You don’t always get what you deserve. George Gomez deserves to be a household name. He’s a certifiable legend, responsible for tens of millions of dollars in coin-drops over the last forty years. This is a man put on this Earth to entertain. A game maker. A toy maker. A pinball maker. He created Spy Hunter AND Monster Bash, and between that he made darts you fill with water, which I totally would have used if I had been alive when they came out. And I’d probably aimed for people’s eyes with them, because that’s how I roll. Anyway, I got to talk to George, who currently is Executive Vice President and Chief Creative Officer at Stern, the current leaders in pinball, because I am that lucky. We discussed his career, his projects, and general thoughts on the nature of game and pinball design.
Cathy: I feel that you’re maybe the most unsung legend of the industry. You did arguably the most iconic licensed game of the Golden Age of Arcades in Tron. You created Spy Hunter. You transitioned to pinball and created the most beautiful swan song for Williams in Monster Bash. You are still going strong today, leading Stern. Yet, you’re largely unknown to even hardcore gamers. So, how does the nickname “The Low Key Legend” sound to you?
George Gomez: Wow, well “Legend” anywhere near my name seems like you’re talking about somebody else. I’ve been really fortunate and I’ve designed coin-op vids, toys, novelty games, pinball, and even Xbox & PlayStation games. I’m just happy to have been able to do what I’ve wanted to do at a variety of different companies, with super talented people all around me.
Cathy: Humble too. I know what that’s like. I, myself, have been admired for my humility. Ahem. My readers are genuinely fascinated by the “road not traveled” with pinball (and so am I). Legends like that Star Trek: The Next Generation was designed with the Steven Seagal movie Under Siege in mind, or Safe Cracker was to be Monopoly. Those kind of things. With that in mind, rumor has it that a Mortal Kombat table was on the drawing board and possibly that’s what Monster Bash WAS to be. Any truth to that? Also heard that Game of Thrones at Stern was maybe originally Harry Potter?
George: Well, speaking of legends some of those fall into the category of urban legend. On Star Trek, what I recall hearing is that before Star Trek came up as an option, the license he was pushing for was Under Siege. He had been talking about a battleship that took up the whole side of the playfield but I don’t think that got very far. There was never any Game of Thrones relationship to Harry Potter other than we would have loved to do Harry Potter.
On Mortal Kombat, there is some truth to that; except it would have taken the place of my second game Johnny Mnemonic, not Monster Bash. At the time I was just starting out at Williams and I asked Ed Boon if he would mind and he said, he had no issues with that. I had a vision that I could do justice to the game, work thru a series of challenge ladders and face an Uber Boss. Steve Ritchie got wind of it and said he had wanted to do it before I asked and that along with the marketing guys saying that they felt that the 2 audiences didn’t really cross over, pretty much killed it. That said Johnny Mnemonic was a from scratch design, none of the stuff I was working on for MK transferred over.
Cathy: Can you name any “Table X” was originally going to be based on something entirely different stories?
George: The most resent example of that is pretty well known; when we saw Keith Elwin’s “Archer” home brew, we were pretty impressed with his design and hired him. An evolution of the Archer design became Iron Maiden. Amongst my own games; I wanted to use the kitschy “Monster Mash” song from the 60’s as the theme for Monster Bash, but when the owner of the rights to the song wanted too much money, I made “Mash” into “Bash” and never looked back. The reality is that we didn’t miss it.
Cathy: Along the same lines, I asked my readers if they had any questions, and the #1 question by far was “do you design tables with the license in mind or do you have a series of concepts that you then tailor for licenses?”
George: All modern era game designs are conceptualized with and driven by the themes. Up until the 80’s it used to be that the designer created a game and the artist dressed it. I’ve never worked that way on any product. I believe that integrating the theme is pivotal, because the idea is to immerse the player in the world of the theme’s fiction and everything in the game should do that.
Cathy: I think the one thing that keeps Monster Bash from being maybe the perfect table is the top-heavy scoring balance. That Monsters of Rock is so necessary to a high score that any game you don’t get it, no matter how well played, is a scrub. I’ve noticed every table you’ve done since then has really fine-tuned scoring above any other design signature. Is that the one “take back” you’d do if you could?
George: So the thing we were trying to achieve with Bash was to create a simple game that you could play without having to dedicate your life to it. I wanted it to be fun and light. My partner on the game, Lyman Sheats, really balanced the score and we both worked on trying to make the progression thru the game a very novice friendly achievable thing. I’m fortunate that I have a few games in my portfolio that are considered significant to the genre. Certainly Monster Bash and Lord of the Rings are in that group. I think Deadpool will be in that group one day. I have to say that while the world tends to be very “designer” centric, in every game, the people that have been on my teams have made significant and impactful contributions to the games. I think that a good designer leads by allowing his teams to express their creativity and contribute. The magic is to edit and keep the work focused. The game needs to feel integrated and cohesive even though it’s the work and creativity of many people. Every one of my teams thru the years has elevated my work and any designer that thinks it’s all about his vision, is delusional.
Cathy: This isn’t a question so much as a threat. It’s 2021 and there’s no pinball machine based on the iconic game show Price is Right. Next year is its 50th Anniversary and George, I know how to cut a brake line. Just sayin’.
George: (Laughs) Bring it!
Cathy: (nods, puts down wire cutters) Ahem. Was there any license where you wanted to do specific stuff with and the IP owners put the screws to you, said “no, you can’t do that?”
George: Yeah, every licensed game faces this challenge. Developing a game with a license is one of the most difficult things we do. One of the licensors prime directives is to assure a consistent presentation of the brand to the world. The licensor has guidelines, usually developed by the creators of the brand to preserve the character of the brand. When I was working on “Batman: The Dark Knight”, I submitted the script of game speech for approval and a bunch of stuff that I felt was harmless was denied. I decided to push back and the reply I got was: “Batman would never say that.” (Shrug) Be assured that there is someone in the world, that knows exactly what Batman would or wouldn’t say.
Cathy: Apparently he does say the F-word now. They’re making a big deal of that with the Zack Snyder Justice League cut. See, you came around ten years too late. Do you have a dream license to work with that you’ve never been able to get?
George: There are a few that are elusive, some that I can’t talk about because we’re still chasing them. After the MK concept was killed I wanted to do Aliens, based on the second film. At the time there was an awesome toy line that had a lot “new” Aliens and they were molded with a lot of colored translucent plastics and I thought that we could do something similar and introduce some cool illumination into the Aliens to create features on the playfield. I was also fascinated by the final scene in the film, where all hell broke loose and the facility is going to self-destruct and Ripley has to get out with the little girl and the Alien Queen is in the way and the female computer voice is counting it down. A lot of potential game play tension in that scene. But it was several years after the film and the company felt it wasn’t relevant. The management guys pushed me toward Johnny Mnemonic. I was a fan of the short story and of William Gibson’s books, so I took it. I ended up doing my own take on the countdown tension in JM with the Powerdown Final Mode. It’s basically a spinning plates game, where you need to stay alive by maintain areas of the playfield “energized” and time is running out and the computer voice is counting it down. It begins slowly and builds a lot of tension. I’m actually surprised you didn’t beat me up about score balancing in JM, that’s the one I always get hassled about.
Cathy: You know, I haven’t played it extensively. I’m pretty limited to either tables we really have or ones that have had an official digital release. Oscar has and says it’s actually one of THE underrated tables of the entire 90s. But, he admits it’s not desirable from a collecting standpoint because it wears the albatross of being a table based on, well, Johnny Mnemonic. When you finally saw the movie, did you consider faking a heart attack to get out of the assignment? I’ve heard that’s a thing pinball makers do.
George: (Laughs) I should have faked a heart attack. The truth is that the Johnny Mnemonic fiction is a little.. out there. If you didn’t know the short story, it’s hard to convey. Think of the games released around JM; Theater of Magic was simple and the theme is instantly obvious. Sega Pinball had the green Batman game with Val Kilmer, also fairly obvious. Neil Nicastro, in those days the CEO, approached me when he heard that I wanted to do Aliens and told me that Sony was going to spend 20 million advertising the film and Keanu Reeves was coming off a big hit with Speed. It was my second pinball design, I wasn’t used to the CEO making suggestions, so I did it. As I said earlier, I knew the story and it seemed cool and edgy in light of the rise of the “internet”. To put this in context, in those days, Williams Electronics had no external facing email and few if any of us had a home internet connection. So a film that presented a visual construct for this thing called “the internet”, was conceptually, on the cutting edge. I didn’t get a movie screening until it was too late. I did call back to Chicago and try to get them to pull the plug 20 minutes after seeing the film. (Cathy would like to note at this point my Dad is laughing so hard I’m afraid HE might be having a heart attack) I should have known something was up, because they made us sign something that said we couldn’t change our minds about anything if they screened it for us. I’ve heard that William Gibson owns the game and given how much I’ve enjoyed his books over the years, I’m happy about that.
Cathy: Of course he owns it. He wanted SOMETHING good that came out it. But you never really know how these things will turn out. I always tell indie developers to expect their plans to be compromised. You have such a story, with the Corvette table. Slated to be a SuperPin, but then Midway decided to cancel the line. Popadiuk thought that helped World Cup Soccer. Is Corvette better for being a standard body? Were their any major changes as a result?
