In the mid-80s, when I was in high school, my friends and I used to drive up to the Willowbrook Mall in Wayne, New Jersey to go to Fun N Games, the biggest arcade around. But while I dumped plenty of quarters into the latest arcade games, I also spent a lot of time playing the new pinball machines as well. Which is why I was excited to try out “Black Knight 2000,” “Junk Yard,” “High Speed,” and “WHO Dunnit,” the four new tables for The Pinball Arcade that FarSight Studio have just released on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, and Vita. But while they’re a mixed bunch, they also kind of made me feel like I was back at Fun N Games…save for the lack of Jersey metalheads hanging around.
“Black Knight 2000”
As the name suggests, The Pinball Arcade is essentially a virtual version of an old school arcade, albeit one where they only have pinball machines. And like the similarly-minded Zen Pinball 2 and Pinball FX 2 from Zen Studios, The Pinball Arcade boasts realistic physics, which make these tables play like the real thing. Arcade even has you use the right thumbstick on the PS3 and PS4 versions to pull back the ball plunger.
Where The Pinball Arcade distinguished itself from Zen Pinball 2 and Pinball FX 2, though, is that its tables are actually real. Or they were, anyway. While Zen Studios make up their own pinball tables, The Pinball Arcade instead makes authentic recreations of real pinball machines that were originally built by Williams, Bally, and others. They even all have visual backgrounds that make them look like they’re in an arcade. Or the back corner of a bar. Or in someone’s finished basement.
In fact, the only unrealistic thing about the tables in The Pinball Arcade — well, aside from not having to steal quarters from your dad to play them — is that they have some options that real pinball tables don’t offer. You can swap out the regular silver ball for a custom one (including one that looks like a golf ball, and a Harley-Davidson branded one), and can even buy new balls if you don’t like the taxi cab-looking one.
Each table in The Pinball Arcade also comes with a bit of history. Before you play any table, the game tells you about its origins, and you can even look over the original promotional flyers that the companies made for them. The tables also include tips from members of the IFPA: International Flipper Pinball Association (not to be confused with the IPFA, which is not the International Pinball Flipper Association, but is instead the The International Project Finance Association, “the largest and the only international, independent, not-for-profit association dedicated to promoting and representing the interests of private companies and public sector organizations in Project Finance and Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) throughout the world.” Though that sounds like a fun bunch, too.).
Of course, The Pinball Arcade is only as good as the tables you buy for it. Which means, with these four new tables, that The Pinball Arcade is a mixed bag, baby.
Going chronologically, I started with “High Speed,” which was designed by Steve Ritchie in 1986, built by Williams, and is a real quarter sucker. Or it would be if you had to stick quarters into your controller. With flippers that are spaced just right, and a lack of bumpers on the lower half, the table just seems hell-bent on having you lose your balls as fast as possible. Which, given its “break the speed limits” visuals, may be Ritchie’s subtle way of telling you to slow the hell down, this is a neighborhood, ya damn kids. But while this is a tough table, it’s decidedly more challenging than cheap, and thus more fun than frustrating.
Also built by Williams, and also created by Ritchie, 1989’s “Black Knight 2000” is a sequel to the “Black Knight” table that he made in 1980. A rather elaborate table, it has two levels, with the upper one using its own single flipper. Which is good, since the upper deck seems to have a steeper incline than the bottom half, or most other pinball tables, for that matter. As a result, the ball moves as if its become self-aware and is now determined to get the heck out of there as quickly as it can. But it all works out in the end, as this is one of the more engaging tables both of this new batch and for The Pinball Arcade in general.
Next in line, chronologically, is 1995’s “WHO Dunnit.” Which, despite what the capitalization suggests, is not based on the sci-fi shamus Doctor Who, but is instead a murder mystery. Designed by Dwight Sullivan and Barry Oursler, and built by Bally, this pinball machine not only has a musical score that recalls all the gin joints in all the world that she had to walk into, but it even has such sufficiently noir-ish dialog as “…and then, I was on the case.” It even has a bit of a mystery going since, after you meet certain conditions, you get to confront one of the suspects. But what about the rest of table? Well, it’s certainly not the strongest of this bunch, as it doesn’t have much in the way of bumpers, just a couple ramps and some slots. It’s also one of the easiest of this batch. In my first game, I got a high score with 375,256,110 points.
I also have similar feelings about Williams’ “Junk Yard,” another one from Sullivan and Oursler. Billed as “The Meanest Game In The Whole Damn Town,” this 1996 table is set up like a well, junk yard, complete with guard dog. It even has a wrecking ball, which hangs at the top of the table (though having an owner who sounds like Sergeant Hatred from The Venture Brothers doesn’t exactly instill confidence in their junking ability). But like “WHO Dunnit,” there isn’t a lot on this table, and most of it is in the top part, though it does decidedly have more in the way of bumpers than “WHO.” It’s also another easy one, as my first game’s score of 877,010 didn’t just get me on the high score board, it got me the highest score on the board. Still, despite its similarities, “Junk Yard” is decidedly more engaging than “WHO Dunnit,” if only because it has more on it to engage you.
The two Sullivan and Oursler tables also share a common predilection, as both “WHO Dunnit” and “Junk Yard” are rather long, thin tables — much more so than the relatively squatter “High Speed” and “The Black Knight 2000” — and as a result, the camera will swing up to the top half to follow the ball. Which may be fine for some players, but as someone who prefers a set, stationary perspective, this shift was a bit disorienting. Not fatally, mind you, but still a little annoying.
I also have an issue with one aspect of The Pinball Arcade’s authenticity (though, admittedly, I may be in the minority when it comes to this). Like the real tables, the ones here have music, and it’s music you can’t turn off or even down relative to the table’s sound effects. Because of this, you usually can’t hear the sound of the balls rolling. Which may seem like a weird thing to complain about…until you play one of these tables are realize how disconcerting it is to not hear the balls rolling. Especially since, relative to the music, the sounds of the bumpers is always rather pronounced.
Admittedly, no amount of realistic physics or sound effects will ever make playing a video game version of a pinball machine feel like the real thing. But since Fun N Games closed in 2007, and I don’t live in Jersey anymore anyway, and I also don’t know Doctor Who or have my own time machine, games like The Pinball Arcade provide me with a great chance to get back to my gaming roots.