Category Archives: Pinball

My Pinball Controllers

As of right now, I don’t own any physical pinball table, not even a tabletop toy. I used to have one in the past, though. A Spider-Man based table I had when I was a teenager that was battery-controlled to run the lamps and scoreboard, and that I owned for a couple of years until I sold it at the yearly open street market of Koninginnedag here in the Netherlands. I don’t recall what I got for it, but looking back, it was far too little regardless of the actual amount. I was an idiot, I should’ve kept it.

When I play pinball these days, it is on my PC or my PS4. It’s not perfect, but with titles like Zen Pinball/Pinball FX, Farpoint’s Pinball Arcade, Zaccaria Pinball, emulators, and a few other titles, I have access to countless titles. Since I don’t have a dedicated pinball controller yet like the awesome MAME-based tables I see on my Twitter feed now and then, I have to control them with more conventional means. In practice, that means a controller or a keyboard, so here’s a listing and loose rating of the controllers I have used so far.

I’ll split this list between keyboards and game controllers, as every single controller is better than every single keyboard when it comes to computer (or console) pinball for the simple reason that controllers have analog sticks, which means you can actually control the plunger with some level of accuracy. Plus, they tend to have a second stick which lets you nudge in more than one direction.

Keyboard types

blue-close-up-computer-computer-keyboard-265631

I can only wish my laptop keyboard still looked as clean as this after years of heavy use…

Laptop keyboard

Just about every laptop keyboard is awful in every aspect. Computer pinball is usually controlled by the shift keys and space bar, and on a laptop keyboard, you have three major issues when it comes to playing computer pinball on them:
#1 They tend to be really small, all the keys are cramped in a tiny space.
#2 Since laptops are tiny, keys can be shifted around and other keys added. As a result, often the shift keys are not where they are supposed to be, and the space bar will be too small.
#3 Cheaper laptops even use membranes or chicklet keys. Membranes are impossible to use for pinball as they can have trouble registering even two keypresses, like both flippers, and chicklets just don’t feel good to use. The Apple magic keyboard is an infamous example of a chicklet keyboard that only die-hard followers of the Cult of Cupertino can love.

Standard keyboard

Dome-switch keyboards, scissor-switch keyboards, capacitive keyboards and the like. I’ll group them all together, as there is really no big difference between how they can be used to play pinball. As long as each key is registered individually and the shift keys and space bar can be easily hit, these work fine for computer pinball.

Mechanical keyboard

Now we’re talking. Mechanical keyboards have that satisfying feeling when you depress keys and are often made for either typists or gamers. Low latency, clearly registered keypresses, and you have a fine pinball controller.

Other keyboards

What about an on-screen keyboard, or a projection keyboard, I hear nobody ask? You have to be kidding.

Of course, there are better options than keyboards, which brings us to:

Game controllers

black-blur-close-up-control-539986

Opinions differ, but I just think these controllers look cool. Plus they work beautifully.

Generic game controller with analog stick

In the days before Windows Vista, these were ever-present. You still see them occasionally, although less so on modern PCs as very few of them were USB connected. Here, I’ll limit it to controllers with at least two shoulder buttons and an analog stick. The immediate advantage over keyboards is that analog stick: you can adjust the plunger just as you would in real life! I’ve ranked this generic entry last since, on modern PCs, you want a modern controller.

Xbox360 Controller

For many years the standard PC controller, and with good reason. While the D-pad is absolute garbage, and if you disagree I challenge you to actually play a game that uses the D-pad for navigation, both shoulder buttons and the left analog stick feel great to hold. With this type of controller you can do everything you need to in a pinball game: plunge to shoot the ball with as much force as you want, have two or even four dedicated flipper buttons, a second analog stick to simulate nudging in up to three directions (if the game supports it), and enough face buttons to map whatever you need to. Even magna-save for those unfortunate tables that depend on having a dedicated magna-save button.

Dualshock 3

Mainly limited to the PlayStation 3, although it can also be used on a Playstation TV if you are one of the 9 other people who own one. Not that there are many worthwhile pinball titles on the Vita or PSP to use it, but I digress.
What makes the DS3 better than an Xbox360 controller is the way the controller fits in your hands. I always find holding an Xb360 controller awkward, and it’s a hassle to use my index fingers on the triggers (flippers). This is not the case with a DS3, where my hands find the right buttons perfectly. Combine it with a perfect analog stick and you have a very satisfying controller for console pinball. The one downside is that it is badly supported for PC.