George: Yes, well in the case of Corvette, I’m really glad that I had to make it a narrow body. I didn’t know then but in my opinion, wide-bodies are inherently flawed. The kinetics are compromised. Shots outside the standard 20.25“ width are weak shots, given the available stroke on standard flippers. The stroke of a flipper is approx. 50 degrees. You can rotate the entire flipper to help that but then you compromise the shots in the center of the playfield. One constraint is that the flipper is a lever and it accelerates thru its arc of travel as a function of the force applied by the solenoid. The position of the ball on the flipper, combined with its weight and velocity when you engage the solenoid, is what determines the direction of the shot. All of the widebodies I’ve played feel really soft on those outside shots and fairly unsatisfying. The reason the older ones from the 70’s and before feel fine, is because the nature of those old games was slower and the ball was what we now call “floaty”. Neil Falconer who was a software developer at the earliest versions of our company, used to say: “when the company you work at starts talking about making wide bodies, its time to dust off the resume because they are a recipe for disaster”. Of course in the virtual world its not an issue, playfields could be enormous.
Cathy: There was going to be a Spy Hunter movie starring the Rock that never got off the ground. Gaming is full of those stories, and you have at least that one. Are there any other dangled carrots that never came to pass?
George: In the last dying days at Midway I pitched a new Spy Hunter. It was to be on the Xbox 360 and PS3- I’ll send you the sizzle video that we made as part of the pitch. I think that pitch is still relevant today. Remember, that I had nothing to do with the resurrected Spy Hunters that the company made for the consoles in the 2000’s and I really felt a sense of loss that I wasn’t involved. So I called my pitch Spy Hunter Renaissance and I wanted to take it in new directions. I wanted to add jump jets and rotate the wheels such that they made the car hover a few feet off the ground. This was so that I could introduce a new driving dynamic that had the physics of a hover vehicle in addition to the physics of the car. I also created story line that the car had a very dangerous power source and for that reason it was a closely guarded secret known only to the designers of the car and select people in government. As the pilot of the car (the pilots were nicknamed “Spy Hunters”) even you were unaware of what it was. As the story evolved and you completed missions, you began to discover what in fact the power source was. In the end you faced an enemy threat so great that you had to sacrifice your self by turning the car itself into a destructive weapon to destroy the enemy threat. Oh well, the stuff of my dreams or maybe I should say my nightmares.
Cathy: Legend has it you had no knowledge of Lord of the Rings when you started development of the table for it. My friend and Pinball Chick writer Eala says I’m supposed to yell “IT’S CALLED THE F—ING BALROG” at you. But I won’t do that. Instead, I’ll ask how much of a license’s “lore” do you assimilate while making the table for it, and did you ever become a fan of a property you did the table for?
George: I think its key that design teams relate to the things they work on. The passion for the theme clearly impacts the work. In my current role, I try very hard to make that happen with my studio. On “no knowledge of LOTR”, that’s an exaggeration, I read the Hobbit in college and I liked it but I had not read the other books. Your friend is referring to a story I’ve told many times, where the other guys on the team were completely geeked out on the fiction and every time I mispronounced something they would roll their eyes at me. When I met with the team one day to pitch changing what was originally a cave troll into the Balrog, I referred to the Balrog as the “big red fire guy” and Keith Johnson and Chris Granner, shouted in dismay “Dude, that’s the Balrog!!!!”
Cathy: We’re focused on digital pinball here at The Pinball Chick, and we’re big advocates for doing digital recreations of real tables. Stern did have a deal with Farsight, but nothing has come out recently. Have we seen the end of you guys licensing your tables for those who can’t afford $6,000+ per table?
George: No, not at all. We are actually so interested in that business that we are taking a step back and strategizing how to make a bigger impact in that area. Stay tuned, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised. But you know that really cool things take time, it’s not around the corner.
Cathy: You’ve made some truly incredible pins, so I want to ask you, George Gomez: how do YOU define “flow” in pinball?
George: To me, flow is not strictly about a series of smooth shots, although clearly they are the most obvious component of it. There is an intensity that occurs when one shot sets up another shot or a possible transition in the midst of accomplishing a greater game goal like a hurry up or a scoring frenzy. The feedback the game gives you with sounds as you complete consecutive shots is vital to enhancing that feeling. Its about getting the player so intensely focused on making the subsequent shot to continue the combination, that it becomes all consuming.
Cathy: Most of my readers are actually in game design themselves, and I can tell you that many of your games come-up in discussions of what inspired our current generation of indie game designers. Especially those who do white-knuckle action stuff. Even your hidden gem type stuff like Satan’s Hollow still comes up in discussions. What is one thing about making a great arcade action game you know NOW that you wish you had known back then?
George: Iterate, iterate, iterate. Try stuff as fast as you can, it’s the only way you can get to fun. You can’t just stare at your screen, you have to make stuff. Whether it’s code or art or mechanism or whatever. Making things informs you in ways that you can’t imagine; just thinking about a problem wont solve it. You make it, you play it, it sucks, you do it again and again and again.
Cathy: Have you ever gotten the itch to go back and develop one more really great arcade-style action game before you retire?
George: Yes! I actually think about it a lot because ideas come to me and I want to try them. A fun play mechanic is timeless. The Angry Birds frenzy years back re-enforced this in my mind. In the late 70’s early 80’s the vid game companies were truly innovating. Think about the diversity in the play mechanics of Space Invaders, Pac Man, Missile Command, Defender, Robotron, Centipede, etc. We don’t have anywhere near that diversity in creative play in today’s games. Too many games fall into genres where the core mechanic is predetermined; drivers, shooters, RPGs, fighters, sports, such that the points of difference become presentation and storytelling. Don’t get me wrong, I still own and buy every console and I play when I can and there is plenty of amazing entertainment still in games. My commentary is strictly a personal introspection about the significance of a solid core play mechanic. What is fun and how do you make it?
Cathy: You mentioned Angry Birds. That’s one of two “modern” properties (along with Geometry Wars) that I thought could have been massive in arcades in the 80s. Now, I want to flip that: is there any game you worked on during the Golden Age whose time had yet come but would have been a huge hit later down the road?
George: Uhm, I think I worked inside of existing play mechanics and enhanced them, I don’t think I invented a new mechanic. Spy Hunter is a driving game and I added the notion of a car with weapons and you get music when you have weapons in an attempt to make the game feel cinematic. I was inspired by the common scene in James Bond movies where he is faced with overwhelming odds and you know there is going to be a major confrontation (the Little Nellie helicopter fight in You Only Live Twice or the final underwater fight in Thunderball) and they bring up the Bond theme and it feels just epic. Things like the weapons truck are a great example of figuring something out by doing. When we brought up the game, the car just “grew” weapons and ammo in video game fashion based on checkpoints. This felt wrong to me, because cars don’t just grow weapons and ammo just because you drove further down the road. I looked at Knight Rider and said we need a truck that he drives into. Tom Leon, my partner on the game, hated the idea of the truck. I talked him into putting it in and once we had it in, we figured out that calling up the truck and having to avoid getting killed and negotiating the car to line up with the truck and trying to stay in the fight all the while, was a big strategy thing. Things happen when you make stuff. So the reality is that I didn’t invent the core mechanic of the game; it’s a driving game, I just created an extension of the genre.
Cathy: I have to ask about probably the most famous Golden Age licensed game: Tron. How did you get that assignment? Because I’m sure everyone at the time was chomping at the bit to get it!
George: Tom Nieman was Bally Midway’s Licensing guy and he told us that Disney was going to make a movie about video games, that was going to feature state of the art computer graphics and that they were looking for a video game partner. At the time Midway was the largest manufacturer of coin operated video games in North America. It had achieved that partially by establishing itself with the Japanese game companies as the manufacturing and sales agent of their products in the Americas and Western Europe. It had relationships with Namco, Taito, etc. I’m sure you are aware of this but some of your audience may not know it. It also had 2 captive R&D groups that developed products not licensed from Japan. Those groups were Dave Nutting and Assoc.(GORF, Wizard of WOR, etc.) in Arlington Heights, IL and Arcade Engineering(Omega Race, Solar Fox, etc.) in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Bill Adams and I worked for the in house engineering group and at the time while Bill was allowed to make and pitch game ideas; I was attached to a group that mostly focused on making the licensed designs and the designs from Dave Nutting and Arcade Engineering production ready. Most of what we got from the external groups were very rough working prototypes.
The company had decided to solicit designs for TRON from DNA and Arcade Engineering and then they would select which direction to go in. Bill and I begged to be allowed to pitch a concept. John Pasierb and Dr. Marty Keane were running development at the time for Midway and they allowed us to pitch. I don’t think anyone believed that we would actually land the opportunity. Three of us; Bill Adams, a young electronics design genius called Attish Ghosh and I got the script for the film from Disney and started talking about what to do with the game. Attish had designed the MCR2 hardware set (first used to power Satan’s Hollow). The company and Disney’s plan was to hold a nationwide TRON competition at the Aladdin’s Castle Arcade chain, which was owned by Bally. The competition would launch a few months before the film; leading up to a play-off to be held at Madison Square Garden in NYC, then the winners would all go to the premiere of the film. So there was a lot of pressure to deliver the game in time, not just for manufacturing but to enable the tournament and all of the associated PR events. Bill and Attish decided that using the MCR2 Satan’s Hollow hardware would be a huge advantage, because we could start developing right away. We worked like crazy in the weeks leading up to the presentation of ideas and when we showed up I had these big poster boards that outlined what we thought would be the waves in the game and Bill had stuff moving on screen and I had a mockup of the cabinet with the glowing grip and some very rough art concepts. I think Dave’s group was focused on building the game on what was a bleeding edge hardware system using the first true 3d vector graphics that I had ever seen. The reality was that had we gone in that direction, it wouldn’t have been done in time. I think Arcade wasn’t that interested in the project, so I don’t recall what they pitched. We were the only ones that had actual stuff in the pitch and I think management decided that we really wanted to do it, so we got our shot.
