As video games become more hotly anticipated and finding more ways to break the mold, it becomes easy to neglect older gaming mediums. The art that is pinball has become one of those fallen trends, but it is nevertheless cherished and remembered by arcade enthusiasts and anyone that could find fun in bouncing a solid metal ball around a playfield. I am one of those people, as evidenced by my developed pinball cravings. In the mid-2000s, I picked up a Sierra CD-ROM simply named Gameroom; it was just a collection of video versions of real life games like Darts, Air Hockey, Billiards, and so on, but there was also a pinball game. As it turned out, this game was actually 3D Ultra Pinball: Thrillride, a standalone PC game with an amusement park theme.
It is a very fun title, and I’m glad it kickstarted my taste for pinball action. However, what truly reinforced my interests in the genre was the Pinball Hall of Fame series of games. There were two titles in the series: The Gottlieb Collection and The Williams Collection. Named after the companies that once manufactured pinball cabinets, the games were released in 2005 and 2007 respectively for all the major sixth-generation consoles plus the Wii (with the latter also hitting Xbox 360 and Playstation 3), and boasted a nostalgic lineup of select Gottlieb and Williams tables. The Gottlieb Collection wasn’t the first game to attempt to emulate real pinball cabinets, but it did lead to a series that would be the most accurate and faithful to their real-world counterparts.
FarSight Studios, the development team for these games, approached the concept in a very unique way. To make the tables feel as real as they possibly could get for a video game, members of the team would get the actual cabinets and take them apart to analyze the layout, mechanics, and port over the digitized sound effects and music they may feature. There is basically a lot more that went into this than meets the eye, and even then they’ve shown their work from just how each table behaves in-game. The virtual results are as authentic as they could be!
That said, The Gottlieb Collection did not age well. I mean, don’t get me wrong; the graphics are absolutely remarkable and the sound is true to life. The big problem is the pinball gameplay. It’s the one thing that really isn’t true to life, as evidenced by the floaty nature of the ball. This makes the pace not as frantic and fun as it could have been, and it only gets further nullified by the table selection. It’s great to see the tables in action. Classics like Genie and Victory have every right to shine. El Dorado is a bore, however. At least with this floaty playstyle, anyway.
I personally like to play for the high score only when I’m actually at an arcade, so when it comes to playing at home, I’d much rather progress through a game and get to the end. The Pinball Hall of Fame series actually has something like that in the form of the Gottlieb/Williams Challenge. You play all of the tables in a row, and you must surpass a set score for each. With Gottlieb Collection, some of them can be absurd, which again makes El Dorado pretty boring in my honest opinion. In fact, it’s the reason why I can’t get myself to play through the Challenge; points rack up too slowly to reach the set score for it, and the floatiness of the ball makes it unbearable.
There is more to building up the save file than just scores, fortunately. Each game in the series also has specialized goals for the tables. Conquering enough would allow to you to unlock other things. In Gottlieb‘s case, there’s an extra table, a fortune teller machine, and a love tester machine. That’s all fine and dandy, but I think I want to start talking about The Williams Collection.
This one was where the meat of my virtual pinball experience has resided. While I did find Gottlieb’s given selection of tables to be fairly interesting, it was Williams’s lineup that seemed to be a lot more dynamic and intriguing. And it was. The best reason why is because the ball physics were nailed this time! The Williams Collection felt like real pinball from the get-go, and each table has plenty of fun things about it to boot. The Williams Challenge is also preferable in comparison to the Gottlieb Challenge thanks to the more approachable set scores to take on. Space Shuttle is probably the boring table of the bunch to play through for that, but even then, all the tables have accurate pinball physics and are therefore fun in their own right.
This was the game that made me realize just how pinball tables distinguish themselves from one another. It’s clearer than before that what I would do in, for example, Funhouse, I wouldn’t really replicate in Taxi or Whirlwind. The Williams tables typically have a large portion of cleverly placed set pieces, and they are handled in various different ways. Black Knight has an upper area with a few bumpers and a ball lock for multiball purposes, Funhouse has the snarky giant head that the player can score a lot of points from if he or she fires the ball into his mouth, and Sorcerer has those standup targets that spell S-O-R-C-E-R-E-R. Basically, there are interesting incentives to keep things fun, and that’s what I believe makes a pinball game work.
Now, this could be where I’d end things, but FarSight Studios eventually followed up on the Pinball Hall of Fame series with a spiritual successor under the name of The Pinball Arcade. Released on smart devices and seventh-and-eighth generation consoles, this compilation of virtual arcade-y divides its selection of pinball tables into individual “Seasons”. This isn’t a matter of making titles themed after manufacturers anymore; many tables have been licensed from many different manufacturers to provide a digital museum of preserved pinball classics! From The Addams Family to Cirqus Voltaire to cabinets previously included in the Hall of Fame titles, The Pinball Arcade is filled to the brim with FarSight’s dedication. Even the tables featured in The Gottlieb Collection are treated to much better ball play this time around. If you compare the two games, the difference is night and day.
As can be expected from a game this day and age, the additional tables are in the form of paid DLC. It is one of the more tolerable cases of the type, though. After all, real pinball tables cost thousands of dollars each. It also isn’t really necessary to buy them to play them at all; every DLC table has a trial mode where you can play up to the lowest default high score, and more recently FarSight Studios has been hosting a “Table of the Month” feature where you can play a certain table temporarily for free every month. It’s a great way to entice players to try out some new pinball experiences without being forced to fork over cash.
While the game looks so freakin’ gorgeous on consoles, I actually find myself frequently playing The Pinball Arcade on my Android phone. Having a portable virtual pinball museum is a fantastic way to kill time, I’ll say! It also lends itself really well for smartphone play while staying faithful to both the console counterparts and the actual arcade tables. No matter how you play this series, though, anyone interested in pinball can definitely have a lot of fun playing The Williams Collection or The Pinball Arcade on whatever platform they are released on. The former (and Gottlieb Collection, but I don’t recommend it as much) can go for very cheap nowadays, and the latter has more than enough tables the pinball wizard can muster.