While I haven’t talked about it much here, one of my favorite types of computer game is the pinball simulation.  Pinball is the sort of game that can be competitive without being discouraging, ruthless yet fun to master, and the sort of thing you can play as a quick break between working on other things.  It’s hard to put into words exactly what enthralls me so much about the genre, but the the spectacle of each table coming to life, and the mastery that you feel when you finally conquer a table you’ve been attempting for ages, come together to make for one of my favorite types of gaming experiences.  There are plenty of games that attract my attention, but there are few others that create the feeling of being “in the zone,” completely immersed  and focused, so successfully.

I’ve been a fan of pinball for many years, ever since encountering the actual machines in the arcade as I was growing up, and then following the far more affordable simulations as they arrived on the computer (and the occasional sessions where I would hog a friend’s Genesis console just so I could play Sonic Spinball over and over again).  Of course, even back then, there weren’t a whole lot of pinball games on offer, but there were enough to have some fun with.  I still have fond memories of playing Loony Labyrinth on our family’s old Performa, saving up months’ worth of chore money to buy the original Ultra Pinball collection, and incessantly playing the demo version of Pro Pinball: Big Race USA on the PC in my school’s library (and then, years later when I had a gaming PC of my own, tracking down a CD copy of the full game in a store’s bargain-software bin, and being absolutely thrilled at the notion of being able to play it again).  It was a genre, though, that never really took off, and over the intervening years, when the gaming scene on the Mac all but collapsed, the only pinball games available were expensive, limited offerings from the Little Wing series.

However, within the past year or two, the scene for computerized pinball has blossomed dramatically.  In part, this has been due to the rise in mobile gaming: Pinball, with its relatively finite and self-contained game sessions, is a perfect match for gaming on the go.  As a result, a lot of companies jumped into that space, first forming pinball games on iOS and Android, and then porting the series to the desktop (via the Mac App Store for Apple computers, and primarily via Steam on the PC).  As a result, where pinball on the computer was once limited to a handful of hard-to-run older titles, and an (admittedly impressive) hobbyist underground making use of the somewhat dated Visual and Future Pinball programs, both the Mac and PC platforms now boast a wide range of modern and updated options.  I am beyond happy about this development, and I am heartened to see such a vibrant ecosystem and relative wealth of pinball tables that are now available.  In this article, I’ll touch on some of the major developments, and hopefully provide a decent introduction to the simulation of one of gaming’s beloved pastimes.

The Major Players

In the realm of computerized pinball, there are a variety of players, but two stand out from the rest in the breadth and detail of their simulations.

The first one is Pinball Arcade, produced by the long-running independent game developer Farsight Studios.  This title is by far the most prolific “actual simulator” currently available outside of the hobbyist arena, and it specializes in accurate recreations of actual, physical pinball tables.  So far, the title contains close to 40 individual tables, including some of my favorites, and a few that I’ve actually played in the arcades: everything from Pin-Bot and Medieval Madness to (with the help of Kickstarter) fully-licensed tables such as The Twilight Zone, Star Trek: TNG, and Terminator 2.  Starting out on the mobile side, the program has been on the Mac for a while, and just recently released on the PC with its full library of games.

The tables in Pinball Arcade have, by and large, usually been top-notch, although the program enclosing them has had its share of issues, partially due to integration with its online account functions and the requirement of third-party providers for the in-app purchase of the various tables (there were some serious issues with accounts and adding in tables that were rewards from the Kickstarter campaigns for quite some time, but they were eventually resolved).  The program itself underwent a major revamp a few months back, though, which improved its interface immensely and remedied a number of the program’s issues.  It is probably the most full-featured software available overall, with comprehensive table guides, a variety of options, and occasional competitive tournaments in addition to the usual online scoreboards.

The tables are a little expensive ($5 per pack, usually an older and a newer table bundled together, or around $70 to get everything by buying the available “season packs”), and if you’re a fan of the more modern tables as I am, you often have no choice but to purchase a pack with a table you aren’t as interested in to get the one you want.  That being said, I do think the selection of tables included is quite impressive overall, and they are certainly have the fastest and most reliable updates, putting out a pack of two tables roughly every month on all platforms.  They also offer “Pro” versions of some tables, with access to the operator menu and other bonuses, for an additional cost – certainly nice features to have, and I commend them for including them, but I don’t find myself using them often enough to justify the premium price.