Bill was very intelligent about how we attacked it; he gave each wave to a different programmer and he focused on bringing everything together and tuning the game. Famously the discs wave consumed all of the resources of the system early on and so we abandoned it to be come the sequel. That game went thru its own iteration in that we had to invent an aiming system and many other techniques. I’m most proud of having come up with the notion of running the cursor around the stripes on the perimeter of the virtual arena and being able to move it up and down to select the stripes. That game was programmed by Bob Dinnerman, who was a young engineer hired around the time that the first game was shipping. So after many months of craziness, we made it, we went to NY, watched the tournament, went to lunch at Tavern on Green with the movie stars and then saw the movie premiere.
Cathy: This is one of my longstanding “personal curiosity” things. I’m a fan of Satan’s Hollow. But, it’s not a huge hit, and my theory is you released a game with the word SATAN in it right in the middle of the Satanic Panic. I’m a godless Californian, so I have to ask, were there any arcade operators or chains that put up a stink over the name?
George: Satan’s Hollow was designed and programmed by Bill Adams. Bill is the guy that moved me into actual game design. He had a very clear vision for the game, a very evil villain boss, building the bridge, the moat, a castle, birds, etc. The evil boss became Satan because at the time there were lots of films featuring Satan; the Exorcist, The Omen, the Damian series, etc. Again we used a common technique of listing 2 columns of words and matching to pick the name. My biggest contribution to the game was drawing the flight patterns of the birds. At the time there was some push back from what the sales guys referred to as the “Bible Belt states; they just would not have games that showed or even had Satan in the name, even if he was the villain.
Cathy: Finally, pinball is probably the most popular it has been since the mid 90s, but stuff like Stern’s output or even Jersey Jack are tables being made by the same designers who thrived in the 80s and 90s. Steve Ritchie: still making pins. You: still making pins. Pat Lawlor? Still making pins. Hell, American Pinball found the storage locker Joe Balcer had been left in, dusted him off, gave him a hot meal, and he just made the Hot Wheels machine for them. I must confess that I do worry the art of real table design might be lost when your generation takes their final bow. How is the art form going to make it through the next few decades when the industry still relies so heavily on these legends?
George: I think I’m doing my part to ensure a bright future. I hired Keith Elwin and his contribution has been very impactful, high energy, new ideas, great attitude. I think he still cant believe he’s getting paid to make games. I have 2 more up and coming designers in my studio right now that you haven’t heard from yet but in the next few years you will. I have a great balance of new and experienced talent in my studio in every discipline; artists, animators, designers, ME’s, software devs; you name it. It’s a great dynamic, there is a tremendous buzz and energy in that place, it’s probably what I miss most since Covid.
The Pinball Chick aspires to be the premier source of digital pinball reviews and study. That’s why every table is rated by five different players of different experience, skill, and preferences. But, we also know that many players fall in-love with specific types of tables. We do it too! That’s why we’ve created a classification system to help players track down the digital tables that best suit their tastes. After putting thousands of hours into digital pinball in 2020, we’ve determined that there are five primary types of tables.
Sharpshooters are tables based around a wide-variety of traditional targets and narrow orbits. The primary table type from the 1970s through 1991, sharpshooters challenge players to slow the action down and take careful aim at specific targets, often with incentives to connect in a sequential order. Accuracy and the ability to shoot in rapid-succession are rewarded, while misfires come with a high risk. Sharpshooters typically have strict rules that test elite players with little flexibility for individual strategy.
Examples: Firepower, Space Shuttle, Gorgar, El Dorado.
The primary game type from 1992 through the modern age of pinball, finesse tables are typically driven by modes, multiballs, combos, and jackpots. While building your score requires a linear progression of modes, players have more flexibility to create their own strategies. Finesse tables are all about transitioning from orbital combos to target shooting and reward ball-handling skills. The majority of DMD tables fall into this category.
Examples: Medieval Madness, Funhouse, Theatre of Magic, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Twilight Zone.
Kinetic tables are defined by lightning-fast gameplay and bounciness. Kinetics often employ chaos elements (bumpers and slingshots) near primary targets to keep the ball in constant flux, making them the tables that require the most playtime to master. Gaining control of the ball will pose the greatest challenge. Anticipation will be a player’s greatest asset. Kinetic tables often incentivize high-risk bank shots or flat shots that return at high-risk angles, and are excellent to teach players angles and quick judgment.
Examples: Attack From Mars, White Water, Creature from the Black Lagoon
Pick ‘n Flick
Arguably the best table type to introduce newcomers to pinball, pick ‘n flick tables are slower, more deliberate games based simple shots. Players are at their leisure to pick a singular target, steady themselves, and flick the ball. Pick ‘N Flicks often allow for repetitive shooting of high-scoring targets or combos. Novelty tables based around eye-catching gimmicks often employ a pick ‘n flick design sense. Professional players often avoid, if not outright hate, the pick ‘n flick setup. But, rookies can use them to build muscle memory, as these tables often rely on common angles and simple mode advancement. When combined with some of the more fun concepts in the medium, pick ‘n flick layouts become the ideal training ground to hone basic pinball skills.
Examples: Hurricane, Junk Yard, The Party Zone
Boardwalk-style tables are the dinosaurs of pinball. For the majority of the sport’s existence, this style of design dominated the industry. In the days when pinball was thought to be completely random, boardwalk-style tables lived down to that reputation. Relying heavily on so many bumpers that high scores will come down to just plain dumb luck, it’s no wonder that the medium was banned in places New York City. In the golden age of electro-mechanical tables, pinball was associated primarily with the mafia and illegal gambling. It’s why we almost considered calling this style Speakeasy. But, the reputation was never fully justified, and it would be a disservice to say boardwalks have no value today. The best of this breed often rely on skillful use of a plunger and nudging more than flippers. In fact, they’re excellent at training for bank shots, subtle tilting, and simple target shooting. Plus, the iconic chimes and bells of the era will inevitably bewitch you with all the charm of a simpler time.
Examples: Central Park, Spanish Eyes.
The Exception: Hybrids
Sometimes, you can’t quite pigeonhole a table into a specific category. If so, The Pinball Chick will list the primary type hyphenated with the secondary type. For example, Monster Bash is a finesse-kinetic. The Getaway: High Speed II is a sharpshooter-kinetic. Because of the nature of design, a pick ‘n flick will never be a hybrid, and a kinetic will almost never be a primary-type in a hybrid.
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)
#3: Cine Star (Would be GOOD)
Remake of Cine Star (Unverified release date)
REST OF THE TEAM
Oscar: Good (#3)
Jordi: Good (#3)
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 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.
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.
#2: Red Show
Remake of Red’s Show (1975)
REST OF THE TEAM
Oscar: Good (#2)
Jordi: Good (#2)
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!
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.
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.
Remake of Spooky (1987)
REST OF THE TEAM
Oscar: Great (#1)
Jordi: Great (#1)
THE PINBALL CHICK CERTIFIED EXCELLENT TABLE
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Get it? Wreck room? Like rec room, only wreck?
Of course, the thing about Arcade1Up’s selection of games is they’re not really about the games. If it were about the games, their machines would be expandable and offer a wider variety of options. $499.99 for a thing that only plays three games, and can’t be made to include more games (well, without doing warranty-voiding moderation) is pretty dang steep. Honestly, they were off our radar until they announced they’d be doing pinball tables. While we don’t have dates or prices on their Star Wars or Attack from Mars 3/4 scale tables they’re partnering with Zen Studios for, it actually sparked excitement from our readers, who were curious if we’d be doing them. Then people said they wanted reviews for their arcade machines. It’s not pinball related, but if these machines are the focal point of family rec rooms the same way pinball tables are, then this is the perfect place for them. $500 later and we had Star Wars.
And really, this is so far the only 1up Arcade that kind of makes sense to get on its gameplay merits. Why? Because of this.
The famous yoke controller is along for the ride, and it feels amazing. The yoke, along with the crystal-clear screen and genuinely good gameplay that holds up today make the experience something I wasn’t expecting: genuinely immersive. Think about it: these games came out six years before I was born and I’m famous for not giving retro games a break because they’re old. I also wasn’t inexperienced with these titles: they were included as a pre-order bonus for Star Wars: Rebel Strike on GameCube back in the day. So many of those bonus discs were printed that Best Buy sold them for $0.49 each. But Star Wars 1983 didn’t hold my attention as a teenager. In fact, they didn’t hold my Dad’s (known here as Oscar) either. For him, it wasn’t the same without the Yoke.
So, Star Wars didn’t blow me away as a throwaway pre-order bonus that I probably played for like five minutes. But, it absolutely did blow me away as a 30-year-old sitting next to a Cathy-sized cabinet, with the proper controller. The yoke does make it feel like you’re piloting an X-Wing and attacking the Death Star. Okay, so the vector graphics aren’t totally convincing, BUT you can tell yourself you’re looking at the targeting computer inside the X-Wing instead of out the window. There, problem solved.
So, what does $500 get you? Well, it gets you this.
Unlike a lot of earlier cabinets, Star Wars comes with the riser that brings it to just over five feet tall. It’s not as big as a standard arcade cabinet, but not as cumbersome to move around either. 1ups are packed in huge boxes with all the components coming in smaller boxes. Much, much assembly is required. Think if IKEA made arcade games. Similar instructions, similar tools. It takes my Dad about an hour to put one together. If you’re not the type of person able to put together per-fabricated furniture, you’ll need help putting together Arcade1Up stuff.
But, you get a really super crisp screen that looks great, especially for the price. There’s options to give the game an old TV tube feel for Return of the Jedi, though you’ll not want it on since it’s annoying as hell. All the games have adjustable settings, which is nice. Most importantly, the vector graphics of Star Wars are bright, vibrant, and colorful. The music and voices are clear. Early on in Arcade1Up’s existence, I wasn’t a fan of their cabinets. In fact, the whole build quality has come a long ways since the ones I played on display around 2018. I gave the machine a good shake and it didn’t feel like it was going to collapse. It’s solid, and if you take good care of it and clean it regularly, it should look great in your man cave until the inevitable death by garage sale.
