Posted by leebmx

Funny that you and Jeff have an exact opposite viewpoint on the physics in the game makes me wonder what to think as you both seem like bonafide pinball nerds. Maybe its something that the average player wouldn't notice but it is still interesting how two people can come to completely different conclusions about the same thing.

Edited by fsckit

While I won't argue the detailed comments about physics made by folks who are obviously are passionate about their pinball, I do want to offer one observation about the physics. Because of the Cross-Play features on TPA, I got this for my Vita and PS3 together. I started with the Vita version and found it playable and enjoyable. When I fired up the PS3 version however, it felt off. The physics didn't seem quite right and I could never seem to do what I wanted with the ball as I could on the Vita. After searching online for a while I found someone who mentioned that they were experiencing some screen lag with TPA on their HDMI-connected TV and turning on "Game Mode" on their TV helped. I discovered that it had gotten reset on my TV at some point and once I turned it back on and tried TPA on the PS3 again, my experience improved immensely. So while that may not be the issue for everyone, it's one thing you can try if things feel just a little off with this game.

Posted by Zsciaeount

I'm not sure how Jeff and I played the same games and came to conclusions that were exact opposites, but I stand by my assessment of the physics. Maybe it's because I either own or have access to many of the machines that Farsight has reproduced, but it just feels horribly off. Zen Pinball has a physics model that incorporates spin and elasticity, which Pinball Arcade sadly lacks. And just to be fair, I'm enough of a pinball nerd to own Pinball Arcade on 360, PS3, Vita, iPhone, and iPad. It's not a setup issue. The game plays like crap on all platforms. If only we could have the physics of Zen combined with the licensing of Pinball Arcade.

Posted by emgeejay

Zen Pinball's physics model may incorporate spin and elasticity, but they've never managed to make that ball feel like it weighs anything.

If Pinball Arcade is the Pixar movie of pinball simulations -- lovingly crafted and slightly exaggerated, but in a way that one can easily accept -- then Zen Pinball is the typical Robert Zemeckis "Monster House" / "Mars Needs Moms" motion-capture film: impressively "realistic", but far enough from the mark in other respects that the whole thing turns out discomfiting.

Posted by bowielee

While I'll fully admit that FX/ZP has far superior physics, to say that the physics in this game are horrible is simply untrue. you have to be incredibly familiar with the physical tables themselves to notice anything lacking and even then, the ball has the heft that it feels like it should. That's actually something that ZP struggles with. Overall, they are both great games and are both worth your time if you love pinball.

Edited by doublestack

Great review, I couldn't have said it better myself. I am a huge fan of pinball and own and have owned many machines. For my money I think that pinball fx2 gets the "feel" of the game down pat. I still do enjoy the pinball arcade collection and will play and support both, but find myself playing FX constantly. I also think the great sound effects in pinball FX help with the sense of weight, maybe its just me.

Posted by Zsciaeount

I didn't realize that this had generated a whole conversation, so sorry for the reply to everyone 3 months later. I continue to give Pinball Arcade a fair shake, and I've downloaded all the DLC to date. Monster Bash is pretty close to the real thing, but it's still not quite there. Creature from the Black Lagoon is one of my favorites in real life, but I find Farsight's re-creation to be very frustrating, since on no game before has the broken physics been more obvious. The most glaring thing is how a poorly-shot ball will correct its course to hit the left ramp, and will actually seem to magically accelerate uphill. It makes the game far too easy, and it really kills it for me. With each DLC pack, they get the physics a little better, but they haven't retroactively applied it to the earlier releases.

The fact that the physics updates are not retroactive only reinforces the notion that the physics are not generated in real-time, but either simplified or pre-determined. It's infuriating. As for who has more authority on realism between me and Jeff, I cannot say. I don't know how often he plays real pinball, but I play every single day, and I play competitively in leagues. As I said, I have direct comparisons with the real-life versions of the pins Farsight has attempted to re-create.

I am out of space for real pins, so I really want to like Pinball Arcade. If they could just fix the physics, it'd be the premier title. But, if you want the feel of the real thing on a console or iOS, you're still better off with Zen/Pinball FX.

