Table Review: Circus for Zaccaria Pinball

20210503224054_1A 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.

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#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.

20210503221835_1Circus
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
Cathy: Great
Oscar: Great
Angela: Great
Jordi: Good
Eala: Great

Table Review: The Addams Family for Arcooda

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.

For our Arcooda reviews, we’re actually at the mercy of having to switch back to the standard version to get close-ups of the tables. Sorry. Anyway, the staircase and multiball/extra ball lane is where you can truly feel the difference. This is a legendary ramp, and no digital version of it feels more accurate than Arcooda’s.

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.

Speaking of kinetic, Addams Family’s graveyard has one of THE great risk-reward cluster of bumpers of the DMD era. The bumpers are used to charge up the swamp-shot, also known as the Thing Flip. Many professionals base their strategy around completing this shot, which is often more valuable than the much-higher-risk multiball jackpot. Angela, an absolute dead-eye with bat flippers, used it almost exclusively to defeat Dad and I in a first-to-four series, 4 to 1 to 1. It’s maybe pinball’s most thrilling shot, so much so that I actually hate when it’s done automatically. Especially when Thing misses. Hell, I can miss all on my own, thank you very much.

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.

Purists will probably complain that it can’t be called “true to the arcade” because they had to slightly alter Fester’s appearance (and Pugsley’s too). If it bothers you THAT much, given that it affects the gameplay (checks notes) not at all, you’re officially too shallow for this review to matter at all. Oh and worth noting: if you have a Kinect camera and Windows 10, the glasses-free 3D view is absolutely incredible.

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.

The Addams Family
for Arcooda Software
Developed by Bally, 1992
Design & Concept: Pat Lawlor & Larry DeMar
Art: John Youssi
Sound: Chris Granner
DMD: Scott Slomiany

Cathy: MASTERPIECE
Oscar: MASTERPIECE
Angela: MASTERPIECE
The Pinball Chick Pantheon Inductee

Table Review: Cine Star for Zaccaria Pinball

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:

And it has a duck on it, which caused Angela to call it the Quacker Cracker.

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.

Cine Star
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
Cathy: BAD
Oscar: THE PITS
Angela: THE PITS
Jordi: GOOD
Eala: BAD

Table Review: Aerobatics for Zaccaria Pinball

20210503003200_1Zaccaria 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.

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IF there is a driver for Aerobatics, the left saucer would probably get the credit. But, I genuinely enjoyed shooting the top one more. Plus, it starts every single ball with the left special highlighted already, so you have a chance off-the-serve to turn it on. Actually, I think the main weakness of Aerobatics is that the top light resets at the start of every ball. I wish it didn’t. Let’s say you have one of the other three lights on. Having to shoot the spinner to try and light the first step in the specials would have added some much-needed depth. If it had been that way, Angela and Oscar would have gone MASTERPIECE in their rankings, Jordi would have bumped his rating up to GREAT, and Aerobatics would be in the conversation for the best EM conversion in all of digital pinball. Alas, it wasn’t to be.

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.

Mind you, extra-balls earned off specials are limited to one per turn, but I can’t stress enough how much a weight-off it is in any Zaccaria EM when you finally see that EB light turn on. You breathe out a sigh of relief. Every. Single. Time.

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!

Aerobatics
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
Cathy: MASTERPIECE
Oscar: GREAT
Angela: GREAT
Jordi: GOOD
Eala: MASTERPIECE

Zaccaria Pinball: Quick Reference Ratings

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.

The Pinball Chick Interview: George Gomez

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.

Robert Downy Jr explains how he got into character for Iron M.. hey wait. THAT’S GEORGE? No. That dude is too cute to be an arcade/pinball designer.

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.

I spend a LOT of my time these days playing retro games or digital versions of old pinball machines, and I’m constantly asked what the hold-up is for licensed games getting re-released is. It often comes down to “license holder wants more money than reasonable.” It’s reassuring to know that it’s not a recent phenomena. A popular pinball machine carrying your, let’s face it, NOVELTY SONG’s branding could have given it modern relevance besides being a really bad punchline to a twenty-five-year-old episode of the Simpsons. Seriously, I’m thrity-one years old and that’s the first thing I think of when I think of Monster Mash. Dumb decision, but it worked out good for the table.