So, the cabinet is great and the controller is, I assume, arcade perfect. I sort of have to assume since I don’t happen to have access to the authentic 1983 machine. It doesn’t feel like a cheap replica even though, yeah, that’s technically what it is. Probably the best thing I can say about the yoke is it feels more expensive than it actually is. So really, it comes down to whether you like the games. $500 (only $450 on Amazon with free Prime delivery!) only nets you three games. I’m operating under the assumption nobody really buys Arcade1Ups expecting a long term gaming investment. The same price nets you any current console + the games for it, or you can save it and buy the PS5 or XBX this fall. No, you buy these to have them, because they’re cool.
Unlike with the pinball machines, The Pinball Chick won’t recommend or not recommend Arcade1Up’s arcade selection, because really, these cabinets are in the eye of the beholder. NOBODY is buying these just to play games. They’re conversation pieces. What people would want to know is how good is it made? The answer: very good, almost great. The screen is the highlight. The vector graphics look fantastic on it. As a cabinet, it’s mostly good. The thing I hate is how they have the logos stacked on top of each other where the coin door would have been. It looks rushed and low-rent. They could have gotten really creative in presenting them. The way they look now looks like an intern was given five minutes to whip up something to cover up the coin door space. The light-up marquee, the wonderful side art, and the control panel art look fantastic. Really, if you’re wanting a 1up Arcade game based on how it looks, this is probably the one get.
For those that do care about the games, continue below.
Star Wars: 1up Upright Arcade w/ Riser
Cost per Game: $166.66
And, it’s actually a little more difficult than simply talking about three games, because really, there’s two games, one of which was altered to be a “sequel” and sent to arcade operators as a conversion kit.
#3: Return of the Jedi
1984 Atari Coin-Op
Oscar’s Rating: Bad
Let me get the crap out of the way first: Return of the Jedi is a terrible game. The isometric view doesn’t serve the game at all. The yoke controller doesn’t work great with it. In fact, it doesn’t feel like it belongs to it at all. I’d prefer a track ball if you insist on isometric gameplay. Either way, this feels like a typical mid-80s gotcha-type quarter-stealer. Pretty much Zaxxon with a Star Wars theme, only cheaper. Even with the adjustable difficulty, I just couldn’t get into it. Just a series of short, repetitive stages where you dodge stuff (trees or pipes or logs) and shoot stuff. Return of the Jedi feels extremely uninspired and was a HUGE letdown after Star Wars.
On the plus side, they turned the engine from this game into Paperboy. Which is equally horrible. So are indies based on it.
Oscar’s Thoughts: I think Cathy quit on it too quickly, but I agree that Return of the Jedi is the weak link of the cabinet. The speeder-bike stage isn’t an exciting opening level. Weirdly, the Death Star run is the second stage, followed by another speeder-bike stage. I got excited when Chewbacca hopped into an AT-ST “Chicken Walker” in the fourth stage, but it was just a slower version of the same level. Then, without warning, it switches to the Millennium Falcon fighting Star Destroyers. Then back to the Chicken Walker to blow up the shield generator, then back to the Millennium Falcon to blow up the Death Star again. They kind of ruined the build-up to it. I guess it’s nice Atari tried something different, but Return of the Jedi is pretty boring.
#2: The Empire Strikes Back
1985 Atari Conversion Kit
Oscar’s Rating: Great
In the mid 80s, conversion kits were all the rage for arcades. But, apparently a lot of arcades opted to not convert their consistently-lucrative Star Wars cabinets or cockpits into Empire Strikes Back. Even two years later, it was a reliable quarter-earner. So a lot of people aren’t familiar with Empire Strikes Back. It’s really just the same as the 1983 Star Wars, only with different levels. Here the recreation is the opening Battle of Hoth from the film. First you have to take out probe droids, then you take on AT-ATs. The options are to fire tow-cables at them or to shoot vulnerable areas. The game then jarringly becomes a virtual clone of the original game with tie-fighters, only this time you recreate the asteroid field scene. If this sounds great, mind you, it takes about five minutes to see it all.
Despite looking amazing (I was blown away by a few random dots on the ground to signify snow, showing that I genuinely have grown soft in my old age), let’s face it: the Battle of Hoth isn’t the Death Star battle. It’s still fun, but gamers of the era really didn’t miss out if their arcade opted to not convert their existing Star Wars games. Also, the AT-ATs were a lot more flimsy to shoot at. The target on them is so small and you have so little time to aim it, while the tow-cables are in limited supply. I happily shot the probe bots. That part was fine. But then, I really just wanted the AT-AT section to end. It’s a shame that they crap the bed with Return of the Jedi because the second Death Star battle with Lando would be preferable to the isometric crap.
Oscar’s Thoughts: I think they should have either had you only take down the AT-ATs with tow cables or only by shooting them down. But, I love the variety of stages Empire offers, and unlike Catherine, I don’t think more of the same from Star Wars is a bad thing. It’s a shame that arcade operators in the 1980s didn’t have the technology to simply add these stages to their Star Wars cabinets instead of replacing the old ones. Empire has gameplay merit as its own entity and enough subtle changes to make this worth playing.
#1: Star Wars
1983 Atari Arcade Game
Oscar’s Rating: Masterpiece
I really did think of going all-the-way with Star Wars and saying it’s a masterpiece, but I don’t think it’s quite there. Don’t get me wrong: Star Wars holds up remarkably well for a nearly four-decade-old video game. The action is fast, white knuckle, and feels authentic. It’s probably one of the biggest shocks of my gaming life: it feels like you’re piloting an X-Wing. Even with the wire frame graphics. Even with the digitized voices. It just feels real. Still, thirty-seven-years later. More than any higher-tech game in the franchise that has come since. This is the only one where it feels like you’re really in the movie. Whoa.
Of course, once you get the hang of everything, it takes like three minutes to blow up the Death Star, but I sort of love that. Kids who paid their quarter back in the day didn’t have to spend a month’s worth of allowance getting to the memorable part. A long time ago I reviewed the Simpsons arcade game for PS3, and we counted how many quarters we would have needed to beat the game on the easiest setting. Answer: about $22 worth. Here, I needed two practice runs before I blew up the Death Star. On the easiest setting, but still.
And then everything repeats. That’s fine. That’s what old arcade games do. I was THIS CLOSE to going all the way with it, but I feel the game gets a tad too unfair after the first few waves. It doesn’t change the fact that it’s genuinely exhilarating to shoot down TIE-Fighters, and the transition from the surface of the Death Star to the trench legitimately put a big smile on my face. It looks JUST LIKE the targeting computer from the movie. It’s so cool. Of course, after a couple minutes when you blow it up and everything starts to repeat, you have to really love the game, because you’ve experienced the high of it. Here, the gameplay is fun, but not “get lost for hours” fun. Star Wars is a milestone in licensed game design and holds up, but it’s not quite pantheon level, even with the yoke.
Oscar’s Thoughts: I disown Cathy. Now and forever. How can she love something as boring as Defender but not show the same love to Star Wars? I’m kidding. If home games had played like this did in 1983, I’d been a gamer all along. Besides something like Tron, nothing from this era felt so much like the movie it was based on. Watching my daughters play Star Wars and enjoy it just as much in 2020 as I did in 1983 was worth the price alone. I don’t think a lot of games from that era are as timeless. I think even non-hardcore gamers would smile just as brightly playing Star Wars. You won’t get that from Cathy’s beloved Defender, will you? Not even with the fanciest arcade replica cabinet. Star Wars might not be the best playing early 80s arcade game, but I bet you it’s the most timeless.
One of the things my Father and I discussed in the planning stages is how we handle conveying to non-pinheads the historic impact of classic tables. We’re going to be covering them a lot, since Zen Studios has plans for more golden age conversions for Pinball FX3. Plus, we’ll be reviewing some high ticket items, like the $599.99 1up Arcade Attack from Mars and Star Wars pins by them. But, the thing is, it’s hard to give people the context of why, say, Firepower is such a big deal. In theory, the easiest way to do that is to say how many units it sold to arcades.
But, that comes with a problem: the numbers don’t sound impressive if you don’t know what the numbers mean. When I told someone the best selling solid-state table was Addams Family at 20,070, they responded with a stunned “wait, that’s it?” It’s hard to explain how astonishing an accomplishment that is. It’s one of only two solid-states to break the 20,000 unit mark. Only four tables cleared the 18,000 threshold. Remember, pinball tables are made for arcades. Yes, there was the occasional enthusiast or over-zealous father who bought a brand new table for the family rec room. But, for the most part, pinball machines were designed to be routed. Having 20,000 of one machine on route is remarkable.
So, where is the threshold for true majesty? After careful consideration, we’ve decided on 12,000 units. While my Father and I agree that 10,000 units is a nice, visually pleasing number and a wonderful achievement, 12,000 is the elite class. It means the table was competing directly with the top video games of its time. It’s a number only two electro-mechanical tables ever achieved: Capt. Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy by Greg Kmiec and Royal Flush by the legendary Ed Krynski.
And so, for your consideration, here are the twenty-three solid-state members of the 12K Club. And for giggles, we’ve included all the remaining solid states that have sold 10,000 units. If we’re missing information, please leave a reply with a link and we’ll correct. Thanks to the Internet Pinball Database for helping with this.
