Friday, April 25, 2008

Pinball Week Episode 2 - Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection

Williams. A legend in the American coin-op industry. In video game circles they're often heralded for revolutionary arcade games like Defender and Robotron, but it's their pinball output from around the same era that I think shines brightest.

Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection (released a few months ago for the Wii, PS2 and PSP and impossible to find in retail as far as I can tell) is a fairly faithful video recreation of 10 Williams pinball tables spanning around 20 years, focusing mainly on the 1980s. It's mostly really good. Yes, mostly. Ain't that always the case?

The selection of tables does a good job of representing Williams' popularity and design sensibilities. Nearly all of the games are important for one reason or another, be it for technical firsts, fan favoritism or simply strong art design. More importantly, nearly all the games in the collection stand well on their own.

Firepower is one of the earliest solid-state games (read: microchips controlling the rules as opposed to electromechanical components) on the collection, hailing from 1980. It's got a big ol' open playfield, sound effects straight outta Robotron (Eugene Jarvis was responsible for the sound programming), and 3-ball multiballlll. It was also the first game to introduce "lane-changing," which is the feature that lets you move the multiplier lane lights at the top of the table around by hitting the right flipper button. It's a staple of pinball design, the kind of thing so ubiquitous that you don't even realize it was a "first" at one point.

The collection's other game from 1980 is Black Knight, a legendary game with a two-level playfield and "magna-save" - after completing certain requirements, you can press a button when the ball is near the right outlane to freeze it in place with a magnet and drop it safely back towards the flippers. I think it's earned its reputation as a classic, and its presence is welcome.

There are also two Pat Lawlor games on the collection. Lawlor developed The Addams Family in 1992, which went on to become the best-selling pinball game of all time, and Twilight Zone shortly thereafter, which is a close runner-up.

Addams Family and Twilight Zone aren't on the collection due to licensing issues, but the two Lawlor games that are included are Whirlwind and Funhouse, both excellent games. Whirlwind's the one with the spinning circles in the center of the playfield that disrupt where your ball goes, and Funhouse is the one with the big talking puppet head. You may have seen both at some point - I know that Washington's in downtown Fort Collins had Funhouse at one point, anyway.

There's also Taxi, Pin*Bot, Gorgar, Sorcerer, Space Shuttle and Jive Time, the last of which is the only electromechanical game on the collection. I'm not mentioning them in detail because, uh, hey - I've barely played them in real life, and I'm never going to finish writing this thing at this rate. Oh, what the hell. Lemme give it a shot, anyway.

Pin*Bot's got outlanes from hell (the lanes on the bottom-left and right sides of nearly all pinball machines which lead straight to the drain if your ball happens to roll into one), and was ported to the NES by Rare back in the day. How bad are the outlanes? A commenter on the Internet Pinball Database had this to say:
"Pin*Bot *could* be a good game. But I find it to be an unforgiving and sadistic drain monster that is way more frustrating than any pinball machine should be. Yes, I've played my fair share of pinball and I know how to nudge. I know how to set-up a machine with the proper pitch and am meticulous in this regard. With Pin*Bot, it didn't matter. Even with the posts on the most liberal setting, the magnetic outlanes drove me so crazy that I had no choice but to either sell the machine or set it ablaze."
Pin*Bot doesn't quite deserve immolation in my opinion, but there you go.

I like the rest of the games on the collection without reservation. Taxi is a pretty ridiculously charming table that has you picking up fares like Dracula, Gorbachev, and, in a typical Williams bout of cross-promotion, Pin*Bot. Gorgar almost matches the lurid themes that competitor Bally really flaunted during the early '80s (for comparison, check out Centaur, Embryon and Voltan Escapes Cosmic Doom). Sorcerer is solid despite having an incredibly generic theme and artwork. Space Shuttle's USA rollover lanes and helpful defensive features (including a stopper for the center drain and an extremely forgiving right outlane) might just give you diabetes. Jive Time is the one electromechanical game on the collection, and has a spinner on the backglass that gives out random bonuses.

Solid games all around! There are just a couple of nagging little problems with the collection's presentation thereof that rubs me the wrong way.

First, the collection defaults to having insanely obnoxious cock rock background music overlaid on top of insanely obnoxious Fake Arcade Ambience overlaid on top of the actual sounds of whatever pinball game you're playing. This is even more retarded than it sounds, but they let you mute all of it right from the get-go, so I'll just wonder what they were thinking instead of complaining about it.

Second, the PSP version of the game lets you rotate your PSP sideways to play with a vertical screen orientation to see more of the table at a given time, but doesn't let you remap the buttons and maps nudging the table to the analog stick. The X and triangle buttons control the flippers, meaning that this mode is nearly impossible to play comfortably. Bummer.

The other odd thing about the game is the ball physics - I've gotten the ball to clip inside the flippers on a couple of occasions, leading to an instant drain. What the heck?
And yeah, the graphics aren't nearly good enough to do most of the tables justice. Funhouse and Whirlwind are both busy and nearly incomprehensible blobs of indistinct polygons (I might be a little harsh, there - the above screenshot is a pretty good example, so judge for yourself). The table textures are generally too blurry and indistinct to do their explosively colorful source material justice. Still, I would say that every table is totally playable! And uh, not in a "well I guess this is ok" kind of way.

There are some good ideas here, too! There are two sets of table goals for each game - the first batch usually just requires you to complete most of the basic scoring mechanics on the table and get a decent score. Finishing all of the default rules unlocks a set of "wizard goals," which are pretty damn tough, requiring you to really plumb the depths of each table.

The developers have also seen fit to add the usual unlockables - some of the games start out on freeplay, but others require that you pay virtual credits for each play. Finishing all the table goals unlocks freeplay for any of the locked games on the collection. It's... unoffensive, in practice.

If you like pinball at all, you'll probably dig this one. Go check it out!


Matt Brown said...

All this talk about pinball has got me hankering to head to my local penny arcade in the Springs! I guess I can always settle for the video versions though. Cool post!

nabbercow said...

"Space Shuttle's USA rollover lanes and helpful defensive features ... might just give you diabetes."

Haha A+