In which I write another 2,000 words about computer pinball. You have been warned. Again.
First, for those of you who don’t obsessively follow computer pinball as I do, some background. Earlier this year there was something of a seismic shift in the computer pinball market, which for the last five years or so has been divided between two competitors:
- Zen’s Pinball FX series, now on its third iteration. Zen make bespoke original tables that are usually based on some big licensed IP (Star Wars, Jurassic World etc.) and which have all got a bunch of additional visual gewgaws where animated characters backflip around the table and so on. The UI framework they’ve built around the tables is polished but their ball physics are questionable and their table design is extremely uneven, which is why I’ve not given Pinball FX a huge amount of my time in comparison to…
- Farsight’s Pinball Arcade, which is the opposite of Pinball FX in just about every single way. The tables are all painstakingly-recreated licenced replicas of classic real-life tables, and the ball physics are much more fun to play with. Unfortunately everything about Pinball Arcade that’s not the pinball tables themselves is an absolute car crash; the game is poorly optimised and navigating to the tables you’ve bought (if you can buy them) in their atrocious menu system is a constant pain in the ass.
After playing both Pinball FX2 and Pinball Arcade I concluded that Pinball Arcade was by far the better option for people who liked to play authentic-feeling, well-designed pinball tables, just so long as you were willing to put up with the shit the game puts you through to get to them. Around May of this year, though, Farsight dropped a bombshell: Williams had refused to renew the license for their tables, and since Williams were by far the biggest manufacturer of pinball tables during the classic period of the late ‘80s and the ‘90s they’d consequently lost the rights to around two-thirds of the tables in Pinball Arcade. This has pretty much killed Pinball Arcade stone cold dead so there was naturally some speculation around why Williams refused to renew their license, but that particular mystery was solved a couple of months later when Zen announced the first Williams table pack for Pinball FX3.
I found this news somewhat dismaying at first. Pinball FX was decent enough when that was all that was on offer, but I found it extremely difficult to play Pinball FX tables after experiencing the ones in Pinball Arcade. The ball is slow and leaden, the incessant visual effects are constantly distracting, and there are issues with the camera angles and dot matrix display that made it unnecessarily difficult to keep track of what was going on. Based on that experience it didn’t seem like a very good idea to try and replicate real-life tables in an engine that, up until that point, had been distinctly unrealistic. Fortunately Zen appear to have realised that there were a whole bunch of skeptical potential customers like me out there, which is why they trailed this table pack along with a significant rework of the physics that moved the FX engine much closer to the real thing, as well as mentioning significant customisation options in terms of camera angles and the ability to turn off their visual “enhancements”. That, along with the official Best Pinball Table Of All Time Medieval Madness being in the pack, convinced me to take the plunge.
Now, Medieval Madness being in the pack was useful; the reason I really really like that table is because I’ve played the Pinball Arcade version of it, which allows me to do a direct comparison across the two games for the first time. Zen have also done a rather nice thing and ported across all of my owned content from Pinball FX2 into Pinball FX3, so I also fired up the Clone Wars table for a few games to see how the reworked physics compared against the older version, and the results were somewhat surprising.
First, visuals. Other FX tables have a rather low and close camera that makes the table look flattened; the Williams tables on the other hand have a selection of nine different camera modes including something that’s much closer to a normal top-down camera angle, as well as a zoomed-in one that tracks the ball around the table. I played with this for a while because it let me appreciate the new high-definition table art, which is much nicer than the equivalent in Pinball Arcade. It’s to be expected because there’s five years separating the two games, but after a couple of hours with FX’s version of Medieval Madness I went back to Pinball Arcade and was shocked at how jagged and pixelated some of the art was. Zen have bolted some of their horrible “FX” onto their version of the table; the dragon sitting on top of the damsel ramp is animated and there are castle explosion effects, stun effects when you hit the trolls etc. etc., and this is all hugely unnecessary and detracts from the table, but you can turn it off with the push of a button and enjoy the unmodified1 version of the table. Once you get rid of all of the questionable visual enhancements and find the camera angle you like best this version of Medieval Madness beats the one in Pinball Arcade hands-down.
