McGinnis: Pinball wizardsWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
I think I’m part of the last generation that really remembers the glory days of the arcade.
Except for under the tree on Christmas morning, no destination was quite as magical for kids of my age. Every mall had to have one — it was, like, written in the Constitution. No matter what the atmosphere was like outside, whenever you walked in the door you were enveloped in a world of pure electronic wonder. The sounds of laser fire and digitized explosions came at you from all sides. The cool, dark lighting, occasionally accompanied by twinkling starlight on the ceiling, directed all attention to the games. Each title was emblazoned across its individual machine, with names designed to elicit instant identification and maximum excitement: “Asteroids.” “Pole Position.” “After Burner.” “Mortal Kombat.”
But as much as I love and remain nostalgic for the old days, I’m not about to say that video games were better back then. In fact, the arcade games of my youth were inhuman monstrosities compared to today’s titles. The economics of gaming demanded it. If a title was going to earn its spot on the floor of the average arcade, it had to earn its quarters. And a game didn’t get replayed simply by being fun. Oh no. It also had to be virtually unbeatable.
I’m not talking the old-school, “Pac-Man”-style, the-game-never-ends-so-it-can’t-actually-be-won kind of thing. I’m talking the much more infuriating no-one’s-ever-seen-level-three format, where level two is so impossible that to beat it, you either had to be a gaming god or you had to have an actual, honest-to-God Brink’s truck full of quarters next to you to buy all the extra lives you needed to survive.
Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in classic arcade experiences ported for the home gamer. And I admit to feeling a surge of glee every time another title from the good old days makes its debut in digital download form. Classic arcade games based on “X-Men,” “The Simpsons” and more finally made their way to consoles. On Sept. 11, a retooled version of the classic beat-’em-up “Double Dragon” came to Xbox 360 and PS3.
But in each case, I got one, maybe two plays out of the game before the glorious nostalgia I held in my heart was overwhelmed by the crashing pain of reality. Taken out of their native habitat — the sounds, the lighting, the laughter and joy of other players — the games themselves are horrifically mediocre. With heavy emphasis on button mashing, nothing resembling cohesive strategy and the aforementioned steep difficulty curve, these relics of yesteryear can’t hold a candle to the games of today.
But there is a format that holds up wonderfully well in the new era. One which remains as fun and addictive as ever. One of the oldest of old-school arcade thrills: pinball.
I admit to having a bias in this arena. The classic stand-up pinball games were always my favorites as a kid. And since I just criticized standard arcade titles as unbeatable, I admit it seems odd to praise a game which, by its nature, cannot be beaten. But far more than their digital counterparts, the unpredictable, exciting gameplay of good, old-fashioned pinball machines hold up as fun, exciting and repeatedly engaging plays.
And now, the feel of those classic tables is starting to be captured for the home, as well, thanks to the efforts of several software developers who are making a name among gamers for their excellent emulation of grand pinball experiences.
Zen Studios out of Hungary, for example, has made a big splash with its “Zen Pinball” application on several consoles. While not emulating any specific old-school games, the new tables the designers create all have the feel and excitement of classic titles down cold, while adding a few new effects that would have been impossible in the arcade.
Meanwhile, Farsight Studios is working to bring specific tables to a whole new generation with their title “The Pinball Arcade.” Every game available through their software is a spot-on emulation of a classic pinball experience. And unlike previous attempts at similar collections, Farsight is committed to porting titles tied to specific licenses, as well, a virtually unprecedented move thanks to the costs involved.
Farsight has backup in that regard, thanks to a brilliant strategy. Recently, the studio began holding fundraisers on Kickstarter for classic licensed tables, essentially letting fans buy the titles in advance in exchange for helping to purchase the rights. Funding has already been secured for versions of the classic “Twilight Zone” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” tables in this manner, and Farsight has promised more to come.
Memo to Farsight: If you somehow make it possible for me to have and play my own copy of “The Addams Family” pinball game, you guys will be my favorite people ever.
Tags: Jeff McGinnis