Pinball Arcade is a very good explanation of why Farsight Studios– the team behind the excellent Pinball Hall of Fame series– has been out of the spotlight for quite some time. Rather than producing a new disc-based experience with several tables to choose from, Farsight has borrowed a page from Zen Studios and has delivered an experience that is very open-ended with more tables expected in the coming months. The overall Pinball Arcade package doesn’t have the bells and whistles that Pinball FX2 has, but it does deliver realism with proper ball and table physics and actual tables straight out of the arcade.
Pinball Arcade costs 800 Microsoft Points via Xbox LIVE Arcade, or $9.99 on the PlayStation Store. The purchase entitles players immediate access to four tables: Tales of the Arabian Nights, Black Hole, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, and Theatre of Magic. The first two tables should sound familiar to those of you who have played the two Pinball Hall of Fame games. Arabian Nights was part of the Williams Collection and Black Hole was found on the lesser-known Gottlieb Collection. The other two tables are completely new, and they’re quite good. Two more tables, Medieval Madness (a returning table from the Williams Collection) and Bride of Pinbot (a new table) will be the first DLC tables available, likely arriving in May.
Of the four initial tables offered in Pinball Arcade, Theatre of Magic is the most attractive and most accessible to all skill levels. Scores are high, flippers are long, and the table objectives are pretty straightforward. Racking up a billion points or more can be a common occurrence once you learn the ins and outs of the table, and there are some neat secrets to unlock. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not is another very good table, although it’s not nearly as easy to learn. It does have a rather interesting sense of humor and a jewel collection system that can open up some nice bonuses, such as double scoring, Super Jackpot shots, a Million Plus shot, and more. Black Hole, for the uninitiated, is highlighted by a separate lower playfield that is basically played upside down. Flippers are at the top and having the ball drain without opening the right outlane gate (via drop targets) beforehand leads to disaster. Finally, Tales of the Arabian Nights challenges players to collect jewels and save a princess from an evil genie. A spinning lamp shot in the upper middle of the playfield is key to earning big end-of-ball bonuses and learning the timing for specific ramp shots is vital to mounting a run at a high score.
One fact needs to be understood when talking about Pinball Arcade: It’s not Pinball FX2, Marvel Pinball, or Zen Pinball.
Zen Studios has made very impressive strides in delivering quality pinball experiences, but Zen’s strength has been making pinball accessible to everyone and very social. If you try Pinball Arcade after having spent many hours playing Zen’s pinball games, you’re going to probably get rather angry. Balls tend to be lost a lot quicker. Scores tend to be lower on at least three of the four current tables. The social element has been replaced by a crude user interface that doesn’t really promote a community. At the same time, for those players out there who have had experience with actual pinball machines, Pinball Arcade is very close to the real deal and a fair amount of skill is required to score well.
The ball physics in Pinball Arcade are slower than what we’ve seen from Zen Studios. It will take time to adapt to the slower speed and calculate shots accordingly. Some players may prefer Zen’s faster pace, but faster and lighter physics aren’t realistic. If you’ve had a chance to hold a pinball before, you’d know that they’re quite heavy. Heavier objects tend to move slower. It’s not impossible for ball speeds to increase, especially when it’s been affected by bumpers or gaining speed off of a ramp, but speeds on actual pinball machines tend to be a bit slower than what we’ve seen in most pinball simulations.
The physics engine in Pinball Arcade is excellent, but the game isn’t without its problems. Some players may have a hard time finding a camera angle that is comfortable. Varying camera angles for plunger skill shots are missing, for whatever reason. This leads to a lot of trial and error when trying to execute them. There are also some bugs that can affect the game, such as balls hopping over flippers. So far, these haven’t been anything more than an annoyance; however, until a patch resolves bugs like these, it’s important to note that they do exist.