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.

Now THIS is cool, and as far as I can tell, this has never been seen anywhere. This is the complete layout for Armed & Dangerous, a one-of-a-kind game that would have replaced the normal three-ball concept with a lifebar. Here’s George describing the game: “It was intended to be a tank game that linked two games and it used video game rules, meaning that you were dead when your life ended not when you drained the ball three times. The tank at the bottom of the image had illuminated inserts that represented your life- as you took hits the lights went out. You also had a limited “force field” and all balls in the game drained back to feed your flippers such that you had constant fire power. The enemy tanks “fired” using lights that “walked” down playfield to hit your tank. It had one more twist, you could link two games together, in which case the tanks on my playfield represented your life and vice versa. When I destroyed all of your tanks you were dead. Williams didn’t quite know what to do with this concept, it wasn’t a true pinball and it wasn’t a true novelty game ticket spitter, so they killed it in development. We did save the linked game concept and used it in the game that I moved on to, NBA Fastbreak.”

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.

It actually is a semi-common practice that movie makers will ban licensees from backing out of a contract once they’ve seen the movie. True story: a preview screening of Hudson Hawk for licensees in 1991 ended prematurely when everyone in attendance set themselves on fire. NEVER FORGET!

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.

The insane thing is, they could finally make this movie today, in 2021, and it’d probably bank more money now than it would have then, in 2005/2006. The Rock is INSANELY hot now. At the time this was planned? He was doing crap like the Doom movie and Gridiron Gang. The Tooth Fairy and Fast Five hadn’t saved his career yet. By the way, that Spy Hunter game is easily one of the ten worst “major” games I’ve ever played.

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.

He could have just answered “Monster Bash. That’s flow.” It really is. Except that Creature shot. That’s the shot I’ll be thinking of when I cut his brake line.

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.

You know you’ve made it when your work is a Robot Chicken sketch. Then again, Spy Hunter was also the solution in an episode of Murder She Wrote. Jeez.

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.

Concept art for Tron, or outline of Bob Hope? Only George knows.

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.

Concept art for George’s iconic controller that was used for Gorf, Satan’s Hollow, and Tron. Arcade1Up really should get on this. They probably could do their first $1,000 project by doing an environmental cabinet with the two Tron games and Gorf thrown-in for good measure.

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.

I can’t thank George enough for sending me really cool concept art for a lot of his projects. Even more are included below the interview. My Dad is tickled pink. He’s a huge Tron fan. I admit, the first movie isn’t my cup of tea, but I liked Tron: Legacy.

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.

Introducing: Table Types

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.

Sharpshooter

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.

Finesse

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

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

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.

Zaccaria Pinball – Deluxe Table Pack 1 Table Ranking (Xbox One & PS4 DLC Pack, Tables sold Individually on Steam)

Think of Zaccaria Pinball’s Deluxe series as being their take on modern pins like those by Jersey Jack or even Stern’s post-DMD works like Stranger Things. The scoreboard is now an animated LCD screen and modes have explanations and rules given to you. If Magic Pixel’s goal was to create original tables that feel like they could be real, two of the three tables succeeded. I could believe that Red’s Show and Cine Star are real tables. Spooky Deluxe? Probably not. It doesn’t seem like it would physically work. Ironically, Spooky is the best of the set and the first table during our Zaccaria play time that has won an excellent table certification here. Zaccaria Pinball is a solid, genuinely fun pinball set that frustrates me sometimes with the sheer amount of confusing options, but make no mistake, this is a solid pack to introduce yourself to their potential.

But, there’s a few problems with the first three Deluxe tables that have been released on Xbox One (this set is coming to PS4 in August, 2020), and one table we have to temporarily classify as “broken” until the engineers at Magic Pixel fix a target. The major issue is that tables have their scoring shut off during modes, which is so annoying. Of course, this applies to Zaccaria’s “Remake” collection of 27 original creations that a Buyer’s Guide will be created for here at The Pinball Chick. We’ve tried to limit our exposure to them, but in a brief play session with the “Remake” version of Spooky (not to be confused with Spooky Deluxe or the “Solid State” Spooky that are found in other sets in the Zaccaria Pinball collection), the same issue happened: modes freeze scoring for anything but the targets in the mode. BUT, I’ll argue that there, at least the tables are less busy and less prone to bounce AND you get a much bigger time limit that’s within reason. 40

BUT, make no mistake, even with one table that we were forced to classify as “broken” and a lot of frustration, these tables are FUN! And that’s what matters. $4.99 gets you two quality tables, one that WILL be quality upon a bug fix (which they need to get around to doing fast, since these Deluxe tables are going to be their signature DLC series going forward), and probably some of the most uniquely challenging shooting in digital pinball. They’re onto something, and hopefully will only get better with experience.

