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Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Creepy Classic of the Month - Centaur

Design:Jim Patla (table), Paul Faris (art)

There are things from your childhood that will stay with you your whole life, memories that sit deep inside your subconscious and are never forgotten, even if you cannot instantly recall them. Some of these memories may be significant — the death of a grand parent or some achievement at school — but some will be trifling. For me, one of the latter memories is the dark Gothic art work for Bally's pinball table, Centaur. I did not know the name of the table, only the backboard art, with the H.R. Gigar-esque design of the part demon, part motor cycle, wielding a battle axe and the leather-clad rock chick riding him. It scared me and made me think the people playing the table must be dark, malevolent types, but it fascinated me all the same. It was only when Farsight Studio's converted the table for their Pinball Arcade platform that my memories all clicked into place. As soon as I saw it I had to play it and I found that beyond the scary art is a brilliant pin. Since then I've played the table a lot, but I still find Paul Faris's art work a little creepy, so I had to make it my Halloween classic for 2014.

The stark, dingy art work of the backboard and sides carries over on to the playfield, which is one of the gloomiest ever made; everything is black, white and red. If you play on a table with dim or faulty bulbs, it can be quite difficult to see anything at all. Like many tables from the early 80s, Centaur has primitive synthesized sound that, although basic, only adds to its eerie atmosphere. As you play the table instructs you to "Destroy Centaur" and says the names of the table's various features as you enable them.

Key to success in Centaur are the table's O.R.B.S. drop targets, which can initiate multi-ball mode in a number of ways. Drop all four targets and you'll lock a ball for multi-ball. Drop the targets in order and you'll both lock a ball and trigger a multi-ball at the same time. To initiate the multi-ball you have to hit the captive ball in the chamber on the top left and knock down another series of drop targets, until eventually you hit the release target to launch the locked balls. However, it takes considerable skill to do this, which is why the table is such a beloved classic. Thankfully, that's not the only way to get multi-ball on Centaur and in fact it's possible to "lock" balls without ever having a ball go out of play, thanks to a clever trap-door launch mechanism under the shooter lane.

I used to think nudging was kinda cheating, but here it is encouraged in the game's design. There are small, rubber notches on the outlanes, which, if you rock the table just so, will bounce the ball back into play, preventing it from draining.

This table is too early for DMD, so it has 7-bit displays for the scores. This means that unlike later tables the amount of direction the player gets from the backboard is limited. Thankfully, as well as its famous synthesized voice commands, the game also makes clever use of colour-coding. with different coloured bulbs showing the player which targets trigger which features. For example, a green light in the top right hand corner indicates that the target behind can be used to reset the green drop targets below.

Playing it today, Centaur may look basic, with no ramps, multiple tiers or even spinners. However, its multifaceted multiball mechanism makes it every bit as rewarding as many more intricate-looking tables. The video below shows a beautifully restored Centaur table in action, which looks brighter than a normal table thanks to the LEDs that have been used to replace the original bulbs.

And this video, by the brilliant Todd Tuckey of TNT Amusements, explains the rules brilliantly.

I still vow to own a pinball table one day and while it's likely I'll opt for a newer, more reliable Stern, Jersey Jack or Heighway table, when it comes to classic pins, Centaur is very high on my want list.

And as a final note, if you're looking for more Halloween games, Pinball Arcade has recently added Phantom of the Opera and Bram Stoker's Dracula, to go along with Centaur and its other spooky tables, such as Haunted House, Gorgar, Class of 1812, Monster Bash and both Elvira tables.


Saturday, 13 September 2014

Classic of the Month - GORF

Manufacture:Dave Nutting Associates/Midway
Design:Jay Fenton
Genre:Shoot 'em up

Although there had been space games before Space Invaders, Taito really started something with their 1978 hit arcade game. Rivals and rip-offs soon flooded the market, many of which (such as Galaxian, Galaga and Phoenix) went on to become legends in their own right, but there were plenty of others that history has forgotten. One neither I nor history can forget is 1981's GORF, developed by Dave Nutting Associates and manufactured by Midway. This game was both a imitator and an innovator in equal measure.

