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.
Welcome to the latest hair-brainer of your’s truly. I’m Indie Gamer Chick, and pinball has meant so much to my life. For that reason, I’ve opened this site. It’d dedicated to a century-old industry. Pinball has been one of the great joys of my life, and now, I’m going to have a site dedicated to digital versions of that joy. I’ll mostly focus on three main platforms: the still active Pinball FX3 from Zen Studios, the seemingly dormant Pinball Arcade by Farsight Studio, and the upstart Zaccaria Pinball from Magic Pixel. The site isn’t ready to launch yet, but you can check out the live scorecard for the mega-sized Pinball Arcade review here. I hope you’ll stick around. Developer say I’ve battered their balls for years. Now, I have a whole site dedicated to it!
-Cathy “Indie Gamer Chick” Vice
January 10, 2020
I’ve always been fascinated by the death penalty. It’s macabre fascination for sure, but it’s always been there. I find the idea that we, as a species, ritualistically put our own to death to be bizarre behavior. And I can’t stress the “ritual” part enough, because that’s what it is. Some might try to claim it’s a “process” or just “the law” but really, it’s a series of rituals that culminates with someone who was hopefully a bad person (fingers crossed) dead. Being a Catholic, I’m supposed to oppose the continued existence of it. And I do, but at the same time, when I see someone like Scott Peterson, who described himself as “too jazzed to sleep” the night before he was transferred to San Quentin’s death row for murdering his pregnant wife, yea, I sort of want to see him die. But the Death Penalty costs money. Lots of it. And you can’t say “well, speed it up” because it removes due process, which is a cornerstone of our justice system. Death penalty trials also cost more, and housing death row inmates costs significantly more than someone serving life. Anyone who claims to be a fiscal conservative can’t in good conscience support the death penalty.
Plus, you know, there’s the whole “we could end up executing the wrong person” thing. Despite the Indie Gamer Chick character being a bit of a psychopath, I can’t possibly imagine that I could ever end up on Death Row. But innocent people do end up on it, and some of them might even be put to death. And I’ve often wondered, if I was in that position, what method would I want to go out under? I was pondering that this week when someone walked into my living room with dog shit on their shoes, and decided, hey, this is the type of uplifting food-for-thought that my readers might dig. So let’s figure it out.
Here’s the rules I made for myself just now: I only considered the ten most common methods used globally from the 20th century onward. The person being executed is me. I’m between 4’11 and 5’0, depending on if I have shoes on and I fluctuate between 94lbs to 98lbs on average. Yep, I’m tiny. And yes, size and weight does matter. You’ll see why when I go over the methods. With that in mind, here’s what my top considerations would be, in the order I would care.
That I lose consciousness quickly.
I don’t care how quick death happens. The whole execution can take an hour for all that I care. As long as I’m not alert during it and can’t feel it happening, that’s all that really should matter. In theory, I’d rather hurt intensely for ten seconds and lose consciousness than hurt slightly less but for a longer period of time.
How much pain is involved.
When it comes to capital punishment, historically the death of the condemned was just the cherry on top of the sundae. Being executed was supposed to hurt. A lot. But, as society has grown more “enlightened”, we’ve searched out ways to make state-sanctioned murder less barbaric and more “humane.” Though the “humane” part is up for debate. Really, reforming the death penalty was more about removing the icky, watery parts of it. Bloodless methods of death. Even if those methods are inferior and not as painless as they appear on the surface. And the condemned not leaving puddles of blood and piss behind was supposed to be somehow more dignified for them. I’m sure those who died these more humane deaths strutted up to the Pearly Gates with great pride knowing that the janitor didn’t even need a mop to clean up after them. Anyway, I don’t want it to hurt too much.
How fool-proof the method is.