Zaccaria Pinball – Deluxe Tables Pack 1

Price: $4.99 (Xbox One), tables sold individually or in bundles on Steam (Check Pricing)
Total Tables: 3
Quality Tables: 2
Certifications: Spooky Deluxe (Certified Excellent)
SET RECOMMENDED

THE BROKEN

#3: Cine Star (Would be GOOD)

Remake of Cine Star (Unverified release date)
REST OF THE TEAM
Oscar: Good (#3)
Jordi: Good (#3)

Gutsy to base a table on Indian cinema, but I really dig the non-conventional theme. I wish that Zaccaria’s original tables had better art in general, stuff that looked more like classic pinball art, but it’s visually my favorite of the three tables. (It’s also possible it’s Middle Eastern cinema. The pyramids in the scoring LCD I just now noticed).

Originally, I had Cine Star Deluxe #2 of the three tables in Deluxe Pack 1. While Oscar and Jordi always had the same order, I appreciated the more old-school design with new-school elements that Cine Star offered. Of course, like all the Deluxe Tables in the pack, actually getting balls to consistently enter and flow through orbits is quite the chore and, even after sixty-hours combined on the three tables, we still couldn’t hit shots with the type of consistency that they should be at. “What table are they shooting on that balls rim-out of orbits or brick the rails so consistently?” Oscar, not exactly a slouch at precision shooting, said while playing this. Which is not to say it’s a bad design. It’s not. It’s maddening, frustrating, and bound to be a massive turn-off to all but the hardest of hardcore pinheads. But bad? No. When you get on a roll.. rare for Zaccaria’s deluxe tables.. you’re in for a treat. Unlike Red Show or the upcoming Spooky, Cine Star is a table carried by a signature shot, and it’s a doozy. Behold: The Stunt Tower!

The gawdy Sinbad toy or whatever that’s supposed to be is so distracting from what should be the most spotlighted shot in all of Zaccaria Pinball. I’d be mighty impressed if they end up topping this. Of course, like everything else on Cine Star Deluxe, the potential is greatly hampered by the fact that you can activate all five lights and hit the target, but the accelerators might fail and you might not score the point. And sometimes, when you have some of the lights but accidentally shoot the entrance to the tower, which sends the ball part-way up the ramp, you can no longer get certain lights to work, meaning the fifteen million points it contains are lost to you for the remainder of that ball. It contributes greatly to the “unfinished prototype” feel of this particular table.

The idea is there’s a light switch on on the tower and five lights. Each light corresponds to an accelerator along the ramp. If you light all five lights and shoot the ramp, the ball spirals up the Stunt Tower and you score 15,000,000 points. The instructions say 10,000,000, but it paid 15M every time we’ve shot it. Either way, this is one of the most ingenious centralized targets I’ve seen. A Brian Eddy-style shot that combines rewarding points with a visually-satisfying payoff. I love the Stunt Tower. I’d love it even more if it worked with consistency, but as I noted in the caption, it has a moderately high fail rate, so high that it landed the table in the BROKEN category. Albeit with less anger than Doctor Who: Master of Time of Champion Pub for Pinball Arcade. No, this is a different type of anger. A “I’m disappointed in you” type of anger that will be undone by some patchwork.

It’s not just the Stunt Tower. The rest of the table is much more janky than the other tables. I’m not even exaggerating when I say we didn’t even begin a mode in the majority of the games we played, and not for a lack of trying. Getting anything but the Stunt Tower is a huge waste of time. All other targets essentially shut down during modes in Zaccaria’s deluxe tables. The modes are often based around all the tight squeezes that make me question whether precision shooting is even a viable option. That’s why I guess I liked Cine Star more. There’s two primary-angle shots that you need to use the Stunt Tower, and it’s possible to put up a dynamo score without activating a single mode. Dad’s World Record run had him complete one mode, score the tower once, and hit a few basic combos. It wasn’t that hard. Part of that is because the Xbox leaderboards are scantly populated by truly competitive players. Hopefully coverage here at the Pinball Chick will fix that.