Each table is accurately modeled after its real-life counterpart. You’ll notice little visual touches like light reflections and moving parts on certain playfields. In my experience, the frame rate has been very consistent, even in multiball situations. There have been times when the action will stop for a moment, especially when balls are being launched into multiball play. This has thrown off my concentration at times, but it hasn’t been a game-breaking problem. The in-game scoreboard has been smoothed for high-definition. I tend to prefer the option of keeping it more pixelated, but no such option exists here. This is a minor stylistic quibble, but one that I was nonetheless surprised to see.
The sound and music for each of the four tables is accurate and authentic. Aside from Black Hole, the other tables all have great music and voice work to hear. The mechanical sounds aren’t quite as crisp as we’ve been hearing in the last few tables from Zen Studios, but this isn’t a dealbreaker by any means. It is worth noting that Black Hole has a very droning, robotic sound that plays repeatedly in the background. It probably will drive many to turn the volume down before long, but it’s certainly authentic.
I realize that Pinball Arcade isn’t perfect, but its flaws don’t prevent a recommendation from me. It’s realistic, authentic, and makes players work hard for their leaderboard spots. It doesn’t have the social or community feel that Zen Studios has worked hard to implement for its pinball experiences, but Farsight Studios does have a solid foundation in place with actual tables and the most realistic physics engine around. Whether you’re an old-school arcade rat like me, or if you’re just a fan of pinball in general, Pinball Arcade is worthy of your 40 quarters.
Note: Playing time was spent on the Xbox 360 version, which was self-purchased on April 4th. The PlayStation 3 version is available now.
Some of you may view this as a cop-out, but rather than do a fairly common Game of the Year piece, I’m doing things a little differently. I’m going to run down a list of great games that I played this year. I’m not going to say that one was necessarily better than the other, but I hope this gives you some idea of the games that got me to believe that 2010 was a very good year for video game software.
Here we go:
Bayonetta (SEGA / Platinum Games for Xbox 360):
This may not be a popular pick, as the story is vapid and the characters can be interpreted by some as being offensive in their stereotypes, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t have fun playing Bayonetta this year. The game is accessible to players of all skill levels; novice players can pull off some incredible moves and combos with a little help from the AI while more seasoned players can use manual button presses and stick movement to achieve visceral grace on the screen. This is the Devil May Cry sequel that I’ve wanted since the first game, and although there isn’t a Dante sighting anywhere, the gameplay feels like the next evolutionary step in the stylish action genre. Personally, I also enjoyed the fan service paid to SEGA games from generations gone by, such as OutRun and Space Harrier. The mixture of J-Pop music and more classical choral arrangements turned some players off, but not me. You can add Bayonetta to your collection for about $20 right now, and if you missed out on it earlier this year, I do recommend at least giving it a whirl.
Major League Baseball 2K10 (2K Sports / Visual Concepts for Xbox 360):
Although it can be argued that MLB 10: The Show was still the better baseball game overall this year, MLB 2K10 gets credit for making the biggest improvements. The My Player mode was more fun (and more forgiving) than MLB 10‘s Road To The Show for creating and developing your own prospect. The presentation in MLB 2K10 was far more polished that that of its competition, including commentary that was more energetic, observant, and timely. Pertinent stat overlays and camera cuts made casual observers feel like they were watching actual televised contests. The bugs that all but ruined last year’s 2K baseball game are all but gone, and the final product feels much more polished and competitive. The game isn’t perfect, as stick-based pitching still had some issues and occasional baserunning gaffes still draw frustrated gasps… but the future for 2K’s baseball series once again looks bright and Sony will have to bring more to the table in 2011 than making casual changes if they wish to remain pennant winners with The Show. And, oh… pitchers and catchers report in just six weeks.
