Version tested: Xbox 360
With Zen Studios' Pinball FX 2 still dominating Xbox Live Arcade, it takes a bold developer to step into the arena with another - superficially similar - offering. Yet that's exactly what FarSight Studios has done with The Pinball Arcade, a pinball simulation platform that offers four tables in its basic form, with two more to be added as downloadable add-ons each month.
Both games use pretty much the same control scheme, and FarSight also uses similar systems - such as the countdown after pausing - to ensure the flow of the game isn't impacted by its digital form. The crucial point of difference comes in content - and it's here that FarSight has managed to create a title that complements, rather than competes with, its hugely successful rival.
Unlike the increasingly dazzling tables on offer in Pinball FX, where reality can be put on hold to allow characters to roam the tables and balls to be set alight, Pinball Arcade is pitched at the pinball purist, with painstakingly accurate recreations of the most popular real-life tables from the most prolific manufacturers. So we get Stern's Ripley's Believe it or Not from 2004, the 1996 Tales of the Arabian Nights table from Williams and Bally's Theatre of Magic from 1995. The outlier is Gottlieb's seminal Black Hole table, which dates from 1981.
It's a carefully curated selection, designed to showcase some of the best-loved tables from the heyday of the pinball industry, and brief introductory text notes help newcomers understand why the work of designers such as Pat Lawlor (Ripley's) and John Popadiuk (Arabian Nights and Theatre) is held in such high esteem by fans.
Those newcomers will likely have the most fun with Theatre of Magic, which continually reveals new features like a magician tugging coloured scarves from his sleeve. It's also the table that is most generous with points, casually tossing tens of millions up on the simulated LED display for seemingly minor loops and ramps. Like all the best tables, however, there's an airtight system at work beneath the razzle-dazzle and bombast, and Theatre's clarity of intent makes it easy to feel your way to a higher score, your understanding of the various modes growing organically with each play.
That's also true of Tales of the Arabian Nights, which shares Theatre's love of grand sweeping ramps and multiple hidey-holes where balls can be shuffled out of play and regurgitated elsewhere. If all you want to do is whack the things around and see how long you can keep it in play, that's fine. You'll have a great time and rack up decent scores. For those who want to delve deeper, the scoring opportunities are fiendishly clever, an interlocking web of requirements that demand forward planning and pinpoint accuracy from the player in order to cruise into the nine-figure scores.
Ripley's is the table for multiball fanatics, as you follow the instructions of a shrunken head ("De temple door is open, mon") as you travel the continents looking for the weird and bizarre. This is certainly the busiest table in the selection, often looking more like a fruit machine with its shrieks, squawks, klaxons and cascades of flashing icons. Multiballs are easy to earn, with an emphasis on early scoring to keep casual players hooked. That Pinball Arcade also includes step-by-step explanations of every feature on every table only makes it more appealing.
It's only Black Hole that stands out as a less successful addition. Not only is it at least 15 years older than the other tables, it plays completely differently. With virtually no table furniture and few special features, it puts the emphasis on the long game. Its greatest innovation - and no doubt the reason it's included here - is an inverted secondary table underneath the main floor. Points scored down here are banked and only cashed in once you lose a ball. Upping the multiplier and taking frequent trips into this under-zone are the secrets to cracking this tough and unforgiving table.
It's not that Black Hole is a bad table, but much like including Donkey Kong in a compilation of 1990s arcade games, it's an awkward fit with the other three, given their higher level of polish and crowd-pleasing accessibility. There's value in seeing Black Hole as a history lesson, but it may have worked better as part of a vintage-themed DLC pack in the future. Even with that minor criticism, this is an undeniably strong line-up to start with and there are hours of pleasure to be found on all four tables.
The Pinball Arcade gets the important stuff right, but lets itself down slightly by failing to apply that same attention to detail across the whole experience. With a stark front end and plain menus, this is a bland compilation that betrays its low-budget roots. The snippets of history - including an original flyer for each table - are a nice touch but feel like a half measure. If celebrating the pinball genre is the goal, something a little more lively and interactive would do more to encourage novice pinball fans to learn more about the hobby. Certainly, there's nothing in the menus that aficionados won't already know.
The package also does a poor job of recreating the community spirit that surrounds pinball. Local four-player and online leaderboards are the closest it comes to capturing the high score wars that form a key element of pinball fandom, and it's the only area where FarSight's effort feels noticeably inferior to Zen's Pinball FX, with its Superscore metagame and multiple social features designed to keep rivalries simmering. Against such shrewd use of the always-connected online world, Pinball Arcade can't help but feel a little old-fashioned and sterile.
It's hard to dwell on missed opportunities when a game gets the core gameplay so right, though. The emulation is superb, the physics are spot on and the prospect of more tables to come is downright tantalising. Between this and Pinball FX, flipper fans now have the best of both worlds.
8 / 10