#1: The Addams Family (20,270 Units, 1992, Pat Lawlor & Larry DeMar for Midway)
#2: Eight Ball (20,230 Units, 1977, George Christian for Bally)
#3: Flash (19,505 Units, 1979, Steve Ritchie for Williams)
#4: Playboy (18,250 Units, 1978, Jim Patla for Bally)
#5: Firepower (17,410 Units, 1979, Steve Ritchie for Williams)
#6: High Speed (17,080 Units, 1986, Steve Ritchie for Williams)
#7: KISS (17,000 Units, 1979, Jim Patla for Bally)
#8: Star Trek (16,842 Units, 1979, Gary Gayton for Bally)
#9: Mata Hari (16,260 Units, 1978, Jim Patla for Bally)
#10: Twilight Zone (15,235 Units, 1993, Pat Lawlor for Midway)
#11: Terminator 2: Judgement Day (15,202 Units, 1991, Steve Ritchie for Midway)
#12: Harlem Globetrotters On Tour (14,550 Units, 1979, Greg Kmiec for Bally)
#13: F-14 Tomcat (14,502 Units, 1987, Steve Ritchie for Williams)
#14 Tie: Gorgar (14,000 Units, 1979, Barry Oursler for Williams)
#14 Tie: Evel Knievel (14,000 Units, 1977, Gary Gayton for Bally)
#16: Power Play (13,750 Units, 1978, Greg Kmiec for Bally)
#17: Fish Tales (13,640 Units, 1992, Mark Ritchie for Midway)
#18: The Getaway: High Speed II (13,259 Units, 1992, Steve Ritchie for Midway)
#19: Black Knight (13,075 Units, 1979, Steve Ritchie for Williams)
#20: Strikes and Spares (12,820 Units, 1978, Gary Gayton for Bally)
#21: Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure (12,716, 1993, Mark Ritchie & Doug Watson for Midway)
#22: Pin•Bot (12,001 Units, 1986, Barry Oursler & Python Anghelo for Williams)
#23: Sinbad (12,000 Units, 1978, Ed Krynski for Gottlieb)
That, my friends, is the list. Those are the twenty-three pins that are among the greatest selling coin-operated games of all-time. Unless arcades make a serious comeback or pinball has an inexplicable boom, no new table will ever join their ranks. A sobering, sad reminder that we’ll never see the marvelous new tables of the 21st century ever get the recognition they deserve.
Here are the remaining tables that sold 10,000 units.
#24: Star Trek: The Next Generation (11,728 Units, 1993, Steve Ritchie for Midway)
#25: Space Invaders (11,400 Units, 1980, Jim Patla for Bally)
#26: Xenon (11,000 Units, 1980, Greg Kmiec for Bally)
#27: Funhouse (Approximately 10,750 Units, 1990, Pat Lawlor for Midway)
#28: Mr. & Mrs. Pac-Man Pinball (10,600, 1982, George Christian for Bally)
#29: Star Wars (10,400 Units, 1992, John Borg for Data East)
#30 Tie: Silverball Mania (10,350 Units, 1980, Jim Patla for Bally)
#30 Tie: Lethal Weapon 3 (10,350 Units, 1992, Joe Kaminkow & Ed Cebula for Data East)
#32: Supersonic (10,340 Units, 1979, Greg Kmiec for Bally)
#33: Lost World (10,330 Units, 1978, Gary Gayton for Bally)
#34: The Six Million Dollar Man (10,320 Units, 1978, Greg Kmiec for Bally)
#35: Flash Gordon (10,000 Units, 1981, Claude Fernandez for Bally)
That’s it. Unless you count the home version of Fireball (another Greg Kmeic design that hit 10,000 units), those are the only thirty-five solid state pinball machines to sell 10,000 units.
What do YOU think should be the cutoff for legendary status? Should it be higher than 12,000? Lower? Should the club be instead the 8K Club? The Pinball Chick belongs to the entire pinball community, and we want to hear from YOU! So leave a reply in the comments saying what you think the “Club” should be!
It’s not an indie, but following my scathing review for the 1983 Nintendo Pinball (or at least the arcade version of it), a frankly insane amount of interest in pinball drifted my way. And that’s just fine with me, because pinball is one of the great passions of my life. I’ve got real tables. I’ve read books on it. Some of my fondest memories involve the pastime. Like being a four-year-old and having my Dad put a chair in front of our Firepower table, and even then barely being able to reach the flippers, yet still being dazzled by the lights and the action and the noises (and I hate loud noise, so that tells you something). My Dad loved the game, and while gaming was something we never shared, pinball was always there.
And then I developed epilepsy at the age of sixteen. But my father was not prepared to have me lose pinball. So we just removed the especially dangerous lights, or used duller LED lamp lights. The situation still sucked. I couldn’t play the tables with the lights out. I couldn’t play routed tables on location or visit the Pinball Hall of Fame when I was in Las Vegas (well, IN THEORY I could if the tables are arranged in a way where ones with strobey effects are not visible to me). And, most importantly, I couldn’t really get into video pinball as the genre advanced past the primitive “living ball physics” of the 80s and 90s. And that sucks, because we’re only just now, in the relatively recent past, getting the ability to fairly accurately recreate real tables, or design original ones that have all the charm and nuance of real life pinball combined with fantasy and sci-fi elements only possible in the anything-goes realm of video games. This is the golden age of video pinball, and up to now, I’ve mostly missed it.
And then I realized that, on the Nintendo Switch, I can turn the back-lighting down low enough that it all but eliminates my personal risk. And so, mid-September through mid-October is Pinball Month at Indie Gamer Chick. And I’ve decided to start with what is not only the best value you can get in the modern digital pinball experience, but what is one of the best Switch games of 2019. Star Wars Pinball uses the engine perfected by Zen Studios with their Pinball FX series and is a complete set of tables released on other platforms. These aren’t to be confused with real tables based on the franchise, most of which the rights are now owned by Stern and could only be recreated on their Stern Pinball/Pinball Arcade platform if they were able to get the rights that are owned by Zen Studios. Which wouldn’t really be worth it, none of them are all that great, though the 1992 Data East table is probably the best of the bunch. In this $29.99 collection, you get a whopping nineteen tables. And, keeping it real, besides the mini-games, they could probably plug-and-play any theme into the tables, so being a Star Wars fan isn’t necessary for enjoyment.
Most modern video pinball DLC comes in packs that typically average out to a cost of $3.33 per table. For the all-in-one Star Wars Pinball package on Switch, it works out of $1.57 a table. It’s the best value out there, easily. Well, unless you count all the tables you get in the truly bizarre Zaccaria Retro Pack (review coming). But those are.. weird. Here, the only thing weird is how good of a value this is. Maybe Zen Studios missed the memo about charging a Switch Tax.
For Pinball month, I’m going to do my best to focus on the tables themselves, but I want to tell everyone first that the physics for Star Wars Pinball are incredibly accurate. It’s very unlikely that video pinball will ever feel 100% table-authentic, but the team at Zen has gotten pretty close to it. While this isn’t as good as some of the tables in their own Pinball FX3, it’s very impressive. There were only very limited moments of wonkiness, like having the ball stop-on-a-dime when it should have bounced at least a little. Or getting balls stuck on the flippers or even knocked out of the playfield altogether. But, in over thirty hours of playtime, I could count the amount of times something that made me go “what the fuck was that?” on one hand, and I’d still have fingers left over for members of the Skywalker family to cut off with their lightsabers. So, this is a good game on its technical merits. And I also don’t feel that Star Wars Pinball did “on-rail shots” or “railing” where some pinball games give players the benefit of the doubt and guide the ball to targets if your aim is close enough. I hate that shit. I want to live or die based on my skills. It feels patronizing otherwise. Anyway, Star Wars Pinball also offers extra modes (like leagues and a career mode). Me? I’m a table dancer. I mean.. wait that’s not what I meant. Well it kinda is but isn’t. Shut up.
But, I can’t stress this enough: Star Wars Pinball is a damn good game under any circumstance. There are only five tables that aren’t really fun at all. That means you’re getting fourteen quality tables that bring interesting game play and ideas to the table. A handful of those are absolutely breathtaking. Having said that, all the biggest problems with Star Wars Pinball are common with every table. It’s utterly married to the concept that you’re playing on a real pinball machine, and thus all mini-games exclusively use the flipper buttons and sometimes the launcher button to control. But there’s really no reason it should do that. Yea, this is on other platforms, but they could optimize the console versions to use the controller. Or hell, make entirely new mini-games for the Switch version. Why not? Zen Studios, makers of long-time favorite of mine CastleStorm are certainly capable.
Other niggling little annoyances: the plunger is sometimes hard to judge for the skill shots. The game recycles assets between tables a lot. There’s a Darth Vader animation that keeps popping up and looks like he’s trying to offer someone a hand or attempting to declare a thumb war. The voices often don’t sound right at all. There’s no table where Rian Johnson is strapped to a chair while you just batter his ballsack with the flippers.
But, the pinball is mostly solid, the tables all feel different from each other, and staying consistently creative for nineteen tables is commendable. That applies to even the bad ones. I totally hated the Han Solo table, but I admire that at least they were trying something different. Take my word for it: you won’t get bored after a few tables. Each one refreshes the excitement and sense of discovery that Star Wars Pinball offers. And ultimately, that’s why it’s the best video pinball game I’ve ever played. Well, at least for now. I spent over $200 buying up pinball games and DLC this last week. But, if you’re looking for the best package of pins for the lowest cost, this is where the fun begins.
Star Wars Pinball was developed by Zen Studios
Point of Sale: Switch
Special Note: All the tables in Star Wars Pinball for Switch were sold in DLC packs as part of Zen Pinball 2. The tables are unchanged, so please reference the table index if you need help knowing what packs to purchase.
$29.99 shot first in the making of this review.