Pinball FX2 (Zen Studios for Xbox LIVE Arcade / Xbox 360) and Marvel Pinball (Zen Studios for PlayStation Store / PS3):
Zen Studios‘ gradual improvement in the pinball genre rapidly accelerated in 2010 with the release of Pinball FX2 for the Xbox 360. The ball physics in Pinball FX were akin to a ping-pong ball, as there didn’t seem to be much weight and the speed felt unrealistic. Combine that flaw with issues with weak early table designs, and the overall project felt like a wasted opportunity. With Pinball FX2, the table designs are much more inspired and Zen Studios has come pretty close to completely fixing the issues that I have with their ball physics engine. It doesn’t quite feel as realistic as 2009′s release of Pinball Hall of Fame, but many weaknesses are easy to overlook when you get into the spirit of social gaming. The introduction of metrics like Superscore and Wizard Score not only garner bragging rights, but also serve to quickly fill out empty Friends Lists. The more friends you have and the more tables that you play help to inflate your Wizard Score, which in turn unlocks Avatar Awards that aren’t so easy to obtain without having some skilled friends to help you out. My Friends List increased 400% thanks to Pinball FX2. Zen Studios kept the ball rolling by releasing Marvel Pinball shortly after Pinball FX2 came out. This ongoing series of tables, based in the Marvel Comics universe, introduces new challenges and ways to bolster your scoring metrics. PlayStation 3 owners got just the Marvel tables instead of the whole Pinball FX2 experience, but also got new metrics and Trophies, as well. If you’ve ever played a pinball machine and enjoyed the experience in your lifetime, you really do need to buy and support these games. You won’t be sorry.
Super Street Fighter IV (Capcom for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360):
Just about everyone knows that Street Fighter IV had some pretty major balancing issues when it came to fighters. Since Sagat has been my character of choice since Street Fighter Alpha, I lucked out with him being the tour de force that he was… but that was fixed in the discounted release of Super Street Fighter IV this year, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. New characters, new game modes, the addition (or return, if you want to be technical) of bonus stages, and much better character balance added up to the best fighting game that I’ve played in a long time. Super Street Fighter IV comes close to knocking off Street Fighter Alpha 3 as my favorite fighting game of all time, but my Glasses of Nostagia +2 keep Alpha 3 slightly ahead. Considering that the original (yet flawed) release was $60, this new and better release for $40 earns a spot on this list.
Split/Second (Disney Interactive / Blackrock Studios for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3):
Released in May of 2010, Split/Second was easy to overlook when you consider that another arcade racer (Activision‘s Blur) and one of the biggest-selling games of the year (Rockstar‘s Red Dead Redemption) were released during the same month. For those of you who glossed over it, shame on you. You missed one hell of a good time. Split/Second isn’t perfect, but it does what it sets out to do in delivering a white-knuckle experience with a lot of pyrotechnics and “Holy crap!” moments. While Blur relied more on weaponry (a la Mario Kart) and social networking to succeed, Split/Second enlisted the help of explosive-dropping tractor-trailers and missile-firing assault helicopters to go along with being able to trigger some huge, track-changing explosions and events to level the racing grid. I personally wasn’t a big fan of the vehicle handling at first, but as I played the game more and grew accustomed to how each vehicle drove and responded, I found a groove that I hadn’t found since Burnout Revenge. This one deserved a better fate on the sales charts.
X-Men Arcade (Konami for Xbox LIVE Arcade / Xbox 360 and PlayStation Store / PlayStation 3):
This isn’t a new game, but the fact that we finally got the chance to play X-Men Arcade at home for the first time ever was a big deal. The fact that you no longer have to insert buckets of tokens to hear Magneto call you an “X-Chicken” and that there are always players able to help you out online makes this $10 deal even sweeter. In addition to the domestic version of the game, players also get the slightly different Japanese version, which had power-ups which we never saw here in the States and made for a varied experience. Whether you spent tons of hours (and tokens) in arcades playing this game, or if you’re playing for the first time, X-Men Arcade is a beat-’em-up that reminds us of how things used to be. Welcome to die!
