Indiana Jones. I always knew some day you’d become part of Zen’s lineup. I never doubted that. Something made it inevitable. So, what are you doing here in Pinball FX3?
I learned to hate you over the last two weeks! Those damn house balls. That maddening capture ball lane. That succubus you call a left outlane. Pinball fans have waited for Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure to come home in an official capacity for almost thirty years. I think that has a lot to do with the table practically having an out-of-order sign tattooed on it. It’s a machine infamous for having issues and being unsuitable for routing in locations without a technician on stand-by. It’s a member of the SuperPin line, but it doesn’t feel like it. Some of the concept was done in part by Brian Eddy, but it doesn’t feel like it. Like Twilight Zone before it, you go into Indiana Jones aware that, no matter how much fun you have, it was a doom harbinger for the sport itself. The final table to join the 12K Club, and the second-to-last table to clear 10,000 units sold (Star Trek: The Next Generation was the last to do so). Of course, that’s purely on technical failings that have nothing to do with digital pinball. The Pinball Chick Team universally enjoyed the table, to varying degrees, and we all had different thoughts on it.
Made of Stern-er Stuff
by Angela D. Vice
Of the twenty-two conversions of real tables Zen has done, Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure is the most modern-feeling. Or, at the very least, tied for first with Theatre of Magic. There’s twelve modes, but really, there’s nine shots you need to commit to memory for those modes.
- The mode start, which also adds a small bonus to every mode and caps off the Streets of Cairo with a 20,000,000 bonus (or you can fire the plunger button to end the mode at any time with a 2,000,000 point bonus).
- The left and right loops, which are used in Streets of Cairo, Monkey Brains, and Tank Chase.
- The left and right ramps, which are used in Streets of Cairo, Monkey Brains, and Survive the Rope Bridge, along with Steal the Stones and Three Challenges being tied to the right ramp and Path of Adventure mini-table.
- The three center stand-up targets, which are used in Get the Idol and Well of Souls.
- The capture ball, which is used in Castle Grunewald (it’s supposed to be Castle Brunwald).
With an emphasis on the orbits and ramps, not to mention the heavy use of multiballs, you could mistake Indy for being a modern Stern table. Even the fan service aspect, with modes based on memorable scenes from original Indy trilogy and most of the call-outs being samples taken directly from those films, feels much more contemporary than any other table of the 1990s. Frankly, they didn’t make pins like this back then. It doesn’t feel anything like close cousins Addams Family or Twilight Zone, except maybe in the generous amount of extra ball opportunities. The Mark Ritchie-signature cross-ramps don’t feel anything like the ramps of Firepower II, Sorcerer, or Fish Tales. This is a table that should be a relic, yet instead plays like it came from an entirely different era.
Even more remarkable is the fact that every single mode is a true thrill to complete. I get tensed-up with excitement every time Raven’s Bar and Survive the Rope Bridge begin, knowing that I can score an extra ball if my accuracy is on point. Choose Wisely, a video mode variation on the shell game, is an easy 25,000,000 points for everyone but my unwise sister, while the Mine Cart game is one of the most inspired and fun video modes in all of pinball. Even the Path of Adventure mini-table gets in on the action, with two modes utilizing it. Did you previously light the Extra Ball or Pit holes before entering those modes? They’re still lit and waiting for you. The more modes you complete, the bigger your end-of-ball bonus. This is especially valuable using the double-the-points boost in standard mode. If the Pinball Chick team did a ranking of all twenty-two Williams tables by modes, Indy would be a unanimous #1. Of course, that’s assuming you actually get to play the modes with all the house balls this table vomits out.
If You Listen to Me More, You Live Longer
Folks, this is a tough call for me. With Indiana Jones being indisputably the most expensive table they’ve released to date. Not TABLE PACK. Just “table” by itself. It’s natural to want to ask, why? The answer is simple. Licensing. A record-setting amount of royalty checks had to be cut to make this re-release a reality.
Now, with Zen tables there are two aspects to consider when it comes to “theme”. The first is the original table they are trying to reproduce and build upon. The second is all the extra bells, whistles, and polish that Zen themselves add to push the original over the top and give it their own “special something”. Let’s start with the tables original theme. The cabinet art is nothing fancy. A silhouette and the Indiana Jones text in proper font. The back-box and playfield sport artist renditions of key actors and locations from the only three Indiana Jones movies that have ever and will ever exist (at least in my mind). The rest is fairly generic jungle art which neither delights nor disappoints. Given how much ground they were trying to cover across three films it was probably their safest bet.
The original art package presents itself very well on my 40” 4k V-Pin screen. Crisp and clean likenesses of Sean Connery, Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, John Rhys-Davies, Ke Huy Quan, and Kate Capshaw all make prominent appearances in call-outs, DMD animations, playfield artwork, and the backglass. I do wish there were a few more call-outs as the ones included repeat a lot. That said, somehow hearing “You cheat Dr Jones!” (spoken whenever you lock a ball for multiball without fully opening the lock) and “You sure know how to show a lady a good time!” never get old. In the way of toys there are a couple of large planes, a rotating “golden monument” which houses and deploys captive balls and a tipsy turvy mini-playfield. There are three video modes which fit the theme. Especially “Choose Wisely” which has you picking the right chalice from a mixed-up lineup.
Then there is the launcher. Here, like on the real table, it’s a button style auto-launcher that takes the form of a nifty Pistol. On the real table, it’s kinda cool. With every launch, I think back to that epic scene where Indy brings his gun to a sword fight, ending it quickly and comically (a result of Harrison Ford needing to go potty really badly). With time and experience, however, it’s come to fill me with dread because the fixed strength launcher means no way to fine tune your launches to compensate for the dreaded and all too frequent “launch, bumper, straight down the middle” house balls that others have mentioned. On the real table the tradeoff was understandable. For a brief moment standing there, you vs the table, you get to feel like Indiana Jones. Here in digital pinball land, though, you don’t really see that launcher during play. Even when you do see it. It doesn’t pull you in and connect you to the table in the same way and all the house balls it leads to make it more trouble than it’s worth. This table feels like it really should have had a plunger. They chose… poorly.
Alright, so other than the launcher, all good on the theme right? I wish I could stop right here and say “yes.” But remember… Zen doesn’t just stop with a faithful reproduction of the original, they also add their own flair and this, for me, is where the proverbial minecart goes off the rails.
First the good stuff. Zen has added a zeppelin toy to the upper playfield. Nice. They also added a tank and the Ark of the Covenant on the apron which both have some simple animations tied to related modes in the game. On the playfield the main Indy art between the flippers switches during some modes to show animated sequences in line with the movie events the mode is based on. Very nice.
Then… there is the animated Indian Jones himself armed with his trusty whip. He whips and swings around the table constantly. It’s usually not too distracting. That said, he’s rather large and crosses the playfield several times each game. So it’s only a matter of time before you lose a ball or two due to him obstructing your view of the playfield as he swings over the playfield during an active ball! He’s like a bad penny, he always turns up and sometimes he costs you a ball. There is also a rain effect that kicks in during the Castle Grunwald mode that doesn’t use any kind of transparency, so if you have a multiball going, good luck seeing through all the rain. This would be unforgivable if it was an easy table. But this is not an easy table. So extra flair that leads to more cheap drains is absolutely not welcome. Turn the extra flair off and you only have the normal house balls off the launch to worry about. It’s a shame to have to do because the rest of the flair Zen added is well appreciated.
House Balls. Very Dangerous. You Go first!
At first glance, the table seems almost extremely easy. There is a wide variety of modes and video modes, and even multiple multi-balls. It’s also very easy to find the mission start hole to actually play all of these. The video modes are especially easy. Raven’s bar is one which you can master and walk away with an extra ball each time. Mine Cart is quick memorization with a middle checkpoint, and Choose Wisely is not at all hard (tell that to Cathy!). In the Zen’s standard single player mode, you can even use the ball reverse power to cheat at the latter two! Then there’s the mini playfield tilt board, which is just perfect. Any mistake here is your own, and not a cheap loss (at least on standard physics. See the next picture’s caption). So all these combined should mean the table is easy and fun, right?
Unfortunately, there’s flaws. Every launched ball is at risk of going straight down the middle (STDM). They must have known this was an issue since ball saves are given at every launch and are easily earned, but still, when you start the multiball from the captive lock, you’re going to lose at least one ball with no fault of your own. The multiball which starts from the idol lock is unpredictable, sometimes balls leave so fast you have no time to react and catch them on the flipper before they drain, especially when other balls are already in play.