Newsflash: we botch executions all the time. They did it so many times in a row in Oklahoma that their state legislators approved a new method (nitrogen hypoxia, which won’t be considered for this list since it hasn’t been used yet, but would be my #1 choice if I could). (UPDATE 2020: Oklahoma has since abandoned the idea.) Let’s say I’m being killed but with the best of intentions. How likely are they to screw it up and make me suffer unintentionally? Funny enough, for as many human beings we as a society have ritualistically put to death over the course of our existence, it’s not really an exact science. Or possibly it was at one point but that method was really gory so we’re back to the laboratory to tinker around more. As small as I am, I shouldn’t be that hard to kill, but maybe the executioner drank heavily before strapping me in (that happens) or maybe the device being used failed (that happens too), or maybe the drugs I’m being injected with have expired and lost their effectiveness (that happens too). I want a method that someone would have to be intentionally trying to botch it in order for it to not work right. Yea, that happens too.
How easy would it be for a sadist to have fun with it?
In fact, people with bad intentions somehow find ways to become part of the process. Of course they do. It’s their darkest, sickest fantasies made real and completely legal. Executions are carried out by people, and if that person has bad intentions, things can get really nasty. We’ve all seen the Green Mile. We all remember THAT scene (which I can’t even watch anymore, stupid epilepsy). Well, when you make murder legal, that kind of stuff can happen. Can someone who gets off on suffering actually make the execution slower and more painful?
Having considered all these things, I’ll go in reverse order, using the ten most common state-sanctioned execution methods.
#10: Stoning to Death
Procedure: There’s apparently no guidebook on how exactly to carry out a judicial stoning (which, yes, is still a state-sanctioned method of capital punishment in the Middle East as of this writing, but then again, so is crucifixion) and most incidents involving its use in the 21st century were extrajudicial. But, typically the condemned is bound by the hands and feet and placed in a hole, usually deep enough so only their head sticks out. The hole is refilled with dirt. People then throw rocks at the victim’s head and face until she (it will almost certainly be a she. Seriously, cultural tolerance is awesome but I think we should draw the line on the fact that stoning is reserved almost exclusively for women who are routinely semi-extrajudicially torture-killed if they’re accused of having an affair) is dead.
If Everything Goes Right: This is the one and only method still in use today where death isn’t expected to be quick. Stoning someone to death removes all pretense of humanity or dignity. Its purpose is to not just kill the condemned, but humiliate and make them suffer. You’re going to likely survive and retain consciousness during the initial volley of rocks. It’s not like they have Cy Young throwing at you. However, after everyone has gotten a couple throws in, it’s customary to have a coup de grâce where they simply drop a large boulder on your head. If luck is on your side, you won’t last up to that point. Someone will throw the right shaped rock hard enough, fast enough, and accurate enough that it will knock you out or maybe even kill you instantaneously.
But in Reality: I couldn’t find any hard statistics on this, so I ended up having the most awkward conversation ever with my doctor. He concluded that, with all the variables involved, it’s likely the condemned retains some degree of alertness during the entire procedure, and feels every rock that strikes them right until the final blow is ordered. Because torture and humiliation is the desired effect and death, while the ultimate goal, comes secondary to degradation, people are likely to want to hit you in a way that hurts you but doesn’t kill, keeping you alive and suffering as long as possible. Did I mention this is still legal in 2018?
#9: The Gas Chamber
Procedure: The condemned is led into a small airtight chamber with windows so the witnesses can view the execution. They’re strapped to a special chair, then the executioner pours sulfuric acid into an open compartment under the chair. After sealing the chamber shut, the executioner pours pellets of potassium cyanide the size of BBs into a chute. The condemned is reminded to breathe heavily. When the order to begin is given, the executioner activates a lever that releases the pellets, which fall into the sulfuric acid, creating hydrogen cyanide gas. Placing the pool of acid under the condemned is done to assure the gas engulfs them.
If Everything Goes Right: The condemned, assuming they’re able to breathe deeply, will feel intense pain in their chest and discomfort no matter what, but taking three to four deep breaths of the hydrogen cyanide gas in theory could render them unconscious in under 15 seconds. In the days when prisoners were allowed to smoke, if the condemned was a heavy enough smoker, they would lack the cilia to prevent the gas from passing seamlessly into the lungs, assuring the process would be over quicker than for a non-smoker. I am a smoker, so this would apply to me. The body will thrash and the condemned will foam at the mouth, make gargling sounds, and snort, and death can take up to four to six minutes, but consciousness should have ended long before that point.
