Video pinball is a genre that doesn’t have all that many actually good entries. For every decent one you have a handful of awful games, and the reasons vary between bad field design to awful physics. Often both. Some of them aim to emulate the real pinball games to meticulous degree, while some take more freedom to explore what is impossible to do with a physical steel ball, even thou what some of the pinball makers have been able to achieve is nothing short of amazing. For example, Gottlieb’s Black Hole managed to create two-field layout back in the day and was the priciest pinball machine when it came out, and the machine demands high amount of maintenance if Internet is to be believed. Then you have the likes of Bally’s Elektra with three fields, which is one of my personal favourites with its awesome subdued colours and atmosphere. To think a ‘simple’ thing like a pinball table is able to create a very moody atmosphere. Of course, who could forget the Orbitor 1 with its wildly behaving ball and breaks the damn laws of physics just for the fun of it. All these broke some levels of limitations what a pinball machine can do, and I am committing some sort of crime against humanity by not mentioning numerous, more important machines.
Things that video pinball can never replicate are things like the sound of the machine and the sounds while playing a pinball machine on-site, the illustrations on the backglass and the feeling of holding the sides of the machine in your hands, feeling the buttons just touching your fingertips. This is arcade at its best, and there’s nothing that can replace that. While pinballs have changed very little, there has been some video pinballs in arcades as well, where the table screen basically emulates an existing real pinball machine’s layout. While it’s nice to have a selection of tables in one machine, digital version of a real machine never can stand up to the challenge. A screen just won’t cut if it if the game hasn’t been designed for it. A lot of video pinball games suck ass as they try to emulate the real angle of the machines, but rarely that works, as you can weave back and forth, up and down with the real machine. A screen doesn’t allow you to do that.
I love pinball machines and I have a huge bias in their favour, even thou I am rather bad at them. That can be faulted due to the lack of proper machines in my home town, but there’s a nice collection of few machines near my current whereabouts. For that exact reason I have tried variety of video pinball games, and one of the NES games I used to play to death was Nintendo’s own Pinball. I agree with a lot of people that NAXAT Soft’s pinball games are the prime examples how a video pinball should be done, especially with Devil’s Crash/ MD, which not only has excellent physics and field designs, but one of most rocking main theme out there.
The edge video pinball has over the real machines is how approachable they are. It’s not just about the coins you’d lose into the real money as you try to figure what the hell is going on, but also the fact that you can get all comfortable in your favourite position and just play the game at your own pace without any worries or outside pressure. As such, it’s not too common for people who can’t get into pinball in the arcades may find the likes of Pokémon Pinball enjoyable.
Jupiter is a company that has handled a lot of different Nintendo games and were the ones to develop the Game Boy Camera. They are perhaps the most known for their Pokémon Pinball games.
I can’t really become to imagine who came up with making a Pokémon pinball game. Then again, everything can be turned into a pinball game so there. Describing the gameplay would be slightly redundant as everybody and their mother know the basics of pinball, but the Pokémon aspect give it a twist; by hitting certain pointers the player can enter either Catching mode or Evolving move, where they catch and evolve their Pokémon. Kinda obvious, but both of these play pinball’s strengths in where and how this is accomplished. In the Catching mode the ball needs to hit the bumpers six times to reveal the Pokémon, which the requires numbers of hits in order to be caught. Evolving mode requires the player to hit point markers to reveal EXP or Evolution stones, which need to be collected in order to either get big points or evolve selected Pokémon.
There’s two tables to choose from, both having their own gimmick. The Red Board is very traditional in design and plays like any other stock board out there, whereas the Blue Board has sort of magnetic pull gimmick in the middle of the table and requires the player to hit certain pointers to change the direction where the ball is going at times. The tables themselves are rather plain in appearance, with solid colours and very little to catch your attention. While this means that your eyes will be fixated on the ball more, it also means that game is rather lacklustre when it comes to visuals. It’s rather standard looking for a Game Boy Game, and thou the Pokémon do look neat and the few animations they have give them more than enough charm.
A double-edged strength for Pokémon Pinball is that you have all those Generation I Pokémon the catch, which is more or less hair pulling. On the other hand this means you will have a lot of different monsters to catch, but there’s a lot of chance here. What Pokémon comes out is determined by a random number generation based on what field you are in, which is selected through a slot machine. This means that you need to hit areas you haven’t gone through before and get monsters you haven’t caught yet, which might make you reset your game because you got that damn Pidgey for the seventh time in a row. There’s very little feeling of progress and at some point I found myself resetting the game every time a monster I already had caught appeared. I didn’t feel like wasting any more time with it.