Next, physics — and you’ll have to forgive me if this gets a little too detailed, but the ball physics are an absolutely huge part of how a virtual pinball table feels to play. Pinball FX3 has three different physics settings:
- The “original” Zen pinball physics, which is supposedly the same as what was driving the other FX tables that I’ve played.
- A toned-down version of their reworked, more realistic physics, which I shall dub Classic Arcade.
- The full-fat version of the reworked physics: Classic Tournament.
Having spent several hours playing with each type of physics, though, I was surprised to find that it was actually the original Zen physics that I enjoyed the most. The ball is heavy, but not leaden; it moves and bounces predictably, but is capable of picking up a great deal of speed if you catch it with a flipper tip or punt it off of a bumper. This felt very different to the other Zen tables, which is why I tested the Clone Wars table to make sure I wasn’t imagining things, and the ball physics in that felt much much heavier — almost like I was pushing the ball through tar. It’s possibly a question of the tables being built to different scales and being viewed at different angles that make the two feel so different, but Zen ball physics applied to these new Williams tables is actually pretty damn close to the ball physics in Pinball Arcade.
Why didn’t I get on with their reworked, more realistic physics? For both of the Classic modes the ball has been made lighter and moves around the table with lightning speed. I could probably deal with this (despite my reactions becoming increasingly shot to hell as I get older) except for the fact that making the ball lighter means it bounces around a lot more, often in very unpredictable ways. I lost count of the number of times I tried to catch the ball with the left flipper after a castle shot, only for it to bounce back up and over the left bumper and straight down the left drain — and the worst thing about this was that it wasn’t consistent. It would do this some of the time, but not all of the time, depending on very small changes in the angle at which the ball was released from the castle. The difference between Classic Arcade and Classic Tournament is that there’s somehow even more bounce on the ball in the latter mode, but both of them felt like I was playing with a ping-pong ball rather than a pinball. This may or may not actually follow the real-life behaviour of a pinball (it has been some twenty years since I had the opportunity to play an actual pinball table), but I’ll always prioritise the thing that feels more fun over the thing that feels more realistic, and so the Zen physics win out here for me.
Of course, using them comes with a catch. Pinball FX3 is stuffed full of absolutely obnoxious extras: voiceovers whenever you enter a menu, irritating popups telling me that playing this table has earned me ten experience points, the ball vomiting forth a constant stream of numbers telling me how much hitting that particular bumper has scored. My patience with all of this lasted approximately five minutes, after which I went hunting through the settings menus searching for a way to turn it off — and to Zen’s credit it’s quite easy to get rid of all of it and enjoy a relatively polished pinball experience without any extraneous bullshit. The one exception is the table upgrades and “mastery” abilities that come with playing the standard singleplayer mode that has the Zen physics, which unfortunately seem to come as a single package; playing either of the Classic modes turns them off, but if you want the Zen physics it looks like you have to live with them. It’s not too bad, I suppose; the table upgrades are simple passive score boosters (like doubling your scoring during multiball) and the mastery abilities are powerups that you can use once per game that briefly boost scoring even further, or which rewind time by a second or so to allow you to undo a bad shot. They don’t really hurt the experience by being there, it just bugs me slightly that there are some bits in my computer pinball game that are Not Pinball that I can’t get rid of.
Other extras offered by the FX framework are more than welcome. The table menu is a bit of a mess (FX3 has 81 tables available), but once you’ve found the one you want and get into the table menu there’s a pleasing array of options and information available. Online leaderboards integrated with Steamworks are omnipresent, which you’d think would be a fairly low bar for a pinball game to clear except for the fact that Pinball Arcade didn’t have them at all. There are table guides explaining the rules for each table that are handled with far more flair than Pinball Arcade ever managed, as well as a practice mode that offers a full hour of unlimited ballsave, and challenge modes for getting the highest score you can on a single ball, or within five minutes of playtime etc., which were interesting spins on the concept. Crucially you can instantly restart a game of FX3 if you do something idiotic like immediately losing the ball just after your initial ballsave runs out, whereas Pinball Arcade would have made you quit out to the main menu and start a whole new game. A lot of this is fairly basic quality-of-life stuff, but I’ve been playing without it for a few years now and I very much appreciated that Pinball FX3 has been put together by people who understand how videogames work instead of a bunch of enthusiasts who were rather more interested in recreating as many tables as possible than they were actually tying those tables together into a coherent product.