Then there is the left outlane. This is a wide body so you’d think balls wouldn’t go there all the time. But, once a gall goes for the left side you have to slam the nudge upwards or lose yet another ball. This is also a table where the Zen visual enhancements aren’t as well thought out. On some camera views, the Indiana puppet will obscure the ball as he swings about, and the air-fights that fly around in the dogfight will do as well. If you’re serious about playing a good round, turn those off! Overall, the difficulty in this table does not come from its modes, but from what I can only consider design flaws. The left outlane is badly designed and there should be a pin between the flippers to prevent cheap STDMs. This table could have been amazing but as it is, I am left wondering if the modes were made as easy as they are because the designers knew the cheap ball losses had to be compensated for.
WARTS AND ALL
by Dave Sanders
Mark Ritchie dislikes wide body games. The telltale sign is that Indiana Jones is a WINO. Don’t bother asking what the tipple of choice is; that’s my shorthand for Widebody in Name Only. Remove the idol and look underneath the (never bettered) tilting upper playfield, and what you’ll see underneath is a fairly conventional two-flipper standard body layout, with none of the shots really utilizing the additional space at the sides. Being a WINO does not automatically a bad game make, especially if you want to retain speed; the trick to a successful one is in disguising it with large diorama gimmicks or other places for the ball to go. Data East Guns N’ Roses is a WINO. My own Full Throttle is a WINO. But if Indiana Jones shoots like a standard, how does it retain the relative sluggishness associated with wide body games? And if you’re going to nickle-and-dime the arcade player after the wild excesses of Twilight Zone, can’t you be more subtle about it than with the bitchiest of bitchy left outlanes, and double-STDM house balls from the pop bumpers off the captive ball rubber?
And this is the core issue with Williams Indy. When it’s good, it’s very good indeed. But when it decides to be bad it’s awful. As a complete entity it balances out to so ‘basically OK’ that I can’t shift the ennui of not really wanting to stick it on again when there are some three or four designs of my own that I’d much rather be working on. And that’s not what you expect for a single $15 table, the $100,000 license (if the Farsight Kickstarters are any indication) be damned. (Cathy’s Note: We do not know the full license cost but I’m told it’s the most expensive the medium has ever done)
Granted, pinball collectors and tournament goers (the players most likely to pony up the asking price) are a more forgiving bunch than any casuals are going to be. But for a mass-market product that’s already put out the far superior (and cheaper) fan-shot triumvirate of Monster Bash, Medieval Madness and Attack From Mars, this is not a good look for Zen nor a welcome direction to be going down, even if Indy was guaranteed to sell bucketloads by (a) being so hotly anticipated, and (b) not being the Stern one.
Zen does have a ‘solution’ they could implement if they had a mind to, since the engine uses two distinctive sets of physics. If the flaws in this table are so damn obvious, then why not use the regular FX3 game to ‘fix’ them, and reserve the ‘classic’ physics for the way the machine was intended to be with all the niggling flaws still intact? Wouldn’t it please the larger proportion of a player base that you *should* be attracting? I mean, it’s not like a Dark Souls easy mode, it can’t possibly be that controversial to suggest, can it? At least think about it for when you get to Jack*Bot.
Uh-oh. If you’ll excuse me, either I’ve wandered into a Sega Frankenstein or that’s a rampaging mob of purists with pitchforks and torches about to storm my front door.
Ending and Beginning
by Cathy “Indie Gamer Chick” Vice
This is it. The last of Pinball FX3. It’s been a trip. The sad thing is, although Zen Studios gave us many excellent translations of all-time classics, they only did two tables that weren’t part of Pinball Arcade’s lineup, and this is 50% of them. The other, Space Station, was such a random choice that it’s still shocking, well over a year after it dropped. Indiana Jones isn’t that shocking. Zen works with Disney, who owns the Indiana Jones IP, and they’re made of pinball fans. This was their #1 wishlist table to convert. Of course, bringing Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure to their service required more royalty checks than just Disney. That’s how it ended up with a $14.99 price tag.
That’s a lot for a single pin, and especially for a pin that nobody would call an all-timer. Do you know the scene from Last Crusade where the Holy Grail is RIGHT THERE, and the Austrian chick falls to her death because she won’t give Indy her other hand? “I can reach it.. I can almost.. reach.. it..” That’s this pinball table, and instead of reaching for the Holy Grail, it’s reaching for historical excellence.. and it can’t.. quite.. reach.. it.
And, you know what? It’s not just the house balls. There’s something incredibly off at all times with Indiana Jones. This is a table with an identity crisis. You can choose your own strategy right out of plunger.. BUT, it’s not laid out like a pick ‘n flick. It’s a brick layer that demands precision, or else.. BUT, it’s not certainly not laid out like like a sharpshooter. It has some of the most violent slingshots and downright deadly outlane rails in the sport.. BUT, it’s not arranged like a kinetic. As Dave said, it’s a SuperPin, but not a traditional widebody layout. It feels like a table that wanted to be driven by modes, but had no plans beyond those.
It’s a miracle that what’s here is as fun as it is. In a table full of juxtapositions, the most fitting one of all is that Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure is unforgettable. There’s not a single shot I’d describe as “memorable”, with the possible exception of a lit Path to Adventure ramp (even that requires a large, tilting mini playfield to stand out). Instead, the magic comes from building up completed modes and inching closer to the incredible Eternal Life wizard mode. I don’t think Indiana Jones will become anyone’s go-to table that severs as a fitting swan song to Pinball FX3 and a launching point for the new Pinball FX. At least when it doesn’t instantly kill you.
SCORES (Highest and Lowest are crossed-out)
THIS TABLE IS CERTIFIED EXCELLENT BY THE PINBALL CHICK TEAM
The team at Zen Studios has chosen The Pinball Chick Team to announce to the world that Black Rose, the 1992 Williams piracy classic, will be part of Pinball FX‘s launch lineup! When they tapped the six of us for this task, we had a meeting to discuss what highlights of the table. In the debate that followed, we came to realize that Black Rose is one of the most deceptively loaded pinball tables of all-time. It has something for everyone. Thusly, all six of us have something different to talk about! Why should YOU be excited to experience Black Rose on Pinball FX?
A PIRATE’S LIFE FOR ME
In the theme department Black Rose is a masterpiece.
But what makes a great theme?
Some might say “call-outs, toys, and artwork! Duh!”
But I would argue those are merely ingredients, and without the right recipe a great theme is not guaranteed.
The right recipe mixes call-outs, toys, and artwork into a package that builds an immersive world around the player and sometimes, even tells them a story. Yes, pinball can do that.
Black Rose doesn’t tell a deep story. But it does build an immersive world. You are a new crew member aboard the ship of Black Rose the pirate! Your job is to track down and sink enemy ships with the aid of the primary toy in the game, a rotating cannon. Various bonuses and aids are to be found in Davy Jones Locker which is hidden beneath one of the ramps. Video modes will have you walking the plank and evading sharks, swinging to other ships, and tossing knives. This really does feel like pinball on the high seas! The Zen Pinball FX3 table further builds on this with a 3d modeled and animated Black Rose herself holding tight to the rigging and animated pirate silhouettes swashbuckling in the background. There is even theme appropriate side art blades.
Sometimes Zen can go a bit overboard with the touch ups (Attack from Mars I’m Looking at you!). I’m happy to say that I feel everything in Black Rose is very complementary to the original theme and doesn’t distract at all. Oh, and fans of Brian Eddy will be happy to note that although this was one of his earlier Williams games, if you are paying attention, cows do make an appearance on the DMD. It’s all about the cows.
Black Rose is presented well on Pinball FX3. The visuals totally hold up. Even on a large screen at 4k! And the call-outs are appropriately piratey without coming off as campy, goofy, or overdone. This is about as respectful a take on a pirate’s life as you are going to get. I can’t wait to see what Zen has done with this table on their new FX engine!
THIS SHOULDN’T WORK… BUT IT DOES
by Dave Sanders
Black Rose is like nothing else to poke its head out of the Williams table in 1992.
I mean, look at it! It’s a mess. Can you gather at first glance about how this game is going to play? Liar! The pop bumpers are placed… somewhere. The shots go places but it’s going to require multiple plays just to figure out where. The center shot bisects the whole length of the playfield and into the back, making traditional orbits and loop shots impossible.