This is not a two-ball capture ball target, like you’d see in Theatre of Magic. It’s actually only a single-ball target. The second ball is my ball and it’s marooned. This is the worst dead zone I’ve encountered so far as The Pinball Chick. In roughly one out of three games played on Cine Star Deluxe, Dad or I would maroon a ball in the capture ball. This slot is too easily accessed. Serves off a plunger can be lethal too, so calling an attendant isn’t risk-free. However, even full strength nudging won’t free a ball from this dead zone. This is commonly hit enough that it should never have made it out of play-testing and contributes to the table’s BROKEN status.

So, just for now, we have to regretfully list Cine Star Deluxe as “broken” because it’s just too damn glitchy. If the Stunt Tower were reliable, it’d be fine. In fact, one solution they may consider is that you score fifteen million (or, again, is it REALLY supposed to be ten million?) by lighting all the lights and then entering the tower’s accelerated run. The points are awarded at the top of the tower. By moving it to the base of the tower, you get the points you earned regardless if the mechanics fail to work. If this were a real table, there’d be an operator option for exactly that. I’ll be putting this #2 if the bugs are fixed. By the way, don’t wait for the fix to play this if you buy the set. Working or not, that Stunt Tower shot has to be played to believe.

THE GOOD

#2: Red Show

Remake of Red’s Show (1975)
REST OF THE TEAM
Oscar: Good (#2)
Jordi: Good (#2)

Red’s Show is visually loud, to be sure. But I really think this is the most pinball-looking of the three tables in Deluxe Pack 1, even if I prefer the less noisy Cine Star.

A busy, flipper-heavy, combo-heavy table, Red Show is somewhat confused on what it wants to accomplish. The super-wide-body layout that’s absolutely over-flowing with targets and modes gives it that mad-scientist vibe, with very little in the way of dead space. The boys disagreed with me and placed this #2, but I felt the biggest issue with Red Show was, once you get the timing down, you can ignore the table’s modes and the relatively higher-risk angles they follow and instead shoot combos for easy points until the cows come home. Combos in Red Show are worth increasing multiples of a million points. For Spooky, they build off 100,000 multiples, which keeps the balance of that table focused on playing modes. I find it absurd that Oscar, a scoring-balance purist, would argue in favor of a table that FUBARed the scoring to the degree Red Show did. His counter-argument is that the orbits are higher-degree-difficulty shots with high potential to clank them. My counter-counter argument is ONE MILLION IS TOO HIGH A MULTIPLE!

I can’t stress enough how ridiculously tight this shot is. Even if you set the ball to the small-size, the margin-for-error is small to the point of demoralization.

All the Deluxe tables have the same issues. Serving off the plunger is absolutely fucking pathetic and sometimes.. not most of the time, but often enough that it’s annoying.. the balls go straight down the outlane. The plungers all do a pussy-shit launch that has no skill shot or anything attached to it and just sorta of clumsily puts the ball somewhere on the playfield with momentum pointing straight at the left outlane. Just inexcusable. Good pinball should NEVER feel like you’re cheated, and the deluxe tables constantly feel like they’re cheating you. So many of it feels like it’s done in a deliberate way that it almost feels the designers are trolling you. “Haha, I wish I could see the look on their faces when they plunge a ball and it immediately goes down the outlane.” A pinball designer’s #1 mindset should be asking “is this a fair challenge” and plungers in all three Deluxe tables are anything but fair. It’s a problem. They also all have too-difficult to activate multiballs. For Red Show, there’s a spinning lock under the base of the giant toy, and at most, we each locked a single ball in it. In several hours playing just this table (which included Oscar setting the World Record high-score on Xbox One for 3-Ball Simulation), we didn’t get a single multiball until we figured out that you basically have to treat that target like it’s a completely different shot with it’s only timing and set-up instead of being a natural part of the table’s flow.