GORF puts you in control of decidedly familiar-looking space fighter, defending Earth from the Galactic Orbiting Robot Force (or GORF for short). If you watch the game's attract mode you will see it has five different stages, more than a few of which will be very familiar.
  1. The first stage is called Astro Battles and it's a Space Invaders clone, even down to the design of the aliens. The only major difference is instead of shelters you get a force field, which the player can shoot through without damaging it, although each piece of the force field can only take one impact from an enemy missile.
  2. The second stage is called Laser Attack. It features a small number of aliens flying around two gun ships, firing long straight lasers that fill the screen and restrict your movement. If you were being fussy you could say the game is a bit like Galaga, but I think that would be pushing it a bit. The key to this level is to take out the gun ships first, then life is much easier.
  3. The third stage is called Galaxian and it's exactly that, only with more erratic bullet patterns. Quite how Midway got away with a direct clone of not one but two major arcade games I'll never know.
  4. The forth stage is called Space Warp and it's probably the most original of the five (even if it does have a passing resemblance to Tempest). This time you are flying through a worm hole (I think), with aliens emerging one by one from a portal-like shape at the end. This is actually the easiest level of the lot, as it's possible to pick off each alien ship as soon as it appears.
  5. Finally there is the Flag Ship stage, in which players battle the game's boss. This level is somewhat similar to the final level of Phoenix, with you having to blast through a shield to hit the flag ship's weak spot and blow it up.
GORF was effectively a mini-game collection, an idea designer Jay Fenton would re-use the following year with his adaptation of Tron (which also used the same pistol-grip joystick as GORF). Each stage played slightly differently and when it came to choosing where to put your precious 10p's, it did appear to offer more bang for your buck than the games it plagiarised.

If you completed all five rounds you would get a promotion, as indicated by an array of six light-up panels on the right of the screen. The ranks were:
  1. Space Cadet 
  2. Space Captain
  3. Space Colonel
  4. Space General
  5. Space Warrior
  6. Space Avenger
This was, to my knowledge, pretty rare and it did feel kinda nice seeing the ranks light up (although I never got past Space Captain). However, with each rank the difficulty escalated, which meant if you wanted to be a Space Avenger you needed to do more than just be consistent — you had to improve your game every rank.

Inserting a coin into a GORF machine revealed something else a bit different: more coins = more lives. The game had no continue, but by doubling your credit you could double your lives (six instead of three). The trade off being that there were separate highscore tables, so sneaky-sneaks couldn't rack up a mighty score with six lives and pass it off as a three life run.

Playing GORF also feels quite different from the games it mimics due to the fact the player's ship could also move up and down, not just left and right. This gave you the ability to dodge around enemy fire, in much the same way as Juno First. Further more, unlike either Space Invaders or Galaxian, GORF let you fire as fast as you wanted, although launching a fresh missile cancelled the one before it. This meant if you wanted to hit a high up enemy you had to be patient, where as the dive bombers could be sprayed with bullets and destroyed at close quarters. So despite the crazy bullet patterns, GORF was generally easier to play than Galaxian, Galaga or Space Invaders. 

Finally, you cannot talk about GORF without mentioning its digitised voice. Sounding somewhat like a Speak and Spell with attitude, the game taunts you throughout, with quips like, "You cannot escape the Gorfian empire" and "Some galactic defender you are!" when you get shot. It even referenced your current rank in its taunts. This helped draw crowds to the game and made it very popular indeed.

GORF was ported to a number of 8-bit computers and consoles, including the Commodore 64 and VIC-20, the Atari 800, 2600 and 5200, BBC Micro B and the ColecoVision. However, the Galaxian stage did not make it into any one these ports — and not just because of technical limitations. The video below shows the original arcade version and all of the ports, of which the ColecoVision was probably the best.


Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Classic of the Month - Willow

Design:Hiroyuki Kawano and Seigo Ito

The 1980s had some great games and also some great kids fantasy adventure movies. Princess Bride, Krull, Dark Crystal, Legend, Labyrinth, Beastmaster, Sword and the Sorcerer, Neverending Story I could on for some time and if I did it wouldn't take me too long to get to Willow. Showcasing the ever-likeable Warwick Davis as the titular Willow and co-starring Val Kilmer and Joanne Whalley, the movie was the brainchild of (1980s) George Lucas (the one we still like). It wasn't a huge success, but it was nonetheless popular enough to warrant several video game adaptations across a number of platforms. Of course we're here to look at the arcade version, which was by Capcom.

