Digital Pinball

Digital Pinball
Game Name: Digital Pinball
Media: 1 CD-ROM
Publisher(s): SEGA
Developer(s): Kaze
Genre(s): Pinball
Release Date: 1995
Serial Number: MK81680-50
Region: PAL

Digital Pinball Sega Saturn Opening ScreenVideo games based around pinball hold a strange attraction to me – they’re form a genre that attracts much criticism and has done so since its inception.
I listen to all the arguments and know it isn’t right to like these games, but I find them entertaining.

My first experience with a game of this type was Video Pinball on the Atari 2600, it’s a primitive affair (it was even then) but I and many others found it entertaining. The secret of its success is that it didn’t try too hard to emulate pinball – indeed such a feat would have been impossible on the humble 2600.

It is my opinion that this very weakness – the inability to emulate “proper” pinball – was turned into a strength.
It is an original video game that shares some of pinball’s gameplay but doesn’t rely on advanced physics, the subtlety of control, or the richness of features and hidden bonuses as found in real pinball. It was a game designed around the limitations of the host hardware and was all the better for it.

I believe that pinball games produced today are not as successful as they could be because the hardware has reached a point were accurate emulation is possible. You only have to look at the “Pro Pinball” series that appear on the PS1 and later to see that. Modern pinball games still have 2 problems though.

Digital Pinball Sega Saturn ScreenshotThe first is control – and I don’t know if that one will ever be overcome. Gottleib classics for the Wii goes some way to redress the situation with its rather nice implementation of table nudging using the remote and nunchuck, but I suspect it will take a custom controller to recreate the full pinball experience.

The other problem is visibility. Pinball tables can now be represented very accurately. The aforementioned Wii game has beautiful recreations of the tables, and not being a 360 or PS3 owner, I can only imagine how crystal clear the tables are on those versions of that game with an HDTV and HDMI connection, but no matter how clear the display you are not going to be able to see everything.

Pinball tables have loads of interesting structures at the far end, and unless you are going to invest into something like a full PinMAME implementation you are not going to see that. Modern games mess about with selectable cameras that follow the ball and while its workable it isn’t a total success.

On one hand , not seing the whole table at once reduces the level of skill – at least for those mortals among us who can’t judge the destination of the ball from a cropped view of the table. On the other hand, a full view reduces the view of the top of the table where there is lots of action to see. It’s a compromise and the gameplay suffers – increasing the level of luck required to do well resulting in an experience that leaves the player unsatisfied.

Digital Pinball Screen ShotDigital Pinball is a successful pinball game because, much like its venerable ancestor on the 2600, it has been designed around the limitations of the hardware. These are not real tables (although they look like they could be real). They have been designed in such a way that you can see everything you need to see from a full table view. This means that they are simpler in structure and layout, but they still have lots of features and shots to go for. There are very clear visual clues that leave the player in no doubt what to do next. A description of what to do next appears in a very clear on-screen box ,like a speech bubble in comics, complete with an arrow pointing to the relevant ramp or target on the table. This makes the game very approachable – so approachable in fact that my wife, who normally only plays some puzzle games, even went through a phase of playing this game.

The price for this are simpler tables and I suppose hardcore fans of the genre may think it over simplistic – especially when the aims of the game are so obviously pointed out to you – but the tables on offer are attractive and have plenty of different bonuses to go for.

Digital Pinball GameplayDigital Pinball gives us 4 tables to play on – all with a warrior theme (gladiator, knight etc.). Because of the engine used to deliver these tables they sometimes can feel a bit “samey” – even though their themes and graphical schemes are quite different. Some bonuses are common across all tables, but there are plenty of table specific ones too. The tables have enough variety to make them feel different and they seem to vary in difficulty too. I quickly mastered the 1st gladiator themed table which still remains enjoyable , but the others put up a stiffer challenge. All of the games are pretty well featured, with bonus balls, multiball mode, the notion of “rounds” etc. although it supports only up to 2 players. There is a well presented on-screen instruction manual too and one high score is kept for each table.

Sound is lively – the music and voice samples are a bit cheesy but then that’s to be expected with this type of game.

The ball movement is pretty convincing and control is workable giving you control over flippers and table nudge with the Saturn pad – though ball launch is just reduced to a button press so there’s no scope for skill shots from the plunger.

What is important is that the game makes you feel in control – there is still the element of luck – but you will get better with practice and it is a satisfying game.

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