2.7k words rambling about pinball games
October 18, 2019

Okay, hear me out... there might be a pinball-shaped hole in your life.

Why might somebody want to play pinball, you ask? Particularly, in an age when you can pick just about any current platform you like, and experience rich, deep stories, frenetic action, and graphics that make real life look boring? Well, itís my firm belief that while folks are never wholly one or the other, people who play videogames tend to fall into one of two camps: story players, and gameplay-ers.
Of course, neither of these are better than the other, and there are numerous games that satisfy the desires of both camps, but by and large, I find that people who enjoy videogames tend to value gameplay mechanics above any artistic element, or vice-versa. For example, a story player might enjoy Race The Sun, appreciating the atmospheric music and striking visuals, while a gameplay-er might enjoy something like BeamNG.Drive, for the detailed destruction physics. Both are games concerned with controlling vehicles, but both are also starkly different in their gameplay and artistic intents: naturally, though there are people who like both, there will be players out there who prefer one or the other.
So, then, if you find yourself leaning towards the ďgameplay-erĒ end of the spectrum, I put it to you that you may be missing out on a flippiní good time.

Yeah, that one hurt to write.

In a world where some games now blast millions of invisible rays of logical light at virtual worlds to give the most perfect representation of whatever it is the rays are being blasted at, pinball offers a truly refreshing simplicity.
A purity of gameplay above all else, if you will.
In even the most extravagant cases of both virtual and real-world pinball (look up Hercules for some true pinball excess,) a few things remain the same throughout. Thereís always a ball, thereís always a flipper, thereís always a score, and thereís always a drain. So it has been written since the introduction of the flipper. Given these constants, the gameplay and objective hasnít changed much at all, either - even today, you still use flippers to launch a ball at targets, and will continue to do so, until the sun explodes and flings our insignificant rock into the endless void of space.
As such, Pinball is a remarkably reliable experience, and offers broadly the same good, clean, gameplay rush as it always has.
Whether you play an old electro-mechanical table, or a shiny new Stern table with all the bells and whistles, the harsh, mechanical clack of the flippers will always be satisfying, the sight of the ball going up the ramp is always cathartic, and the sound of a voice yelling ďMULTIBALL!!Ē Will never fail to make you grin.
Pinball also offers an intoxicating mixture of skill, strategy, and chaos, unique to the game. With skill, a player can deftly direct balls all over the playfield, and hit targets and combos all day, but elements like ball spin, bumpers, missed ramps, and even magnets ensure that the ball is never truly predictable. Itís that constant reaction, aiming, and timing, that keeps the player engaged, and chasing nothing but a meaningless score.
In simple terms, pinball offers a uniquely frenetic gameplay experience, where careful judgement and lightning-fast reactions mean the difference between enjoying yourself, and getting on the leaderboard.

So now that Iíve hopefully sold you on the idea of pushing a flipper button to release endorphins, Iím sure youíre wondering whatís the best way to play some pinball on your entertainment box?
This is a videogames website, after all. I have to make it about software somehow.
Well, the good news is that you can actually enjoy yourself some high-quality virtual pinball for the grand total of free.

Time was, the best virtual pinball you could lay your hands on came pre-loaded on Windows 95, but weíve moved on from Space Cadet, and weíre well past DVD-ROMs that cost twenty pound a hit. Nowadays, thereís three games you need to consider: The Pinball Arcade, Pinball FX3, and Zaccaria Pinball. Thankfully for all of us, none of these titles cost a penny to download, and all three offer a free starter table, with other tables available to purchase individually, or as packs, for a reasonable price.

First up to bat is Farsight Studiosí The Pinball Arcade. Having been on the scene for donkeysí years, The Pinball Arcade offers the widest variety of tables by far - and if you were smart enough to buy the Bally/Williams tables a few years back, the amount of top-quality pinball on offer is extraordinary.
Assuming youíre new to this, though, The Pinball Arcade offers a well-curated mix of Stern, Gottlieb, and Alvin G tables, from as far back as the Ď60s, all the way to the 2010s. This means that no matter what kind of gameplay you prefer, thereís a table youíre bound to love. Theoretically, thereís plenty of room for additional Atari, Capcom, Sega, and Data East tables in future, too, so Pinball Arcade is a real one to watch.
Tables and packs are priced competitively on The Pinball Arcade, too, with packs ranging from £6.20 to £11.40, which typically gets you about six tables. Considering how expensive some of the licenses on the Stern tables are, itís a fair price, and if you were to go to an arcade and play any one of the tables on offer in The Pinball Arcade more than three times, then buying them in the game makes financial sense.
Itís not all rosy, though: in comparison to the others here, Pinball Arcade remembers when all this was fields, and when placed next to the competition, you can really notice it.
While it neither plays nor looks particularly bad, The Pinball Arcade hasnít had a significant technical overhaul in years. In practice, this means that the physics simulation quality isnít up to snuff anymore, with things like ball inertia, ball spin and flipper rubber effects missing.
Itís a similar story with the graphics, too, which are only really controllable through the stock Unity launcher, and which only really extend to a few high/low/medium boxes, and the mandatory resolution options. While this does mean that Pinball Arcade will play nicely with older or lower-spec machines, it also means that it canít reach the dizzying heights that its contemporaries have climbed to, and until Farsight announces a version 2.0, it looks like it never will.