The game puts you in the roles of dwarven trainee wizard/farmer Willow Ufgood and outlaw/swordsman-for-hire Madmartigan on a quest to protect the holy baby, Elora Danan, from the evil witch queen, Bavmorda — just like the movie. The game is essentially a platformer, with Willow being able to fire magic missiles and Madmartigan flashing his foil in a similar way to Strider. Both characters are able to charge their weapons to unleash more devastating attacks and knowing when to charge, run and jump is vital if you want to survive more than a couple of levels. Slain enemies drop coins, which you can spend by walking into the owl-like shop keeper (a creature whom I do not recognise from the films, to be honest). Among the usual supply of keys and health bars are new spells for Willow. Once purchased, these spells appear as additional segments on his charge bar, so by holding the attack button for specific amounts of time you can select the spell you require. In later levels, this includes things like an area of effect attacks and even the ability to freeze enemies. You can also free the brownies, Rool and Franjean, who run along side you and attack, much like a Force bit in R-Type or Option in Gradius.

At first glance it would be easy to write this game off as a pretty, but generic movie tie-in and a poor cousin to other Capcom platformers, such as Ghosts and Goblins. However, the platforming is very tight and both Willow and Madmartigan control brilliantly. As well as standard jumps, pushing up and jumping will get you some extra height, while holding down and attacking performs a useful sliding tackle. When you have platforms that are way above your standard jump height, you can get to them Shinobi-style by pushing up and jumping. All of which means the controls are surprisingly versatile for a game of that period. Another good plus point is that this game does an above average job of portraying its source material, helped by the gorgeous 2D sprites. I mean check out the image above, right. Brilliant for 1989. As ever with old arcade games, Willow is brutal. Not only does it constantly throw enemies at you, it has a fair degree of pattern recognition to perfect and the platforming is up there with the best of the genre. Playing this game legally is basically impossible, because it was never ported and each home version was a actually different game. Even Capcom's own NES Willow game was different, taking a more Zelda-like approach to the movie adaption. So in lieu of playing it, here is a complete playthrough video:


Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Classic of the Month - Marble Madness

Design:Mark Cerny

Marbles. We all played with them as kids and so when, in 1982, Atari's Mark Cerny created Marble Madness, a game based on the venerable playground activity, it was a guaranteed hit. The premise behind the game was simple: guide the marble to the exit, avoiding hazards en route. It's as basic as can be, but the combination of great course design, challenging game play, eye-catching visuals and one of the best video game sound tracks of the early 80s meant that it was as addictive as they get.

The game is played from an isometric perspective, in order to give the illusion of the courses being three dimensional. With the aid of some Escher-like level design, you genuinely feel as through you are progressing through a 3D terrain and can clearly determine when hazards are on your platform. All told there are just 6 courses in the game, some of which take less then a minute to complete, meaning that it's possible to finish the game in less than 10 mins. However, like most games of that era getting good enough to finish at all takes months of practice. I've never got past the 4th. The difficulty comes in two parts. 1.) The hazards, which range from narrow or steeply banked sections of the courses, to hostile marbles, acidic platforms and marble-gobbling bouncing tubes.

Marble Madness was subsequently ported to every platform going throughout the 80s, 90s and 00s. Even today you can get a rather good clone on Android and PCcalled Flarble Badness. However, the arcade machine used trackballs to provide control over your marbles, which were far more precise and responsive than using a keyboard, joystick, mouse or even touch screen controls of any of the home versions.

The video below shows the game in action. The screen display isn't the best, but it does show how crucial the trackballs were.

Finally, I can't talk about this game without talking about a cover of the title track by indie musicians Stemage and Disasterpeace. They manage to take everything that makes the track so memorable and elevate it to become a soaring, majestic, uplifting piece of music. You can listen to it here.


Sunday, 22 June 2014

Classic of the Month - Baby Pac-Man

Genre:Maze / pinball hybrid
Board:Taito F3

Here on Arcade Throwback, when I write a classic of the month feature, I talk about games I've played. Usually I've will have played the original arcade machine, but sometimes I've only ever played a port, conversion or occasionally, an emulated version (if it's something rare, like Aztarac, which I covered in February. This month's classic is a game I've never seen or played in any form, but boy do I want to.

As you'll know, Arcade Throwback loves video games and pinball in equal measure, and so why wouldn't I crave a machine that combines these two loves and wraps it in one of the biggest arcade franchises of all time -- Pac-Man!

After the initial success of Pac-Man in the arcades, development of the sequels was split between the original developers (Namco) and the US/EU distributors (Bally/Midway). So while Namco gave us Super Pac-Man, Bally/Midway produced games like Ms Pac-Man and it is that spin-off that spawned Baby Pac-Man, a character who first appeared in the intermissions of Ms Pac-Man, courtesy of a stoke (what else?).

