When I was a kid, I used to hang around the local arcades an awful lot, and pinball was what the men played. The machines were fascinating, but unapproachable for an eight-year-old: too big and constantly surrounded by chain-smoking malcontents. Every so often there would be the scary shunt noise, great big bangs snapping you out of a virtual reverie. Sometimes there'd be no-one around, though, and then I'd stare at the flashing lights and gaudy art, wondering if I should put one of my precious 20ps in. But Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles always won out.
So the first pinball game I ever played was Sonic Spinball and, though I've obviously been on real machines since, pinball has always been a video game for me - and as I became fascinated by its history and heritage, ironically enough, even more so. But while titles like Pinball Hall of Fame: Williams Collection encapsulate this, there's also a purely virtual strain of pinball games that do things that couldn't be done with a physical machine. And Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back is one of the best, probably the best, I've ever played. Not just that, it also manages to capture everything I love about Star Wars better than any other game has in years.
Star Wars is a cultural touch point that's become an all-encompassing children's brand, and along the way alienated grumpy sods like me who think the original trilogy is where it begins and ends. If you're nodding in agreement, this is an essential purchase. The Empire Strikes Back table is a brilliant distillation of Star Wars' finest moment, absolutely jammed with voice samples and table mechanics that evoke the movie, its scoring system both intricate and deeply bound to the aesthetics.
It couldn't be better; each game begins with the Imperial March playing as Darth Vader stares down the player, before he steps onto an elevator in the table and disappears. Hit up the 'Vader' target five times and he'll come out and have a fight with you, using the Force to destroy your... erm... balls. There's even a first-person sequence where you fight him, calling to mind that other great fixture of old arcades.
But Vader's only one part of the table, and really a sub-mission. The main aim is to play through six scenes from the film, ranging from Luke getting his lightsaber to the battle against AT-AT walkers. The latter goes down as my favourite ever moment in video game pinball; the table has several winding rails that loop the ball around, and when the AT-ATs come out you have to circle their legs using these to bring 'em down. Brilliant. Just brilliant.
These scenes may be the most obvious visual highlights, but they're embedded in a table that also has the purest kind of score-chasing mechanics, themselves tied into a huge number of audiovisual movie cues. Most licensed games feel like a bog-standard game with a skin, and Star Wars titles are especially guilty of this; it seems ludicrous to say it about a pinball table, but this feels inextricable from the universe, its elements combining into something truly evocative.
The table's part of the Zen Pinball Android and iOS app, and has also recently been released solo as Star Wars Pinball - it's a £1.49 in-app purchase in the former, and the latter costs the same. I'd plump for Zen Pinball, because there are about 20 other tables available (the Marvel ones are surprisingly good, while the Boba Fett one is a disappointment despite featuring the Sarlaac). It's also available as DLC for Zen Pinball 2 on PS3, Vita and Mac, and for Pinball FX 2 on Xbox 360 and Windows 8.
If you're any kind of fan, give this a chance; one pinball table may seem like such a small thing but, for my money, the next Star Wars game as good as this is far, far away.
9 / 10