But, most of all, get a load of those stand-up targets. They absolutely CLUTTER the middle column of the playfield, all the way down. Cathy and her family coined the term “Valley Style” while I call it “The Grand Canyon”. No real care about where the ball will bounce off them to. The worst possible area at the worst possible vertical angles to aim for with the main flippers. It’s like they threw on the broadside and the stand-up targets first, then put the playfield through a hydraulic press before laying down any of the other shots. Granted, the targets ensure that every near-miss to the Broadside or with the cannon will hit something. But still, who would DO this?
Wait a minute. Cramped playfield? Haphazard object placement? Shots you can’t follow? Art that doesn’t direct the eye towards those shots, making them even less readable? One shtick that the rest of the game, for better or worse, completely hangs around?
THIS IS LIKE A GOTTLIEB GAME!
And yet, Black Rose pulls it off, and successfully demonstrates that a little variety never hurt anyone. The lead designer (John something), didn’t just graduate from the creatively avant-garde school of layout geometry; he practically invented it, so much so that after he changed companies and left his replacements with weird clown-shaped shoes to fill, instead of Gold Wings and Spring Break (games even more crowded than this one, believe it or not), Gottlieb was putting out the likes of Lights…Camera…Action!, Bone Busters, and Big House that were attempting the same conventions, but the results were uniformly horrible. Still, you have to wonder how much of this was grounded by the presence of future fan-layout specialist Brian Eddy. The center shot is undoubtedly his. (Compare as well the shot openings on Black Rose to those on The Shadow, Eddy’s own least-conventional solo design.) But ultimately, Black Rose is going to leave seasoned players with an impression that this is really a Gottlieb machine, only done properly!
HOT SEAT: THE AGONY OF DEFEAT
by Angela D. Vice
You hand off your controller after a well-played go at Black Rose’s hot seat mode. You made your shots. You hit plenty of combos. You almost got an extra ball shooting the whirlpool. You sank several ships. You’re winning! Your lead is massive. You’re up nearly a hundred-million points. Your opponent is on their final ball. Victory is at hand!
The next few moments are pure agony. Your opponent starts with a lit Double Broadside. For the next thirty seconds, every shot locked into the broadside will double the previous score. One million becomes two million, and then two million becomes four million. You cheer as they brick their fourth shot, your eyes never far from the timer. “How come it didn’t countdown that slowly when it was my turn?” you complain. To your utter horror, they’ve regained control of the ball with plenty of time to continue shooting. Eight million scored. SIXTEEN million scored. Your lead is vanishing quickly, but thankfully, their Double Broadside time expired before they could finish you off. You wipe your brow, then glance at the table and realize they need only one more letter to light the cannon to sink the winning ship. It’ll be their second ship sunk, worth 30,000,000 points. That’s enough to win the game. After a multiball played just well enough to light the letters, they load the cannon. You hold your breath.
The ball bounces around the outlanes, and you’re ready to bask in their failure! They’re grinding their teeth! You gasp as the ball just tips down the C lane. They have another chance, which they capitalize on. They hit the jackpot ramp and feed the cannon off the bat flipper. They take their time, the cannon swaying back-and-forth. The moment they fire, you know you’ve lost. With one glorious press of a button, they’ve sunk the ship, and you along with it. You hang your head in defeat, but you don’t say “I can’t believe they came back.” For with Black Rose, the word “insurmountable” doesn’t exist.
A MULTIBALL LIKE NO OTHER
by Oscar Vice
If you’ll allow me a tired cliché: there’s no multiball quite like Black Rose’s. Instead of merely shooting jackpots, you have three main goals: charge-up the S-I-N-K S-H-I-P letters by shooting flashing lanes, collect jewels, and re-lock the two balls into the Pirate’s Cove to convert your two-ball multiball into a three-ball affair. The cramped valley-type layout might seem too crowded to accommodate this, but Black Rose is a table deceptively tailored towards juggling.
Remember, multiball is only as chaotic as you allow it to be. For Black Rose, you control the serve of the second (or third) ball entering the playfield. A full-power plunge will clear the Steve Ritchie-like short orbit that is the closed Davey Jones ramp. As long as you remember that one or two more balls will be entering the playfield from the Pirate’s Cove, you should be able to avoid clearing out the multiball. Once you trap the balls, try to get into a juggling rhythm so you can score enough letters to load the cannon for the valuable SINK SHIP cannon shot. Or, you can go for the extra-valuable Hidden Treasure. And don’t forget: the extra ball attached to the Whirlpool is still yours for the taking, and in multiball, you have more shots to beat the timer on it. For players who like to come up with their own strategies, no 90s multiball offers more flexibility to skillful players than Black Rose.
BRUTALITY ON THE HIGH SEAS
by Cathy “Indie Gamer Chick” Vice
As you can see, Black Rose has a lot going for it. It’s one of the most visually-striking tables of its era. It introduced the world to Brian Eddy, who went on to lead the design of Pinball Chick Pantheon tables Attack from Mars and Medieval Madness. It has a uniquely versatile multiball. It’s well-suited for exciting versus matches. It feels like a table that should be more popular than it is. But, I actually get why Black Rose is one of those pins that gets forgotten in the discussion: it’s one of the most truly weird tables of its time.
Or any time, really. 1992 was the biggest year ever for pinball. Addams Family released and set sales records that stand to this day, and Williams had two other 12K Clubbers release (Fish Tales and Getaway: High Speed II). Data East released its only two 10,000 unit-selling tables (Star Wars and Lethal Weapon 3). Gottlieb’s best-selling 90s table released (Cue Ball Wizard). Of the twelve traditional pins released in 1992, Black Rose finished 10th in sales. Only Gottlieb’s Operation Thunder (which operators didn’t buy as it still used the now antiquated alpha-numeric score display) and Al’s Garage Band Goes on World Tour (from flailing start-up Alvin G. & Co, who had no nation-wide distribution) undersold it. It was hardly a bust or anything. To put Black Rose’s 3,746 units in perspective, Gottlieb, in their entire existence, only had four DMD-display tables that sold more units (in order: Cue Ball Wizard, Street Fighter 2, Super Mario Bros., and the truly putrid Rescue 911). Black Rose was successful. It just wasn’t a major milestone for pinball in a year defined by milestones.
Still, you would think that a table that is this gorgeous and has features that were scorching hot at the time, like the still new autogun, would have been an instant classic. But, Black Rose certainly wasn’t that. Arcade goers in 1992 wouldn’t have seen the cannon straight away, and in the pre-Jack Sparrow days, pirates weren’t exactly a lucrative commodity. But, I think Black Rose was forgotten in large part due to the maddening difficulty. The Vice Family alone put an additional twenty-hours of playtime into the Pinball FX3 build of Black Rose while making this feature. Even well into that twenty hours, it wasn’t unusual for games to end in less than a minute It wasn’t until recently that players started to recognize it for its depth, complexity, and razor-sharp scoring.
Getting good at Black Rose takes time and patience. With the exception of the Jackpot ramp, every other major shot in Black Rose is off-angle and frustrating as hell to drill into muscle memory. Oh, it’s rewarding to do so. Seriously, when you can consistently grind-up extra balls on the Whirlpool, you’ll feel like a world-beater. But, you’re going to need a lot of practice getting to that point. That practice cost players $0.50 a pop in 1992. Sure, there were other vicious pins during this time, but Black Rose is uniquely cruel. It has a fickle ball save that often doesn’t trigger, a primary shot that doubles as a demoralizing death drop if you miss, and one of the most ball-clearing multiballs in the sport. It can be a mean-spirited table. In thirty total Black Rose games played against each-other in Pinball FX3’s Classic mode, only one single game saw one of us break for a hundred-million. It was Oscar, putting up 168,091,440 in his first game. The next highest game didn’t even crack eighty-million. Yipes!
But, that’s the magic of digital pinball. In 1992, it would have been cost prohibitive to “git gud” at Black Rose. In 2022, you can purchase unlimited plays of it on Pinball FX. You’ll have all the time in the world to develop a strategy for multiball, or to practice the Whirlpool shot, or get the timing down just right for the lucrative Double Broadside mode. Black Rose kind of gets lost in the shuffle among heavy hitters like Attack from Mars, The Getaway, Monster Bash, etc. But, it’s one of our family’s favorite score-settling tables for a reason. It’s always exciting. Fitting for a table based around piracy, Black Rose might be Pinball FX’s greatest buried treasure. When it launches as part of the new Pinball FX, it’ll be one of the tables we keep going back to again and again.