Still, if you’re looking to play simulations of actual tables, they’re about the only game in town worth mentioning, and definitely worth checking out if you’re at all a fan of pinball.  It’s freely available across most platforms, so checking it out is easy – on the Mac and iOS versions, there’s a rotating table each month that you can play for free, and on the PC version you get a free version of Tales of the Arabian Nights (for now, at least).  The other tables can be demoed fully up to a score limit, and then need to be purchased to play further.

Zen Pinball (also known as Zen Pinball 2 on the Mac, and Pinball FX 2 on the PC), on the other hand, takes the notion of simulation in the opposite direction.  Instead of trying to accurately simulate physical tables, it takes a page from earlier programs like the Ultra Pinball series and creates table environments that could only exist in a virtual space, and go beyond the capabilities of physical machines with unusual playfields, animated characters, and more.  For example, on the Avengers pinball table (Zen Pinball has a lot of Marvel and Star Wars licensed tables in addition to its original ones), the playfield itself is based on the helicarrier from the movie, and the Epic Quest table features an animated knight, puppet theatre, and mini-RPG system with XP and level progression that carry over between play sessions.  It is also available ubiquitously on almost all platforms, although different platforms have a varying selection of tables (the iOS version has some additional Marvel and Star Wars tables available over the Mac version but is missing some of the originals, and there are several other originals that only appear in the PC version so far), meaning that you’ll need the Mac, PC, and mobile versions to access every single table available.  Each version has between one and two dozen tables available at this point, and new tables are released a few times a year, the latest release being 3 additional Star Wars-themed tables.

Pricing is about on par with similar programs, usually around $2 for original tables and $3 for licensed ones (it should be noted on the PC, though, that some tables are only available in multi-table packs).  In terms of the program itself, aside from some lags when acquiring tables (again, probably due to the third-party purchase processing), everything runs more or less smoothly, although there are a few less features and less-detailed tutorials than are available in Pinball Arcade.  The tables themselves, though, are top-notch, and are about as impressive as you can get in terms of spectacle and involvement – most tables feature a huge variety of modes and features, several multiball modes, and breakaway mini-games or even miniature auxiliary tables you can play on.  They generally tend to go beyond the capabilities of even the most modern tables, and as they’re not limited to conventional design, can do a variety of impressive things: everything from levitating pinballs to modes where the entire table turns upside down.  The graphics themselves are a little better than Pinball Arcade and about the best you can get (apart from some impressive recreations that I’ll talk about in a bit).  All in all, it’s about as impressive a spectacle as you can get in terms of pinball, and each table is as involved, if not more, than the most modern physical machines.

Beyond that, there are a few other major players, but most of them are only available on limited platforms.  OOO Gameprom produce a number of standalone and bundled pinball tables, mostly of the beyond-simulation variety, although they tend to be a little simpler and slower paced than the tables previously mentioned (although, it should be noted, they are also very nudge-friendly and have the ability to play one game over multiple sessions, allowing you to have quite a bit of fun with them and rack up generally ludicrous scores).  They are not, however, available on the PC as far as I know.

Another major player in the mobile space is A.S.K. Homework, the developers behind the older PC pinball title Dream Pinball, with the Age of Pinballs and Art of Pinball apps, as well as some simulations of older European pinball manufacturers.  I’m not a huge fan of them, though, as while you can get quite a lot of tables inexpensively, they don’t tend to have as many interactive features, play more slowly than most, and have a physics model and flipper interaction that I find uncomfortable and not very “live.”  They also tend to be very in-your-face with various in-app purchases (buy extra balls per game!  or different-looking flippers!  or a bonus center pin! etc.).  Again, though, as far as I’m aware they’re only available on iOS and maybe Android.

There’s also Nena Innovations, which puts out a handful of tables with rather dodgy graphics and even dodgier physics, but which can be quite fun if you can get into them (and their recent collaboration with another developer, Revenge of the Rob-o-Bot, is a significant step forward in appearance and design, albeit with some still-questionable physics and some aggravating table-design choices).

