Zen Studios is running out of Williams/Bally dot matrix display tables they can convert for Pinball FX 3. At least without paying license fees. In fact, following the release of Williams Pinball Volume 5, they’re down to three such tables: WHO Dunnit, Jack*Bot, and Cactus Canyon. Of course, if they can tap into the extensive Williams/Bally alpha-numeric display library, they’ll have a LOT more classic pinball machines to pool from. Or if more people buy these sets enough to justify the licensing costs, so we can get Twilight Zone, Addams Family, and more. I expect we’ll probably soon be paying $14.99 for sets of three, or $4.99 for individually-released licensed tables. Honestly, as long as we get them, I don’t care how it happens. The really strange thing is how there’s seemingly no rhyme or reason to which tables Zen packs together. Two of today’s three tables are the works of John Popadiuk. Want to hear a joke? What do pinball fans who give thousands of dollars to garage engineers for custom pinball tables and get shafted desire to do? Pop a dick. Hah, get it? Wacka Wacka Wacka!
Anyway, Zen could have just as easily swapped out No Good Gofers for Theatre of Magic in Volume 3 and made Volume 5 the three most famous works of Popadiuk. It’d made total sense. But, instead we get Pat Lawlor’s odd-ball (possibly half-assed) golf table thrown in with Cirqus Voltaire and Tales of the Arabian Nights. Besides the Universal Monsters pack, it seems like the three tables in Volumes 1 – 4 were paired at random. Though, to Zen’s ultimate credit, all four sets up to this point have been worth the $9.99 purchase price. It should be no surprise that Volume 5 joins their company. Not only that, but it becomes the second set of three tables where all three scored a “good” or better rating from me, putting the price per a quality table at $3.33. Only Volume 1 can also say that. Initially, I had Arabian Nights slightly over-rated, which made the debate on whether Volume 5 or Volume 1 was the better set an actual debate. Then I dropped the ranking of Arabian Nights from “Great” to “Good” and ended the debate. Volume 5 is the second best set, even if it’s lacking a masterpiece-caliber table. It’s just a sure-fire bet. You’re bound to feel you got your money’s worth, no matter your taste in pins. Just have your high blood pressure medication nearby for Tales of the Arabian Nights.
So, I guess since I’m here to review tables, there’s really not much more to talk about. Except one thing: Zen Studios actually sent me codes for all three console platforms. And, since I’m in a household that (1) never learned to share and (2) is overflowing with people gaga for pinball, fuck it, I used all three (to account for my “pay for everything” rule, my Dad bought Volume 5 on his Switch out of pocket. He’s my Dad. It counts). And it got me thinking: what console has the best set-up to play video pinball?
Well, duh.. Switch. You can play in Tate Mode using it, which works wonderfully but completely changes the look and feel of the tables. It’s almost like using an entirely different pinball engine. If you have the Flip Grip, it’s even better. But, even if you don’t, you can lay the Switch on your lap or on your bed and play it that way, hunched over it like a vulture. Even if you ignore Tate Mode, the Switch’s Joycons allow you to space your arms out like a real pinball machine. You’re never going to come closer to replicating an authentic pinball feel with a standard game console. You’re just not. The real debate was between the PlayStation 4’s Dualshock 4 and the Xbox One controller. It wasn’t even close there either: I preferred the elegant triggers of the PlayStation 4 to the Xbox One. Make no mistake: if you own all three consoles, the Switch is the biggest no-brainer of the three platforms. Also, if you happen to own a Switch Lite, I’d consider it dead last. Its less than satisfactory shoulder buttons are not suitable for pinball (or driving for that matter.. I can’t imagine playing Mario Kart on a Lite now). But, regardless of your platform, Pinball FX 3 is tons of fun and very playable. With Williams Pinball Volume 5, they have another winner.
Be sure to read the full Pinball Chick: Williams Pinball (Pinball FX 3) review, which I’ve updated to rank these three tables alongside the fifteen previous ones. Where did they land? See for yourself!
$9.99 looks forward to having Who Dunnit in Volume 6 in the making of this review.
Williams Pinball Volume 5 is Chick-Approved and will be ranked on the upcoming Pinball Chick Leaderboard.