Good luck finding a legit one these days, though. In the past five years all the DS3s I bought turned out to be fake and these never play quite as well as my originals.

Steam controller

A recent addition to my gaming setup, and unfortunately, it has been cancelled. I picked mine up for almost free in the December 2019 Steam sale and ten minutes later they were sold out forever.
Apart from being delisted, it’s also one of the strangest controllers you’ll ever see. It has only one analog stick, but to compensate for that it has two large capacitive circles. On the shoulders, it has the two you expect, but it also has two extra ones on the back. Looking quite similar to the strange add-on Sony announced for their Dualshock 4s, come to think of it. I guess I know where they got that idea from.

The moment I got it, I retired my old Xbox360 controller, since the Steam controller is extremely versatile and every button including the capacitive circles can be remapped. With some pinball games not using normal controls but insisting on space alien setups, the Steam controller is a godsend since you can just remap them to make it work normally. And while the analog stick is small, it is very responsive and allows me to make better adjustments with plunging than both the XB360 and DS3 ever could. In that aspect, it’s even better than the DS4, so it has become my main pinball controller on PC.

Dualshock 4

How do you make a good controller better? By making it slightly bigger, apparently. Sure, the DS4 also has a lightbar and a touchpad, but no pinball game on the PS4 actually uses these. And you don’t need them, since the flippers and analog sticks are just perfect. Fine control over a plunger, responsive flippers, the only way it could be better was if the analog stick had even better control.

Horipad FPS Plus

O hi there, Dualshock 4 with a better analog stick! The Horipad FPS Plus is my current main pinball controller for one reason: it has a little slider at the bottom and a small nub at the back which work together to limit how much range the right analog stick can travel: either half or quarter. This is incredibly overpowered since in a lot of tables in Pinball Arcade you can make a skill shot 100% of the time by setting it to the halfway point, and then just pull fully back. The analog stick is also very easy to adjust just a little bit, feeling even better than a default one, so making skill shots is easier than ever. On top of that, the L1/R1 shoulders are digital, not analog, so they register full force immediately. This is perfect for a pinball simulator since on a real table you just slam the buttons and the flippers move. One last feature this controller has that is relevant to pinball control is that it has a turbo feature, which comes in handy on tables like Fish Tales where some video modes are brainless button mashers. Just set the X button on autofire until you win the mode, and get back to actually playing.

PSP / Playstation Vita

Included for completion sake only. On the dedicated handhelds, you can’t normally use a separate controller, so the console itself is the controller. Well, to keep it short, I am not a fan of the triggers on either the PSP or PS Vita, and when it comes to playing in vertical (or tate, たて) mode, things get worse. You’re forced to use the tiny face buttons instead, which means you’re probably holding the console in a cramped claw until your fingers give out.

male-hand-claw

What my hand usually looks like after trying to hold a tiny handheld console sideways for any length of time.

The PS Vita has a tiny advantage here – but only when it comes to PSP games – since you can optionally assign two corners of the screen to button presses, but it’s still not something I can ever recommend.

The 12K Club

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.

Zen Studios could make a fortune if they port Addams Family to Pinball FX3, and then have their designers make an original sequel to it.

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.

20,000 Units

#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)

19,000 Units

#3: Flash (19,505 Units, 1979, Steve Ritchie for Williams)

18,000 Units

#4: Playboy (18,250 Units, 1978, Jim Patla for Bally)

17,000 Units

#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)

16,000 Units

#8: Star Trek (16,842 Units, 1979, Gary Gayton for Bally)
#9: Mata Hari (16,260 Units, 1978, Jim Patla for Bally)

15,000 Units

#10: Twilight Zone (15,235 Units, 1993, Pat Lawlor for Midway)
#11: Terminator 2: Judgement Day (15,202 Units, 1991, Steve Ritchie for Midway)

14,000 Units

#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)

13,000 Units

#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)

12,000 Units

#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!

Star Wars Pinball (Pinball FX3/Nintendo Switch Review & Table Rankings)

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.