There are a few smaller developers in the Mac space with a game or two apiece, and some others in the mobile space, but there isn’t a whole lot that stands out: Pin Tiki Ball on the Mac App Store is a pretty decent, full-3D entry, and PinballCraft is an interesting mobile game that lets you design your own abstract-looking pinball games for others to play. There’s also, of course, the venerable Little Wing pinball series on the Mac, with titles such as Tristan and Crystal Caliburn ported to iOS, and a small selection of tables available to play on modern Macs.  However, with a combination of outdated technology and a ludicrous “sale” price of $20 per table, this producer of some true Mac pinball classics sadly doesn’t have much more to offer at this point.

On the PC side, there are a handful of other things on steam, including the unfortunately solo entry in the SlamIt Pinball series, Big Score, and an older Worms-themed pinball game (and, to my delight, a sort of virtual-console version of the original Sonic Spinball).  However, in addition to Steam, there’s another important player in pinball, although for the moment largely exclusive to the PC side…

Return of the Classics

For several years, and before branching out into a more general game store, gog.com (short for, at the time at least, Good Old Games) made its living porting and updating older games from the DOS and early Windows days to play on modern PCs.  As part of that process, some of the more important pinball games from earlier years, once playable only through major hacks or emulation or otherwise lost to time, were brought forth into a modern state that’s playable on current windows PCs.

Probably the most notable of the restored games is the Pro Pinball trilogy of Timeshock, Big Race USA, and Fantastic Journey.  Despite being considerably dated, their graphics still hold up quite well, and they are still some of the most fun, full-featured, and well-simulated tables available today.  Although not simulations of actual tables, they are designed as such, taking on the form of modern, solid-state tables with a huge variety of modes, challenges, and activities, including multiple multiball modes, and I believe the first simulated tables to come with a full operator’s menu.  Even now, they are considered to be the “best of the best,” and they’ve been my favorites for many, many years, so I am very pleased that they’re once again available on modern machines.  Even better, a new game developer (Barnstorm Games) containing some of the original Pro Pinball developers is working on new, modern recreations of the original tables in full 3D, and potentially new tables in the series – the recreation of Timeshock was successfully kickstarted and is slated for release by the end of 2013, and from initial screenshots and demos looks to be perhaps the most impressive computer pinball simulation yet.

Also of note, although considerably lower-fidelity, is the generically titled “Pinball Gold Pack,” which actually contains all the original games in the Pinball Dreams/Fantasies/Mania/Illusions series.  If you were on a computer in the 1990s, you may have fond recollections of at least some of these tables, and while the presentation is dated and the physics are outlandish, there’s still quite a lot of fun to be had, and the different packs illustrate the evolution of computer pinball throughout its early years.

There are a few other packs available as well, although I have mixed feelings about them.  There’s a repackaging of Balls of Steel, an apparently seminal simulation that I somehow missed back in the day, and has a 2D approach similar to Pinball Dreams.  However, I find the physics to be more weird rather than fun sometimes, and while the tables are full-featured, I don’t generally find them as compelling as the ones in the Pinball Dreams pack.  There’s also Pure Pinball 2, with fairly impressive graphics but anemic flippers and weird physics that make many of the table shots all but inaccessible.  There’s also Dream Pinball, one of A.S.K. Homework’s earlier games, which features a half-dozen 3D tables and is a decent amount of fun, although the table modes are a bit unclear and the overall gameplay is a bit slow, disorganized, and pales in comparison to any of the Pro Pinball tables.

And that, in a nutshell, is a summary of the pinball options currently available.  Much to my surprise, it’s about the best time ever to play pinball simulations on the computer, on either a Mac, PC, or tablet.  With the possible exception of some of LittleWing’s earlier works, most of the historical games are once again available, and along with the modern simulation options, there’s a wealth of possibilities for those looking for an introduction into the world of pinball.  While the fate of physical machines is fairly grim, with the continued closure of arcades and the shuttering of all but one manufacturer, the world of computerized pinball could hardly look brighter.