Oh yes, since this is nominally a review of the Williams table pack I should probably talk about the actual tables it contains. You get three of them: Medieval Madness, The Getaway and Junkyard. Junkyard strikes me as a rather generic mid-’90s offering with little about it that stands out, but it’s decent enough to play — I would take Junkyard over any of Zen’s bespoke table designs any day, and it also compares well to the average Pinball Arcade table. The Getaway is a more interesting table that I plan to spend more time with as it’s got a few intriguing features; hitting the ramp on the left hand side sends the ball spinning around a supercharger (which is very fun to watch) and there’s also a gear shifting mechanic that functions as a bonus multiplier, as well as a terrible Outrun-style minigame played via the dot-matrix display2. I don’t like the dead zone in the middle very much (all that’s there is a boring set of targets), but nailing a shot on the ramp or getting the ball up to the secondary flipper on the right so that you can send it spinning around the back of the table several times is very satisfying, which means The Getaway has rather a lot of replay potential for me.
And then you’ve got Medieval Madness. God, but I love Medieval Madness. I’ve played forty or fifty tables across both Pinball Arcade and Pinball FX, and none of them have grabbed me the way Medieval Madness has; it’s a table I could play for dozens of hours. (Hell, it’s a table I have played for dozens of hours.) There’s a plastic castle in the centre of the table that is, appropriately, also the centre of the action; you have to hit the castle gate many, many times in succession to depose all of the lords and battle the King, so becoming good at getting the ball over the drawbridge is key to scoring well in Medieval Madness. However there’s a bunch of other shots: the Peasant and Damsel ramps are pretty obvious; there’s a tricky shot up to the left of the table just above the left bumper that activates the Catapult; and the Jousting lane runs up behind the castle. Oh, and hitting the posts either side of the drawbridge will eventually activate the Trolls, which I really like because it sums up Medieval Madness’s design ethos perfectly: you’ll most likely hit the Troll targets when you slightly mess up a shot on the castle gate, but where other tables would hand you nothing Medieval Madness at least progresses you towards something else. This is the main reason I really like Medieval Madness in spite of some the ‘90s humour which has not aged well at all, since no matter where you hit the ball on the table something interesting will happen. It’s not that it’s particularly more forgiving than other tables, it just knows how to grab and hold my attention better than they do.
This perhaps makes me the wrong person to review the tables in this first Williams pack, because I was always going to say that Medieval Madness alone was worth the £7 it costs and that the other two tables are essentially bonus extras. However, I was also very pleasantly surprised at the effort Zen have gone to to convince me that they can do actual real pinball properly in addition to their goofy fake stuff. While their purloining of the Williams license from Farsight may have effectively killed off Pinball Arcade I find myself concluding that, as somebody who plays computer pinball games, this is actually a good thing; once the appropriate options have been tweaked the Zen version of Medieval Madness is better than Farsight’s, and as long as they can sustain that level of quality I’d have no issue shelling out more money for future table packs that included other favourites such as Twilight Zone or Monster Mash. As for Pinball FX3 itself, well, let’s just say I hadn’t realised how much Pinball Arcade’s moribund interface had been dragging on my enjoyment of the tables until I didn’t have to deal with it any more. I still hate most of Zen’s native tables and I don’t think my opinion on that is ever going to change, but this first Williams table pack (along with the promise of more to come) is good enough that Pinball FX3 has supplanted Pinball Arcade as my default go-to option for when I want to play computer pinball.
- Well, up to a point. There’s a big censorship row going on as Zen have airbrushed out various references to “adult” content in order to get a family-friendly rating from the ESRB. It doesn’t detract from any of the tables in this first Williams pack, but potentially doesn’t bode all that well for future tables that they might release. ↩
- I took Pinball FX2 to task a long time ago for having stupid minigames in it that weren’t anything to do with pinball, but real-life tables started that trend. ↩