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Games

Visual Pinball

Jason Thompson

Kids these days may seriously not have the pleasure of experiencing the whole wonderful mystery of why pinball carries a far greater pleasure than any video game I can name.


Platforms: PC/Mac
Multimedia: Visual Pinball
ESRB rating: N/A

What's a poor boy to do? Everywhere one looks, there are all sorts of new fangled video games with graphics that are photorealistic and music and sounds that are larger than life. They've left the arcades, too. Well, that is an arcade anymore, anyway? They used to be big, mysterious, and dark places all aglow with video screens and sounded like a hell-bent carnival from the future. Now they're usually a hole in the wall at the local mall with a handful of overpriced games that aren't really too good. Much like in the mid '80s, it appears that home gaming has taken precedence over the arcade experience. And of course, there are all those game emulators for your home computer that allows you to play all the great classics. So who needs an arcade?

A loaded question, to be sure. But what if you're a pinball freak? That beautiful game invented ages ago, way before anyone ever dreamed of putting a game on a video screen? At least in the US, pinball was the game that always echoed our culture's current tastes, attitudes, and fantasies With its often fanciful and beautiful back glass artwork and table illustrations, the pinball machine would beckon many from the dark corners of an arcade. The thing about pinball was it was always about the whole machine, not just the game play. A pinball enthusiast becomes part of the game, gripping on to the table, moving it, shaking it, almost making love to it in an odd way. And when you are in the "pinball zone", you're truly one with the machine.

Kids these days may seriously not have the pleasure of experiencing the whole wonderful mystery of why pinball carries a far greater pleasure than any video game I can name. For those shrinking arcades in the mall are usually lucky to have any pinball machines in them, and when they do, I find that I'm usually the only one playing them. What the hell happened to the once great industry? Video game revolutions come and go, but pinball was supposed to be forever.

And let's face it, video game pinball has always been only a fraction of the experience of the real thing. There have been rare exceptions to this, but for the most part, programmers just don't know how to get the feel of pinball down in their video game creations. Plus, all too often, video game pinball misses the whole point. The games usually have multiple screens and roaming creatures that crawl across the tables and all sorts of stuff that just isn't pinball. You just don't mess with a tried and true formula. Perfect it, yes. But you don't mutate it. It's exactly why people hated New Coke. It's exactly why the XFL failed.

But at one point in the last decade, Microsoft put out a stunning collection of video pinball called Microsoft Pinball Arcade. The fascinating thing about this set was that it replicated actual pinball table classics like Haunted House from Gottlieb, Cue Ball Wizard, and even included extremely classic tables from much earlier decades, such as the fantastic Slick Chick, and the game that started it all, Baffle Ball. These games were the actual tables, not just video recreations. Plus the game had as close to real pinball feel as one could get without actually being there. This was a revelatory collection, and one that would make any pinball freak want more.

But there wasn't any more. Why not? Does pinball just not sell for the computers just like it doesn't make it in the arcades anymore? Frustrating, to say the least. But then, I discovered that Microsoft and any other company didn't need to bother. It took a few years, but it finally happened. I finally found the crown jewel of PC pinball gaming.

It's a little thing called vpinmame and Visual Pinball.

One day while searching for MAME ROMs (that's the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator which allows one to play tons of actual classic arcade games on their computer utilizing the real game chips), I stumbled upon vpinmame. It looked too good to be true. Was this for real? A MAME for pinball freaks like myself? I drooled as I looked through the screen shots of table after table, and they looked just like those Microsoft Pinball Arcade tables or better, even. It seems for a while now there have been a crew of faithful programmers doing their best to keep pinball alive, and the experience of playing all these machines is nothing short of ecstasy.

Once again, I was able to play personal old favorites like Diner, Taxi, and Lethal Weapon 3. I even got to play classics from the '70s like Gorgar and Space Invaders. All with the tables faithfully recreated and sounds intact. A dream come true. Tons of tables. More being worked on daily. Plus there are tables from the '40s, '50s, and '60s. All it takes is a little searching, and a little know-how. But with vpinmame and Visual Pinball, you too can be reliving those pinball fantasies once more. Hell, you can even design your own game if you're talented enough.

And just like at the arcade, these recreations are just as infuriating. Sometimes I might absolutely kill on No Good Gofers, while the next my game might last a total of a minute. Pinball has always been about containing random chaos. Holding on in the eye of the storm for as long as possible before it finally blows you away, the only hope of winning is by reaching that magical replay score or matching at the end (and yes, these tables all have that wonderful loud cracking noise when either of these things happen).

So it looks like pinball is here to stay after all. You keep your Grand Theft Auto. I'm going to go rule on that Rocky and Bullwinkle table one more time. Just one more time.

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