I know I haven’t updated in nearly eight months. The thing is, I am still playing pinball. Playing well? Well..
I have Parkinson’s Disease, and it’s starting to affect me. My reaction times are slowing, and that affects my ability to play pinball. It was a tough blow to find out I’m going to be affected by this horrible disease. It’s like “great, of course. That tracks.” It looks like, despite being early onset, it won’t be as severe, but it’s still far too soon to know for sure. It’s looking good, but you can’t know until the disease starts working it’s anti-magic on you.
But, I’m done feeling sorry for myself. I have a great life and I still love pinball. And I’m not done yet. Besides, my kid sister, Angela, is going to be the REAL Pinball Chick soon. Despite only being eleven-years-old, she has become the best pinball player of our family, routinely beating Dad and I in duels and setting new world records. Angela is poised for amazing things in film when she’s older, but she wants to also eventually take-over The Pinball Chick. “If I make it in Hollywood, pinball will be what I turn to when I need a break.” She loves the sport, and there’s something reassuring that a kid of the 2020s can still have a passion for pinball.
The whole team is ready to put a new generation of digital pinball through the wringer. We’ll be looking at Pinball FX3’s Indiana Jones Pinball Adventure conversion in March. We’ll be evaluating new Zaccaria tables. And buzz is, Farsight isn’t totally out of the pinball game yet. We’ll be here, ready to shoot jackpots for you.
Indie Gamer Chick
A lot of people can’t fathom just how much time we put into these tables prior to writing any review on them. It’s a big effort that takes part in phases. Before I put my fingers to the keyboard, we always make one final run through each table in a set. In the case of Zaccaria’s 1977 release Circus, it made a massive difference. Originally, we all rated it GOOD except Eala, who fully conceded that childhood nostalgia bumped it to GREAT. If Oscar can get away with naming Firepower #2 of 100 Pinball Arcade titles, we can let Eala slide with that one.
But then, during our final play-through, the rest of us (except stuffy-old Jordi) admitted we underrated Circus. It’s worthy of being Certified Excellent by The Pinball Chick team.
A few things strike me about Circus. #1: it’s a looker. Zaccaria is (in)famous for its generic, broadly-themed tables. Having a name like “Circus” with no flare or pomp is typical of their output, but at least this one looks memorable. It terms of layout, it’s not all that different from some of their other tables, especially Moon Flight. But the bright Blue/Red/Yellow/Green scheme here is distinctive and charming.
#2: The intuitive layout is perfect for introducing people to the late EM era of pinball. Really, Circus is electro-mechanical in-name-only. It flows like an early solid-state. Unlike Aerobatics, there’s a clear driver here: the left spinner lane has a free ball attached to it if you charge-up the value enough. You take aim at either spinner, both laid along primary angles, and the value increases. The challenge comes from gaining control of the ball, as either spinner feeds the roll-overs that lead to the bumpers. The center roll-over doubles the value of the multiplier.
#3: the Bonus Score Value saucer, laid along a dead-center angle with a backboard to catch the ball, is one of the most difficult saucer shots we’ve had to experience since starting The Pinball Chick. The straight-away angle makes shooting it at the correct speed to not hop over it incredibly difficult. Hitting this shot banks the points you’ve charged-up for the spinners, and resets your progress if you’ve not yet lit the extra ball special. However, you can also get an extra ball if you fully charge the points AND have lit all the C-I-R-C-U-S letters, which lights the special on the Bonus. It’s one of the most surprisingly challenging shots in all of Zaccaria Pinball, and one you’d never see today, where instead a designer would almost certainly make it a cellar instead. It makes Circus a deceptively deep table and one of the best for teaching new players primary angles.
Circus is a ton of of fun. It’s got its problems: the outlanes are absolutely brutal no matter what mode you’re playing in, but that’s typical of Zaccaria anyway. It’s also one of the more sloggy tables, since grinding-up points requires repetitively shooting the same lanes over and over and over, which is to say nothing about dealing with the bumpers when you’re short either the I or U in C-I-R-C-U-S. It’s certainly not going to WOW everyone. Jordi thought the table was perfectly fine, but he wasn’t as impressed by the pair of spinner shots either. But, if you want to hone your Zaccaria EM skills, all the basic shots are on display here. If Zaccaria had any licensing outreach in the 70s, they could have attached the Ringling Bros. name to this and Circus would be remembered as one of the greats of its era. You can say that about a LOT of Zaccaria tables, but in the case of Circus, it feels like it deserved to be remembered more than it is.
For Zaccaria Pinball
Nintendo Switch DLC: EM Table Pack 1
Normal DLC: Electro-Mechanical Pack
Certified Excellent Table
Designed by Zaccaria
Released in 1977
Art by Lorenzo Rimondini
Yes, Addams Family is one of the many delisted Pinball Arcade titles. But, it’s not GONE gone. At least if you have $499.99 to spare, plus either a dual-monitor digital pinball table or a relatively beefy PC + two monitors, one of which is a wide-screen. If that’s true, The Addams Family is one of the 76 tables included in Arcooda ‘s digital table software solution, and one of many tables where Arcooda’s version absolutely slays the now-delisted standard version. Even the non-Lawlor-loving curmudgeon Oscar had to concede that Arcooda Addams Family is a masterpiece of digital pinball conversions.
The secret-sauce for Arcooda is having subtle changes to Pinball Arcade’s standard-edition layouts, mostly de-cramping the space. Not even portrait mode versions of the tables (which every PC version of Pinball Arcade has) feature the true-to-life dimensions Arcooda offers. While the physics are still the same as Pinball Arcade, with all foibles that come with that (such as live catches being far too easy to pull-off), the actual gameplay of the tables is SIGNIFICANTLY more accurate than it ever has been just by having the dimensions and geometry be less-relative. If you want an example, look at the two pics above. The layout on the left is Arcooda’s build, while the layout on the right is the dimensions for the normal (well, Gold) version of Addams Family. The standard version, even with the ball size changed to compensate, is going to feel squished. Don’t get me wrong: the standard version plays fine. But, the Arcooda version IS the coin-op done digitally.
In the case of Addams Family, longtime fans of this, the greatest-selling real table of all-time, will find their muscle memory will be accurate. When playing the two versions side-by-side, we found the real big difference was on the center staircase shot and the center multiball-lock shot, and the graveyard bumpers having more breathing-room (just wait until we talk about how fixed Twilight Zone’s bumpers are). Really, every shot is truer to the real deal, so much so that our games of digital Addams play out not-that different-from real Addams. From the maddening lack of ball save, to the joy of stringing together quadruple combos, to the anger-inducing multiball magnets, to the thrill of reaching Tour the Mansion. While I still firmly believe whatever was the best of 1992’s tables was destined to set all the sales records, I also admit that Addams Family’s success is no fluke. It’s table that offers something for fans of every table type. Sharpshooter fans will find some of the most precise target-shooting of any table from this era, not to mention one of the most punishing of bricked shots. Finesse fans will find a table that rewards flexible strategies and a large variety of modes. Fans of kinetic gameplay will love a table that incentivizes ball control and ultra-quick reflexes. Even pick ‘n flick fans can excel at a table where slowing the action down and grinding up extra balls through shot repetition is a viable strategy. A lot of tables desire to be something for everyone. Addams Family truly is.
Addams Family is so popular, so legendary, that many silverball die-hards these days feel obligated to list it as an overrated table. They’ll cite elements like the brutal magnetic field of the multiball experience, or the Seance, which many players choose to just trap the ball and run out the clock on. They might even agree with my hypothesis that arcades were so red-hot in 1992 that whatever was the best table released in the first quarter of that year was fated to be the best-selling ever, and it just happened that Addams Family, releasing in March of 1992, was the lucky one. Exchange Addams for Doctor Who, which released in September of 1992, and Doctor Who eventually claims the record. Exchange Addams for Terminator 2, which released in July of 1991, and Terminator 2 *murders* the record. 1992 was an overall banner year for pinball in general, with FIVE tables selling over ten-thousand units, and it’s not like Addams Family was a box office juggernaut. It did fine, but wasn’t an unfathomable smash-hit.