Next up is Zen Studiosí Pinball FX3.
Though Pinball FX made its name with fantasy tables - of which there is an extensive array available - itís their fairly recent acquisition of the Bally/Williams license that makes Pinball FX interesting here.
Zen designed Pinball FX3 around fantasy tables, and therefore never actually designed the game to have realistic physics, so itís a testament to just how dedicated the developers are, that theyíve managed to create such a high quality pinball sim. Though Pinball Arcade and Zaccaria Pinball currently offer more real tables, neither of them offer the prestigious Bally/Williams brand, and neither offer the same level of care and attention, or flair.
That flair is what sets PFX3 apart, I think.
Not content with simply integrating real tables into their game, the tables on offer all feature PFX3ís signature animations, floating scores, ball trails, and gorgeous graphics - all of which can be toggled on or off at a single button press. Itís a really nice way to take the tables you might already be familiar with, and give them a nice extra lick of paint. With all the extras toggled off, however, PFX3 offers the second most impressive visual experience in terms of accuracy, and certainly the most cohesive offering, once you factor in menus and such.
The visuals are only half of what makes Pinball FX so great, though: I havenít even touched on the physics.
I mentioned earlier that the default physics for PFX3 arenít modeled on real tables, but with the arrival of the Bally/Williams tables, the developers must have realised that they were catering to a different market. As such, all the tables in question feature an option to play with new, life-accurate physics.
These physics are really quite impressive. While the more arcade-y physics are on offer for those who prefer it, the realistic option offers a comprehensive list of improvements that make the tables on offer nearly perfect replicas of their real-life counterparts. As such, the ball is so much less predictable in Pinball FX3, and players need to have their wits about them, lest they get caught out by Theatre Of Magicís frankly nasty centre loop, or a missed castle shot on Medieval Madness.
That last oneís a guaranteed straight-down-the-middle drain in real life. I should know.
Table prices are a reliable £7.20 per pack for three tables, making PFX3 a harder pill to swallow on a value-for-money basis, but still a bargain, once you consider that playing each table three times would cost £9.
The real weakness of Pinball FX3, then, is probably the currently limited selection. All twelve tables on offer right now are late 80ís - 90ís games, so you donít get as wide a variety of gameplay as you do with Pinball Arcade. Itís possible that some of Williamsí electro-mechanical tables will arrive at some point in the future, but I canít rate hypotheticals. Thereís also a nagging social and integration issue around it. While being encouraged to play online isnít really an issue, I play pinball as a solitary experience, and so itís annoying that I keep getting rewarded with profile skins and the like for my playtime. The integration issue arises from the fact that no matter how good the Bally/Williams tables are, they really do feel like something that was modded into the game by a really talented mod team, or added as a DLC after the fact. They kind of are, but the point still stands.
Oh, and thereís also the fact that the mobile version is a festering, undulating, putrescent pile of rubbish, and Iím really disappointed that they would forsake mobile players so hard when the PC/console experience is so good.
But, then again, mobile.
Eww.