“So Father, let me get this straight.. you figured out that I was your son when I was in a completely different ship from you and firing on the Death Star, but you didn’t realize Leia was your daughter when she was standing right next to you?” “Yea? Well you have the Force too and you didn’t realize she was your sister when you kissed her.” “Hah, shows what you know because I totally did and I’m totally into that!”

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.

One of the only things that’s on my wish list for Star Wars Pinball is an option to practice just the mini-games. Maybe that would nerf the challenge, but I think it would make it better since some of the games are kind of confusing and you have to take your eyes off the table, with limited time, to read the instructions. Give us practice, Zen! We’re talking ’bout practice, man!

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.

There are built-in table guides, and there’s also special challenge modes that are based around honing your skills.

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.

Some of the mini-tables are honestly more fun than most of the indie games I review.

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
Masterpieces: 3
Great: 3
Good: 8
Bad: 2
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.

The Pits

#19: Han Solo
Speed: Below Average
Difficulty: Above Average
Modes: Below Average
Link to Guide

Han Shat First.

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
Modes: Average
Link to Guide

The still image of Jyn Erso has more charisma than the real Felicity Jones. She’s only twenty-two months away from setting that world record for longest time a human being has gone without expressing a single basic emotion. Fingers crossed for you, girl! You got this!

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.

#17: Solo
Speed: Below Average
Difficulty: Above Average
Modes: Below Average
Link to Guide

I’m not sure if this table was made by the team of Lord & Miller or Ron Howard.

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.

The Bad

#16: Boba Fett
Speed: Above Average
Difficulty: Above Average
Modes: Average
Link to Guide

Boba Fett, patron saint of failures everywhere, got his own table. Like his real fictional counterpart, his table looks awesome but is ultimately kind of useless.

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

Based on tables like High Speed and Haunted House, which are great tables on their own. Mixed together, it’s a freakshow.

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.

The Good

#14: Calrissian Chronicles
Speed: Average
Difficulty: Above Average
Modes: Below Average
Link to Guide

Yes, the prequels are stupid, but look on the bright side: George Lucas never wrote a scene where it’s revealed Mace Windu was Lando’s father. Lucas apparently only knows two black people in the entire world and thinks that Red Tails was the first action movie starring African Americans. You KNOW he at least thought about writing that scene. You know, the one where it’s revealed Obi-Wan knows that Mace fathered a child out a wedlock named Lando and so Anakin having kids with Padme isn’t totally unprecedented.

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.

#13: Droids
Speed: Below Average
Difficulty: Average
Modes: Below Average
Link to Guide

Remove the Star Wars theme and you could easily base this on the mythological Kraken with the mess of ramps that look like tentacles.

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
Modes: Average
Link to Guide

I hate to say it, but this table feels gimmicky. A straight table would have been preferable to this roundabout stuff.

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.

A New Hope also has a problem with transitions between mini-fields and the main table. There needs to be SOME warning.

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

Strangely, the plunger is on the left side of the board when you play as the Empire, which resulted in me flicking the left analog stick. I did this nearly every new ball. My brain just couldn’t comprehend that it was still the right stick that controlled the damn thing.

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
Difficulty: Average
Modes: Below Average
Link to Guide

Why on Earth did Disney allow them to name the place “Anch-To Island”? Did Michael Arndt sneeze during his pitch meeting to J.J. Abrams and was too embarrassed to admit it, so he just ran with it? “And then finally the movie ends with Rey finding Luke on.. on.. AAAAAANNNNCCCCCHHHHHHH-TOOOOOOOOOO.. uh.. Island. Ahch-To Island! Yep. And then wipe to the credits! While I wipe my nose!”

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
Speed: Average
Difficulty: Average
Modes: Average
Link to Guide

The only truly GREAT Star Wars movie is just alright in Star Wars Pinball.

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

If the broken auto-launcher gets fixed, you can bump this table up a spot or two. I’d be fine with that.

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
Speed: Average
Difficulty: Above Average
Modes: Average
Link to Guide

Worth mentioning: right before starting the write-up for the Masters of the Force table, I set the world record on it for Switch. After joking about all the records I was setting before the game came out, it was nice to finally become a world champion on one table, even if that has no chance of lasting past this week.

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.