But in Reality: It’s not as simple as staying calm and taking deep breaths during the ordeal. If you know you’re about to die, you’re probably in a state of panic. Your blood-pressure is going to be off the charts. You’re going to be hyperventilating. There’s also the possibility that you were offered a sedative an hour or two before you were led into the chamber, and if you took it, your respiration is going to be further compromised. Successfully losing your consciousness during a gas chamber execution is fully dependent on getting enough hydrogen cyanide into your blood stream and not enough oxygen that you faint. But you have to be able to hold the painful gas in your lungs long enough for it to metabolize into you. Would you be able to deliberately fill your lungs up with water and still keep calm? Of course not. Death by gas chamber is like that, only replace the water with fire. And speaking of which, since smoking is banned in all prisons, the condemned (in this case, me) will have all their cilia, which means I’ll be gagging and choking the entire time.
The result is the most sadistic and painful method of execution we’ve ever done in the United States. When Jimmy Lee Gray was executed in 1983, AP reporters were cleared from the room before the execution was complete because Gray’s death was so violent that they were counting the amount of times he moaned. By time they got to 11, the warden made them leave. This was EIGHT MINUTES into the execution. Even with my small size, there’s no way to avoid suffering. The fact that the choice between this and being stoned to death for “method I’d least want to die by” was the hardest on this list is telling. I had to think for quite a while on it.
Extra Consideration: This is the most expensive and dangerous method of execution by far. It’s so expensive that in California, they designed the gas chamber to accommodate two people at the same time. The rubber seals used to keep the chamber air tight have to be custom-ordered and cost $30,000 each. If the chamber leaks, the smell of burnt almonds will fill up the room and everyone knows they’re well and fucked. Also, the gas is combustible. After the execution, even after the gas is vented out, the condemned will be covered in a thin layer of toxic powder that must be cleaned off. Even performing an autopsy (required by law in all jurisdictions) is dangerous for those involved. So really, the only reason to choose the gas chamber, if you have such an option, is to inconvenience as many people as possible along the way. If I want to do that, I’ll just eat large quantities of Mexican food before they put me down.
Procedure: There’s a lot of ways garotting was carried out judicially in the 20th century, but I’m going to go with the method used by Spain as recent as 1974. The condemned has their arms and legs bound and are sat on a chair or bench with a large beam for the backrest. A collar is placed around their neck. Behind backrest is a stick or wheel that, when turned, tightens the collar around the neck.
If Everything Goes Right: The garotte will squeeze your carotid artery enough to cause you to black-out rather quickly, as in twenty seconds or less, with death coming via strangulation a minute or two later. You’ll still feel the pain and discomfort of being choked up to that point, but you should lose consciousness quickly in most circumstances. Even in the very worst case, most sentenced to die by this method were unconsciousness in under a minute.
But in Reality: Everything up to the point where you fade to black will be agony. You’re not just being strangled. You’re having your neck mechanically crushed. And the pesky quirk of us humans is we’re all built differently. In theory, you should be out fast, but what if you have a tiny carotid artery that the collar isn’t compressing with sufficient pressure? That means you deal with an extended amount of choking and convulsing. And if the executioner either loses his nerve or wants you to suffer, they can stop just short of tightening the collar all the way. You’re still likely to lose consciousness in about a minute, but I’m guessing that will (ironically) be the longest minute of your life. Garotting is one of the only methods where your fear will work out for you. A high blood pressure will actually help hasten the onset of unconsciousness. That’s why choosing it over the gas chamber would be a layup for me, but I’d pretty much rather die by any other means.
Procedure: I’m going to go with the judicial method used in Saudi Arabia. If you’ve seen extremists slowly saw a person’s head off with a knife, that’s not exactly the sanctioned method that’s still legal in the Middle East today. The prescribed method is via sword. The condemned is bound by the arms and legs and made to kneel in front of the executioner. The executioner, armed with a curved, extraordinarily sharp sword known as a Sulthan, swings for the neck, which removes the head from the body.
If Everything Goes Right: If the headsman’s aim is true and their blade sharp enough, only one strike should be needed to remove the person’s head from the body. The whole act of decapitation should take less than one second and death should be instantaneous.
