Date: November 26, 2013
Author(s): Rob Williams
Developing realistic virtual pinball is tough, and it’s even tougher when realistic pinball tables are not used. That’s where The Pinball Arcade, from FarSight Studios, differs. The goal here isn’t to design tables that shoot flames after a successful hit, but rather take real pinball machines and digitalize them. Did FarSight hit the jackpot ramp with this one?
Prepare the smoke-filled room, overplayed rock music, a bottle of mediocre pale lager, and a pocket full of quarters, because with The Pinball Arcade, a video game brings us closer to the bar and arcade pinball experience than ever before.
On the video game front, pinball fans have had it good. Ever since the release of the Pro Pinball series in the late 90s, there has been a string of great games for PC and console alike. In recent years, Zen Pinball and Pinball FX2 have become de facto choices, and it only takes a few minutes of playing either to realize that both have been created for pinball fans, by pinball fans.
Despite that, I must admit something: I haven’t been able to get into either, and for that matter, I haven’t dabbled much with virtual pinball over the past decade. I’ve surmised that the biggest reason for this is that I prefer to use a “real” table, one that might be a digital creation but could be produced in the real world with the same design. I’m not too sure we’ll see a real pinball table with a running waterfall, fire-lit lamps, or magic auras, any time soon. At the core, I guess I appreciate the mechanics and design of real tables – it still amazes me what designers have managed to pull off.
Overview look at the game’s menu and ten tables
For those like me who appreciate real-world tables (aka: machines), there’s The Pinball Arcade. A friend of mine tipped me off to the game last year, as a couple of my favorite tables were featured. At that time, I hadn’t been able to play their real-world equivalents in nearly 7 years, so I wasted no time in giving the game a download on Android. Quite simply, I was blown away. The tables were just as I remembered them, from the artwork to the audio to their mechanics and rules.
Now, those who prefer their virtual pinball on the PC can add TPA to their list, thanks to its release on Steam a couple of weeks ago.
The Pinball Arcade is developed by FarSight Studios, sure to be a recognizable name for those who’ve enjoyed virtual pinball on a console in recent years, or other games long ago, as the company has a very rich history. Remember Action 52, the 52-in-1 cart that introduced the world to The Cheetahmen? FarSight was responsible for the Sega Genesis port. Its first-ever release wasn’t a game, but rather a drawing / video-creation tool called Videomation, released for the NES in 1991.
But I digress; let’s get into a look at The Pinball Arcade.
In developing The Pinball Arcade, FarSight recognized that fans of the original, real-world versions of the tables would not be pleased with a botched detail. That being the case, the company goes to great lengths to avoid that from happening:
To start, a real table is brought into the FarSight lab to be broken down to its individual bits. That might sound tedious, but more so might be scanning each one of those bits into a computer, and converting them into 3D models. Then, those now-digital bits are used to recreate the table. The goal is to create a table as close to 1:1 as the original, down to the millimetre. For the mechanics and rules, the original ROM chip is emulated; if it happened on the real table, it can happen here (including rare bugs). Does the table have an interactive backboard? If so, that’s emulated, too.
Furthering this true-to-the-original goal, a Pro menu is available on select tables (for a premium price) that gives users direct access to all of the functions the original ROM offered. You can mess around with bookkeeping, enable or disable special modes and features (the disabling of ‘Family Mode’ on Scared Stiff is a popular one), and access whatever else the original manufacturer invited its customers to tweak.
Other Pro features include the ability to explore the table (a feature that I think should be available on all tables), manual ball control, the disabling of tilt, and access to professional tips.
Similar to tips, and available on all tables (Pro or not), are goal instructions. This is one feature of TPA that I’ve come to greatly appreciate, because rather than simply tell you via text how to complete each goal, the game’s camera will move you to the exact part of the table you should be looking at, and makes use of arrows to make sure you understand where you’re supposed to aim.
Each table in TPA includes 5x Standard goals and 5x Wizard goals (the former must be completed 100% to access the latter), which are based on the given table’s original goals. I’m not sure about the other platforms, but on PC, each table has three achievements; setting a high score, completing Standard goals, and of course, completing Wizard goals.
A must-have feature for pinball enthusiasts on the PC is portrait mode, and TPA has it. Here’s an example of Bride of Pin*Bot in that orientation:
The Machine: Bride of Pin*Bot Portrait Mode
Portrait mode was a post-launch patch, and at the moment, it’s not perfect. For this particular table, it is, but in others, not so much. Funhouse is a perfect example; the outer lanes and bottom of the flippers are cut off, making the table simply unplayable in portrait. The PC version of TPA has come at a bad time, with the game also launching for the PlayStation 4 (demanding most of FarSight’s current focus), so these issues are to be ironed out soon.
Speaking of the PlayStation 4, would you believe that TPA for that console one-ups the PC version? It has to do with advanced lighting, which looks truly fantastic on that console (I’d encourage searching YouTube for footage). Fortunately, FarSight has said that a DirectX 11 patch is in the works, which will introduce the same lighting model (undoubtedly through ambient occlusion) and other potential things that could help it turn the tables and look better than the PS4 version.
A sticking-point of TPA‘s PC version is that the texture detail isn’t up to what we’d expect to see on the platform. In a forum post, a FarSight developer noted that high-res textures were being discussed, but up to this point, that’s where things still stand. While I believe the game looks fantastic even with console port textures, I sure wouldn’t turn down higher definition. With the below close-up of the Ringmaster area from Cirqus Voltaire, the lacking detail is easy to spot.
A video game can never compare to playing a real pinball table, but FarSight has done a fantastic job in making sure the experience here is as good as can be. Minor nuances can be felt with the tables as with their real counterparts, and after playing through all of the currently available 41 tables (setting at least a high score on each), I can say that I never encountered a situation where something happened that wouldn’t have in real-life.