Of the 19 tables, as of this writing a week after Star Wars Pinball’s release, this is the lowest global high score on Switch for any of them. STILL COUNTS, FUCKERS! I am the World Champion of this table. Suck it!

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.

The Great

#6: The Last Jedi
Speed: Above Average
Difficulty: Below Average
Modes: Average
Link to Guide

This is literally the only good thing to ever come out of Last Jedi.

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
Speed: Average
Difficulty: Average
Modes: Average
Link to Guide

Eh, better than Porgs.

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.

I honestly would have welcomed a round of Oh…Sir! over this.

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.

#4: Rebels
Speed: Above Average
Difficulty: Above Average
Modes: Above Average
Link to Guide

It’s amazing how both Clone Wars and Rebels, two shows I wanted to like but couldn’t, ended up inspiring two of the best tables in the entire collection.

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.

The Masterpieces

#3: Battle of Mimban
Speed: Below Average
Difficulty: Above Average
Modes: Average
Link to Guide

I wish this was a little brighter. I might have been better at it.

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

This is where the fun begins.

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
Difficulty: Average
Modes: Above Average
Link to Guide

I have to point out that the voice actor for Darth Vader in Star Wars Pinball sounds nothing like James Earl Jones. It sounds like literally every single father in America’s impression of Darth Vader. The one he does that embarrasses you in front of your friends.

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.

Williams Pinball: Universal Monsters Pack (Pinball FX 3 Review)

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.

Yes, yes, the hologram is there and works like a hypothetical working table would. I’m convinced it’s the sole reason the table is “legendary” because the gameplay is just alright.

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.

It’s worth noting that Creature from the Black Lagoon is hardly alone in being a white elephant. I can’t stress enough to people who’ve imagined owning a real pinball machine of their own: unless you’re truly passionate about it, don’t do it. Stick to recreations. Go to Craigslist and look at all the non-professional dealers selling their tables. They were you once.

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.

Monster Bash is a truly fun, thrilling table and a great way to introduce players to stacking modes. It’s a table that feels like a last-hurrah for the golden age of solid-state pinball.

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!

Pinball FX 3: Universal Monsters Pack was developed by Zen Studios
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Steam

$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.

Table Index

Williams Pinball: Universal Monsters Pack (Pinball FX 3)
Total Tables: 2
The Pits: 0
Bad: 0
Good: 1 (Creature from the Black Lagoon)
Great: 0
Masterpiece: 1 (Monster Bash)
Total Quality Tables: 2
Price per Quality Table: $4.99

 

Williams Pinball Volume 5 (Pinball FX 3 Review)

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!

You ain’t never had a fiend like me. Yes, fiend, because I’ll steal more balls than Ralph’s Discount Pet Neutering.

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?

It needs to be said: No Good Gofers is Pat Lawlor’s ugliest table. It lacks the intimidating beauty of his other work.

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!

Pinball FX 3: Williams Pinball Volume 5 was developed by Zen Studios
Point of Sale: Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Steam

$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
Great: 2
Good: 1
Total Quality Tables: 3
Price per Quality Table: $3.33

The Good

#3: Tales of the Arabian Nights
Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 5
Designed by John Popadiuk, 1996
Speed: Average
Difficulty: Above Average
Modes: Above Average

Every single primary angle has a high degree of risk. There’s not a lot of tables that can say that.

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.

Great

#2: Cirqus Voltaire
Featured in Williams Pinball: Volume 5
Designed by John Popadiuk, 1997
Speed: Below Average
Difficulty: Above Average
Modes: Average

“Let’s give the most expensive table ever a generic circus theme. And we’ll have the bonus points be themed like judges giving scores like in the Olympics, because we don’t know what a circus is. CAN YOU BELIEVE THE PINBALL DIVISION IS LOSING MILLIONS FOR MIDWAY?”

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.

I have to believe Cirqus Voltaire originally started life under a different theme. My Dad said he heard it was originally going to be themed around the 1996 Olympics and the Ringmaster would be Izzy, the Atlanta Games mascot. But, I couldn’t find a single thing on that on Google. All I know is the Ringmaster toy IS memorable, but still somehow generic. How is that even possible?

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
Modes: Average

Why not just spring for the Caddyshack license? It couldn’t have cost THAT much by 1997?

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.