As the fields’ layouts are higher than the Game Boy Colour’s screen, Jupiter opted a transition between the two halves of the stage. Generally speaking, there’s a split between developers where some have preferred this transition over scrolling field. To some the transition keeps the table steady and takes away unnecessary movement from the game. It emulates the non-moving nature of the table, or so I’ve heard it being described. Whether or not you like this up to you. The layouts work with this transition as they’re designed not put in any bullshit objects in the way, but the aiming can be tricky as you have to “remember” where the targets are.
The catching and evolving wouldn’t be anything to scoff at, but there’s two things Jupiter really didn’t manage to master at this point and it was the physics and field layouts. First and foremost the ball doesn’t behave like you’d expect it to, and it is entirely possible to cheat the ball out from the gutter by mashing the nudge buttons. Nudging isn’t essential either, and there’s three damn buttons for it, thou abusing them does make a difference. Far too often the ball doesn’t go where it is aimed at, and there are times when the ball is visibly hit upwards by the underside of the flippers, a thing I also has started abusing because it yields better and more accurate results. In the Red Table using a traditional layout, the game becomes rather dull chore as the non-realistic physic clashes with the layout. The flow isn’t really there and the smallness of both of the tables is a disservice. Blue Table on the other hand actually has an advantage due to its main gimmick, and the Blue Table seems attract more of my attention due to this. Also, it has superior Catching and Evolving modes’ music with a neat render of Mesaze Pokémon Master.
Of course, with each new caught and evolved Pokémon a new entry in your Pokédex opens, which can make people with obsessions go mad in trying to unlock all entries. I won’t even attempt to do that, I gave up on catching all the Pokémon during the third generation and haven’t regretted that decision. Goddamn battery dying on 100% save in my Silver…
The music in Pokémon Pinball is good and fitting. All the sound effects have found their home and Jupiter managed to replicate the feeling of the Pokémon games very well. There’s very little to say outside that they did their job well.
Pokémon Pinball is a rough on the edges and shows that Jupiter knew what they were doing and had some clear aims, but didn’t manage to achieve everything they wanted to do. Mediocre layout coupled with flawed physics make this a decent pinball game at best. Outside the catching and evolving, there’s very little do in Pokémon Pinball. However, this makes Pokémon very concentrated on the pure pinball experience with very little bells and whistles attached.
A year later Jupiter had finished their spiritual sequel to Pokémon Pinball in form of Super Robot Pinball. We can assume that this game runs on a modified engine of sorts from Pokémon Pinball, and soon it becomes clear that all that Pokémon Pinball lacked is found in here.
Super Robot Pinball takes the same idea of Pokémon Pinball and gives it a bit more spin. If you’ve played Pokémon Pinball, you’ll find yourself at home with this title.
The table layout has been improved in every aspect. While the initial layout has some similarities with the Red Table, it is more a training stage with gutters being a saving element and pointers easier to hit. The second table on the other hand gives few new twists and is more dangerous table and feels more mechanical due to the chosen colours and shapes. It is more challenging due to the smaller room to play in. of course, there’s more than two fields to play as, and as you progress to higher levels, the more challenging the fields and enemy robots will become. On the other hand, the selection of your robots also changes for the stronger. The layouts complexity also is upped a notch, but aiming is easier due to the improved physics and scrolling screen.
The basic gameplay remains relatively similar to Pokémon Pinball; fulfil a requirement to engage a battle and shoot your ball up the Scramble lane, in which you choose from randomly chosen robot. After this you can power it up on the main table or send the ball up the Battle lane, where a separate table for battling resides. The battling is far more involved than catching or evolving your Pokémon. With each hit the ball makes to the enemy unit, your robot attacks. Attacks are determined how many times you have lit attack counter by hitting the ball up the rightmost lane, while the leftmost lane is reserved for charging Spirit Commands. You activate a Spirit Command by hitting a bumper either side of the enemy unit. If your robot’s HP gets too low, the left lane open a new door to change the unit you have on the field.
All of the attacks the robots make have few frames of animation, and Level 3 attacks are modelled after traditional Super Robot Wars attack animations in look. These attacks also do huge amount of damage, so sometimes it’s better to hit the ball up the right lane and use Lv3 attacks in row. Other times you might want to juggle the ball on top of the enemy and use the Lv1 attack constantly to do minor damage, but keep the enemy from attacking. It’s actually pretty awesome.
The battles also have slight strategic element to them, as every robot has its own stats. Some have higher HP, some have higher dodge and so forth. This makes the selection of of your robot a bit more important than you’d initially expect, as you want to have something that can dish huge damage against an Angel from Evangelion, whereas you might want to use something more agile with mobile suits. Or do what I do most of the time and throw Dancouga on the field and spam the Lv.3 attack with high hopes I don’t screw around, as you can spin the ball around the field insanely fast.
