It's odd really. I've never played a game of proper arcade pinball in my life, but give me a computer version of it and I'm there! Pinball Dreams and Pinball Fantasies on the Commodore Amiga rank amongst my favourite games of all time; Williams Pinball Classics on the PS3 is a fantastic game; and then there's this little beauty. Originally released as a PC shareware title back in the 1990s, it's found a new home on the iPhone/iPad.
The basic app comes with three different tables - Android, Pangea and Crash and Burn. This might not sound a lot, but they all feel and play quite differently, so there is a lot of variety built into the game. The three tables each have different themes (robots, monsters and cars respectively), layouts and scoring mechanisms, so each offers a different challenge. Further tables are also available at a cost of £1.99 each, although I get so much fun out of the three basic ones, I've never felt the need to buy any more. True, you can only play on the free tables for a limited amount if time each day (unless you shell out extra for more balls), but I don't play the game in long bursts, so this isn't an issue for me.
Since the scoring mechanisms of each table are different, learning them takes a little while, but this is actually a lot of fun. A set of rules is provided for each table (telling you how to unlock the various bonuses), but to be honest, it's a lot more fun just getting straight in there and playing, working things out as you go along. This gives you a real sense of achievement when you suddenly realise you have done something that unlocks the potential for a mega bonus that will help you eclipse your previous high score.
As with any good pinball table, the mechanics of playing are quite straightforward but mastering them and getting those really high scores will take a lot of practice. The chances are you will prefer one of the tables over the others (Android is my personal favourite), but they are all fun. And, of course, the purpose of a game like this is that even when are good at a table, there is always the challenge of beating your high score. Scores are also now integrated into the GameCenter (a feature that was lacking in the earlier versions), so you can even compare your score with those of other gamers across the world.
Graphics are everything you expect from a pinball game: bright, colourful and full of flashing lights. They are not particularly special by today's standards (the game is a straight port of the original PC version), but pinball games don't need to look particularly flashy. The design of each table is very strong, giving a range of targets to aim for and flashing lights and brightly lit ramps help you to work out where you need to hit to build high scores.
The graphics are not without issues. To provide more space for the controls, the game doesn't use up the full screen, leaving a big blank space in the lower part. This does mean that when played on an iPhone or iPod, the active gaming area is squeezed into an even smaller space on an already small screen. This can result in the game feeling a little cramped with writing tricky to read on some of the tables. Similarly, due to the relatively small gaming area, the ball can often ping at you at speed, leaving little time to react. The game is certainly more fun when played on the bigger iPad, but it's testament to the strong gameplay that these niggles don't kill it on the iPhone.
Sound is fantastic; too evocative of the sounds of old videogame arcade (remember them?!) Each table comes complete with its own tune and sound effects that reflect the table's theme (Crash and Burn is packed with motoring sounds, Super Android with futuristic bleeps etc.) Whilst none of the tunes are ever going to win Music of the Year awards, they are reasonably atmospheric and don't grate on the ears. It's the sound effects that really work well, though. The mechanical clunking of your flippers or the thudding noise made as your ball bounces around the table are very satisfying, brief blasts of music provide aural feedback on your progress and combine well with the flashing lights and bright graphics. This is definitely one to play with the sound levels on full!
Crucially, the in-game physics are spot on. The little ball behaves exactly as you would expect it to. Whilst it's not always easy to control (the ball sometimes pings around at such speeds that you are reduced to manically pressing the flippers and hoping for the best), it is easy to predict the trajectory of the ball. It moves in a realistic way and bounces off objects in a predictable fashion. There are no sudden, unexpected rebounds and the ball doesn't suddenly ping off at ridiculous angles. If the ball goes into a gutter and is lost, most of the time you've no-one to blame but yourself.
Controls could not be easier. There are essentially just two things to remember. To launch a ball, you drag your finger down the launch ramp and let it go (the further back you pull your finger, the faster the ball will launch). Other than that, you just have to press on the right or left of the screen to activate that flipper. It's so simple anyone can pick it up, yet the various combinations of flippers on each table give you a massive amount of control over the ball.
In theory, this is where that big blank area of screen that I mentioned earlier comes into play. Pressing in the area below the tables is meant to work the flippers, so you can control the game without obscuring the screen with your fingers. In practice, I've found it doesn't always register such presses, so I tend to place my fingers over the actual on-screen flippers. Whilst this is much more responsive, it does mean that occasionally the location of the ball can be hidden by your fingers and drop off the table before you realise it is there.
It's good to see that some things never change. This was a fantastic game when it first arrived on the PC and it's a fantastic game now. There might be a couple of issues on the iPhone with the cramped screen and controls, but on the whole this remains a deeply satisfying pinball game.
© Copyright SWSt 2012