Gather around children and I shall tell you a tale of the olden days. In that magical far off time, there existed these wonderful, exciting places called "arcades". Here cool looking youths and spotty teens would gather to play the latest video games, placing their little collection of 10ps (and, as inflation bit, 20ps and 50ps) on the cabinet tops to reserve their turn. In the B.C. (Before Consoles) era, this was the only way to play the latest games.
A staple of arcades were the pinball machines; odd, mechanical things that, to my young eyes, didn't look anywhere near as exciting as the flashy graphics and loud bangs of "proper" video games. Yet, despite being an analogue machine in an increasingly digital world, the popularity of pinball survives, as evidenced by this title, which brings 13 classic pinball tables from Williams into the comfort of your own home.
One thing is for certain, Williams Pinball Classics is going to be on your play list for a long time. For a start, it's a lot of fun: even playing through the 13 tables once is going to take a while. Once you have tried them all, mastering each will take even longer, but it's a challenge that you won't mind because it's so enjoyable. Of course, you will enjoy some tables more than others, but there are none that are terrible. With several Goals to achieve on each table, trophies to obtain and a number of different game modes (including a multi-player challenge), there is a lot of depth to Pinball Classics. Even when you have mastered the tables and unlocked everything, there is still plenty of playability left. Pinball is an unashamed score attack game, so there's always the challenge of trying to beat your best score on each table. Williams Pinball Classics is a game you will keep returning to.
There's an innovative Credits system too. You start with 10 Credits but can earn more as you get better and better scores on each table. As such, you're unlikely to run out of Credits, but it's a neat little touch which replicates the idea of having to feed money into the machine, without you actually having to do it!
Presentation is good without being over the top or flashy. I am assuming that they are all faithful recreations of the original tables, but since I've never played a game of pinball in my life, can't confirm this although they look pretty realistic. Some nice attract screens help create that "arcade" feel (although it's a shame these are static) and you can even "wander" around to a limited degree, looking left and right to the next machine or go upstairs where more machines are available. This makes selecting a game a bit more interesting (even if you do have to try and remember where in the arcade a particular title is!) There's nothing that comes close to pushing the PS3 to its limits, but it captures some of the feeling of being in an arcade.
Graphics on the tables themselves are also pretty good, although they vary significantly from tablet to table. Some are quite sparse in terms of the numbers of ramps, targets or buffers; others are packed and (initially at least) quite confusing. It also might not be a game for anyone who suffers from mild epilepsy or other visual disorders as many of the tables have lots of flashing. If you're not affected by such things, the flashing lights, moving targets and other aspects of the table are brilliantly implemented and really help to give the look of a "real" pinball game. A nice little touch is that the instruction booklet has a little potted history of each machine, detailing its date of release etc. There's nothing here that's essential to the game itself, but I found this interesting and a nice way of keeping the history and memory of the tables alive.
Where the graphics cause slight issues is with the camera angles. The default view is from above and slightly behind the table, essentially replicating the view you would have playing a physical table. Unfortunately, it's not the most natural angle for a computer game and even though you can select different cameras none of them quite work for. On the whole, I would have preferred the more straight-forward top down view adopted by Amiga classic Pinball Fantasies.
Sound effects are brilliantly observed and really add to the atmosphere. From the bells and fanfares as various targets are hit and trapdoors open to the satisfying sound of the ball as it pings around the table or the clunks from the flippers, everything is sounds authentic. A variety of tunes, speech and soundtracks play in the background or in response to certain targets being hit, further ramping up the atmosphere. This led the gamingly-challenged Mrs SWSt to dismiss it as "a very noisy game". In fairness, she has a point, but then pinball games are noisy. It's a pity there's not a little more ambient sound from the arcade (the chatter of other users, background noise of other machines etc.) but you can't have everything.
Crucially, ball physics are spot on, which makes the difficulty level just right. When they hit an object, they bounce in a predictable way, which gives you the opportunity to plot its trajectory and get ready for your next shot. Even when the ball speeds up, you can still accurately predict where it should go next. Essentially, if you lose a ball, it's because your reflexes are not quick enough, not because the game is unfair.
The PS3 controller proves tailor made for pinball. Controls are simple and the same on each table, so you can pick them up quickly, without having to constantly learn new ones. The L1 and R1 buttons are used to control flippers; the left stick is pulled back to operate the plunger and launch your ball and the right stick activates that classic pinball cheat of nudging the table to alter the line of the ball. These controls feel very natural and your fingers automatically fall onto these buttons.
It's odd, but I've never played a proper game of pinball in my life but I'm a real sucker for computer versions. Slight display issues aside Williams Pinball Classics is an excellent game that offers huge amounts of fun and a lot of long term challenge and playability.
Unfortunately, if I've piqued your interest, you're going to have to pay for the pleasure. Although it's a couple of years old now, the price is still holding up: a new copy will cost you around £25, and second hand copies are not much cheaper. It's worth it, though.
© Copyright SWSt 2012