Posted by ahnold11

Re: Zsciaeount

Just got into The Pinball Arcade myself recently, and was thinking the same things. I never really played physical pinball, but was having some fun with the tables. Went online to get some pinball tips/tutorials and found out that I really couldn't pull of many of them (Drop catches, cradle seperations etc) which was disappointing as it seems like they are important to playing many tables as they were intended.

I tried FX2/Zen as you mentioned in the review, as agree that the flippers seem to be much more ameniable to all those things, it's just a shame that they don't have any recreations of physical tables (and also it would seem that they design their tables to be much more friendlier, to appeal to the mainstream audience. So all the rubbers etc and tuned that way).

It's been a while now and I was curious if you've found that TPA has improved at all since your initial review. Also have you had any success in other Virtual Pinball games in being able to capture that authentic pinball feeling/control/physics? (I hear there are various pinball communities surrounding Visual Pinball, Future Pinball and Unit3d Pinball). I'd be curious if you think any of those are worthwhile.

Sadly I'm not in a place where I can have access to physical pinball machines, so experiencing it all virtually through computer/console games is my only option.

Edited by Zsciaeount

@ahnold11: I think you'd be surprised to find pinball relatively close by. If you're in the US, take a look at pinballmap, and you might find something nearby.

I've continued to try to give TPA a chance, and find that it continues to be frustrating. I've even "upgraded" to the PS4 versions, which actually seem to play the worst, with terrible lag, and a persistent unfixed bug that causes the game to play crappy mono sound made for the iPad!

TPA's physics continue to lag behind Zen, and I really can't tell if they've made any improvements whatsoever. The ball continues to carom at weird angles, the flippers act more like aluminum bats, and there is no control whatsoever.

Virtual Pinball and Future Pinball are intriguing, and they are worth a look if you have a powerful enough rig. Future Pinball tends to look better, but the physics are pretty whack. Shots straight up the middle on FP are virtually impossible unless you hit the ball when it's well above the flipper. Virtual Pinball has decent physics, but less visual fidelity.

Zen still makes the best product on the market, besides the real thing.

But, seriously, take a look at pinballmap or pinside and see what's near you. There are probably collectors nearby that would be willing to let you check out their collection, and there are probably some bars and laudromats nearby that have one or two. And you can always buy one for yourself if you ever find yourself with some excess cash. A good B-list machine from the 1990s costs less than a pimped out gaming rig.

Posted by ahnold11

@zsciaeount: Thanks for the reply.

Unfortunately I'm not in the US, the closest Pinball is about 30minutes away, and then they only keep a few of the newest stern tables and are known for their lack of maintenance. I ended up playing the New Star Trek table, which was fun (but apparently it's only 1+ year outdated software version, so not as involved).

What I did notice is that physical/real pinball sure seemed a far cry away from the virtual stuff I was trying out. (The ball seemed way more bouncy, harder to control/stop on the flippers. And nudging is definitely not as straightforward as moving the analog stick).

I've just noticed that Visual Pinball has a new(ish) beta/update (Physmod?) that is supposed to improve the physics. Have you had a chance to try it and have any opinions?

Sadly I'm at a point in my life where both financially/free time and space wise, the idea of a physical pinball table is very far off. Even one of those "Virtual pinball tables" that people seem to like, isn't really an option in the near term. So my only option is to play on my (thankfully decent) gaming PC. I've really been bit by the Pinball bug though, and so I'd at least like to be able to console myself/practice on the computer until one day when physical machines become an option. Finding some sort of computer version that is at least close enough to the real thing so that I can use it to practice preparing for the real thing, would be awesome.

If only I knew what I know now, back in my time in the 90s in arcades, I would have spent my quarters a whole lot differently. (My brief experiences with physical pinball ended very quickly, I didn't know about ball control or nudging, really anything. So it just seemed like a waste of valuable quarters that could be better spent on Street Fighter, Crusing USA, and other games where I could stretch my money as long as possible).

Thanks again.

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