A review copy was supplied by Zen Studios to me. Upon the release of Star Wars Pinball, I purchased a copy of it out of pocket.
Table Rating Index
Star Wars Pinball: $29.99 (Nintendo Switch)
Total Tables: 19
The Pits: 3
Total Quality Tables: 14
Price per Quality Table: $2.14
Special thanks to Steve Da Silva for his guides, which were very helpful. I’ve linked to them all.
#19: Han Solo
Speed: Below Average
Difficulty: Above Average
Modes: Below Average
Link to Guide
I went back and forth between Han Solo and Rogue One for the worst Star Wars Pinball table, like Star Wars editors trying to decide if Han shot first or at the same time or what. Rogue One feels like a hackneyed rush-job. Han Solo is very ambitious. But, after extensively replaying both, there’s no doubt about it now in my mind: Han Solo is the worst table in Star Wars Pinball.
So, where to begin here? There’s four ramps on the lower-half of the playfield, some of which are crowded by bumpers that can rise out of the floor. There’s often not enough room to build up speed to clear the ramps, but with a crowded playfield, most of the techniques you can use to build that speed up are are blocked in some way. The Millennium Falcon toy in the center is also hard to clear since the lane for it is covered. Combo circuits are frustrating because of the wavy ramp design. Modes and mini-games are clunky. It has the most unforgiving outlanes of any table. I have nothing nice to say about this one. Han deserved better. Between this, going out like a bitch in Force Awakens, and the whole fiasco with the Solo movie, the smuggler with a heart of gold has had a tough 2010s.
#18: Rogue One
Speed: Below Average
Difficulty: Below Average
Link to Guide
I really don’t get what they were aiming for with Rogue One. The “highlight” of this table is a cluster of jet bumpers with five light targets. In front of this is a large sinkhole that sends the ball to a VUK that feeds the right flipper without fail. The jet bumpers increase multipliers, have easily to unlock multiplier holds (which allow those to carry over if you lose the ball), and open up simple, high-payoff modes. Ignoring every other aspect of the table, I was able to cheese up nine-figure scores focusing on this one aspect of the table with little resistance. And that’s just as well, because the modes aren’t all that fun.
The one redeeming quality I can say about Rogue One is that it might make a good starter table that has simple to hit straight-shots and easy-to-activate locks and lights. Since the table practically spoon-feeds you the ball and potentially challenging modes are muted by ball save being turned-on, you could do worse than starting with Rogue One. It’s a potentially effective confidence booster. BUT, there’s actually a better tutorial table (Empire Strikes Back) that doesn’t feel like shooting Porgs in a barrel. If you’re brand new to pinball, and I mean still-saturated in amniotic fluid new, Rogue One is the easiest option, but otherwise, this table is just boring.
Speed: Below Average
Difficulty: Above Average
Modes: Below Average
Link to Guide
Not to be confused with Han Solo, this one is actually based on the solo Solo movie. And that’s fitting because it’s every bit as disjointed as the flick is. The Solo table is the most busted of the entire set. Everything is horrible about it. Solo is based on ramps and orbits, but the ramps are too steep and run the length of the table, and the angles of the tables aren’t suitable for building up speed. I’m guessing combos weren’t the point, because actually being able to pull one off is practically a fucking miracle and rewarded with crazy high scores. The slingshots and rails for the outlanes are practically ball vacuums. Orbit exits point at the very edge of the flippers. The front target of the Millennium Falcon has a high probability of falling straight into the drain.
I initially liked this table, but once I started putting significant time in it, I realized this is actually one of the worst in the set. There’s just no polish. I even was able to knock the ball off the table in my final round playing this. And the shit thing is, there’s some neat ideas, like a stealth-based mode. I couldn’t really play it well because I have to turn the backlighting of my Switch all the way down, but it was a neat idea. I wish it had been on a better design. The scoring is unbalanced. The timers are too short. The best mode involves shooting a ball at a storm trooper walking on the board, but even that can be wonky. Man, Han got screwed by Star Wars Pinball even worse than he did by Lando in Empire. No doubt about it: in Star Wars Pinball, Han shot first. And then died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
#16: Boba Fett
Speed: Above Average
Difficulty: Above Average
Link to Guide
This table is proof the Speed/Difficulty/Modes ratings aren’t a measure of a table’s overall value. Here, the primary failure is in an overly-basic layout that falls victim to simple risk-reward mistakes. There’s vertical flipper on the left wall that’s very high-risk for shooting the right outlane, yet the reward for successful shots using it is relatively limited. In fact, the most low-risk shots (such as running combos through the ramps) score highest, while the high risk shots put the succubi outlanes in your sights but for minimum score and mode gain. The respect system goes under-utilized. The modes are dull. Boba Fett isn’t a total wash (and it’s very generous with ball-saves and kickbacks), but it’s probably the least properly balanced table in the entire collection.
#15: Might of the First Order
Speed: Above Average
Difficulty: Above Average
Modes: Below Average
Link to Guide
Might of the First Order is the single most tragic table in Star Wars Pinball. It has a lot of clever ideas and homages to classic tables that individually work well. But when you put them all together, it’d be like if Keith went to form Voltron and the Lions all crashed into each-other and exploded.
There’s an under-field similar to Gottlieb’s Haunted House or Black Hole, but without a proper transition when you enter it. It’s hard to tell when you’re in that table and no angle with the camera properly expresses depth, and consequently even skilled players will see their rounds with it end almost instantly before they even realize the mode has began. Star Wars Pinball has multiple tables with mini-fields, but they do it the right way: the action pauses while the camera transitions to the mini-field. Here, since it’s trying to pay tribute to classic real tables like Haunted House, the camera stays fixed and the ball enters play immediately. Thus a good idea is turned into garbage. And don’t get me started on how miserable managing multiball is with this gimmick.
Other problems are all over this one. The time limit on bonuses is too short. The mystery sinkhole is too prominent. The mini-games are boring. General Hux looks more like Tobey Maguire than whoever it is that plays him in the movie. And I’m especially frustrated by all these issues because the layout is one of the better ones (mystery sinkhole placement not withstanding), the speed is spot-on, and there’s a lot of fun gimmicks, like the fireball bonus. Might of the First Order is a bad table that, with a few minor tweaks and timing changes, would jump straight over the good tables and land somewhere near the top of the great list. Lots of fine ideas with bad execution. Sorta like Last Jedi, come to think of it. The movie, not the table I’m going to talk about later.
#14: Calrissian Chronicles
Difficulty: Above Average
Modes: Below Average
Link to Guide
Lando’s table is probably the most difficult in the entire collection, and also probably the most like a real pinball table that’s designed to make money for route operators. Whether or not this is a good thing depends on your personal tastes, but if it were real, Calrissian Chronicles would be a quarter-muncher. I personally enjoyed it, but this is a maddening, unfair, insanely unbalanced table designed to feed the drain like a concubine hand-feeding grapes to Caesar. There’s a multiball-generating captive-ball target, but it’s placed in a way that it has a relatively high-percentage chance of sinking into the drain. There’s cardboard targets, some of which are moving, but they also have a high-percentage chance of draining out. The slingshots feed the outlanes. The lane rails feed the outlanes. The modes are authentic to normal pinball but are all dull and repetitive. This is a brutal table. But, I appreciate that at least one table made a large effort to feel real-life authentic, so it can bring up the rear of the the good tables. But I could totally see where those who consider this the worst table are coming from.
Speed: Below Average
Modes: Below Average
Link to Guide
Droids probably should be in the bad tables list. It shirks every semblance of balanced, logical pinball design in favor of being the most ramp-heavy table imaginable. It feels like someone was just taking the piss with the table design editor, but then a nightmare deadline came up and someone shoved this tangled monstrosity into the final set.
But, fun is fun. And the Droids table is pure dopey fun. And it has actual value: it’s easily the best table for newcomers to practice shooting ramp combos on. You have clean access to every ramp, the entrance to each is low-risk, medium-low at the very worst, allowing players of all skill levels to get a feel for the timing of combo shots.
Sadly, that’s pretty much all Droids has going for it. Confusing mini-games, clunky modes, and lots of lost potential plague this table. It’s a terrific giggle to watch C-3PO blow up and have to collect his parts, but the actual collection process is messy and unrefined. I recommend playing this one, because there’s nothing out there quite like it, but these are NOT the droids you’re looking for.
#12: A New Hope
Speed: Below Average
Difficulty: Above Average
Link to Guide
Another table that I originally over-rated. A New Hope is based in part on Fish Tales. The entire playfield is a series of horseshoe orbits. And a big problem with that is the access to those orbits is too small a target. Considering how crowded the table is, how high-risk the slingshots are, and how the outlanes practically snort the balls, it’s one of the more difficult tables in the collection. I’m not even exaggerating when I say I sunk 20 consecutive balls in the outlane in a span of under three minutes. You have got to keep the ball as far away from the outlane rails as humanly possible. Even if the ball is beginning to enter the inner-most lane, it has a better chance of rimming out and sinking straight-through the outlane. A New Hope seems specifically made to induce rage.
But, when it’s not doing that, it’s a perfect fine table. It has one of the more fun multiballs (based on the Yavin Death Star raid) that makes it rain jackpots. It’s got one of the best mini-games (a shooting gallery). It even tries to go retro with a dot matrix screen mini-game. I just wish they had rethought the outlanes, because they’re too easy to hit and almost every mode ends prematurely with them.
#11: Starfighter Assault
Speed: Below Average
Difficulty: Below Average
Modes: Above Average
Link to Guide
Starfighter Assault is the first table I’m covering today where the mini-games are fun and live up to the theme. I just wish they played better. One plays like a rudimentary space-shmup, another is a first-person view. The issue with them, and all mini-games in Star Wars Pinball, is that even though you move away from the table and enter games with entirely different engines, you’re still controlling the games as if they’re dot-matrix-display minigames that only use the flippers and the launcher. They can still play well, but why not take advantage of the medium more? I don’t get it.