It took us a long, long time to figure out the multiball shot in Red Show. It’s because it’s so unconventional that there’s really no real-life analog to it. The trick is to wait for the ball to settle on the upper-central flipper. Without trapping, the ball will sometimes settle and allow a tee-shot. From there, it’s actually a relatively easily-timed shot that locks the ball. Alternatively, you can do a standard ball trap with the upper-left flipper and do a tap-shot, though if you have the physics set to “arcade” this is very difficult. With “simulation” physics, Dad actually clocked the timing of the tap shot and became able to activate multiball with ease. I confess, I never got the hang of it.

Which is not to say it’s not fun. The front of the table where the entrances to orbits are makes for a pretty good sharp-shooting experience. The issue is the table is too big and has such shallow access points to the upper-tables that actually getting to them is an overly difficult slog. Want proof of this? Try the Challenge mode, which as of this writing, has three people on the Leaderboard, myself included. Shots are too tight, entrances to orbits too small, and the table too large to have a special mode where you have to shoot specific targets. Those are done dumbly anyway. “Hit the spinner” would have been difficult enough. “Spin it 20 times” is flipping the player off. It just is. The third task was locking a ball. Which, again, possibly the worst ball lock in the history of the medium belongs to Red Show. It’s too small a hole with too poor of access and too sharp an angle. Spinning multiball lock? LOVE IT! Spinning multiball lock where they placed it? Oh piss off. It’s not reasonable. But, ultimately, we all three voted “GOOD” on Red Show. The theme is fun, targets are distinct and well spaced from each-other. The upper mini-field is very rewarding. It’s got a great pace and a wonderful sense of reward. If I sound frustrated, it’s because this should have been a slam-dunk GREAT table and it’s not. Orbit access shouldn’t be this maddening. Red Show is fun, but it’s one of the biggest brick layers in modern digital pinball.

THE GREAT

#1: Spooky

Remake of Spooky (1987)
REST OF THE TEAM
Oscar: Great (#1)
Jordi: Great (#1)
THE PINBALL CHICK CERTIFIED EXCELLENT TABLE

Time to talk about the elephant in the room: the Deluxe tables are ugly. That art is total amateur hour. It looks like how a Halloween-themed cake’s frosting would be decorated. A really cheap one you buy from Walmart. I really don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings saying this, but it just isn’t pinballish. And it’s going to prevent a lot of people from trying Zaccaria’s tables, because bad art will be equaled to bad gameplay. So, spread the word that this is well above average table in terms of gameplay, even if it looks like a dollar store Halloween window decal.

Spooky Deluxe is proof that Zaccaria Pinball is digital silverball’s biggest hidden gem. You guys won’t believe the treasures we’ve unearthed in Zaccaria Pinball, which includes official bootlegs (you read that correctly) of tables designed by all-time legends like Ed Krynski or Norm Clark. Spooky Deluxe proves they are worthy contributors to the legacy of the medium. The fun, frantic Japanese Fan design is actually the most conservative of the three tables in Deluxe Pack 1, proof that “less is more.” The bird’s nest of four ramps incentivizes combo-shooting, but doesn’t totally succeed in eliminating wood chopping. I was able to build up a few record-setting scores by abusing the spinner and a couple targets that are worth between two million to five million. Really, the key to success in any Zaccaria Pinball remake table, be it the ones actually labeled “remake” or “deluxe” is to restore the ball save via the lane lights. You can shift the lights left or right, and lighting all four restores the ball save (or scores 2,000,000 points if the ball save is already active) for about thirty seconds. Since the ramps feed the lanes, you can really just keep reloading ball save over and over and over again. You can tell the difference between players who get this and players who don’t on the leaderboards, as there’s usually gaps in scoring range.

Spooky has the Necronomicon just laying around behind the ball lock. Meanwhile, the ball lock sometimes does fail to lock. It’s not as annoying as the Stunt Tower in Cine Star, and I guess it’s hypothetically possible that my shot wasn’t accurate enough. But I swear, sometimes in modes that require you to shoot the lock, the ball fully goes into the cage but doesn’t lock or count.