Be that as it may, the pinball table is that: the biggest hit of the sport’s most popular era. As I write this, I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of an arcade goer, circa 1992. I wasn’t even three-years-old when Addams Family released. But, I imagine the familiar toe-tapping theme and gothic look of the table must have been quite the siren call for players. Maybe not creepy in the same way Funhouse’s Rudy was, but instead a more inviting and whimsical party of macabre. And also, let’s face it, Raul Julia’s infectious charisma is on full display. He didn’t phone-in his performance for the pinball machine. He absolutely lets loose and delivers some of the most famous samples in the history of gaming. “It has to warm up.. SO IT CAN KILL YOU!” still sends chills down my spine. “WHO SAYS YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU?!” always leaves a smile on my face. Addams Family can be brutal to the point of demoralizing for newcomers, BUT, it really wants you to have fun, even in failure. Hell, even after arcades were dying, Addams Family pinball was considered viable enough that real money was sunk into attempting to develop a port of it for the Nintendo 64. This is six years after it came out. And that project was cancelled because the technology at the time, specifically the N64, couldn’t do it justice. Pinball Arcade came very close, but it’s Arcooda’s software where the digital version lives up to the legend. It’s not the only one. Expect many of their other tables that failed to get perfect scores from us for Pinball Arcade to Mamushka into The Pinball Chick Pantheon of Digital Pinball. Black Hole? It’s making it in. Twilight Zone? Made it. But it’s probably Addams Family that was the most transformed by it. This IS the Addams Family. Well, with easier live catches.
Special Note: YES, Arcooda is still active. Pinball Chick associate Dash, who will be submitting Arcooda scores for our reviews going forward, ordered the $499.99 kit off their website. It arrived just days later. While Farsight is off the grid, Arcooda is active, along with their customer support and service. You can trust them.
Cine Star is a polarizing dumpster fire of a machine that has one truly breathtaking shot. A true, blue Boardwalk-style table that makes a whole lot of noise, where a good one-third of balls (minimum) will be unplayable by all but the most skilled players. Angela called it “the worst ‘real’ digital table she’s ever played” while Dad called it “thoughtless.” All five of us agreed Cine Star is a one-trick pony. But, for three of us, that one shot is so fun to shoot that it raised what should be a quintuple-PITS occupant into something that’s at least worth a look.
Even if that one shot is so absurdly over-balanced and illogical that it makes Bride of Pin•Bot’s billion-point shot look conservative.
A ball in Cine Star plays out like this: you serve the ball, and it’ll go down one of two lanes and land directly on a bumper. At this point, a small supernova takes place and the ball goes crazy. It’ll almost certain volley back and forth off the bumpers, taking out a few of the twelve star-lights. But that’s not your focus. You just want to gain control of the ball. There’s around a 33% chance the ball will either suicide-plunge down the outlanes in the blink of an eye, or maybe fall lifelessly down the drain. BUT, if you can somehow gain control of the ball, you’ll take a deep breath, take aim, and fire at this:
Every spin you manage to shoot scores 10,000 points, with a maximum value of 100,000 points.
At this point, I’ll note that Cine Star only has five digits to track the score. So, if you played a REAL Cine Star, you wouldn’t even know what the score is. Of course, that means the digital version is one of those rare tables that is genuinely better in every conceivable way to owning an authentic machine. At least you don’t have to keep track of every single roll-over in your head.
This one shot, a feast-or-famine shot (we called successful 10-spin shots BINGOs), is the only reason myself, Eala, and Jordi didn’t put Cine Star in The Pits. I’m embarrassed to admit how much fun I had shooting this damn spinner. It’s glorious. Dad and Angela said it was enjoyable too, but the table’s entire layout, luck-based arrangement, and overall poor balance made this among the worst tables we’ve reviewed so far. I agree, but man, that shot is fun. Of course, the rest of the table is dead real estate. If you happen to hit all twelve star lights, the special is lit. The special is tied to the Quacker Cracker and activates about three seconds after you hit a BINGO on it. Of course, if the ball ricochets and drains before the value registers, you don’t get the points OR the extra ball, and that happens maybe one out of three times too. So, whether or not you enjoy Cine Star comes down to how much you’re willing to overlook historically-bad design for one amazingly satisfying shot. Your millage may vary.
For Zaccaria Pinball
Nintendo Switch DLC: EM Table Pack 1
Normal DLC: Electro-Mechanical Pack
Designed by Zaccaria
Released in 1975? 1976?
Art by Lorenzo Rimondini
Oscar: THE PITS
Angela: THE PITS
Zaccaria Pinball’s early efforts are much maligned, and perhaps rightfully so. They started out like the pinball version of Frankenstein’s laboratory, building tables out of spare parts from other tables in order to make clones of popular tables from other companies. Bizarre, but we all have to start somewhere I suppose. But, let it be said, they eventually became a solid, dependable manufacturer of quality pinball machines. The best of their early efforts, at least in this chick’s opinion, is Aerobatics. Unless I bump a table’s status in our final run, it’s the only one of the forty-one digital recreations of real Zaccaria tables I awarded MASTERPIECE status to, EM or solid state.
I can also get why many people wouldn’t think Aerobatics is worthy of that distinction.
What makes Aerobatics the one for me is every shot is exciting. All four of them. Okay, so it’s not a deep experience, and there’s arguably no primary target OR even really a genuine driver for the table. In fact, it’s absolutely viable to alternate between shooting the two saucers and letting the crowding of the table and the inevitability of missed shots run its course. The advance-bonus shot on the right wall? You can put up mighty scores using it without ever once taking direct aim at it. Hell, that goes for the three drop targets as well. In fact, while writing this very paragraph, I decided to test that theory by playing the 5-ball arcade mode on Switch and aiming specifically ONLY at the saucers, no matter what. 12,750,100 points later, I’m #2 on the all-time Leaderboard.
“Wait, you were able to circumvent 95% of the table, put up a near world-record, and you’re calling THAT a masterpiece?” Yep, and here’s why: there’s no Zaccaria electro-mechanical table where the art of the nudge matters more. When to nudge and when not to nudge, and which direction to do it. This is especially highlighted in the outlanes.
Normally, I’m not a fan of open inlanes, but in Aerobatics, they’re arguably the key element in a table that has no true primary shot. Using the spinner, you change which of the five lights for the top saucer are lit. If it’s the second or fourth light, the special for the outlanes lights-up. If the ball drops down the outlane, you get a free ball. But, whether or not a special opportunity is active or not, you have a chance to save the ball. Sometimes you don’t have to do anything. The ball will bounce off the post at the base of the outlane and be put back into play. Sometimes, you’ll need to save it manually. Either way, when do you ever see a table where the outlanes are the most thrilling element? It turns what is already a really fun, energetic table into one of the most satisfying of its kind you can get in modern digital pinball. Aerobatics does a lot right. Fine-tuned scoring and proper risk-reward balance married to fast-paced kinetic energy. Sure, there’s not tons of flexibility for players, but every single shot is a genuine thrill to hit. Even after playing every “real” table Zaccaria has to offer, I still don’t think the little Italian silverball company ever topped this early effort from 1977. It’s fantastic!
For Zaccaria Pinball
Nintendo Switch DLC: EM Table Pack 1
Normal DLC: Electro-Mechanical Pack
CERTIFIED EXCELLENT TABLE
Designed by Zaccaria
Released in 1977
Art by Lorenzo Rimondini
Writing a guide for over 100 tables is a time-consuming thing. But, we know a lot of people want to know which tables are the ones to get. Our ratings are in for all Zaccaria Pinball tables in the Solid State, Electro Mechanical, and Retro categories for Switch, Xbox One, PS4, and Steam. We’re currently working our way through Remake and Deluxe tables. None of these ratings are likely to change, but if you have further questions, you can hit me up on Twitter. The guide IS coming.
We are awarding two Electro-Mechanical tables Certificates of Excellence.
We are awarding seven Solid State tables Certificates of Excellence.
We are awarding one Retro table a Certificate of Excellence.
Please note: the Retro pack contains twenty-seven tables, sixteen of which we’ve declared Certified Turds, and one of which (Robot) we’ve determined to be the worst digital pinball table of the modern era. BUT, the entire pack costs only $2.99 or less depending on which platform you buy it on, and $2.99 for a Certified Excellent table (Mystic Star) is a bargain no matter how many bad tables you get with it. So we do universally recommend it (except Angela, who was indifferent).
These ratings apply to every platform, including playing on a digital table using Steam.
You don’t always get what you deserve. George Gomez deserves to be a household name. He’s a certifiable legend, responsible for tens of millions of dollars in coin-drops over the last forty years. This is a man put on this Earth to entertain. A game maker. A toy maker. A pinball maker. He created Spy Hunter AND Monster Bash, and between that he made darts you fill with water, which I totally would have used if I had been alive when they came out. And I’d probably aimed for people’s eyes with them, because that’s how I roll. Anyway, I got to talk to George, who currently is Executive Vice President and Chief Creative Officer at Stern, the current leaders in pinball, because I am that lucky. We discussed his career, his projects, and general thoughts on the nature of game and pinball design.