But in Reality: Actually, most executions by this method do go according to the plan. But, the human factor is unavoidable. If the person has a small neck, a thick neck, or just straight-up doesn’t cooperate, multiple strikes could be required. Even then you’ll more than likely have suffered sufficient spinal/neck injury to lose all sensation of pain and consciousness after the first blow. But maybe not. If the headsman is nervous or having a bad day, or if the sword hasn’t been adequately sharpened and maintained, they could miss the neck and spine entirely. You have no idea how many blows will now be required to finish the job, and every blow that doesn’t kill could hurt. Thankfully I have a relatively long neck that’s thin. You could probably lop my head off with a large butter knife being swung hard enough.
Extra Consideration: It’s actually considered taboo under Sharia law to botch a beheading or cause undue suffering. The executioner has every motivation to carry it out correctly. If it’s believed they didn’t do their job with the best intentions, they can face the sword themselves. That’s what made it so hard to choose between beheading via sword and the electric chair. But I never specifically stated where I’m being beheaded. If I’m so unlucky that I’ve been wrongly convicted and sentenced to die, I’m going to assume that rotten luck will carry over to the execution, where I’ll get some hillbilly whose only experience with a sword is playing Legend of Zelda.
#6: The Electric Chair
Procedure: The condemned has their head and one leg shaved. They’re strapped to a wooden chair and electrodes are placed on their leg and head, which makes the prisoner part of a complete circuit that runs to and from the power source. The contacts are not affixed directly to the skin and use sponges soaked in saline to assure the electricity flows freely. When the switch is thrown, various cycles of electricity go through the circuit, including the condemned. Believe it or not, there’s no uniform code for what the voltage or amperage used should be and the duration you run the current, but in all cases at least two different cycles are used. The first is typically a high-cycle, followed by a longer low-cycle.
If Everything Goes Right: The very moment the electricity hits, the prisoner immediately suffers brain-death and goes unconscious. The second cycle is designed to cause fatal damage to all other organs. It goes without saying that if you get sentenced to the chair, you’re probably not donating your otherwise perfectly good heart to a non-murdering 18-year-old who made the honor roll and just got accepted into Harvard. Come to think of it, it’s kind of wasteful to do anything other than just sedate the prisoner, open them up and take out what parts you need, but hey, we have to stick to the ritual. The ritual is what matters. Anyway, if done right, I should be out so fast I wouldn’t even realize what hit me.
But in Reality: Electrocutions get botched more than pretty much any other method. That’s because there’s so many moving parts to the procedure. Sometimes the prison would skip the “shave the head to assure a good connection” part, which would almost certainly prolong the onset of brain-death and cause suffering. Sometimes they would use a synthetic sponge instead of a natural one, which didn’t conduct electricity as well, as was the case with Jesse Tafero in Florida in 1990, which resulted in his head catching fire and requiring more than two cycles to finish the job. Sometimes the power generator didn’t create a sufficient enough energy to quickly induce unconsciousness. Hell, sometimes the prisoner just plain didn’t die. In 1903, officials at Sing Sing thought they had successfully killed a prisoner named Fred Van Wormer in the chair. But after everyone left, the coroner noticed he was still breathing. They called the executioner back to finish the job. Van Wormer died before he got there, but just to be extra sure, they strapped his corpse to the chair and shocked it again.
And then you have the case of Willie Francis, who was only sixteen years old at the time of the crime that he may or may not have committed (there’s a lot of reasonable doubt in his case). When the current was switched on, Francis not only didn’t lose consciousness, but he didn’t die at all. He was simply tortured for a few minutes while he screamed, literally, “I’m not dying!” and begged them to shut it off. The allegedly drunk executioner called for more juice, but the generator simply had not worked, and they shut it down and dragged him back to his cell. The executioner screamed “I missed you this time but I’ll get you next week, even if I have to use an iron bar!” Some sources cite that he said he’d use a rock, but either way, there’s debate on whether or not the racist prison staff deliberately botched the execution so as to get a chance to legally torture a black man. Francis was eventually re-executed a year later, and he remains dead to this day so I guess the second time must have worked.