Last up is Magic Pixelís thoroughly oddball offering; Zaccaria Pinball.
As its name suggests, Zaccaria Pinball is all about pinball tables made by the Zaccaria manufacturer, and to that end, it delivers in spades. Thereís TONS of Ďem.
Though the game is technically still in early access, Zaccaria Pinball offers almost, if not all of the tables that Zaccaria ever made, and boasts an unprecedented amount of customisation options.
Of the three pinball sims here, Zaccaria is unique in the utterly crazy amount of tinkering that the player can do - both to the graphics, and to the table itself. Through an extensive series of menus, the player can modify the room that the tables are hosted in, the distance between the flippers, the force of the flippers, the size of the ball, the rubbers on the flippers, the frequency at which the lights flash and change colour, and so much more.
Thereís even ray tracing.
The gameplay on the tables isnít weak, either. Highly detailed physics make Zaccaria Pinball a blast to play, as well as a stunning looker.
On all of the tables that actually existed, Zaccaria is absolutely worth your time, but this is where things get weird.
See, I had to specify ďtables that existedĒ there, for a good reason: not all the tables here are, strictly speaking, real.
While none of them are utter fabrication, the ďremakeĒ and ďretroĒ versions of the tables available separately, donít actually exist in real life, and are instead re-imaginings of the existing mid-70s to 80s Zaccaria tables. This means that while the real tables are great, the other versions are a much more spotty affair. Though it wonít hurt you at all to get the ďretroĒ pack, seeing as you get a whopping 27 tables for the princely sum of eighty pence, itís fairly clear that youíre playing a game that was never meant to have the featureset that it does. As such, itís a great way to experience 50s/60s Electro-mechanical tables, but youíre likely to run into problems with them not present in the real EM tables that The Pinball Arcade offers.
Likewise, the remake tables offer much more involved, modern gameplay, but the physics and gameplay on those is noticeably different. These feel like fantasy tables, and play accordingly. Like the retro tables before, theyíre a great bit of fun, and add value to the game, but they just donít play like the real-world tables recreated so lovingly elsewhere in the game.
The game also has some strange and interesting bugs and UI choices, most alarming of which, is that my antivirus decided that the .exe for the game was, in fact, a virus.
Being sold on Steam, I can say quite assuredly that there is nothing underhand going on here, but nonetheless, thatís the first time Iíve ever had a game completely nuke itself after installation.
While perfectly functional, the menu design is also really quite clunky, with boxes of text and images comprising the pre-game menus, which is quite different to the slick, tiles-and-tabs experience of the table selection menu. Itís hardly a deal-breaker, but, yíknow, itís a bit ugly. Thereís also text that shows up at the bottom left of the screen, which shows you how your score stacks up against other players; itís a nice idea, and probably toggle-able, but the stock font doesnít make it look particularly premium.
In all, Zaccaria Pinball clearly has lofty ambitions of being the pinball loverís simulator, though I feel that it might have chosen the wrong license to base its whole schtick around, and current technical shortcomings stop it from being the absolute must-have game that it could be. Not a bad choice, by any means, but the one thatís most rough around the edges.
Maybe this time next year, itíll be fantastic.

With all that said, though, thereís a heavy, flashing, clunking elephant in the room; none of these are actually the real thing.
Theyíre all close enough to the real thing to have an absolute blast with, but none of them will ever quite match the feeling of playing a real pinball table. The speakers and circuitry in each different table is never going to be replicated perfectly on your TV, and neither will the effect of any tiny dimples on the playfield, or specific wear on the ball, or any of the many differences that crop up from one table to the next. Similarly, the actual ball is uniquely heavy, weighing nearly as much as two golf balls, in a package only about two thirds of the size, and when youíre playing a real, physical pinball table, you can actually feel the machine move as that ball is blasted around inside it. Thatís something that not even the most sophisticated rumble feedback can simulate.
Of course, putting coins into a machine for one play is something that some of you may balk at, and thatís understandable, but the difference between a real table and the simulation is often night and day, even if the simulation is incredibly high quality.
Iíve found, for example, that the waterfall shot on White Water is far harder in real life than it is on Pinball Arcade, and that, conversely, Theatre of Magicís killer centre loop is more forgiving in real life. Itís not enough to warrant never playing the simulations ever, but thereís just nothing quite like the real thing.

And thus ends my thinkpiece on a dumb game where you kick balls around with little sticks in a big box. Of course, if none of this sounds good to you, then thatís fine: youíre your own person, and you do you, but if Iíve stirred you into checking any of this out, then thankyou, reader. Iíll make sure to leave a credit in the machine for you.

After all, weíre all just looking for something to do while the earth turns and we get older. May as well kick back with a glass of something good, laugh about the bad times, and rack up some points.

Life is meaningless. Play pinball.

Feedback
CptRetroBlue CptRetroBlue - October 19, 2019 (03:50 PM)
I love pinball games. I am happy to find more that share my passion about them.
EmP EmP - October 20, 2019 (06:07 AM)
I picked up Pinball Arcade a while ago, but too late to get the Williams tables. Always bugged me, that.

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