Table Rating Index
Pinball FX 3: Williams Pinball Volume 5 ($9.99)
Total Tables: 3
Total Quality Tables: 3
Price per Quality Table: $3.33
#3: Tales of the Arabian Nights
Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 5
Designed by John Popadiuk, 1996
Difficulty: Above Average
Modes: Above Average
John Popadiuk’s most difficult table by a long shot, Tales of the Arabian Nights shirks the idea of calculated risk entirely. Both primary targets of the table are high-risk shots that spoon-feed the drain and necessitate quick tilting reflexes to truly master. Frankly, I never could get the hang of tilting. As a result, I probably said either “are you fucking kidding me?” or simply moaned in agony dozens of times while playing Arabian Nights. It’s just too damn hard a table to truly be great. That you can’t even shoot main targets without risking the ball draining out can cause great rounds to end suddenly and very, very painfully. Arabian Nights is probably the most difficult good table of all the Pinball FX3 William recreations. That difficulty is not tempered with reasonable scoring balance. Don’t get me wrong: it’s fun to get tons of spins of the lamp, which can end up racking up massive points. The problem is you really can just fap about shooting at the lamp if you can charge its value up enough. The bumpers, ramps, and other shots don’t pay off enough. Tales has horrible scoring balance issues. Not as bad as Theatre of Magic, but then again, it’s not as fun either.
And, frankly, I think it needs a little more time to cook. On a real Arabian Nights table, the magnetic field in front of the genie really shouldn’t lead to an instakill drain-out on players. In the Pinball FX3 version, you have about a 10% chance of a houseball when activating any mode. That number seems to increase when you begin multiball, as over half the time, at least one of the three balls (usually the first one) was unplayable upon being served. That’s especially damning on a table with an already extremely hungry drain and no ball-save for multiball. Arabian Nights also features some tight squeezes among its very cluttered layout. Shots based around using the lower portion of the flippers are among the most difficult shots of the solid-state era. And, again, they don’t really pay off enough to justify it. Arabian Nights is a legendary table, and while it still can be fun (and potentially more fun if the magnetic stuff is stabilized), the prohibitive difficulty muffles the enjoyment. Sometimes legends don’t live up to their reputation. Tales of the Arabian Nights is that type of legend.
#2: Cirqus Voltaire
Featured in Williams Pinball: Volume 5
Designed by John Popadiuk, 1997
Speed: Below Average
Difficulty: Above Average
When you play the work of John Popadiuk, you could totally understand why silverball enthusiasts would give him money to make a limited edition table.. and then be crushed it didn’t live up to their expectations (and what they got wasn’t remotely close to finished) because it turns out it’s hard to build and release tables when you don’t have a big ass company like Midway actually supplying materials and facilities for it and a continuing paycheck depends on you actually finishing your work. I get it. Dude made some amazing tables when he worked for Midway, parent of Williams/Bally. Theatre of Magic, World Cup Soccer, Tales from Arabian Nights. All ambitious, and often wonderful pins. He even got tapped to do one of the holographic tables in the Pinball 2000 line: Star Wars Episode One. A case could be made that it was him, and not Pat Lawlor (or Brian Eddy, though I think he’s out of the running by virtue of only having three tables), who was the greatest pinball craftsman at the end of the arcade era of pinball.
Personally, I prefer the white-knuckle challenge of Lawlor’s work or the sheer elegance of Eddy’s catalog to the kooky mad scientist vibe I get from Popadiuk. But, gun to head, if I had to convince a non-pinhead that there’s more to pinball than meets the eye, I’d probably use Popa’s work first. And with Cirqus Voltaire, you can totally see (1) why he’s so cherished and (2) why Williams cratered around this time. Adjusted for inflation, Cirqus Voltaire is the most expensive traditional pinball table designed to be routed (earn quarters) ever made. But, like so many post-Addams Family tables, it was prone to breaking down, and OUT OF ORDER signs earn no money. I’ve encountered exactly two Cirqus Voltaire machines in the wilds of the San Francisco Bay Area in my lifetime. Both were unplugged and wearing such signs.