If the electric chair works right, you’re gone in an instant. But there’s no method that’s still technically in use that has more avenues to go wrong. If you thought Michael Jeter’s execution in the Green Mile could never happen in real life, think again. The electric chair is the furthest thing from fool-proof, and also presents sadistic-types with multiple opportunities to prolong the experience without looking guilty. As someone who used to get glee from shuffling my feet around at Costco and then zapping my parents with static electricity, I feel like I shouldn’t test the karma gods by choosing to ride the lightning myself.
The Procedure: I’m using the long drop (aka the measured drop), which is used by most jurisdictions today (including Japan, who yes, still has the death penalty and executed thirteen people by hanging this last July alone). The condemned is bound by the hands and feet and placed over a trap door. If the person resists standing-still, they may be tied to a “collapse board” that further restrains the person and goes through the trap door with the prisoner (as seen in the 2000 Danish musical Dancer in the Dark). A rope that was boiled and stretched the previous night is slipped around the neck and tightened under the chin. When the signal is given, the trapdoor is sprung and the condemned falls several feet before the rope causes the “hangman’s fracture” to the C2 vertebra.
If Everything Goes Right: The violent fracturing of the person’s neck should also cause enough damage to the brainstem that brain death happens instantly, and unconsciousness is achieved as a consequence of that. The person is immediately paralyzed and rendered immobile, and full clinical death can also be instantaneous. If not, the person will die via strangulation, but not suffer while this is happening.
But in Reality: Hangmen of the 20th century (including Albert Pierrepoint, the famous “Last Hangman of Britain”) might have claimed they used a sophisticated table of measurements to achieve the “perfect execution” but really hanging was more of an art than a science. The “hanging” part of being hanged isn’t exactly designed to cause a quick death by strangulation, so if a person survives the fall, they can expect to take as little as forty seconds or as long as twenty (!) minutes before they finally succumb to the lack of oxygen. This time is spent violently thrashing and bucking as you try anything to get enough slack to get some air in. Being only barely taller (though much lighter) than an Oompa Loompa, I’m not sure if the neck-breaking fails that I would weigh enough to pass-out fast enough for my liking.
Extra Consideration: This is one of the few methods where the most common way the execution is botched would work to my advantage. Because when a hanging goes wrong, it usually results in the person being decapitated. This is why hanging fell out of favor, because, ewww, blood and stuff. Plus the severed-head might roll right up to the feet of the witnesses (this really happened in Arizona in 1930). But, if I’m the person losing their head, I really don’t care. It fully assures that I was killed instantly, with no pain. It’s a botch I’d be a-okay with.
#4: Firing Squad
The Procedure: I’m using the method used by the state of Utah as recent as 2010, when Ronnie Lee Gardner chose it over lethal injection. The condemned is tied to a chair or a post and blindfolded. A target is placed over their heart. A wall of sandbags is behind the condemned to catch the bullets. Five marksman are placed 25 feet away from the prisoner and armed with .30-caliber rifles. One of the rifles is loaded with a blank, thus assuring none of the shooters know if they fired one of the fatal shots. Well, unless they forget that part, which happened when Gary Gilmore became the first person executed in the United States after a ten-year moratorium on capital punishment in 1977. Witnesses noted there were five bullet wounds in his body instead of the expected four. Anyway, when given the order, the marksman fire and the prisoner’s heart is immediately destroyed.
If Everything Goes Right: Unconsciousness happens either immediately or within seconds due to complete circulatory collapse and blood-loss, with death following quickly thereafter. For planned judicial executions by firing squad, it’s very rare that a second round of shots is required. When John Albert Taylor was executed by firing squad in Utah in 1996, his body braced up after being shot with his hand clinching into a fist, which “slowly” loosened up until his head slumped back and his arm went limp. Sorry to break this to people who say “he was already dead and it was an involuntary movement”, no, he was still alive. Most forms of pain involve some form of involuntary movement. Still, the whole process of “holy shit, my heart just got blown up” and the ensuing pain was over and done with in just a few seconds. I wouldn’t want to experience it, but it’s preferable to the minutes you can spend choking in the gas chamber or even the seconds being strangled by the garotte.