The machine itself is noteworthy as a brilliant piece of design. Its form factor is hardly any different to a standard upright arcade machine. The difference is that where the monitor would traditionally sit (in the bottom of the cabinet, facing up), is a compact pinball table. The display of the video game portion is then a 10" monitor, housed horizontally. The playfield of pinball table goes underneath the monitor, making the best possible use of the space.

In terms of gameplay, this is one of the most different games in the entire series. The video game portion is your usual ghosts and maze combo, however there are no power pills. In order to get one of those, you have to guide Baby Pac down one of the tunnels at the bottom of the maze, where upon the video game halts and a silver ball is released on to the table.

The playfield for the table is relatively simple and also quite symmetrical. Hitting the 4 targets at the top of the playfield lights up a letter of the word PACMAN in the corresponding column. Complete a column and you earn a power pellet. You can also earn a power pellet by hitting the captive ball that loops between the 1st and 4th columns. In the centre is a blue target. Hit it 6 times and you get an extra life. In the top corners are are loops, each of which leads to a rollover and an inlane (there are no outlanes). The left the loop has the letters FRUITS, which will light up one at a time with each successive rollover. Every time you complete all six letters a higher scoring fruit appears on the maze. On the right is a same thing, but with the word TUNNEL. Spell this out and you effectively power up the tunnels, so you can evade the ghosts more quickly.

In a unique twist, losing the ball is integral to the game, as this is how you get back into the video game portion. Only here can you lose a life and lose a life you will, because this game is even more relentless than Ms Pac-Man. If you've been successful in the pinball portion of the game then you'll have some better fruit and (crucially) some power pellets, but now the tunnels to the pinball table are closed. They will only re-open if you clear the level or die (I'll leave you to guess which is the more likely).

In theory you can play whichever part of the game you choose, but in reality you have to think when it will benefit you the most to drop down into the pinball game and whether or not you play the pin game for as long as possible or just long enough to get what you want to play the video game. The balance of the game is such that the chances are you will have to flick between both to be truly successful.

When I think of arcade machines (not just the games) I would love to play these days, this is right up there with a hydraulic Space Harrier, a G-Loc 360 and a Star Rider, because it offers something so few games have ever offered. Despite how good this game is, it wasn't very popular and as such there are very few examples of other hybrid machines. It's an idea that Williams tried to resurrect with their Pinball 2000 system, by adding holographic video game sequences to Revenge from Mars and Star Wars: Episode 1 pinball tables, but by all accounts neither game were as good as Baby Pac-Man.

Here's some footage from John's Arcade which shows the game off really well, although warning, there is some swearing between 6:05 and 6:20.


Sunday, 1 June 2014

A brief history of pinball

At the beginning of Steven L. Kent's 'Ultimate History of Video Games' there is this quote by former CNN Computer Connection producer, Steven Baxter, which says:

"You can't say that video games grew out of pinball, but you can assume that video games wouldn't have happened without it. It's like bicycles and automobiles. One industry leads to the other and they exist side by side. But you had to have bicycles to one day have motor cars."

So when people point at Pong or even the oscilloscope game Tennis for Two, way back in 1958, as the origins of video games, they are missing out on this simple truth. With that in mind here is Arcade Throwback's brief history of pinball, the true origin of arcade gaming and the huge home and mobile gaming industry we know today.

Bagatelle and the beginning of pinball

Being essentially mechanical in nature, pin games have been around for centuries, all the way back to Bagatelle tables in the 15th century, like the one below.

An example of a Bagatelle table.
Even without flippers, flashing lights, ramps or digitised score[board]s, it's easy to see how this could be the origin of pinball, although it's actually a form of billiards. Some versions of Bagatelle also included wooden pins, which  had to be avoided in order to get the balls into the cups. A few centuries later, a variant called billiard Japonais (Japanese billiards) replaced the cues with a plunger and the free-standing wooden pins with fixed, metal pins (basically nails). Billiard Japonais went on to inspire a few other games, including pachinko and something that got us a whole lot closer to the pinball we know today, but for that we need to fast forward to the 1930s.

Baffle Ball and Ballyhoo

In 1931 David Gottlieb invented a variation of billiard Japonais which he called Baffle Ball. In this new game players had to rock the table to get the balls into the desired hole — a technique that would later become known as nudging. Compare the photo of Baffle Ball (below) to the photo of the Bagatelle table above and the resemblance is undeniable.

Gottlieb's first pin game.
The success of Gottlieb's game meant it wasn't long before others started to create their own pin games. Among them was Ray Moloney, owner of Lion Manufacturing and creator of Ballyhoo. Moloney's game was so successful, he decided to change his company name to Bally and a future legend of pinball was born.