Otherwise, Starfighter Assault is a perfectly fine table. You have to choose whether you’re playing in the Rebel Alliance or the Empire at the start, but that only changes the look of the table and what side you launch from. What I regret about it is how stop-and-go it is. There’s multiple sinkholes and gaps that reset the ball to the flippers, and they’re positioned in ways that an errand shot at the otherwise combo-rich table pretty much halts the gameplay and negates the risk that should come with missed shots. And speed is a constant issue here. The center of the board is narrow, so building up the necessary speed to clear the upper ramp (when it forms) relies on running through combos. Which is not to say it’s not fun. Like Droids, Starfighter Assault is based around racking up combos, and the layout and modes are optimized for being able to make combo-heavy, high-scoring runs. It just hits too many speed bumps.
#10: Ahch-To Island
Speed: Above Average
Modes: Below Average
Link to Guide
The primary feature of Ahch-To Island is a prominent spin disc in a cove in the upper-center-playfield, similar to games like Whirlwind, Hurricane, No Good Gofers, or modern Stern releases like Tron or Kiss. I usually dislike them, but Ahch-To’s is implemented in a way where the ball’s exit isn’t quite as chaotic, nor is it as likely to be an unplayable house ball. If anything, I think they might have been overly conservative with the disc.
In fact, Ahch-To Island’s biggest issue is that it’s incredibly basic. Like Droids, this is a table built more around combos. Simple orbital lanes with high-scoring opportunities if you get into the right rhythm. What limited targets are here are fairly easy to hit. Most disappointing is the modes. They’re all pretty fundamental. This was the first table I opened Wizard mode on, and I did so when I was practically drip-fed extra balls. Still, Ahch-To is an incredibly fast-paced, often intense table. Probably a good table for stepping up your reflex game. Also, it spits up more multiballs than pretty much any other table, so if you’re like me and suck at those, this is your chance to improve. And Porgs. Can’t forget the Porgs.
#9: Empire Strikes Back
Link to Guide
Empire Strikes Back marries a realistic widebody table with video-game style mini-games. And the layout is awesome. Superb ramp placement. Smart short orbits. A fun spinner toy shaped like a Cloud City building. A pop-up ramp in some modes. This is a solid table. And it includes some interesting mini-game ideas, like recreating the lightsaber battle from the movie between Luke and Vader. That game isn’t perfect. You have to use split-second reactions to judge whether Vader is moving left, right, or straight ahead and block his attacks. The issue is, when he moves left or right, the timing for blocking is so unforgiving that you practically have to react the moment he starts to move. I one time had the privilege of facing off against a professional Rock-Scissors-Paper player, rolled my eyes at the concept, then proceeded to lose 20 straight shoots to him. He might have been able to face Vader. For everyone else, the only action Vader does that it feels you have a reasonable time window to block is the straight-ahead attacks. Every time I beat him, it felt like I got lucky.
But, that’s not the issue with Empire. The problem is it has the easiest method of beginning “scenes” (modes) in the entire Star Wars Pinball package. The target to trigger the entrance to the modes is right in front of you. It’s the most basic of shots. So is the entrance, which is a large hole even closer to the front of the flippers. It’s basically handing players the modes. It’s almost as if they weren’t happy with the table or thought the table didn’t have enough going for it so Zen decided to hypercharge the table by always having modes going. They really sold the table short. In reality, the only thing holding it back is the simple mode activation. On the positive side, Empire is the best table to introduce new players to playing through modes, so there’s that.
#8: The Force Awakens
Speed: Below Average
Difficulty: Above Average
Modes: Above Average
Link to Guide
I went all over the place with this table, and at one point, in a fit of uncontrollable rage, dropped it to dead last in the rankings. That part was mostly owed to at one point locking a ball for multiball, and then having the auto-launched next ball clear the entire playfield and go right down the fucking outlane. It caused me to go full pony (I screamed until I was a little hoarse). BUT, to the game’s credit, I might have been able to have given it a little nudge to prevent that. Still, I think that should be patched out.
So yea, Force Awakens is a pretty decent table with some of the more fun modes. Modes I’d have enjoyed a lot more if the ball didn’t have an uncanny knack for going down the right outlane on the onset of almost every one of them. Especially the one involving the Rathtars, which I never got to experience in a dozen times triggering it because the triggering event always led directly to the ball falling down the right outlane. Okay, fine, maybe it’s a little broken. But the multiballs are fun. The BB8 stuff is fun. It’s a solid table, but one that either needs more work or was designed to be unfair. I don’t get the point in that. When a person buys a video pinball game, it’s made its money. It’s not trying to earn route operators quarters.
#7: Masters of the Force
Difficulty: Above Average
Link to Guide
Masters of the Force is another high-concept table that feels very post-Williams. There’s a cube toy that triggers a simple multiball that’s maddening to play well due to the side flippers. There’s mini-tables tied to Yoda and the Emperor that are relatively easy to access but surprisingly hard to play out. There’s nifty simulations of famous Jedi v Sith battles, but they’re done via cardboard targets that crowd the flippers and feed the drains (as do the slingshots). Really, the theme for Masters of the Force is “deceptively difficult.” And that frustration is compounded by being outright screwed by the table. If I had a nickle for every time the Yoda mini-table dropped the ball straight down the drain, I’d.. probably have around 30 cents. But I cussed every time. There’s also a lot of downtime on the table due to an enormous gap in the upper table that really does nothing more than reset the action. I hate those in any game. They’re never good.
And it’s a shame that the table seems to be designed to be so specifically frustrating, because it’s potentially one of the most fun tables. The Balance of the Force concept, which comes down to which flipper you use to hit which target, is well implemented and clever. The mini-tables might feel like glorified dollar-store plastic pinball games, but they work well (most of the time) too. Masters of the Force brings a lot of ideas, good and bad, to the table. That’s fitting, I guess? It’s still fun, but designed to channel your anger to the Dark Side.
#6: The Last Jedi
Speed: Above Average
Difficulty: Below Average
Link to Guide
One of the most bizarre tables in Star Wars Pinball. The modes are based entirely around running orbits on the various ramps and circuits, all of which are fairly basic shots. But it works insanely well because the layout is so perfect. It’s debatable whether Last Jedi or Rebels is the fastest table in Star Wars Pinball. But, Last Jedi feels like it uses the speed better, and the homages to other high-octane tables like the Williams classics High Speed, Taxi, and Getaway are all over. There’s also a fun shooting gallery mini-game with BB8, though I wish getting these games started didn’t involve so much lumbering animation. With a game that feels like the table is greased, you don’t want to have too many interruptions in the action, and Last Jedi comes close to falling in that trap.
I might have gone higher on this table, but personal issues playing the game got in the way of my enjoyment. Because of my epilepsy, I’m playing on the pinball games on Switch in handheld mode with the backlighting turned as far down as it goes. Unfortunately, many of the modes on Last Jedi (Scene 3 and the Kylo Multiball) turn the screen almost completely dark. I couldn’t pause the game and turn the brightness back up just for these modes because jackpots or other high scores triggered flashes. So this table might actually be better than I have it rated (a lot of my Twitter fans named it their personal favorite table) but I can only rate these based on my own experience. Meh, it’s still better than the Rose subplot from the movie.
#5: Return of the Jedi
Link to Guide
I hate Return of the Jedi. It’s boring. The movie, I mean. The Star Wars Pinball table is great. Themed around Endor, Ewoks and all, Return is another table that, with adjustments, would work as a real-life table. Which is not to say it’s perfect. There’s a sinkhole with a flipper to the right of it that’s highly susceptible to abuse, as finding yourself in a position to use it as a dumper and reset the ball to the flippers is too simple. Probably to make up with overly-bouncy outlane rails. The right one, especially, sucks with all the power of Starkiller Base and took roughly 90% of my lives, especially when I had just started a high-scoring mode. It seemed like my ball was suddenly an Olympic gymnast and could do the most improbable tumbling act of all-time finding its way into the that fucking outlane. It’s the only time in my entire thirty hours spent with Star Wars Pinball that I questioned whether Zen Studios caved in and rigged a table for difficulty.
But, Return of the Jedi’s simple, clean layout and easy to navigate orbits make it a fairly smooth table to play. And then there’s the modes, which range from the perfect examples of risk-reward pinball (the Dark Side spin-disc) to modern pinball’s worst excesses (an everybody out of the pool type of multiball that involves a storm trooper firing onto the balls and altering their gravity or outright destroying them). And then there’s the Speeder Bike mini-game, which is, and I’m not exaggerating here, the worst mini-game in the history of video games. And it especially sucks because it feels like it takes forever to get to the game, and as far as I can tell, there’s no way to skip the fluff getting it started.
But regardless, this is one of the best tables, mostly because it feels real. Nice, clean layout. Excellent target placement. The theme was integrated well with modes based around taking out the shield dish or having a final duel with Darth Vader. Proper balance of risk-reward. This might actually be one of the better tables to show a naysayer pinball purist what the best video pinball can do. It might even be the table I end up going back to the most once the review is done.
Speed: Above Average
Difficulty: Above Average
Modes: Above Average
Link to Guide
In my first run-through of the tables, I had Rebels pegged as the best table, and in the Masterpiece category. But, my extended playtime with it revealed quite a few teeny tiny flaws that drops it down to merely being pretty dang great. It has a target placed in a straight line above the drain that’s far to easy to hit from multiple angles. But, the way they designed it, with walls on either side, it too frequently straightens the path and drops the ball down the sink. The issue is, this is the board’s primary target, and a necessary component for so many modes. This was not the target to up the risk-reward factor on.