But in Reality: You’re dealing with five human beings of questionable motives. We’ve all played Red Dead Redemption, right? It’s set in 1911, where gunslingers roamed the west more than buffaloes, right? Well, actually in the real world in 1911, the state of Nevada has so much trouble rounding up five non-psychopathic marksman to execute a fellow named Andriza Mircovich that they had to construct a mechanical firing squad device. This idea was so absurd the warden resigned. And honestly, this is one method I would probably decline out of spite. I’m not a fan of gun nuts (as in ones that fetishize gun-ownership, not responsible gun owners), and the idea of giving five of them the satisfaction of doing what they’ve always fantasized about (IE legally killing someone) doesn’t really appeal to me. If I’m being wrongly executed, I want the executioner to have trouble sleeping that night and not jerk themselves off until their cock is bloodied. Given that one of the most old-westy areas of the old west couldn’t round-up five people willing to execute a confessed murderer makes me think the only people who might step-up to shoot me in 2018 would be people who are a bit fucked in the head. Like having five wannabe John Waynes show up with their tiny dicks throbbing. I’d rather be injected with jet fuel. Speaking of which..
#3: Lethal Injection
Procedure: The condemned is strapped to a gurney. Because the Hippocratic Oath requires doctors to pledge to “do no harm”, trained medical technicians (aka EMTs) insert two IVs into the prisoner, one into each arm. The second line is to have a back-up ready in case the first line fails. The IV lines typically run into a room adjacent to the death chamber, where the executioner has two sets of the drugs to be used already prepared in screw-in syringes along with additional syringes full of saline to flush the line between each application (if the drugs mix in the IV, they can solidify). In some states, the lines run to a lethal injection machine (just like the one from Dead Man Walking). A saline drip is started and a saline flush might be administered to assure the lines work and have access to the prisoner’s bloodstream. When the signal is given, what happens next depends on the injection protocol of the jurisdiction.
- Three Drug Protocol: The prisoner is given 2 to 5 grams of sodium thiopental, a saline flush, 100 milligrams of pancuronium bromide, a saline flush, and 100 milliequivalents of potassium chloride, usually within a span of under 150 seconds.
- Single Drug Protocol: The prisoner is given a 5 gram injection of sodium thiopental or pentobarbital. Most states that have adapted the single-drug protocol have a contingency plan in place. If intravenous injection proves impossible due to the lack of vein access, the prisoner can be given a two-drug intramuscular injection of 40 milligrams of midazolam followed by 40 milligrams of hydromorphone. As someone currently in treatment for addiction to hydromorphone (it’s sold under the brand name Dilaudid and was my drug of choice), all I can say is: holy fuck, shooting 40mg of it?
If Everything Goes Right: No matter which protocol is being used, the first drug administered is designed around causing rapid onset of unconsciousness. Sodium thiopental is typically used for the induction of anesthesia for surgery or a medically induced coma. For that, a patient is usually given around 0.35 grams, give or take. For lethal injection, they are given between 2 to 5 grams, so much that this would be considered lethal on its own. This produces unconsciousness within 45 seconds (if 2 grams is used) to 10 seconds (if 5 grams is used). In Texas, a condemned prisoner began to sing Silent Night when the process began. As he reached the line third line of the song (“round yon virgin..”) he fell asleep. So it works really quick, and on its own, would kill you in around ten minutes by stopping you from breathing.
