I may live in the midwest now, but as a child I grew up in Louisiana. And before I had ever even laid eyes on a NES, I was already a pinball fan. Down in Louisiana, there was (and still is, in fact) this pizza place that my Dad and I frequented, and one thing that pizza place always had was a pinball machine (and a Final Fight machine, hence my near-fanatic love for Final Fight). I can't remember which ones exactly, as they always had a rotating selection, but I do know that I always had a blast playing them. Perhaps noticing my love of pinball, my Dad bought me a few of those miniature pinball tables over the years. You know, the little battery-operated ones that didn't have much but a few bumpers and a single set of flippers. We even had a really old full-size pinball machine in the shed in the front yard. It was pretty busted up though, and I never did get a chance to check it out fully. But to put it simply, pinball was a huge part of my childhood, and growing up through the various console generations I never lost my love for it. No matter how advanced technology got, and how much I loved video games, there was always a special place in my gaming heart for pinball.
Over the years, pinball's presence has gradually faded, to the point where there's now only one company left in operation that makes pinball tables (Stern Pinball, formerly Sega Pinball). But pinball's legacy has lived on in video games. Since the beginning, there have been pinball simulations for home consoles and handhelds. Some good (Metroid Prime Pinball, Pinball of the Dead, the "Crush" series for the TG-16), some not so good (Austin Powers Pinball, Power Rangers Zeo Full Tilt Battle Pinball). And now comes Crave and FarSight Studios' latest compilation of classic pinball tables, Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection. Their first collection, Pinball HoF: The Gottleib Collection, was received generally lukewarmly, mainly due to being buggy and having a somewhat poor selection of tables (but to be fair to FarSight, did Gottleib really make all that many memorable tables?). This time around, it seems that FarSight attempted to address some of the biggest problems of the first collection. And if I do say so myself, they've succeeded and then some.
Pinball HoF: The Williams Collection gives you a selection of eight tables right from the get-go, nothing to unlock, no hoops to jump through. While this is two less than the ten tables that the PSP and Wii versions offer, I doubt you'll miss those versions' exclusive tables (Jive Time and Sorcerer) all that much, given the quality of the tables present here. Taxi, Pinbot, Whirlwind, Black Knight, Firepower, Space Shuttle, Gorgar, and Funhouse are the tables you'll be playing. And believe me, if you're as much of a pinball fan as I am, you'll be playing them all. A lot. See, you start the game with 30 virtual "credits". Some of the machines are set to Free Play right from the start, but some cost credits to play. You can earn more credits though, by completing specific goals while playing.
Very much akin to the Xbox 360's Achievements, the goals in Pinball HoF reward you with credits for completing specific tasks, such as triggering a certain event or scoring a certain amount of points. And once you have 100 credits, you can buy Free Play for one of the tables that doesn't already have it. So there's plenty of incentive to keep playing aside from just getting high scores. Trying to get the final goal in Gorgar, arguably the weakest table out of the eight, kept me playing it for quite some time. And after you complete a table's goals, you get to choose a table to unlock for Free Play, as well as a second, even more challenging set of goals to complete. There's also the option to play tournaments with up to four players, where you can compete to see who can score the highest, and the Williams Challenge. This mode tasks you with progressing through a series of tables and meeting a specific score to move on to the next one. It's a very interesting and fun addition to the game.
On the presentation side of things, I don't think FarSight could have done any better had they tried. The machines are all spot-on, from Whirlwind's spinners to Gorgar's creepy voice, everything looks and sounds exactly as it should. You won't have any trouble seeing the beautifully re-created tables, either, as the game's camera system keeps track of your ball flawlessly. There's multiple camera views to select from, but really, I've found no reason to use anything but the default. It just works so well. You can even see reflections in the glass of the tables (though this can be turned off if it annoys you). The game controls pretty much perfectly as well, using the L1 and R1 buttons as the flippers, the right analog stick to pull back the plunger, and the left analog stick to bump the table. The only real complaint I have with the presentation (and in fact, basically the only complaint I have with the game at all), is the sound of the ball rolling across the table. When the ball is rolling, it seems like the same exact sound is looped continuously, no matter in what manner the ball is rolling. Maybe I'm just being way too picky here, but a ball shouldn't make the same sound when it's rolling across metal rails as it does when it's rolling across wood.
The game's soundtrack really deserves special mention, however. While no music plays while you're actually playing a table (unless you change this in the options), during the time that you're browsing around the game's virtual arcade deciding which machine to play, you'll hear lots of instrumental metal and rock, complete with an 80's style DJ telling you the name and composer of the track. Perhaps it's just because I'm a HUGE fan of instrumental rock and metal, but I absolutely love the music in this game. It's all very well composed, and I'd honestly buy the soundtrack, on the amazingly unlikely chance that one were ever released. You can even select which tracks you want to hear while you play. You probably won't believe me until you hear it for yourself, but some of this music is Guilty Gear/Lords of Thunder-level awesome. I've never heard of any of the artists who composed Pinball HoF's soundtrack, but if there's any justice in the world, each and every one of them will get some sort of recording contract. They're WAY too talented to be confined to making music for budget-priced pinball compilations (even if they ARE really, really great budget-priced pinball compilations).
The table selection also really shines. Even the weakest of the tables are loads of fun to play. While sadly some of Williams most classic tables didn't make the cut due to obvious licensing reasons, such as Addams Family and Twilight Zone, the tables present are all great. The virtual arcade they're all housed in is nice as well. It really makes you feel like you're in an arcade straight out of the late 80's/early 90's. There's even other people in the arcade, endlessly plugging away at various games. Six of the eight machines are housed on the ground floor of the arcade, and Firepower and Black Knight are upstairs. It does feel kind of silly from a practical standpoint to have to select "Upstairs" just to access two tables, but just having an upstairs lends to the authentic feel of the arcade. Plus there's no loading between traversing the floors of the arcade, so it's not much of a problem.
I really could go on and on about this game. I love pinball, and this game is easily the most perfect pinball simulation ever released. I really have to commend FarSight here. They could have easily just phoned this one in and said "here's some pinball tables, play them". But they didn't. The "credits" system, the goals, and the additional game modes prove that FarSight really do have a passion for pinball, and went above and beyond what anyone could have expected from them. This playtest is for the PS2 version of the game, but if you have a Wii or PSP, you should also check this game out. What's more, you'll be getting two extra tables if you get either of those versions. But for PS2 owners, Pinball HoF is still a great investment if you're a pinball fanatic (it's also the cheapest of the three versions as well). If you love pinball, you'll love this. That's about all there is to it.
And now if you don't mind, I'm going to editorialize a bit here. As I said before, with the ever-rising popularity of video games, pinball has faded from the public consciousness. Sure, a lot of gamers my age and older have fond memories of playing pinball machines as kids. But what about younger gamers? It pains me to think that a lot of gamers and future gamers growing up now will never know the sheer joy that a good pinball table can bring. Pinball was the precursor to modern video games, and it really is a special part of my (and many others) childhood memories. So if any of you have kids that play video games, or younger brothers, sisters, cousins, whatever, introduce them to pinball. Buy this game, buy ANY pinball game, or even better take them somewhere that has a real pinball table. It's up to us, as the last real generation of pinball fans, to assure that pinball doesn't merely fade away. Maybe I'm preaching here a bit, and I don't mean to go on a "kids these days" rant, but I really do believe that if more gamers are exposed to pinball, perhaps it can live on just a little bit longer. Now fetch me my hat and cane. I've gotta yell at some kids to get off my front lawn.
Images courtesy of Crave.