Games Bring Pinball's Glory Into The Home
One of the great tragedies of the video game era has been the slow demise of pinball. For those of us who grew up in arcades, pinball machines were part of a balanced gaming diet that also included air hockey, foosball, puck bowling and, yes, "Asteroids" and "Space Invaders."
The emergence of video games was a boon to arcades and led, in turn, to a creative renaissance in pinball. During the 1980s and '90s, designers created ever more elaborate and addictive tables based on Hollywood franchises like "The Addams Family" and "The Terminator."
But the increasing power of home game systems led to the demise of many an arcade. Why go out when you can play something just as good on your Xbox? And the expense of maintaining a pinball machine, with all its moving parts, doesn't make sense for a struggling arcade owner. Only one major pinball manufacturer (Stern Pinball of Illinois) remains, and while that company still makes terrific machines, good luck finding one.
At least some video game companies have fond memories of the glory days of pinball. They aren't entirely successful at recreating the excitement - a video game controller could never simulate the tactile sensations of frantically pounding the flippers or trying to nudge the ball back to safety with some aggressive body English. But they often add elements that wouldn't be possible in an old-fashioned pin, suspending the laws of physics or filling the playfield with animated targets. Video may have almost killed pinball, but now it's doing its part to keep it alive.
_"Flipnic Ultimate Pinball" (Capcom, for the PlayStation 2): "Flipnic" brings pinball into the 21st century with a collection of four impossibly inventive games. The gimmick here is that most of the tables have ramps that allow you to shoot the ball into a number of other tables, so you'll find yourself bouncing between as many as a dozen screens when the game gets really busy. Each level provides you with a set of challenges that you must overcome to access new levels, so there's always a clearly defined goal beyond simply racking up a high score. The challenges range from simple targets that need to be knocked down to bewildering three-dimensional mazes and "Arkanoid"-like paddle games. Like the best arcade pinball games, "Flipnic" looks easy but demands an unusual level of skill and concentration to really succeed.
_"Pac-Man Pinball Advance" (Namco, for the Game Boy Advance): We love "Pac-Man." We love pinball. A combination of the two should be doubly lovable, then, but "Pac-Man Pinball" dashes all our hopes. It takes advantage of the familiar "Pac-Man" ideas, requiring you to collect dots and then eat a power pellet before chasing after Inky, Pinky, Blinky and Clyde. But it only offers two meager, uninspired tables, without any of the high-tech bells and whistles we've come to expect from a modern pinball game. Worse, the physics here are all off, and the movement of the ball feels sluggish and unrealistic. Later this year, Namco is taking another crack at "Pac-Man Pinball" for Nintendo's DS; let's hope it's livelier than this drab, uninspired effort.
_"Pinball Hall of Fame: The Gottlieb Collection" (Crave, for the PS2, GameCube and Xbox): Gottlieb is one of the legendary names in pinball history. It introduced flippers to the game back in 1947 and continued to innovate all the way up to its demise in 1996. Gottlieb machines can still be found in out-of-the-way bars and arcades, but most of us who are nostalgic for its great old games will have to settle for the simulations in "Pinball Hall of Fame." It includes seven classic tables, from 1957's "Ace High" to 1993's "Tee'd Off." Hyperactive gamers will probably be puzzled by the laid-back vibe of 1966's "Central Park," but 1981's frenetic "Black Hole," in which the balls can escape to a minigame under the playfield, is a blast. "Hall of Fame" serves as an interactive history of a fading American art form, but even younger players who don't have a soft spot for these great old machines will have a ball.