The other two drugs were, more or less, included as a fail-safe. Pancuronium bromide causes paralysis and is used in surgeries to prevent involuntary muscle movement. The dose given in lethal injections is significantly more than for medical use and would leave the prisoner paralyzed for up to eight hours, but it stops the diaphragm and would cause death by suffocation long before that. Finally, potassium chloride is an electrolyte that depolarizes the electric signals of the heart and stops it from beating. If done correctly, a three protocol lethal injection should be over in around 5 to 6 minutes. The single drug protocol takes 10 to 12 minutes before death occurs. The back-up midazolam/hydromorphone combo has been used in Arizona and.. well.. we’ll get to that. But really, this is a pretty good way to go. Quick and painless
But in Reality: Lethal Injection is actually botched nearly as much as electrocutions were. The primary reason is actually not the concept but the, ahem, execution. The person who designed lethal injection was quoted as saying he didn’t think the procedure would be performed by idiots. Often the IVs are inserted the wrong way, or in the wrong locations. Sometimes they’re not in the vein but rather the muscle. Sometimes the IVs get clogged or simply fall out of the prisoner’s arm. Sometimes the technicians have to search for hours looking for a place to insert the needle because the terrified prisoner’s blood vessels have constricted, or maybe they had damaged veins from prior drug use.
And if the first injection doesn’t go right, you’re in for a world of hurt, because the second and third injections feel like you’re pumping burning jet fuel directly into your bloodstream. If you’ve ever gotten an injection of pain-killer (or shot up heroin), you know it causes a burning sensation. Imagine that, multiplied by 100, that doesn’t quickly fade away but rather begins to flow through your entire body. That’s what the second and third lethal injection drugs do. And it gets even worse. If you regain consciousness after the pancuronium bromide (which has NO sedative qualities) is in you, not only will you feel like your blood has been replaced by lava, but you’ll feel yourself suffocating. As if that’s not enough, you’ll be unable to scream or moan or anything, because you’re paralyzed from it. You won’t even be able to open your eyes. To onlookers, it will appear as if everything is going according to the plan. For all we know, this might have happened to a lot of the over-1,200 people we’ve executed by lethal injection since its first usage in 1982. And, while the sedative is considered lethal on its own, it’s also what’s called “ultra-short-acting” and if a person has a sufficient tolerance, as unlikely as it is, it could wear off. It’s designed to wear off.
As for the single-drug method, it hasn’t exactly worked either. Especially the use of midazolam, which has failed, failed, FAILED again and again. Never mind the circumstances of the cases, this is not what proponents of lethal injection are promising us. As for the midazolam/hydromorphone two-drug backup, this was tried on Joseph Wood in Arizona in 2014 and the prison officials ended up having to give him FIFTEEN “lethal” doses over the course of two hours before he finally died. He spent most of that time “gasping, snorting, and gulping like a fish.”
This is NOT justice and it makes us all look like we’re stupid. Lethal Injection is designed to give off the appearance of a peaceful death via a medical procedure. But it’s not fool-proof and the amount of ways it can go wrong is kind of shocking. Even though I’m a relatively tiny person, I’m also a recovering drug abuser that spent over a decade building up a tolerance. My doctor assures me I would die from the initial injection of the sedative, but he couldn’t say with 100% confidence that it would be the serene death people would expect. He did say it was 99.5% likely, which is why I’d take Lethal Injection over all but two methods. But if I’m in the 0.5% fringes, my bad day is going to be a lot worse.
#2: Shooting (aka Single Shot to the Back of the Head)
Procedure: This was the most common method used in China, but has since been replaced by lethal injection. The condemned is led somewhere away from public view, where their arms are bound and they are made to kneel down. The executioner fires a single shot using a pistol (or even a high-caliber rifle.. can I request that one?) at a downward angle into the back of the prisoner’s head or neck from less than two feet away. And then afterwards they bill the family of the deceased for the bullet.
If Everything Goes Right: I’m dead before my body hits the ground. My brain is instantly destroyed. No brain, no consciousness. No consciousness, no me. It’ll happen so fast my ears won’t even have time to process the sound of the shot. This is really the closest thing the death penalty has to flipping a human on-off switch, which even my #1 choice doesn’t offer for reasons I’ll get into.
But in Reality: No, actually, this is a really good way to be judicially killed. The only way you could screw this up is if you want to. People do survive head-shots and even make a full recovery from them. Of course, those people aren’t being deliberately put to death. Presumably if the executioner fires, you slump over, but they still see you breathing, they’re going to fire again. Whether you’re conscious or in pain after the first shot depends on how the first bullet acted. If it blew out your cerebral cortex, you’re dead and the breathing is just the meat you left behind continuing to do its thing because your brainstem is intact. The gun matters. If it’s a low-caliber, it might not cause a lot of damage, but that’s still unlikely given the nearly point-blank distance between the condemned and the shooter. Pain and alertness is tied to your brain, and getting those brains blown out of your head is basically the fastest way to die with fully lost consciousness. I put it #2 because the human factor is still there. That human being me. What if I sneeze or something right before the shot is fired and the person shooting gets me in the shoulder instead? That shit would hurt. And that’s the only reason why it’s #2.
