WedNESday: The Pinball Episode
I decided to do a little something different today, and cover several games at once in a genre that I adore: Pinball. The NES was home to several different pinball games and derivatives, and I spent my WedNESday playing five of these. I’m going to rank them from worst to first. (Note: High Speed is not included on this list as I don’t have it in my collection.)
5. Rock ‘N Ball (NTVIC, 1989)
Rock ‘N Ball is less a pure pinball game and more a pinball derivative. In addition to a basic pinball table, variations on gambling, hockey, and soccer themes cover the other three gameplay options. The game is a “jack of all trades, master of none” type of offering, and pinball purists should approach this game with caution. The pinball table is not at all compelling and there aren’t enough features on it to hold interest for very long.
Although the pinball table wasn’t much fun, the soccer and ice hockey sports-themed games were enjoyable for a time. The games feel a bit like foosball, with two flippers a side. One flipper is for defense and the other for offense. There is also a goaltender on each side to block shots and even put an extra kick on the ball to take the opposing team by surprise. These games are best played with a friend, as the computer doesn’t put up much of a fight.
Collectors may want to give Rock ‘N Ball a second look, especially if found with a manual. The game is rated 5 on the Nintendo Age Rarity List, which makes it the most uncommon of the NES pinball games. For everyone else, though, Rock ‘N Ball is forgettable.
Let’s move on to #4:
4. Pinball Quest (Jaleco, 1990)
Pinball Quest thinks outside the box by combining pinball with basic RPG trappings in its RPG Mode, which is this game’s highlight. The story is standard fare: The Pinball Princess has been kidnapped and it’s up to you to save her from evil. Defeating enemies by plowing the ball into them increases the ball’s attack power, but if the ball drains from its current playfield, that accumulated power is lost and must be rebuilt. There are shops that sell helpful items, such as stoppers and extra flippers, but it does take a considerable amount of time and gameplay to build up a bank of funds. While the RPG Mode is a unique concept– something that Zen Studios likely took some inspiration from for its Epic Quest table for Zen Pinball and Pinball FX2– the execution is lacking.
Pinball Quest also offers three more traditional pinball tables for players to enjoy, each with its own theme. Pop! Pop! is a nod to American culture, with bowling, billiards, and lots of stars decorating the table. Viva! Golf takes place on a golf course and has water hazards, sand traps, and mischievous gophers to contend with. Finally, Circus is just as it sounds with clowns, lions, and… a slot machine? These tables are functional and very basic, although Circus has an interesting bonus game to try by lining up the correct shot. The tables are better than what Rock ‘N Ball offers, but are still relatively weak offerings for those looking for more traditional pinball experiences.
Pinball Quest is a relatively common find, and is worth a look for the right price. Your mileage may vary as far as the RPG Mode experience goes, and it’s certainly a departure from the usual pinball fare. It just doesn’t measure up to the other NES pinball games that I played and winds up in the #4 spot.
Now, on to #3:
3. Rollerball (HAL America, 1990)
Rollerball is a very traditional pinball experience. Drop targets, bumpers, rollovers, spinners, and other common traits of a pinball machine are all present here. There is a multiball feature, an opportunity to earn extra balls, and the scoring system is fair. The game also offers a playfield that spans four screens in height. These are all good things… so why is the game only in the third spot?
Well… it’s rather boring.
Rollerball‘s unique identifier is its large playfield, but it’s also the game’s biggest weakness. There just isn’t very good pacing. Playing for 5 minutes feels like playing for for 15 minutes. Perhaps that’s because the playfield is too large, or it could be due to the speed of the ball being a bit slow, but it translates to a lack of excitement or urgency. Rollerball becomes a test of endurance with no real payoff. High scores aren’t saved to the cartridge and there isn’t a sense of accomplishment when all is said and done. It’s fun at first, and stays amusing for awhile, but the experience does degrade over time.
The game’s one redeeming feature comes once multiball comes into play in the top level of the playfield, which occurs after rolling over lit, flashing letters that spell S-K-Y-H-I-G-H and then locking the ball in the upper capture hole. At that point, the race is on to pop a series of bumper balloons before one of the balls drains at the very bottom of the lower screen of the playfield. Multiball keeps you on your toes, but there’s one caveat: If one ball drains from the current level of the playfield, play continues on that one level until the other ball drains. This makes multiball a bit easier to manage if you struggle with tracking two pinballs at once. Unfortunately, activating multiball is a bit more challenging than it should be, thanks to the layout of the playfield’s top level and propensity of the ball to drain through the outlanes.
Rollerball is an average pinball game, with neat features being cancelled out by generally dull gameplay. “Average” puts Rollerball right in the middle of the ranking, at #3.
And now… #2:
2. Pinball (Nintendo, 1985)
The gap between Rollerball and Pinball is slight, but Pinball wins out and gets the better ranking here. Pinball doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles, but what it does offer is a solid pinball experience that’s engaging and entertaining while throwing in a few surprises. It’s a more exciting game than Rollerball, despite the smaller playfield and lack of multiball. It’s easy to learn the ins and outs of this table, which makes Pinball very accessible to players of all skill levels.