And that’s such a damn shame because otherwise is one of the best digital pinball tables I’ve played so far. Really fun, insanely quick gameplay. Maybe the fastest overall table. Besides that damn ramp/target, the other targets are clean and well placed, the ramps and orbits are exhilarating, and it feels just sort of spunky. It probably has the best hurry-ups in Star Wars Pinball too. It’s a lot of fun. But incredibly unfair too.
#3: Battle of Mimban
Speed: Below Average
Difficulty: Above Average
Link to Guide
More than any other table in Star Wars Pinball, Mimban (which I called “Mimbah” for 90% of my tweets related to it. I swear, I’m not a Rush Limbaugh fan) feels like it’s a video game with a pinball theme. It takes advantage of the medium. And I don’t mean it has mini-games that couldn’t be accomplished on a real table. Rather, it feels like it’s taking place during an actual battle. Most of the modes involve cardboard targets or pop up Mimbanese snipers, which, granted, can crowd the flippers sometimes or lead to errand bounces into the outlanes. Also, of all the good tables, this has the weakest multiball, involving imperfect spherical rocks that occasionally get stuck. Some other tables do that too. This one does it worse.
But, I’m an action type of chick, and Mimban is about fast-paced target shooting. Which is not to say there’s not other fun stuff like combo ramps and orbits. But Mimban focuses on hitting things with the ball, not passing over things with the ball. There’s a base bombing mode. There’s a shooting gallery. There’s drop-targets themed like crumbling pillars that ad so well the the decaying battlefield theme. I love this table. This represents the highest potential Zen Studios can do in making video games you play using pinball mechanics instead of simply being pinball video games.
#2: Clone Wars
Speed: Above Average
Difficulty: Above Average
Modes: Above Average
Link to Guide
You know what’s really nutty here? I’m not a fan of the Clone Wars movie or TV series. But man, did it inspire one wonderful digital pinball table. Clone Wars has one problem, and only one problem: its outlanes are too hungry, its rails too rubbery, and getting kickbacks turned on is a chore. Okay, wait, that’s.. (counts on hand) three problems. Oh, and the slingshots are basically outlane waiters. Four problems. Otherwise, this is a white-knuckle, super-fast paced table. Excellent layout. Great target placement. Some clever modes, including one that places a force-field on the table. Hell, Clone Wars even has the best mini-table in the game. Even the look of the table is striking. This could be a real table. A really good one.
#1: Darth Vader
Speed: Below Average
Modes: Above Average
Link to Guide
The best example of how the table attributes don’t matter to the overall value of the table. Darth Vader, a slower, limited-frills table is just wired for fun. Strange design too. The center of the playfield is essentially empty, with the majority of bells and whistles clinging to one sides. Perhaps a metaphor for Vader himself, torn between the type of person who takes Padme out for a romantic picnic and the type of person who commits genocide with his lightsaber. Twice (don’t forget the Tuskens). The Vader table has an optional intro sequence where you have to build Vader’s suit. I can’t stress enough: you sorta HAVE to do this. It’s the easiest ten million points in all of Star Wars Pinball. But then, yes, you have to sit through a recreation of the “NOOOOOOOO!!!” from Revenge of the Sith. NOOOOOOOOOO!!!
If you enjoy mutliball, and I normally don’t, this is the table for you. And it does have a little more going for it. But there’s elements that I find confusing. There’s a dead flipper on the right side of the table and I can’t figure out what actions give it power. I can’t figure out why the Lightside/Darkside multiball jackpots don’t seem to work sometimes. And while I’m at it, Darth Vader has one of the best mini-games in Star Wars Pinball, based on taking control of Vader’s TIE Fighter during the trench run from the original movie, but it’s maybe the most difficult to access mini-game in the entire collection. It’s not quite a blind angle, but it’s close. Otherwise, great table. Deliberate. You can pace out the multiballs when they happen. Orbit combos are clean. The theme works. It’s the most popular table in the set for a reason. It’s by far the most fun table in the set. And, by definition, that makes it the best. At least in my book.
Creature from the Black Lagoon and Monster Bash are legendary tables, but I’ve barely gotten to play either. And that’s really weird because Creature from the Black Lagoon was in my family’s personal collection for years, but the fucking thing never worked. It was like everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Apparently whoever had it before us had issues with it too and in attempting to repair it (and also follow mod guides despite having no engineering background), he actually did more damage to it. In 2016, we traded it along with a few other tables that were, ahem, problematic for some working ones. I’d like to think the guy who ended up with ours went on to have wacky adventures with his Creature from the Black Lagoon table. Maybe he had to travel into the heart of the darkest jungle to retrieve the magical power supply or replacement ROMs to get it running. Maybe it was like that frog from those Looney Tunes shorts and it drove him to the streets, just him and his broken table. Maybe we’ll be reunited someday and it’ll fail to register targets for old time’s sake. Or maybe I’ll just get another off Craigslist. One that’s been fully cleaned and shopped wink wink. You’re not actually supposed to type wink wink in a Craigslist ad but, God, it would be so helpful if sellers did.
Or, I can skip all that shit and just buy the Pinball FX 3 Universal Monsters Pack for $9.99 and enjoy my 99.9% discount on a real table.
UPDATE: My father found the gentleman we traded our Creature from the Black Lagoon to. The table was fully restored and sold to an owner who was very happy to get it. Aww, I always tear up for happy endings.
By the way, Creature from the Black Lagoon, the actual pinball machine, is one of the most notoriously difficult tables to repair. In-part because getting replacement parts for faulty components is difficult. ESPECIALLY if you’re anal about “authentic parts”. The famous green hologram on the table? Yeah, it wasn’t made to still work decades later and many have since rotted into an non-functional sludge-blue. But hell, even replica parts can run you hundreds of dollars, and those parts don’t install themselves. There’s entire guides dedicated to do-it-yourself replacement kits and work-arounds and modifications and homemade solutions just for this table. If you genuinely love this Creature from the Black Lagoon pinball but lack any semblance of engineering skills, you’d be a fool to spend the thousands of dollars (hell, up to $15,000!) on a real Black Lagoon pinball table (or ANY real table, because ALL need repairs at some point). Even if you got a mint condition, rarely (if ever) routed table, it’ll eventually break down. You’ll need to fix it, and if you can’t, you’re stuck with a gorgeous but large and expensive paperweight. Hell, my Dad DOES have engineering skills and still couldn’t fix ours. Shit, $9.99 for a very well-made digital approximation of the same table is sounding pretty fucking sweet right about now.
Anyway, we have two new Pinball FX 3 tables released in time for Halloween that required the Universal license, which Zen Studios already had. They have a set based on Jurassic Park and another based on miscellaneous Universal movies ET, Back to the Future, and Jaws. I was hoping for a fourth table based on Schindler’s List. Or, maybe one based around Sid Sheinberg’s ego, but it’d probably require a 200GB file size. There really were tables based around Back to the Future and Jurassic Park, but those were done by Data East and Sega Pinball, both of which still exist today as the modern Stern, which has a deal with Pinball Arcade. So, sadly, it’s unlikely we’ll see them recreated anytime soon.
And the sadness continues, as two tables that would have fit perfectly with the theme that were hypothetically available (they were by Midway under the Bally license) couldn’t be used. 80s B-Movie hostess Elvira is actually something of a legend in pinball circles because she was the theme of two iconic pins: Elvira and the Party Monsters and Scared Stiff. I think Party Monsters (which, believe it or not, was digitally recreated for Atari Lynx) was a little overrated while Scared Stiff is every bit as deserving of its reputation (and wallet-busting $8K – $11K price-tag on the second-hand market) as it gets. However, Elvira signed on to do a third table with Stern recently, and Stern is partnered with FarSight Studios to do The Pinball Arcade/Stern Pinball Arcade. I prefer Pinball FX 3 to FarSight’s pinball engine, but I really just want these tables recreated regardless. Maybe the two companies can work out some kind of trade: the 90s Universal tables (Back to the Future/Jurassic Park) for the two Elvira tables. Call me guys. I’ll negotiate it for you.
So, two tables for $9.99. Is it worth it? Well, frankly, Monster Bash is worth it by itself. It’s the best of the recreated Williams tables I’ve played yet. Creature from the Black Lagoon is vastly overrated historically. Which is not to say it’s bad. Overrated doesn’t mean bad. It means overrated. It’s not an all-timer. It’s just a solid, maddening table that simply has one of the best themes in pinball history: a loving tribute to Drive-Ins. It’s also the work of a truly reprehensible human being, so your mileage may vary on how much enjoyment you can get out of it. I’ll be giving full reviews to the tables by themselves in an upcoming Indie Pinball Chick post that rates and ranks all fifteen Williams tables in Pinball FX 3. Until then, just know that I absolutely recommend this set because both tables are worth preserving and fun. Creature from the Black Lagoon, for its extreme difficulty, is still alright. Monster Bash, on the other hand, is absolutely deserving of its legendary status. I look at the Universal Monsters Pack as paying $10 for Monster Bash and getting Creature from the Black Lagoon as a throw-in bonus with it. And hey, at least their version works!
$9.99 did the Monster Mash in the making of this review.
Universal Monsters Pack is Chick Approved.
A review code for the Switch version was supplied by Zen Studios. We bought it on Xbox One.
Williams Pinball: Universal Monsters Pack (Pinball FX 3)
Total Tables: 2
The Pits: 0
Good: 1 (Creature from the Black Lagoon)
Masterpiece: 1 (Monster Bash)
Total Quality Tables: 2
Price per Quality Table: $4.99
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.