You also have proper main boss battles, which you enter automatically after defeating a number of enemy units. These boss battles are played with your ball only, and every hit to the boss damages it a little but, but the damage can be jacked up by Powering Up the ball. The boss is able to freeze your flipper for a moment, and here the nudging becomes imperative, as the layout allows you to jump the ball over the gap between the flippers. Of course, the bosses have their own ball mode and roam around.
Jupiter took away one of the useless nudging buttons, and they’re far less abusable here, but strategically more important overall. I find myself controlling the overall path of the ball with nudging, rather than controlling the whole damn game just by mashing the buttons.
There’s also a neat scene when you launch the ball; there’s a race timer with three light ticks, and if you time the launch just as the light hits green, the ball will be powered up and launch with greater speed.
The game gets very hectic and has higher pace than Pokémon Pinball. It is not easier, but it is easier to get your ball where it needs to go thanks to the revamped ball physics and layout. It’s not a night and day difference in the physics, but it is highly notable. Because of this the game feels far more fair, and as the battling is more involved than than just hitting the enemy, it’s more enjoyable. The physics alone make this a better game over Pokémon Pinball.
One problem with Super Robot Spirits is the Missions. You gain a new mission by hitting the ball into a Mission pointer, where you are given one random mission out of around twenty. The thing is that these missions are described in the manual and there’s no real indications in the game itself what they require you to hit. Without the manual you’re kinda screwed, but the Missions aren’t really there to add anything but the bread and butter of real pinball machines; scoring.
However, with all the good there’s some bad. In traditional Super Robot Wars spirit, every unit has their respective series’ theme playing in the background. Some of these are fitting, while some make you turn the volume down. Actually, the devs managed to insert so much sound in the game that you’d might want to do that anyway. Every target makes their own sound, and you’ll notice that the game is just as noisy as a real pinball machine, just more irritating. The music itself is not bad, but the constant barrage of blings and blongs makes me want to punch an otter. Too bad Dancouga doesn’t have Ai yo Faraway, that would have made everything acceptable. If you’re wondering if I’m one of those bastards that want Rhythm Emotion and Just Communication for every Gundam Wing iteration, you’d be right, thou I enjoy other themes too.
As such, God Bless the Library mode, the Pokédex of this game. In he Library you can check an entry for the robot, as well as listen to its theme and check its attack animations. There’s 41 Super Robots unlock, whereas the Enemy side has 61. These entries are unlocked as you use your a new robot from the random selection wheel, and when you defeat and enemy unit. Simple and effective.
However, due to the pace of the game and higher chances of getting new units as you advance in the game, there’s a genuine feeling of progress in Super Robot Pinball. This above all is what makes this game stand out over Pokémon Pinball, where it was an OK game at best, Super Robot Pinball is a damn good portable pinball game, perhaps one of the best there is. Super Robot Pinball is very balanced game overall and it’s a shame that it never could see a Western release. I hope for a 3DS eShop release at some point, but I’m not having my hopes up.
The comparison between the two pinball games is rather huge, in the end. In comparison to Super Robot Pinball, Pokémon Pinball may end up look like a bare bones release. There was just one year between the two, and that one year shows. I’ve yet to try my hands on Pokémon Pinball Ruby & Sapphire, but perhaps sometime in the future I’ll visit it. However, due to the simplicity and methodical approach Pokémon Pinball has, I can see it more approachable pinball game than Super Robot Pinball, but making the step from there is very easy to make. Whether or not these games will lead anyone into the arcades and give the actual machines a go is another matter, especially with Pokémon Pinball and its questionable physics.
I recognize that Pokémon Pinball is well loved game and some will take an issue me panning on it to the extent have, and that there is just many people turned off because of giant robots as there people who don’t really want to play a Pokémon game. Then there’s those who will play a good game regardless of what theme it carries.
Would I recommend one of the two over the other? Yes, from purely quality standpoint Super Robot Pinball is the superior game from the two. I also do not doubt that people will get enjoyment from either game, and Pokémon Pinball is more readily available than Super Robot Pinball, unless you want to resort in emulation. SRPinball works a good replacement for Pokémon Pinball, but the same can’t be said vice versa. Both have their unique points that the other lacks, but SRPinball has more going for it and is ultimately the more satisfying product. I would go as far as saying that whatever Pokémon Pinball did, Super Robo Pinball made it better; it made Pokémon Pinball obsolete.