By all accounts, Gottlieb had a knack for balancing skill and challenge to make fun games, but around the same time another big name for pinball emerged. His name was Harry Williams and he was a Standford-educated engineer, which meant he knew how to create complex mechanisms for his games. In 1933 he created Contact, the world's first electric pinball game. Previously, once a ball landed in a scoring pocket, it had to be retrieved by hand (either by picking it out of the pocket or from a collection tray at the bottom). Contact's scoring pockets had electrically-powered contacts (hence the name) that knocked the ball back into play, allowing the game to continue uninterrupted. Unfortunately, it is around this time that problems started to occur for pinball and pin games, all of which linked back to early gambling machines called pay-outs, which looked a little like pinball machines. It seemed some people in authority couldn't (or wouldn't) see the difference.

Pinball outlawed

A pinball machine being demolished after a raid

By the 1940s, pinball was outlawed in many parts of America, as it was thought to be a form of gambling with links to organised crime. It was also thought to be a bad influence on America's impressionable youth, who would waste their time and money on the games. In 1942, New York Mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, authorised raids on pinball establishments and issued arrest warrants for their owners. And what happens when the authorities try to ban something? It goes underground, develops an almost mythical reputation and becomes more popular than ever. The manufacturing, innovation and popularity of pinball continued unabated, with Chicago becoming the capital of pinball production, despite it also being illegal there. It was in the windy city that Gottlieb, Bally and Williams were all based. Gottlieb in particular battled to legitimise his games. He knew the key would be to prove pinball was more than a game of chance, which meant his games needed to demonstrate the need for skill.

Putting the flip into pinball

In 1947, Harry Mabs, one of Gottlieb's engineers, added spring-powered "flipper bumpers" to a game called Humpty Dumpty. The flipper bumpers were used to knock the ball back into play, in exactly the same way as modern pinball, which added weight to Gottlieb's argument that pinball needed skill to play. As the video below shows, Mabs' flipper bumpers were not located at the bottom and there were more than two of them - in fact, there were six:

Flippers revolutionised pinball, to the point that in France, pinball tables are known as le flipper. Gottlieb's competitors got in on the act and for the next few years all pin games had six flippers in a similar arrangement to Humpty Dumpty. Eventually having two flippers at the bottom of the table became the norm, but it was actually for reasons of thrift, rather than design choice. The man to thank for that was Steve Kordek, a designer at a company called Genco. He was under instructions to save money in his designs, so he reduced the number of flippers to two and in order to make them as useful as possible, he put them at the very bottom of the table. The result was a table called Triple Action. It's still not quite the pinball we know today, as the flippers still pivoted from the middle of the table, rather than the outside edges (a la Humpty Dumpty), but it was still a major step forwards.

Two flippers at the bottom. The start of something big.
The introduction of flippers proved pinball needed skill to play and by the mid-70s most US cities lifted the ban. This is what Gizomodo has to say about the day the ban on pinball was lifted in New York:
"In May of 1976 in New York City, Roger Sharpe watched nervously as city council members piled into a Manhattan courtroom. Reporters and camera operators had already begun setting up, eagerly anticipating the proceedings ahead. Roger, a young magazine writer for GQ and the New York Times among others, did not expect this kind of attention. He knew lots of people, from bowling-alley-hanging teens to the Music & Amusement Association, were depending on him, but didn’t realize the whole country would be watching. Roger had been selected for this particular task not only for his knowledge and expertise, but for his legendary hand-eye coordination. He was there to prove that this was a game of skill, not chance. He was there to overturn the ban. He was there to save the game of pinball."
Despite this, bans on under 18s playing pinball remained in various parts of the US up until the 2000s and pinball was still illegal in the town of Beacon, NY, up until 2010 (and may still be). I cannot find anything to suggest pinball was banned in the UK, but our laws did influence the industry. In 1991, UK laws on chance games saw the introduction of the ball saver feature. This is why modern pinball tables will often give you a free ball if, straight after being launched, it drops out the bottom without the player hitting it.

Dark heart of the arcade

For decades, the pinball machine was a symbol of delinquency and rebellion, like rock 'n' roll and motorcycles. Even up until the 1980s, antagonists in movies were sometimes seen playing pinball, as if to imply that was part of their dangerous personalities. YouTuber Bumper McBaulogh (I believe that's his actual real name) has made a series of videos called Pinball in the Movies, which shows clips of films that feature pinball, with no voice over or any other narrative about the nature of the machines' representation. In each case, the machines are in some way linked to immoral, unscrupulous or outright illegal activities. You can check out Bumper's channel here. Perhaps the most graphic example of a pinball table being associated with dangerous, even evil people, was in the 1988 Jonathan Kaplan film, The Accused. If you haven't heard of the film, it features a grotesque sequence in which a drunk Jodie Foster is held down and gang raped on a re-branded Bally Space Invaders table (called Slamdunk in the film, which feels like some kind of tasteless pun, given the context).

From my memories as a child, pinball tables seemed to attract a more sinister crowd than the likes of Frogger or even Mortal Kombat. In the arcades I visited, pinball machines were separate from the video games and were often located with the one-armed bandits and fruit machines (that link to gambling still rearing its ugly head again). Many of the tables I encountered in smoky city centre arcades were based on horror movies or some other Gothic theme. Tables such as Tales from the Crypt, Centaur, Freddy: A Nightmare on Elm Street, Haunted House, Gorgar and Spooky all instantly spring to mind.

But that's enough about the negative side of pinball.

Innovations and the golden age of pinball

Harry Williams' electric contacts began the steady technological progress of pinball. From the 40s up to the 70s electromechanical (EM for short) machines ruled pinball. As the name suggests, these used electrically-powered mechanisms, such as relays, to control things like sink hole returns, slingshots, bumpers and even scoreboards. These machines had very limited sound, usually nothing more than a bell and the clatter of the relays, which even today are synonymous with pinball.

An EM scoreboard from a Williams Go Go Pinball machine
In the 70s, consumer electronics blew up in a big way, with the first wave of electronic record players, video cameras and home computers emerging from America and Japan. It was in 1976 that Micro Games released the first solid state pinball machine, Spirit of '76. Gone were the relays, now the gameplay and scoring was controlled by electronic circuits. Along with the circuit boards came LED scoreboards, sound effects, synthesized music and eventually voices, which could issue instructions (or sometimes taunts) to the player. It was the beginning of the golden age of pinball.

Spirit of '76, apparently the first electronic pinball machine.
From 1977 onwards solid state machines ruled the pinball scene and by the end of the 80s, pinball was more popular than ever, but there was another, even bigger change on the horizon.

In 1991, Data East introduced a new kind of score board into a machine called Checkpoint. This new technology used an array of orange LEDs to create a dot matrix display (or DMD for short). It was the biggest innovation in pinball since Harry Mabs added flippers to Humpty Dumpty. Not only did DMDs allow pinball manufacturers to display graphics in their games, they could also give the player detailed instructions and even provide stories for the player to follow. This elevated the gameplay above simply hitting targets, bumpers and ramps in order to get high scores, now players could aim to trigger the next chapter in an interactive blend of story, skill game and puzzle.

Decline of the industry

Sadly, as arcades diminished, so too did the demand for pinball tables. Despite new innovations and attempts to attract new players, pinball machines were dragged under with the fall in popularity of video arcade games. Below is Bally's promotional video the classic Cirqus Voltaire from 1997This video includes a company briefing with a sales chart clearly showing the decline in pinball's popularity over the past few years.

This decline was not just a bump in the road, but the edge of a cliff for pinball. By the end of the millennium, most of the great manufacturers had gone out of business.

Here's a list of casualties:
  • Italian manufacturer, Zaccaria, stopped making pin games in 1988.
  • Data East was bought by Sega in 1994 and renamed "Sega Pinball".
  • Midway sold Bally to the Hilton Hotel group in 1995, but made no more pin games.
  • 1996 saw the end of Gottlieb, Alvin G & Co. and Capcom's pinball division.
  • Williams went under in 1999, despite their attempts to revitalise interest in pin games with their hybrid "Pinball 2000" machines.
  • In 1999 Sega sold their pinball division (which was formerly Data East's) to the then President of Sega Pinball, Gary Stern who called his new company "Stern Pinball".
For around a decade, Stern was the only major pinball manufacturer left in the world. They survived by making machines based on bands, films and TV shows; Pirates of the Caribbean, AC/DC, Lord of the Rings, Sopranos, CSI, Terminator 3, Spider-man, Metallica, Avatar, Tron Legacy, The Simpsons, Batman, Indiana Jones and Iron Man all got a pinball machine, thanks to Stern.

The power of nostalgia

Thankfully, a deep-rooted love for pinball means there are plenty of people who will fight tooth and nail to see the industry commemorated and survive. As well as countless websites celebrating pinball, in 2009 the Las Vegas Pinball Collectors Club got together and opened the Pinball Hall of Fame. You can even do a Google Street View tour of the inside of the museum here. It is, quite frankly, incredible.

Inside the Pinball Hall of Fame, Las Vegas

Video pinball and emulation

For generations of pinball fans, they've only been able to enjoy the hobby because of a combination of original video pinball games and pinball emulators. Unlike arcade ROMs, which just need be ripped from the chips and emulated on MAME, Kayaks or whatever, digitising a pinball table accurately is an expensive and painstaking process. There is a community of people out there trying to do just that, with emulators such as PinMAME, Visual Pinball and Future Pinball, but like all emulation it is illegal - the scarcity of actual pinball machines does not get you out of that.

Thank God then for the mayor of Big Bear Lake, Jay Obernolte, whose video game company Farsight Studios, has been creating digital versions of classic tables from Gottlieb, Williams, Bally and Stern for the past decade. Initially they launched manufacturer-specific games with a dozen or so tables in them, but in 2012 they launched The Pinball Arcade. This all-encompassing, ever expanding pinball emulator features almost 50 classic tables and is available on pretty much every platform going.

Following in Farsight's footsteps, there is also Zaccaria Pinball by ASK Homework, which, as the name suggests, emulates Zaccaria tables (around two dozen of them). Unlike The Pinball Arcade, Zaccaria Pinball is only available on iOS and by all accounts it's a little buggy in comparison). But Zaccaria's machines are even harder to find in the real world than those from Bally, Williams, Gottlieb, Data East or any of the other big manufacturers, so let's hope it improves and becomes available on other platforms.

If you're willing to look outside of the classic tables, there is also Pinball FX 2 (known as Zen Pinball on some platforms), by Zen Studios. Also available on every platform going, Zen started out making original tables, such as Nightmare Mansion, Secrets of the Deep and Tesla. For the past couple of years they have gone the way of Stern and started making licenced tables, based on Marvel comics, Star Wars, the FIFA football association and other video games (the Plants Vs Zombies table is a riot).

One of many Star Wars-themed tables in Pinball FX 2/Zen Pinball

Sony also got in on the video pinball scene, with not one, but two games, both featuring licenced tables. For the original PSP there was Pinball Heroes. Released in 2010, it featured tables based on PlayStation 3 games such as Uncharted, Fat Princess, Pain and Everybody's Golf. More recently they released Pinball Rocks for iOS and Android. This rock and metal themed game features tables based bands such as AC/DC, Slayer, Alice in Chains and Bullet for my Valentine. Even movie studio MGM have produced a video pinball game - War Pinball, which features tables from based on movies such as Navy Seals, Missing in Action and (somewhat bizarrely) Platoon.

Pinball purists tend to scoff at video pinball, emulated or otherwise, criticising their physics and unrealistic features. Zen's games in particular include features that could not be done mechanically, such as figures that jump into the playfield to strike the ball and space ships flying around the table. While this annoys me a little, Zen's tables are still fun and challenging. More importantly, for the past decade these video pinball games are all most of us have had to slake our thirst for the silver ball.

The future of pin games

Despite the grim state of the industry a few years ago, things are starting to look up. In 2010, New Jersey-born business man Jack Guarnieri started up a new pinball manufacturer called Jersey Jack. Their d├ębut table is based on the MGM classic Wizard of Oz from 1939 and set pinball forums alight when they first announced the game. As this video shows, Jersey Jack have put their heart and soul into this table. It takes classic pinball elements and combines it with modern technology, like a 3D LCD back glass.

Then, in 2012, Andrew Heighway started up the UK's first major pinball manufacturer, Heighway Pinball. Seemingly coming out of nowhere, Heighway has some major industry names on-board, including artist Doug Watson (Attack from Mars, The Getaway: High Speed II, Terminator 2, Black Knight and Black Knight 2000) and designer Dennis Nordman (Elvira and the Party Monsters, Scared Stiff, Dr Dude, White Water (a person favourite). In an interview with the BBC, Andrew Heighway said, "There's been a huge boom in pinball smartphone and console games over the last few years. ...thanks to these video games, there are plenty of kids that have been primed for the real thing."  That is a very interesting quote indeed.

Full Throttle's playfield with an LCD display in the middle

Jersey Jack and Heighway Pinball may have grabbed the headlines in recent years, but they aren't the only ones making new machines. Nordman (again) teamed up with pinball artist Greg Freres (Monster Bash, Strange Science, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Revenge from Mars and Medieval Madness) to create WhizBang Pinball. Together they made a limited number of bespoke pinball machines from other donor machines.

Nordman also teamed up with a new company called Multimorphic to help them create Lexy Lightspeed - Galaxy Girl, a brand new machine built on Multimorphic's P3 platform and due for release at the end of the year. Here's Lexy in action:

The beauty of the P3 system is that its designed to play more than one game on a single table, thanks to its large LCD play field. So as well as Lexy Lightspeed, the table will also play Cosmic Cart Racing when it's finished. I like the idea, but I can't help feeling it falls between two stools, being neither a fully mechanical pinball table, nor a "skies the limit" video pinball, like the sort of thing Zen Studios have been delivering. Rather than being the best of both worlds, it seems like a dilution of both technologies - but hey, at least they're trying.

I'm particularly excited to see what comes out of Heighway, not least because they are the UK's first major pinball manufacturer, but also because more than any other company out there, Heighway are trying to push the industry forward and take advantage of new technology, without compromising the spirit of traditional pinball. Not only that, but they are trying to build pinball machines smarter, replacing unreliable mechanical parts with sensors and other, most robust devices. They are also offering modular tables, making it easier for operators to swap and change faulty parts. The video below shows an early prototype for Heighway's upcoming Circe's Animal House. On the right you can see a blank "white board" version of the table playing, but on the left, you can see what at first appears to be graphics projected on to the surface of another blank table, but which is in fact a transparent LCD display. This allows Heighway to display effects, scores, characters, anything they like, whilst maintaining an entirely traditional playfield.

So with Stern providing the backbone of the industry, The Pinball Arcade reminding a new generation what's so great about pinball, and Jersey Jack and Heighway leading the charge for new developments, it appears pinball is in a better state now than it was 15 years ago. All we need now is for pubs, bowling alleys, seaside arcades and restaurants to start stocking these new machines and we're in business.



BBC New - Flipping heck
BMI Gaming - The History of Pinball Machines and Pintables
Fun with Bonus - Circe's Animal House Preview
Gawker - Pinball Machines: Film's Omnipresent Villain
Gizmodo - How One Perfect Shot Saved Pinball From Being Illegal
Home Leisure Direct - Pinball buying advice
IMDB - The Accused
Pinball Fun - History of Pinball
Pinball Life
Pinball News - FULL THROTTLE: New team members, artwork and interview
Slate - Can this man save pinball?
The Internet Pinball Database
The Ultimate History of Video Games [book]
Wikipedia - Pinball

Friday, 16 May 2014

Classic of the Month - Time Machine


With the advent of Farsight Studio's (generally excellent) Pinball Arcade, it's easy to forget Williams, Gottlieb, Stern and Bally weren't the only pinball manufacturers. Sega, Capcom, Data East and even Atari made pins once upon a time, as did a little known Italian company called Zaccaria. They also a few video games, perhaps most notably Cat & Mouse and Lazarian, but they were much better known for their pins and Time Machine is perhaps their most famous.

The first thing I want to say about Time Machine is that the art work is stunning (like most Zaccaria pins). The back board has a dinosaurs and futuristic city motif, and is made from a painted, vacuum formed sheet of plastic, which gives it a vaguely three-dimensional appearance (a technique that was common to Zaccaria tables). In the centre is a mirrored circular hole, with lights around the edge, the reflections from which make the hole look like it's far deeper than it is in reality.

The clever tricks continue on the playfield, with a circular platform of [jet] bumpers that rises from the centre top. When this area is raised (as at the start of the game), you're in the future and while it's lowered,  you're in the past and can access to the targets at the top. The result is that the game has two sets of scoring modes, the past, which is indicated by the lights going up the stone pillar on the left and the future which is indicated by the lights going up the tower on the right.

The game also features four flippers at the bottom, which gives you a lot of control, but as there is not the usual triangular slingshots just above these flippers, you cannot hop the ball from left to right very easily.

This is a very simply table, both in its layout and its rules. There are no ramps, just the one big orbit at the back and the playfield is sparsely populated. However, this makes it a good training table for new players, as the clear field and the four flippers are good for teaching you to aim, whilst giving you time to think and follow the ball. There are also no out lanes and on your third ball you can earn a bonus 4th ball.

Here's a video of a guy playing a nicely restored Time Machine, which should give you a good idea of how the table worked.

If you want to give Time Machine a go, your best best is to download Zaccaria Pinball Master on the Apple store, which also includes other Zaccaria classics, such as Magic Castle, FarfallaSpooky and Robot (Zaccaria's answer to Pin*Bot).