Cathy: I feel that you’re maybe the most unsung legend of the industry. You did arguably the most iconic licensed game of the Golden Age of Arcades in Tron. You created Spy Hunter. You transitioned to pinball and created the most beautiful swan song for Williams in Monster Bash. You are still going strong today, leading Stern. Yet, you’re largely unknown to even hardcore gamers. So, how does the nickname “The Low Key Legend” sound to you?
George Gomez: Wow, well “Legend” anywhere near my name seems like you’re talking about somebody else. I’ve been really fortunate and I’ve designed coin-op vids, toys, novelty games, pinball, and even Xbox & PlayStation games. I’m just happy to have been able to do what I’ve wanted to do at a variety of different companies, with super talented people all around me.
Cathy: Humble too. I know what that’s like. I, myself, have been admired for my humility. Ahem. My readers are genuinely fascinated by the “road not traveled” with pinball (and so am I). Legends like that Star Trek: The Next Generation was designed with the Steven Seagal movie Under Siege in mind, or Safe Cracker was to be Monopoly. Those kind of things. With that in mind, rumor has it that a Mortal Kombat table was on the drawing board and possibly that’s what Monster Bash WAS to be. Any truth to that? Also heard that Game of Thrones at Stern was maybe originally Harry Potter?
George: Well, speaking of legends some of those fall into the category of urban legend. On Star Trek, what I recall hearing is that before Star Trek came up as an option, the license he was pushing for was Under Siege. He had been talking about a battleship that took up the whole side of the playfield but I don’t think that got very far. There was never any Game of Thrones relationship to Harry Potter other than we would have loved to do Harry Potter.
On Mortal Kombat, there is some truth to that; except it would have taken the place of my second game Johnny Mnemonic, not Monster Bash. At the time I was just starting out at Williams and I asked Ed Boon if he would mind and he said, he had no issues with that. I had a vision that I could do justice to the game, work thru a series of challenge ladders and face an Uber Boss. Steve Ritchie got wind of it and said he had wanted to do it before I asked and that along with the marketing guys saying that they felt that the 2 audiences didn’t really cross over, pretty much killed it. That said Johnny Mnemonic was a from scratch design, none of the stuff I was working on for MK transferred over.
Cathy: Can you name any “Table X” was originally going to be based on something entirely different stories?
George: The most resent example of that is pretty well known; when we saw Keith Elwin’s “Archer” home brew, we were pretty impressed with his design and hired him. An evolution of the Archer design became Iron Maiden. Amongst my own games; I wanted to use the kitschy “Monster Mash” song from the 60’s as the theme for Monster Bash, but when the owner of the rights to the song wanted too much money, I made “Mash” into “Bash” and never looked back. The reality is that we didn’t miss it.
Cathy: Along the same lines, I asked my readers if they had any questions, and the #1 question by far was “do you design tables with the license in mind or do you have a series of concepts that you then tailor for licenses?”
George: All modern era game designs are conceptualized with and driven by the themes. Up until the 80’s it used to be that the designer created a game and the artist dressed it. I’ve never worked that way on any product. I believe that integrating the theme is pivotal, because the idea is to immerse the player in the world of the theme’s fiction and everything in the game should do that.
Cathy: I think the one thing that keeps Monster Bash from being maybe the perfect table is the top-heavy scoring balance. That Monsters of Rock is so necessary to a high score that any game you don’t get it, no matter how well played, is a scrub. I’ve noticed every table you’ve done since then has really fine-tuned scoring above any other design signature. Is that the one “take back” you’d do if you could?
George: So the thing we were trying to achieve with Bash was to create a simple game that you could play without having to dedicate your life to it. I wanted it to be fun and light. My partner on the game, Lyman Sheats, really balanced the score and we both worked on trying to make the progression thru the game a very novice friendly achievable thing. I’m fortunate that I have a few games in my portfolio that are considered significant to the genre. Certainly Monster Bash and Lord of the Rings are in that group. I think Deadpool will be in that group one day. I have to say that while the world tends to be very “designer” centric, in every game, the people that have been on my teams have made significant and impactful contributions to the games. I think that a good designer leads by allowing his teams to express their creativity and contribute. The magic is to edit and keep the work focused. The game needs to feel integrated and cohesive even though it’s the work and creativity of many people. Every one of my teams thru the years has elevated my work and any designer that thinks it’s all about his vision, is delusional.
Cathy: This isn’t a question so much as a threat. It’s 2021 and there’s no pinball machine based on the iconic game show Price is Right. Next year is its 50th Anniversary and George, I know how to cut a brake line. Just sayin’.
George: (Laughs) Bring it!
Cathy: (nods, puts down wire cutters) Ahem. Was there any license where you wanted to do specific stuff with and the IP owners put the screws to you, said “no, you can’t do that?”
George: Yeah, every licensed game faces this challenge. Developing a game with a license is one of the most difficult things we do. One of the licensors prime directives is to assure a consistent presentation of the brand to the world. The licensor has guidelines, usually developed by the creators of the brand to preserve the character of the brand. When I was working on “Batman: The Dark Knight”, I submitted the script of game speech for approval and a bunch of stuff that I felt was harmless was denied. I decided to push back and the reply I got was: “Batman would never say that.” (Shrug) Be assured that there is someone in the world, that knows exactly what Batman would or wouldn’t say.
Cathy: Apparently he does say the F-word now. They’re making a big deal of that with the Zack Snyder Justice League cut. See, you came around ten years too late. Do you have a dream license to work with that you’ve never been able to get?
George: There are a few that are elusive, some that I can’t talk about because we’re still chasing them. After the MK concept was killed I wanted to do Aliens, based on the second film. At the time there was an awesome toy line that had a lot “new” Aliens and they were molded with a lot of colored translucent plastics and I thought that we could do something similar and introduce some cool illumination into the Aliens to create features on the playfield. I was also fascinated by the final scene in the film, where all hell broke loose and the facility is going to self-destruct and Ripley has to get out with the little girl and the Alien Queen is in the way and the female computer voice is counting it down. A lot of potential game play tension in that scene. But it was several years after the film and the company felt it wasn’t relevant. The management guys pushed me toward Johnny Mnemonic. I was a fan of the short story and of William Gibson’s books, so I took it. I ended up doing my own take on the countdown tension in JM with the Powerdown Final Mode. It’s basically a spinning plates game, where you need to stay alive by maintain areas of the playfield “energized” and time is running out and the computer voice is counting it down. It begins slowly and builds a lot of tension. I’m actually surprised you didn’t beat me up about score balancing in JM, that’s the one I always get hassled about.
Cathy: You know, I haven’t played it extensively. I’m pretty limited to either tables we really have or ones that have had an official digital release. Oscar has and says it’s actually one of THE underrated tables of the entire 90s. But, he admits it’s not desirable from a collecting standpoint because it wears the albatross of being a table based on, well, Johnny Mnemonic. When you finally saw the movie, did you consider faking a heart attack to get out of the assignment? I’ve heard that’s a thing pinball makers do.
George: (Laughs) I should have faked a heart attack. The truth is that the Johnny Mnemonic fiction is a little.. out there. If you didn’t know the short story, it’s hard to convey. Think of the games released around JM; Theater of Magic was simple and the theme is instantly obvious. Sega Pinball had the green Batman game with Val Kilmer, also fairly obvious. Neil Nicastro, in those days the CEO, approached me when he heard that I wanted to do Aliens and told me that Sony was going to spend 20 million advertising the film and Keanu Reeves was coming off a big hit with Speed. It was my second pinball design, I wasn’t used to the CEO making suggestions, so I did it. As I said earlier, I knew the story and it seemed cool and edgy in light of the rise of the “internet”. To put this in context, in those days, Williams Electronics had no external facing email and few if any of us had a home internet connection. So a film that presented a visual construct for this thing called “the internet”, was conceptually, on the cutting edge. I didn’t get a movie screening until it was too late. I did call back to Chicago and try to get them to pull the plug 20 minutes after seeing the film. (Cathy would like to note at this point my Dad is laughing so hard I’m afraid HE might be having a heart attack) I should have known something was up, because they made us sign something that said we couldn’t change our minds about anything if they screened it for us. I’ve heard that William Gibson owns the game and given how much I’ve enjoyed his books over the years, I’m happy about that.