Extra Consideration: In China, if someone botches the single-shot method, they can be court-martialed and possibly face execution themselves. So as I’m being led to my death, I can be as mouthy and snotty as I want and face pretty much no consequence for it. That’s why I’m learning Mandarin. I have tons of “your mother” jokes that I want to spout off before I bite the bullet.
Procedure: The condemned is bound by the hands and feet and placed on a board which is then pulled up to a stock that locks their head and neck into position. A button or lever is activated which releases an angled blade that falls about 8 feet at a high velocity, severing the neck from the body in a fraction of a second.
If Everything Goes Right: The guillotine is the most efficient, painless, no-questions-asked fool-proof method of execution humanity has devised. If the United States wasn’t so squeamish or anti-France, lethal injection would never have been given consideration, because the perfect killing method had already been in use since 1792. The blade works faster than the human body can process any physical sensations. Before pain signals would start to be sent out, you’d already have lost your central nervous system. And even multiple variables such as the size and thickness of the person’s neck or the sharpness of the blade are made irrelevant because the 10lb angled blade being dropped from a height of eight feet at a speed of 20ft per second is going to lop your head off with almost no resistance. The blade itself would need to be so dull that it literally couldn’t cut butter at room temperature in order to fail. So the margin for allowable error is extremely high.
It really shows how full of shit the “humane death” argument for Lethal Injection is. We consider it barbaric or inhumane to use a device that is instant and painless because it takes a person’s head off (a person who we want to kill anyway) and there’s lots of gore involved (as if living people aren’t walking sacks of blood). Besides, would this be a good time to point out that the “capital” part in “capital punishment” literally refers to the person’s head? Shooting a person isn’t taking their head. Injecting them with poison isn’t. Nothing short of decapitation suits the name. We don’t practice capital punishment in America. We practice pussified forced-euthanasia.
But in Reality: No, actually that’s it. Guillotine is the way to go. Especially me. My neck is roughly the size of an ethernet cord. You could probably use a guillotine-shaped cigar cutter on me and it’d work just as well. The one and only quirk that has to be considered is the fact that the guillotine works so fast and so efficiently that your head remains alive for around seven seconds afterwards. That’s not an urban legend. It has to be true. You see, our brains need X amount of time (depending on the person) to fully metabolize the accumulated resources (mostly oxygen) that flow through it. So when the blade drops, yes, you are dead. But not dead-dead, at least for a few seconds. You won’t feel anything because you won’t have a spine and thus won’t have a central nervous system, but still, you’ll be fully aware that you’ve been decapitated. Your eyes will begin to spasm immediately, but if your eyelids remain open and your head falls into the basket sunny-side up, you’ll be able to see the blade that just killed you and maybe even blood draining from your body for about seven seconds, depending on your brain’s metabolism. That doesn’t sound like a long time, until you actually count out seven seconds. Try it yourself. It’s longer than you think. Here you go.
So yea, it’s a lot longer than it sounds like on paper. That’s a significant amount of time to process what just happened and to anticipate the fade to black that’s going to take place. And that’s just at the bare-minimum amount of time. There’s a famous story about a doctor experimenting with a head in 1905, which did seem to respond to having its name called out for a longer duration than seven seconds. The truth is, we don’t know 100% for sure, and because the guillotine does no damage to the brain and works so fast that endorphins that are released by multiple different organs during the process of dying never circulate through it, your head might spend a longer-than-expected intermission between the act of being killed and the act of dying. It might be traumatic, or it might be annoying. But it’s unquestionably painless and fool-proof. That’s why it’s the best way to be killed by the state.
Or we can just skip the killing part and save ourselves some tax dollars. But where’s the fun in that?