There are two levels on the playfield in Pinball. The top level has several different shots to master, including an orbit on the left side that is worth 2000 points and initiates a neat ball-bouncing animation from the seals on either side of the center bumper. The slot machine just below the seals is started by hitting a shot through the rollover on the right-hand side of the level. Lastly, there’s a target that gradually increases in point value from 100 up to 1000 with successive hits. The center bumper is the big hazard here and its presence forces players to time their flipper shots just right to hit desired targets.
The lower level is more dangerous, in that a drain here means the end of the ball. Five rollover slots comprise a straight flush and neat bonuses if you can hit them all. Drop targets on the far left can reopen the ball entry lane and get players back up to the top level. Rollover symbols between the two side bumpers can activate outlane stoppers, which are important to extend turns. Finally, a bonus game featuring Mario is available by hitting a shot into the hole located in the upper right corner of the level. A trio of bumpers in the middle of the playfield pose a challenge since getting the ball caught in them can wildly affect its trajectory and lead to quick drains down the middle or via the outlanes.
The strategy is simple enough, but the challenge is less obvious until you start playing Pinball for yourself. What comes off as a fairly simple experience gets addictive as your score increases and you start getting the hang of things. For good players who break 100,000 points, the game pulls a nasty trick with the flippers that will surprise you and test your skills more than ever before. Unfortunately, there isn’t a battery backup to keep track of high scores, but that’s what cameras and notepads are for– just as they were more than 20 years ago.
Pinball gets a bit of a bad rap because it does come off as so simple, but sometimes simplicity is better than trying to reinvent the wheel. Don’t overlook this game when putting together a collection. It’s a solid #2, but not quite the best.
So what’s #1, then? I’m glad you asked.
1. Pinbot (Nintendo, 1990)
I suppose that it’s no surprise that a conversion of a real-life pinball machine tops my list of NES pinball games, but that spot is well-deserved. Despite a few wrinkles that RARE put in to differentiate the NES port from the actual table, Pinbot still offers the best traditional pinball experience for the console. Skill shots, ramps, accumulating jackpots, and exciting multiball action are some of this game’s highlights.
The main objective on the Pinbot table is to initiate multiball by completing the set of multicolored lights just below Pinbot’s visor. This is achieved by hitting two banks of targets; one is along Pinbot’s visor and the other is to the right. Once all of the lights are lit, Pinbot’s visor lifts, revealing two capture holes. Locking two balls starts multiball, which challenges players to re-lock one ball and then hit the Solar Ramp located on the upper left of the playfield to earn the Solar Value Jackpot. Once this is achieved, the playfield changes color and the difficulty ramps up… which I’ll get to shortly.
Aside from multiball, Pinbot offers a couple of other challenges and shots that are worth completing to improve your score and earn some extra balls. All nine planets (Yes, there were nine planets back when Pinbot came out) plus the Sun can be lit, starting from Pluto and working towards the Sun. Planets are spotted by either completing a bank of drop targets on the left side of the playfield or by hitting an enclosed target on the right side. The drop targets are easier and pose less of a drain risk to the player if the shot is missed; the enclosed target on the right lies just above the right outlane and, if missed, a rapid drain can occur. Completing all planets and the Sun earns Special, which lights one of the outlanes for an Extra Ball. Aside from the planets, a capture hole just to the left of Pinbot’s visor gradually increases in value from 25,000 points up to 50,000, 75,000, and then lighting one of the outlanes for an Extra Ball. Finally, hitting a lit drop target on the bank of targets to the left lifts the Solar Ramp and reveals an enclosed target that, when hit, awards an Energy Value.
As it stands, Pinbot is an exciting table with lots to do and multiple scoring opportunities. The one downside to RARE’s conversion of this table is the addition of creatures onto the playfield after each completion of Solar Value Jackpot objective. After getting the jackpot for the first time, a blue slime creature gradually makes its way around the Solar System and, when it reaches the Sun, becomes a vacuum that attempts to suck up the ball. If the creature succeeds, it chews up the ball and spits it out, effectively ending that ball. After collecting two jackpots, a winged creature shoots missiles at your flippers. Two hits on a flipper eliminates that flipper until the ball drains. The missiles can be destroyed by the pinball, but if you miss… look out. After three jackpots, a different winged creature flies around and attempts to capture the ball and carry it off the table, ending that ball. These additions are interesting ideas, but they damage the authenticity of the Pinbot experience and arguably sour the experience to the point that collecting jackpots is no longer the best course of action. That’s a bad move.
That complaint aside, Pinbot is the best of the pinball games that I played today for the NES. It was, at the time, as close to having the pinball machine as you could get. Now, of course, you can buy Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection and play a strictly authentic simulation of Pinbot, but this game holds its own as a fun overall experience. I strongly recommend it as an addition to your own NES collection, if you don’t own it already. It’s still relatively common and is very easy to pick up and play.
As you can see, pinball was well-represented on the NES. Six pinball games in total were released for the platform, and High Speed (also developed by RARE and is similar to Pinbot in terms of conversion) is the one of these that I’m missing. These games helped me to carry my love of pinball machines home in a cheap and more convenient fashion, and set the stage for pinball video games that would arrive later. Zen Studios and Farsight Studios have done a great job of keeping pinball alive and relevant in the present day, but it’s been fun to go back in time and relive some of the earlier days for the genre.
Below is a slideshow of pictures that I took during gameplay with my iPhone 4S: