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Pinball Dreams (PSP) artwork

Pinball Dreams (PSP) review

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It's not my first thought, or the second - but a few computer game concepts should probably not work. And if so, pinball should be one of them. After all, a pinball-table is about the physical switches, the careful and impressive, but ultimately pointless engineering. Without the table, really, what is the point.

To be honest, seeing a pinball table in digital form is almost heart-breaking. Before, it was pinball, with machines and magnets, with it's own mysterious rules inside the glass. All made with care, and tuned by hand to actually work. But afterwards, it's just sprites and lights.

Even if you looked at it more closely, and and decided a pinball table was just a glass box with particular mechanical rules manipulated with buttons from the outside - and therefore something that can be remade digitally quite easily. Even then, it's just not the same: Creating a virtual pinball table is similar to creating a digital fold-out book, or digitally animated Lego. You can tell right away that simply recreating the image of the physical original will lessen the creation, no matter how well made.

In short - the reason why a digital pinball table might work at all is a bit of a mystery.

And the reason why I'm even wondering about it in the first place is Pinball Dreams. In fact, that pinball-games are still made, is most likely because of Pinball Dreams. When pinball games will be attempted in the future, and fail embarrassingly, it will be because of Pinball Dreams and Digital Illusions.

So how did this happen, exactly? Pinball Dreams was originally released for the Amiga in 1992, and came out on a massive two 2.5inch floppy disks (that's almost 3 Megabytes), and had four tables. None of the tables are particularly fanciful, defy gravity, or have impossible moving parts or angles. In truth, they are fairly flat. There is no real attempt to make the tables look like the real thing, either. For example - all the scoreboards and pixel graphics are scrolled on top of the screen, outside of the table-view. While the overview covers about half of the table.

The ball-gravity is not seen. The same for any depth in the table, with the exception of when the balls pass on top of other graphics. But even then it's just a simple overlay - no shadowing, 3d attempts, or other illusions are used to make the ball appear to move in the depth.

No, it's the other touches that make this game so unique. The table rules are limited by the mechanics of a real board. The way the camera follows the ball at the right speed as it approaches the upper half of the table. And then does not move mechanically down to the flippers again afterwards. Almost as how you would naturally follow the ball, perhaps (if you had perfect overview while playing)? The ball-physics give you a sense of control over the ball as well, that would only make sense on an actual table, even though the graphical representation is different (and the physics are more consistent). You can also see the pixel-graphics outside of the board more clearly, without shifting focus.

All of this simulates better the real view you would have of a pinball table compared to a 3d overview, it seems, even though this representation is not true to life. The visual approach also makes it a good candidate for being played on a handheld with a smaller screen.

That the tables are well composed, has good graphics, and an authentic feel is important, of course. When the game was made, the graphics were extremely pleasing to look at (and they still are). But what always stood out (and took the most space on the discs) was the music and the sound-effects. Some of the more subtle touches that were produced on the advanced 8-bit music synthesizing machine were perhaps lost in the remixed track for the remake, since the music will not be replayed on the original hardware. But then again, you don't need a perfect recreation of the amiga soundboard, or an emotional attachment to the amiga demoscene, to appreciate the thematically aware compositions in Pinball Dreams, and the way the sound and music is expertly integrated into the gameplay.

Pinball Dreams maintains it's legendary status 18 years after it's initial release. By impossibly keeping, as it does also in this port, the addictive arcade pinball gameplay, when crossing over to the video-game format.

(Pinball Dreams was one of the three pinball games made by Digital Illusions, now DICE: Pinball Dreams, Pinball Illusions and Pinball Fantasies. Pinball Dreams has up to 8 player hotseat multiplayer)


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Community review by fleinn (January 15, 2010)

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