FarSight prides itself on its physics engine for TPA, and it’s easy to see why. Because the tables are designed to be as close to the original thing as possible, there’s even the risk of a ball getting stuck somewhere. For situations like those, the “Call Attendant” option in the menu can be used, which will place the ball back on the plunger after 15 seconds (so far, I’ve had to do this twice, and both times, it was with Bride of Pin*Bot).
One of the biggest differences between virtual and real pinball is the tilt mechanism. On a real machine, you have to physically jolt it in the direction you need to – that takes energy. With a video game, all you have to do is tap a button (or moderate the strength through analog controls). As such, it has to be said that when playing the tables in TPA versus in real-life, they’re going to be made easier (that goes beyond tilt, but that’s the biggest difference as far as I’m concerned).
As I explored all of the different tables in TPA, I had fun dissecting the differences in rules between tables of a given era, and not to mention table design in general. It wasn’t until TPA that I had been able to play a table with an inverse lower table, where you’re suddenly playing pinball within itself. Black Hole was the first to implement this design, but I find Haunted House (seen above) to be a little more enjoyable. And speaking of Haunted House, that’s a table special for being the first with three playing fields (note the raised one to the top-right).
When we’re dealing with a product where 10,000 units sold was considered a great success, TPA might be the only place for a lot of people to discover and likewise play a given pinball table. Firepower, for example, has the designation of being the first table to offer multi-ball. At 17,000 units, though, it can be assumed that one could be found to play in person with some effort (and probably a little travel.)
Then we have the opposite situation with Goin’ Nuts, a table that was never released, and was limited to a build of 10 prototype units. This table is boring (to me), and has a soundtrack as good as fingernails on a chalkboard, but I still appreciate it for what is – a part of pinball history. Not to mention, its design is rather interesting: Each round begins with a multiball, and ends after a timer runs out.
While playing the older tables, there was an aspect that made me appreciate the more modern ones: Ball-saver. Older tables were relentless; if a ball was popped into play and made a b-line to the drain, tough luck! Again, these are the kinds of things you can come to appreciate from being able to play such an array of tables within a single collection. Old or new-ish, FarSight will consider it for inclusion as long as it’s interesting.
It must be said, though, that as of late, FarSight has been focusing a lot on older tables (the last 10 spanned the 1980~1992 era). I’d imagine that this wasn’t done on purpose; rather, newer tables introduce a number of legal complexities, while older tables would be easier to deal with. Still, I do hope to see more variety in season pack 3, and would love to see a couple of tables from the post-2000 era (as only 2 exist among the entire current collection).
“Season“? Yes – that’s how FarSight has decided to divvy up what’s in effect, DLC. The first season is composed of 21 tables, while the second has 20; each of which can be purchased all at once. Up front costs for the entire collection is a bit high ($30 for season 1, $40 for 2), but to have access to so many beautifully recreated tables should be well worth it to a pinball enthusiast. For the Pro perks, add $10 to either season.
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Those who are choosier (aka: will not touch a lot of the tables in either pack) can purchase individual packs, which outside of special instances will include 2 tables. To get a better grasp on how this all comes together, I’d recommend heading over to Wikipedia where a helpful table exists. The “Core” pack, which costs about $10, includes four tables (Black Hole, Ripley’s Believe it or Not!, Tales of the Arabian Nights, and Theatre of Magic), whereas the other packs cost $5 per. Due to the higher licensing costs of select tables, three current packs include just a single table (Twilight Zone, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Whew – I think we deserve an achievement just for figuring all that out.
Where things become even more complicated (or problematic) is that there doesn’t seem to be “upgrades” – as in, purchasing one or two packs and then upgrading to the full season pack for a reduced price.
It’s for all these reasons that it’d be wise to decide up-front whether or not you’d be interested in the complete pack. Purchasing each minor pack would cost $55 for season one, and $50 for season two, so the discounts are notable (why season two costs more ($40 vs. $30), I’m not sure). This is a complex beast, that’s for sure.
I mentioned at the outset that I tend to prefer real-world pinball designs over fantasy ones (eg: those in digital form that could never exist as a real table), and given that, I’m pleased to see what FarSight has delivered here.
The Pinball Arcade on the PC isn’t perfect; I’d be ignorant to state otherwise. Analog nudging is broken at the moment, and then there’s the issue with select tables in portrait mode. The fortunate thing is that FarSight recognizes these issues, and have them in the queue for fixing. Further, we can expect improved lighting in the future once the DX11 patch is released, after which I hope FarSight considers making a move to release higher-res textures for the PC. Lastly, while a tournaments feature is found in the menu, it’s not an active option. I assume we’ll learn more about that once the current hubbub surrounding the PS4 launch settles.
As a fan of pinball who appreciates not only playing real pinball, but learning more about its history and designers, I’d have to say that FarSight delivers just what I’d hope for here. Each table has an introduction that explains what made it interesting, and to help you master one table or many, in-depth instructions are just a menu option away.
One of the best features of The Pinball Arcade is that one table is 100% free (the Pro version, to boot), and it’s a great one: Tales of the Arabian Nights. With that table, you’ll be able to take in the obvious amount of work that goes into recreating these tables, and all of the perks that come with it: The physics, the audio, and the extras.
Despite its needed improvements, The Pinball Arcade is an absolute winner, and a must-play by any pinball fan.
For a look at 13 other tables featured in TPA, hit up the next page.
The Pinball Arcade
Attack from Mars
Creature from the Black Lagoon
Cue Ball Wizard
Elvira and the Party Monsters
Tales of the Arabian Nights
Theatre of Magic
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