That’s why you have to love Pinball FX3, and really the entire digital conversion revolution as a whole. While Cirqus Volatire is THE dream table many fans of silverball would love to own for real in their homes, it’s also a massive investment. In near-mint condition, CV will run you over $10,000, and if you lack engineering skills, you’ll be spending even more due to issues with the Ringmaster toy breaking down. Which it will. I imagine many a pinball dream has turned into a nightmare with a Cirqus Voltaire investment. It’s why owning Pinball FX3 makes sense to even the most starry-eyed would be pinball owner. 98.5% of the fun, only that missing 1.5% means you won’t ever spend hours giving a deep cleaning and waxing to a table, nor will you start banging your head on the glass when an inevitable mechanical failure happens.
Speaking of which, like many late Williams tables, Cirqus is based around a primary toy target. In this case a green Ringmaster that, I swear to God, looks just like Flabber from Big Bad Beetleborgs. If you use the enhanced visuals, you’ll have the theme song to the song stuck in your head. Unlike Attack from Mars or Medieval Madness, the Ringmaster is off-center with a short orbit behind it. In theory, it should make for a faster-running experience. Instead, the opposite is true: Cirqus Voltaire is actually a slow, deliberate table based around simple angles and lots of multiball modes. And, it’s fun. There’s some weirdness I don’t get. The large ball on the left of the table feels gimmicky and just clutters an otherwise immaculate playfield. Of all Popa’s work, this one feels the least wacky and most simple. Like the rest of his resume, there’s also scoring balance issues that are further compounded by Pinball FX3’s boosts. But, really great table. One of the better recreations in Pinball FX3.
#1: No Good Gofers
Featured in Williams Pinball FX3 Volume 5
Designed by Pat Lawlor, 1997
Speed: Above Average
Difficulty: Above Average
Pat Lawlor’s work isn’t exactly known for being newcomer friendly. No Good Gofers, his final table of the arcade era of pinball, is one of his more difficult tables, but also feels like his least inspired work as well. The whole situation is bizarre, because both Gottlieb and Williams made extremely similar tables based on golf that had gophers because they were trying to stoke a Candyshack vibe. No Good Gofers came out four years after Gottlieb’s Tee’d Off and is clearly the better table in every single way. But still, I get a strange “this isn’t really what I want to be doing” vibe from Gofers. Lawlor was coming off Safecracker, which had been designed to be based on the board game Monopoly until Williams dropped the license and he had to switch the theme around at the last second. I always got the feeling Gofers was a rebound table, like he was coming off the disappointment of Safecracker being unpopular with operators and not resembling his original Monopoly vision and his heart wasn’t into it. Plus, there’s been a persistent rumor (completely unverified) that Gofers originally had a large, animatronic gopher toy in the center that was vetoed halfway through development as a cost-cutting measure. If true, that means he dealt with two straight tables that got the screws put to them by Williams.
Whether it’s true or not, No Good Gofers is still a really fun table. Maddening, like any Lawlor pin tends to be, but fun nonetheless. It’s probably one of his faster tables, as evidenced by a VKU throwing the ball at the flippers like a baseball pitcher. But, the absurdity that a golf-based table would play very fast actually works. Even better, the difficulty is tempered with a lot of safeguards to assure fairness. Gofers has one of the more generous kickbacks of the late Williams era and frequent ball save activation. It’s a hard table that goes out of its way to be enjoyable, which is, frankly, the hallmark of Lawlor’s body of work. Well, that and modes. Lots and lots of modes. Do you know what the problem is when you make extremely mode-heavy tables? All but a small handful of them tend to make you wish you were playing the more scoring-heavy ones. It throws an otherwise balanced table’s scoring out of whack. This is further compounded by Pinball FX3’s scoring and mulitball boosts. It’s also one of his least pretty tables, in terms of layout and placement. Gofers is a lot of fun, but it also feels slightly phoned in and an underwhelming swan song for Lawlor. He was supposed to have the first of the holographic Pinball 2000 tables, but his Magic Blocks project was cancelled to devote resources to Revenge from Mars and Star Wars: Episode One. The man deserved to go out on a higher note than Gofers.