Cathy: Of course he owns it. He wanted SOMETHING good that came out it. But you never really know how these things will turn out. I always tell indie developers to expect their plans to be compromised. You have such a story, with the Corvette table. Slated to be a SuperPin, but then Midway decided to cancel the line. Popadiuk thought that helped World Cup Soccer. Is Corvette better for being a standard body? Were their any major changes as a result?
George: Yes, well in the case of Corvette, I’m really glad that I had to make it a narrow body. I didn’t know then but in my opinion, wide-bodies are inherently flawed. The kinetics are compromised. Shots outside the standard 20.25“ width are weak shots, given the available stroke on standard flippers. The stroke of a flipper is approx. 50 degrees. You can rotate the entire flipper to help that but then you compromise the shots in the center of the playfield. One constraint is that the flipper is a lever and it accelerates thru its arc of travel as a function of the force applied by the solenoid. The position of the ball on the flipper, combined with its weight and velocity when you engage the solenoid, is what determines the direction of the shot. All of the widebodies I’ve played feel really soft on those outside shots and fairly unsatisfying. The reason the older ones from the 70’s and before feel fine, is because the nature of those old games was slower and the ball was what we now call “floaty”. Neil Falconer who was a software developer at the earliest versions of our company, used to say: “when the company you work at starts talking about making wide bodies, its time to dust off the resume because they are a recipe for disaster”. Of course in the virtual world its not an issue, playfields could be enormous.
Cathy: There was going to be a Spy Hunter movie starring the Rock that never got off the ground. Gaming is full of those stories, and you have at least that one. Are there any other dangled carrots that never came to pass?
George: In the last dying days at Midway I pitched a new Spy Hunter. It was to be on the Xbox 360 and PS3- I’ll send you the sizzle video that we made as part of the pitch. I think that pitch is still relevant today. Remember, that I had nothing to do with the resurrected Spy Hunters that the company made for the consoles in the 2000’s and I really felt a sense of loss that I wasn’t involved. So I called my pitch Spy Hunter Renaissance and I wanted to take it in new directions. I wanted to add jump jets and rotate the wheels such that they made the car hover a few feet off the ground. This was so that I could introduce a new driving dynamic that had the physics of a hover vehicle in addition to the physics of the car. I also created story line that the car had a very dangerous power source and for that reason it was a closely guarded secret known only to the designers of the car and select people in government. As the pilot of the car (the pilots were nicknamed “Spy Hunters”) even you were unaware of what it was. As the story evolved and you completed missions, you began to discover what in fact the power source was. In the end you faced an enemy threat so great that you had to sacrifice your self by turning the car itself into a destructive weapon to destroy the enemy threat. Oh well, the stuff of my dreams or maybe I should say my nightmares.
Cathy: Legend has it you had no knowledge of Lord of the Rings when you started development of the table for it. My friend and Pinball Chick writer Eala says I’m supposed to yell “IT’S CALLED THE F—ING BALROG” at you. But I won’t do that. Instead, I’ll ask how much of a license’s “lore” do you assimilate while making the table for it, and did you ever become a fan of a property you did the table for?
George: I think its key that design teams relate to the things they work on. The passion for the theme clearly impacts the work. In my current role, I try very hard to make that happen with my studio. On “no knowledge of LOTR”, that’s an exaggeration, I read the Hobbit in college and I liked it but I had not read the other books. Your friend is referring to a story I’ve told many times, where the other guys on the team were completely geeked out on the fiction and every time I mispronounced something they would roll their eyes at me. When I met with the team one day to pitch changing what was originally a cave troll into the Balrog, I referred to the Balrog as the “big red fire guy” and Keith Johnson and Chris Granner, shouted in dismay “Dude, that’s the Balrog!!!!”
Cathy: We’re focused on digital pinball here at The Pinball Chick, and we’re big advocates for doing digital recreations of real tables. Stern did have a deal with Farsight, but nothing has come out recently. Have we seen the end of you guys licensing your tables for those who can’t afford $6,000+ per table?
George: No, not at all. We are actually so interested in that business that we are taking a step back and strategizing how to make a bigger impact in that area. Stay tuned, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised. But you know that really cool things take time, it’s not around the corner.
Cathy: You’ve made some truly incredible pins, so I want to ask you, George Gomez: how do YOU define “flow” in pinball?
George: To me, flow is not strictly about a series of smooth shots, although clearly they are the most obvious component of it. There is an intensity that occurs when one shot sets up another shot or a possible transition in the midst of accomplishing a greater game goal like a hurry up or a scoring frenzy. The feedback the game gives you with sounds as you complete consecutive shots is vital to enhancing that feeling. Its about getting the player so intensely focused on making the subsequent shot to continue the combination, that it becomes all consuming.
Cathy: Most of my readers are actually in game design themselves, and I can tell you that many of your games come-up in discussions of what inspired our current generation of indie game designers. Especially those who do white-knuckle action stuff. Even your hidden gem type stuff like Satan’s Hollow still comes up in discussions. What is one thing about making a great arcade action game you know NOW that you wish you had known back then?
George: Iterate, iterate, iterate. Try stuff as fast as you can, it’s the only way you can get to fun. You can’t just stare at your screen, you have to make stuff. Whether it’s code or art or mechanism or whatever. Making things informs you in ways that you can’t imagine; just thinking about a problem wont solve it. You make it, you play it, it sucks, you do it again and again and again.
Cathy: Have you ever gotten the itch to go back and develop one more really great arcade-style action game before you retire?
George: Yes! I actually think about it a lot because ideas come to me and I want to try them. A fun play mechanic is timeless. The Angry Birds frenzy years back re-enforced this in my mind. In the late 70’s early 80’s the vid game companies were truly innovating. Think about the diversity in the play mechanics of Space Invaders, Pac Man, Missile Command, Defender, Robotron, Centipede, etc. We don’t have anywhere near that diversity in creative play in today’s games. Too many games fall into genres where the core mechanic is predetermined; drivers, shooters, RPGs, fighters, sports, such that the points of difference become presentation and storytelling. Don’t get me wrong, I still own and buy every console and I play when I can and there is plenty of amazing entertainment still in games. My commentary is strictly a personal introspection about the significance of a solid core play mechanic. What is fun and how do you make it?
Cathy: You mentioned Angry Birds. That’s one of two “modern” properties (along with Geometry Wars) that I thought could have been massive in arcades in the 80s. Now, I want to flip that: is there any game you worked on during the Golden Age whose time had yet come but would have been a huge hit later down the road?
George: Uhm, I think I worked inside of existing play mechanics and enhanced them, I don’t think I invented a new mechanic. Spy Hunter is a driving game and I added the notion of a car with weapons and you get music when you have weapons in an attempt to make the game feel cinematic. I was inspired by the common scene in James Bond movies where he is faced with overwhelming odds and you know there is going to be a major confrontation (the Little Nellie helicopter fight in You Only Live Twice or the final underwater fight in Thunderball) and they bring up the Bond theme and it feels just epic. Things like the weapons truck are a great example of figuring something out by doing. When we brought up the game, the car just “grew” weapons and ammo in video game fashion based on checkpoints. This felt wrong to me, because cars don’t just grow weapons and ammo just because you drove further down the road. I looked at Knight Rider and said we need a truck that he drives into. Tom Leon, my partner on the game, hated the idea of the truck. I talked him into putting it in and once we had it in, we figured out that calling up the truck and having to avoid getting killed and negotiating the car to line up with the truck and trying to stay in the fight all the while, was a big strategy thing. Things happen when you make stuff. So the reality is that I didn’t invent the core mechanic of the game; it’s a driving game, I just created an extension of the genre.
Cathy: I have to ask about probably the most famous Golden Age licensed game: Tron. How did you get that assignment? Because I’m sure everyone at the time was chomping at the bit to get it!
George: Tom Nieman was Bally Midway’s Licensing guy and he told us that Disney was going to make a movie about video games, that was going to feature state of the art computer graphics and that they were looking for a video game partner. At the time Midway was the largest manufacturer of coin operated video games in North America. It had achieved that partially by establishing itself with the Japanese game companies as the manufacturing and sales agent of their products in the Americas and Western Europe. It had relationships with Namco, Taito, etc. I’m sure you are aware of this but some of your audience may not know it. It also had 2 captive R&D groups that developed products not licensed from Japan. Those groups were Dave Nutting and Assoc.(GORF, Wizard of WOR, etc.) in Arlington Heights, IL and Arcade Engineering(Omega Race, Solar Fox, etc.) in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Bill Adams and I worked for the in house engineering group and at the time while Bill was allowed to make and pitch game ideas; I was attached to a group that mostly focused on making the licensed designs and the designs from Dave Nutting and Arcade Engineering production ready. Most of what we got from the external groups were very rough working prototypes.