So, what’s the problem? Well, like other other Deluxe tables, the modes have too short a time limit and disable all other scoring. Forty seconds to shoot four orbits and then trap the ball in a semi-unreliable ball lock is kind of unreasonable. Thankfully, Spooky Deluxe has a pair mini-modes that end as soon as you complete the one and only stated goal (either shoot the BAT target three times or shoot the ball in either ball lock three times) for a cool five-million points. In my world record game on Xbox One (I am, as of this writing, the World Champion in Spooky Deluxe’s five-ball arcade physics mode), I completed exactly ZERO main modes and only one mini-mode. My record setting score was a result of building up the spinner value, along with a successful multiball. I’m also 2nd place in the same mode on Steam, and this time, I didn’t even score the five million point mini-modes even once. Which is not to say the modes are impossible. They just require you to be nearly perfect from the start of the mode, without the ball getting caught-up in a bounce cycle on the slingshot or the bumpers. A few modes I never even came close to finishing. Take for example “Silver Bullet”, which I’ll explain in the caption.

In “Silver Bullet” mode, these are the lights that you have to shoot to move onto the next step of the mode. The thing is, in over twenty-hours of playtime, none of the three of us could figure out a proper shooting angle with either flipper for all of them. The top-most ones can barely be toed off the flipper, but the bottom two especially feel like they only get hit by a lucky bounce. You only have forty seconds, and I assume there’s more to the mode than just clicking off all six lights. Probably shooting the ball lock next to the Necronomicon, since that seems to be the finale to other modes. Making any mode’s target a blind angle that relies on lucky bounces isn’t a good idea. We practiced at this shot as much as humanly possible in both arcade and simulation modes and legitimately couldn’t find any angles that could access all six lights. It’s a blind angle. For a mode. That’s not good design.

Make no mistake, Spooky Deluxe is a very problematic table. But, it’s also a whole ton of fun. It might be the most sloppy of any table we’ve unanimously rated “GREAT” here at the Pinball Chick, which might sound like damning praise, but I consider it a challenge to the Magic Pixel team: you’re going to keep getting better, but you gotta start making these Deluxe tables more player-friendly. Spooky seems to troll players a lot. The BAT light target that activates multiball is positioned at a slight off-angle just above the drain, in a way that causes the ball to do a suicide plunge towards the drain. That’s not adding challenge to the table. That’s adding a luck element. Don’t do that. The designers of these tables have to remember the ultimate maxim of pinball design: the best challenges are the ones players put upon themselves. Have faith that you don’t need to screw players to make a table hard. Did you see how many times I choked away a world record before I finally got it? I’m doing just fine myself, thank you.

Pinball FX3 has a Local-Multiplayer Problem

Before we start, I want to note the irony that, for nine years now, my fans at Indie Gamer Chick have complained that I don’t put enough stock (or any at all) into local co-op when I review some games. What can I say? Maybe if my Daddy had sat me in front of a Double Dragon coin-op instead of a Firepower pinball machine when I was a child, it’d be different. Alas.

I’ll cut to the chase: local multiplayer scores in Pinball FX3 don’t count for online leaderboards. Among the three modes offered for each table, if you don’t play single-player, you can’t chase records. This won’t matter to a lot of people, but it does for Oscar and myself. While I’m not exactly an elite-level player on the majority of tables, I have briefly held a few world records on a variety of tables, including Masters of the Force from Star Wars Pinball on Switch and, no matter how I did it, I am still legitimately the console world champion of Mustang for Pinball Arcade. My Dad is currently a top player a few Zaccaria tables on Xbox and hovers near the top 10% of several Pinball Arcade tables, and has been a top Judge Dredd player for the month a few times in 2020. But, when it comes to Pinball FX3, we have to chase records alone. That sucks for us, because the majority of our video pinballing we prefer to do via duels. Over 80% of the total accumulated playtime (and we’re talking hundreds of hours) spent playing Pinball Arcade for our review was spent competing against each-other. Frankly, we learn way more about tables via a duel than we do playing solo, because it puts a sharper focus on what targets matter and where the scoring balance lays. If Oscar is able to build a lead through sharp shooting and guile only to watch me evaporate it by exploiting a scoring quirk and repeating low-degree-difficulty shots, it proves the table has a problematic rule sheet.