Bioshock 2 (2K Marin / Digital Extremes for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3):
I thought for a long time about whether or not to put this game on my list, as I’ve been occasionally critical of it this year… but the return trip to Rapture is one that I thought was worth taking, as long as it’s judged on its own merits instead of solely being compared to the original masterpiece. There’s a good story that’s told here about the strength of family bonds, and seeing new areas of Rapture was a treat. Although the repetitive level structure– Little Sister encounters followed by a Big Sister showdown– tended to hamper the overall experience, Bioshock 2 was one of the few games that I played from start to finish this year without allowing myself to be distracted. I actually played all the way through both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions. In addition to the main game, the release of the Minerva’s Den single-player add-on was perhaps the best DLC that I’ve ever played. It tells its own story and the twist at the end is surprising and satisfying. For a mere $20 at retail now (and $10 additional for Minerva’s Den), it’s not too much of a risk to add Bioshock 2 to your collection.
God of War III (SCEA / Santa Monica Studio for PlayStation 3):
I know that I griped recently on Twitter about how I dislike puzzles in action games, but in spite of this complaint, God of War III is amazing. Although it follows the same general MO that the previous two games in the series did (huge start, inconsistent middle, big ending), there’s little argument that seeing Kratos in his visceral glory on the PlayStation 3 was one of the software highlights of 2010. The perilous and blood-pumping ascent of Mount Olympus at the beginning merely sets the stage for the crimson-stained adventure ahead. Yes, there are puzzles to be solved, but it’s an acceptable price to pay for what is the best action game on the PlayStation 3 platform this year. Prices are going down on this game, so save a little bit of that gift card allowance from the holidays and give in to vengeance. You’ll be glad you did.
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (EA / Criterion Games for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii):
The “cool” factor attached to this game cannot be ignored. Actual police officers have come into my store to buy this game… seriously. It’s not a Burnout sequel, but it’s a re-imagining of the two Hot Pursuit games with Burnout gameplay tidbits mixed in. Being the racer and avoiding the police is fun, but where Hot Pursuit really earns its stripes for me is playing as the police and shutting down racers, Chase HQ-style. Shunting law-breaking speeders and flipping them over in a display of twisted metal and shards of broken glass is a satisfying feeling that I’ve rarely had in a racing game. Adding to the fun here is the addition of the Autolog feature, which not only pits you against level objectives, but also the best efforts of your friends for bragging rights. Hot Pursuit looks great, plays well, and is very addictive. I can’t wait to see what Criterion has in the works for its next release.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Nintendo for Wii):
Yes, the Wii is getting a mention on this list… and rightfully so. Super Mario Galaxy 2 might not be as ground-breaking as its 2007 predecessor, but that doesn’t diminish its value as an excellent game. Galaxy 2 gives players more of what made the original so great with imaginative level design, fair challenge, and stellar aesthetics. The addition of Yoshi figures significantly, as do some of Mario’s new abilities, such as creating clouds for platforms. In a year where it can be argued that Nintendo took a few steps backwards (*ahem* Metroid: Other M *ahem*), Super Mario Galaxy 2 was Nintendo’s crown jewel for the Wii in 2010 and seeing the game get little recognition from many gaming sites for end-of-year honors is disappointing and shameful. If 2011 is the last full year for the Wii before its inevitable replacement, both Super Mario Galaxy games can easily be considered among the best for Nintendo’s motion-control console.
And that’s the list. No numerical order here. Sure, there were arguably other great games that didn’t make my list– like Red Dead Redemption or Mass Effect 2, for example– but that’s the advantage of having your own list. My great games likely differ at least somewhat from yours, and that is more than fine. I didn’t even have room for Pac-Man Championship Edition DX, which I also thought was great. That signifies to me that 2010 was a great year for games, even if the industry didn’t have such a great year overall. I can’t wait to see what 2011 has in store, and if I can stick true to my goals for the New Year, I will be talking even more about them.
To all of you, I wish a Happy New Year. May 2011 be our best one yet.