The company had decided to solicit designs for TRON from DNA and Arcade Engineering and then they would select which direction to go in. Bill and I begged to be allowed to pitch a concept. John Pasierb and Dr. Marty Keane were running development at the time for Midway and they allowed us to pitch. I don’t think anyone believed that we would actually land the opportunity. Three of us; Bill Adams, a young electronics design genius called Attish Ghosh and I got the script for the film from Disney and started talking about what to do with the game. Attish had designed the MCR2 hardware set (first used to power Satan’s Hollow). The company and Disney’s plan was to hold a nationwide TRON competition at the Aladdin’s Castle Arcade chain, which was owned by Bally. The competition would launch a few months before the film; leading up to a play-off to be held at Madison Square Garden in NYC, then the winners would all go to the premiere of the film. So there was a lot of pressure to deliver the game in time, not just for manufacturing but to enable the tournament and all of the associated PR events. Bill and Attish decided that using the MCR2 Satan’s Hollow hardware would be a huge advantage, because we could start developing right away. We worked like crazy in the weeks leading up to the presentation of ideas and when we showed up I had these big poster boards that outlined what we thought would be the waves in the game and Bill had stuff moving on screen and I had a mockup of the cabinet with the glowing grip and some very rough art concepts. I think Dave’s group was focused on building the game on what was a bleeding edge hardware system using the first true 3d vector graphics that I had ever seen. The reality was that had we gone in that direction, it wouldn’t have been done in time. I think Arcade wasn’t that interested in the project, so I don’t recall what they pitched. We were the only ones that had actual stuff in the pitch and I think management decided that we really wanted to do it, so we got our shot.
Bill was very intelligent about how we attacked it; he gave each wave to a different programmer and he focused on bringing everything together and tuning the game. Famously the discs wave consumed all of the resources of the system early on and so we abandoned it to be come the sequel. That game went thru its own iteration in that we had to invent an aiming system and many other techniques. I’m most proud of having come up with the notion of running the cursor around the stripes on the perimeter of the virtual arena and being able to move it up and down to select the stripes. That game was programmed by Bob Dinnerman, who was a young engineer hired around the time that the first game was shipping. So after many months of craziness, we made it, we went to NY, watched the tournament, went to lunch at Tavern on Green with the movie stars and then saw the movie premiere.
Cathy: This is one of my longstanding “personal curiosity” things. I’m a fan of Satan’s Hollow. But, it’s not a huge hit, and my theory is you released a game with the word SATAN in it right in the middle of the Satanic Panic. I’m a godless Californian, so I have to ask, were there any arcade operators or chains that put up a stink over the name?
George: Satan’s Hollow was designed and programmed by Bill Adams. Bill is the guy that moved me into actual game design. He had a very clear vision for the game, a very evil villain boss, building the bridge, the moat, a castle, birds, etc. The evil boss became Satan because at the time there were lots of films featuring Satan; the Exorcist, The Omen, the Damian series, etc. Again we used a common technique of listing 2 columns of words and matching to pick the name. My biggest contribution to the game was drawing the flight patterns of the birds. At the time there was some push back from what the sales guys referred to as the “Bible Belt states; they just would not have games that showed or even had Satan in the name, even if he was the villain.
Cathy: Finally, pinball is probably the most popular it has been since the mid 90s, but stuff like Stern’s output or even Jersey Jack are tables being made by the same designers who thrived in the 80s and 90s. Steve Ritchie: still making pins. You: still making pins. Pat Lawlor? Still making pins. Hell, American Pinball found the storage locker Joe Balcer had been left in, dusted him off, gave him a hot meal, and he just made the Hot Wheels machine for them. I must confess that I do worry the art of real table design might be lost when your generation takes their final bow. How is the art form going to make it through the next few decades when the industry still relies so heavily on these legends?
George: I think I’m doing my part to ensure a bright future. I hired Keith Elwin and his contribution has been very impactful, high energy, new ideas, great attitude. I think he still cant believe he’s getting paid to make games. I have 2 more up and coming designers in my studio right now that you haven’t heard from yet but in the next few years you will. I have a great balance of new and experienced talent in my studio in every discipline; artists, animators, designers, ME’s, software devs; you name it. It’s a great dynamic, there is a tremendous buzz and energy in that place, it’s probably what I miss most since Covid.
The Pinball Chick aspires to be the premier source of digital pinball reviews and study. That’s why every table is rated by five different players of different experience, skill, and preferences. But, we also know that many players fall in-love with specific types of tables. We do it too! That’s why we’ve created a classification system to help players track down the digital tables that best suit their tastes. After putting thousands of hours into digital pinball in 2020, we’ve determined that there are five primary types of tables.
Sharpshooters are tables based around a wide-variety of traditional targets and narrow orbits. The primary table type from the 1970s through 1991, sharpshooters challenge players to slow the action down and take careful aim at specific targets, often with incentives to connect in a sequential order. Accuracy and the ability to shoot in rapid-succession are rewarded, while misfires come with a high risk. Sharpshooters typically have strict rules that test elite players with little flexibility for individual strategy.
Examples: Firepower, Space Shuttle, Gorgar, El Dorado.
The primary game type from 1992 through the modern age of pinball, finesse tables are typically driven by modes, multiballs, combos, and jackpots. While building your score requires a linear progression of modes, players have more flexibility to create their own strategies. Finesse tables are all about transitioning from orbital combos to target shooting and reward ball-handling skills. The majority of DMD tables fall into this category.
Examples: Medieval Madness, Funhouse, Theatre of Magic, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Twilight Zone.
Kinetic tables are defined by lightning-fast gameplay and bounciness. Kinetics often employ chaos elements (bumpers and slingshots) near primary targets to keep the ball in constant flux, making them the tables that require the most playtime to master. Gaining control of the ball will pose the greatest challenge. Anticipation will be a player’s greatest asset. Kinetic tables often incentivize high-risk bank shots or flat shots that return at high-risk angles, and are excellent to teach players angles and quick judgment.
Examples: Attack From Mars, White Water, Creature from the Black Lagoon
Pick ‘n Flick
Arguably the best table type to introduce newcomers to pinball, pick ‘n flick tables are slower, more deliberate games based simple shots. Players are at their leisure to pick a singular target, steady themselves, and flick the ball. Pick ‘N Flicks often allow for repetitive shooting of high-scoring targets or combos. Novelty tables based around eye-catching gimmicks often employ a pick ‘n flick design sense. Professional players often avoid, if not outright hate, the pick ‘n flick setup. But, rookies can use them to build muscle memory, as these tables often rely on common angles and simple mode advancement. When combined with some of the more fun concepts in the medium, pick ‘n flick layouts become the ideal training ground to hone basic pinball skills.
Examples: Hurricane, Junk Yard, The Party Zone
Boardwalk-style tables are the dinosaurs of pinball. For the majority of the sport’s existence, this style of design dominated the industry. In the days when pinball was thought to be completely random, boardwalk-style tables lived down to that reputation. Relying heavily on so many bumpers that high scores will come down to just plain dumb luck, it’s no wonder that the medium was banned in places New York City. In the golden age of electro-mechanical tables, pinball was associated primarily with the mafia and illegal gambling. It’s why we almost considered calling this style Speakeasy. But, the reputation was never fully justified, and it would be a disservice to say boardwalks have no value today. The best of this breed often rely on skillful use of a plunger and nudging more than flippers. In fact, they’re excellent at training for bank shots, subtle tilting, and simple target shooting. Plus, the iconic chimes and bells of the era will inevitably bewitch you with all the charm of a simpler time.
Examples: Central Park, Spanish Eyes.
The Exception: Hybrids
Sometimes, you can’t quite pigeonhole a table into a specific category. If so, The Pinball Chick will list the primary type hyphenated with the secondary type. For example, Monster Bash is a finesse-kinetic. The Getaway: High Speed II is a sharpshooter-kinetic. Because of the nature of design, a pick ‘n flick will never be a hybrid, and a kinetic will almost never be a primary-type in a hybrid.