Well, we can’t do that with Pinball FX3, and that really sucks since all our highest scores actually have come in versus mode. It’s really to the point where we don’t even duel at it anymore. Our competitive spirit burns, but we also want to, you know, be on the leaderboards. There’s not a single Williams table, with the exception of Safe Cracker, where we haven’t put up a total that would be the highest of the week. Mostly Dad, if I’m being honest. In fact, the amount of leaderboard spots he’s given up from those times where we do duel is insane. So, I feel like we need to have a talk with Zen Studios. Take a seat, gang, and note the following:

#1: Playing in multiplayer gives no competitive advantage.

In the day of multiball ball-locks that featured a mechanism physically locking a ball in place, with no “virtual” locks, duels in certain tables could result in players stealing locks you shot. This was a common theme when Oscar and I dueled at tables like Swords of Fury in Pinball Arcade or Fathom. Dad and I coined the term “unlocked door” for it. Hypothetically, if you wanted to cheat in a high score, you could play a two player – four player and and use all but the main game to secure the locks, presumably at higher risk, and then use the main game to start an instant multiball. It’s dirty pool, but it could be done. Only, there’s no table in Pinball FX3’s Williams collection that has unlocked doors. If anything, it would be hypothetically harder, because for those tables that do physically lock a ball + use virtual locks (such as Fish Tales), you might not get a plunge when you lock a ball, but instead have to play off a kick-out. Kick-outs are almost certainly higher risk.

#2: You might have to deal with being iced.

“Icing” is a sports term used for deliberately stalling a game in a pressure situation in order to build up the nerves of your opponent. Examples are calling a time-out before a field-goal kick in football, or before crucial free-throws in a basketball game. Competitive pinball players do it too, along with my father and I when we duel each-other. If one of us has an especially high-scoring ball and is hitting their shots at a high clip, whoever goes next is likely to play deliberately slower and more conservative their next ball. There’s also unintentional icing: if you watch a player have a long, prosperous and high-scoring ball, sitting there waiting for your turn could throw-off your game greatly. Combine this with the pressure of having someone you’re immediately competing against, and really..

#3: It’s more impressive to set a world record in a duel!

I mean, it is. Both my father and myself have won multiple weekly or monthly high scores on a few tables or been near the top of the boards. But my Dad’s recent climb to the top of one of Xbox One’s Zaccaria Deluxe tables (Cine Star, 3 Ball Simulation, which granted, need a much bigger competitive field to truly impress) happened while dueling me. That made it more special to him, since he set his record in part because he was beating me in the process. The funny thing is, we were both smoking the targets that game, to the point that it either one of us could have walked away with a world record that match (in fact, my score would have put me third on the board if Dad hadn’t topped it). Hell, imagine if Pinball FX3 had a physical, local-only tournament. It’d be a shame if top players showed up and performed extraordinarily only to not have their scores appear on leaderboards. Who cares if it shows up as the person who owns the machine’s user name? Nobody. Just ask my Dad, who is on top of a few leaderboards under the name IndieGamerChick despite never going by that name. Well, except when he plays fantastic rounds of digital pinball.

The Pinball Chick presents The Pinball Arcade: The Complete Buyer’s Guide & Table Rankings

A project I’ve been working on with my Father and Jordi for the last nine months. It took hundreds of hours of playtime across three platforms and hundreds of hours of writing. The end result is the biggest game review ever written anywhere: The Pinball Chick presents The Pinball Arcade: The Complete Buyer’s Guide & Table Rankings. It’s over 64,000 words long (more than The Outsiders, The Great Gatsby, or the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), covers all 100 tables (including all delisted tables) and all eight still-available DLC packs. It’s, as far as I can tell, the largest review in the history of video games.

I’ve worked very hard on it, and I also did my best to make it a fun, fast-paced read that’s peppered with factoids, stories, legends, and humor. As a Buyer’s Guide, it’ll be a permanent link at the top of The Pinball Chick, like the Pinball FX3 Williams Buyer’s Guide. I hope you enjoy it. If you find any errors, please contact me immediately so I can correct them.

Please also share the link. It’s pretty much a book-sized review that’s free for everyone. Man, I hope Pinball FX3 gets some more of these tables.

Read: The Pinball Chick – The Complete Pinball Arcade Buyer’s Guide & Table Rankings