This review was originally going to start with a look back over Pinball Arcade’s history on other formats and Farsight Studios’ long and eventful two-year battle to get it released on Steam, but even as a passive observer of that process I could write a whole book that reads like a Greek tragedy. Suffice to say that now that it has been released the reason why it had such a hard time is abundantly clear: Farsight aren’t very good at making videogames, it shows in the final product, and I imagine that until the restrictions on Greenlight games were suddenly relaxed a few months ago they were having trouble meeting Steam’s terms and conditions for integrating their table DLC into Steam itself. Everything that isn’t the actual tables looks like it’s been cobbled together on a shoestring budget, from the menus to the UI to the table browsing to the payment system for actually buying the things. In terms of attractiveness and ease of use Pinball Arcade is an abject failure.
Fortunately for Pinball Arcade, however, it turns out that what Farsight are good at is making computer simulations of pinball tables. I don’t expect virtual pinball tables to be any more than acceptable-looking, and since they’re controlled by all of three buttons (plus nudging) the ease of use thing isn’t an issue either. And in terms of actually playing the thing, well, as far as I’m concerned Pinball Arcade blows Pinball FX 2 out of the water.
To recap for those of you who don’t obsessively follow virtual pinball games: Pinball FX 2 and Pinball Arcade go about their pinball in very different ways. Pinball FX 2 is all about acknowledging its status as a video game and using that to do things that wouldn’t be possible on a real table, from having little animated characters jump and/or fly around the playfield to actively yanking the player away from the table and dumping them into an incredibly bad on-rails shooter section controlled with the flipper buttons. This isn’t an inherently bad idea, but in my opinion there were slightly too many occasions where these gameplay elements had been thrown in for the sake of it rather than because they actually made the game more fun to play; I play pinball games to play pinball games, and this is something that Pinball FX’s table designers seemed to have trouble grasping. It also meant that they had to come up with original designs for each and every table that were very much hit and miss – I found that I had to play three tables to find one that I liked enough to chase high scores on. As a result while the fun tables were very fun (and the interface a thousand times slicker than the one in Pinball Arcade) I came away from Pinball FX 2 feeling rather unsatisfied – not disappointed, but because of its focus it hadn’t really done enough to scratch that pinball itch.
Pinball Arcade is a different beast entirely. PA’s major selling point is that it is offering fully-digitised versions of classic real-world pinball tables, and while this means a lot of painstaking work for Farsight in terms of stripping the tables down and converting them component by component1 and the tables don’t have the whizz-bang pizzazz of Pinball FX’s… well, FX, it also means that the majority of the tables on offer are incredibly well-designed. They had to be in order to get people to put money into them in the first place. As a result Pinball Arcade has a very high hit rate when it comes to table quality; I’ve bought the Season One pack which has twenty-odd tables in it, and while there’s definitely half a dozen in there that are either filler or have been included more for their historical value than because they’re actually any good, the eight or nine big-name tables that I’ve played have hooked me in for an hour or two each. They stand up to repeat play very well indeed – and again, this is to be expected given where they’ve come from.
I will say, though, that I was a bit surprised I took to PA’s tables so well since at first glance they seem rather more unforgiving than those in Pinball FX. Most tables won’t offer free replays if you lose the ball in the first few seconds of play, and the centre drains tend to be cavernous maws compared to Pinball FX’s narrow channels. They also almost never have kickback functionality (a kickback will return a ball lost down one of the side drains to play). However, this is just a form of tough love; by kicking away all of these crutches Pinball Arcade forced me to start nudging the table to save balls, something I’d previously shied away from because I saw it as cheating. Here its built into the very design of the tables, however; the people who put them together expected nudging and adjusted the difficulty to compensate.
Once I’d mastered nudging it became apparent that most PA tables are actually fairly accommodating, with plenty of extra balls and multiballs available to extend playtime, and – crucially – they’re also pretty good at telling you how to activate this stuff. The implementation of the dot matrix display that so infuriated me in Pinball FX is done correctly here as the game will pause the action after you’ve locked a ball or activated a mode so that you can look at the dot matrix and see what you have to do next. With one notable exception the ball physics on the tables is excellent; I’ve played very few real tables so I can’t really make that comparison, but as far as the game goes it is consistent and predictable and allows for accurate trick shots, which is all I really ask. It might just be a natural result of Farsight’s slavishly detailed 1:1 conversion process, but with the exception of the Clone Wars table there’s nothing in Pinball FX 2 that really comes close to what’s on offer in Pinball Arcade.
Now to put the boot in: while their table simulations are excellent everything else in the Pinball Arcade is bloody awful. Here, look at this. This is one of Pinball Arcade’s high score tables. It looks like it dates from the mid-nineties when Windows 95 had just come out and everyone thought Arial font was really cool. The entirety of the UI is done in a similarly ugly fashion, and the general ineptitude on display here isn’t just limited to the game’s looks: there’s no integration with my Steam friends list for Friends Leaderboards, and if you want access to global leaderboards you have to make an account on Farsight’s own system. This is something that just worked in Pinball FX 2, as it’s worked in Spelunky and Droplitz and a thousand other games I could name. Shit, Droplitz is five years old now so it’s not like this is a particularly new thing; it’s the minimum bar I set for any game with high score tables now and Farsight have failed to clear it in spectacular fashion. Browsing the tables themselves is done by scrolling through a vertical list rather than Pinball FX’s grid layout, which is a bit of a pain when you’ve just bought 20+ tables in one of the Season packs. And as for actually buying the things Pinball Arcade represents the most inept implementation of DLC I’ve ever seen on Steam.
With every other game I’ve played, if you want DLC all you have to do is buy it through Steam’s store page like a regular game. This is a two or three click process, which is a good thing for developers because if we had more time to think about just what we were about to spend our money on we might have second thoughts. If you want your DLC to be a success you have to make buying it as quick and painless as possible. Ease of use is probably the most important factor in the success of digital distribution, and it’s something that Farsight have almost totally ignored. The only store-integrated DLC that Pinball Arcade offers are the season packs, which cost £23 and £30 respectively and contain 20-odd tables each. If you want just one table I have some bad news: unless that table is Tales of the Arabian Nights, which is free, you’re going to have to jump through some additional hoops. In order to find out how much it costs you have to scroll through that vertical list of tables to find it. Then once you’ve clicked “Play” you’ll be confronted with three options: play a score-limited trial run, buy the season pack which contains the table, or buy the table as part of a two-pack. Table pack prices range from £4 to £7, tables will invariably be bundled with another one you don’t care about, and even if you click the “Buy” button you’re forced to suffer a final indignity: paying for it with Steam Wallet cash. For those who don’t know, Steam Wallet is a way of exchanging real money for credit on Steam; it’s most often used trading for hats/cards on the Steam Market, and you can only buy Steam Wallet credit at specific price points, almost none of which correspond to the price of a table pack. Unless you’re lucky or you want to buy more than one pack you’ll end up with some spare cash rattling around in your Steam Wallet, and while you can use this as partial credit on your next Steam purchase it’s still incredibly goddamn annoying, especially since this game’s entire business model is based around DLC. You’d think that after spending so long trying to get their game onto Steam Farsight would have taken full advantage of its features rather than carrying out a half-arsed implementation and calling it a day.
Now, the good news is that in my opinion the Season One pack offers excellent value for money2. Yes, it’s £23, but it’s got twenty-one tables in it, at least five of those are all-time classics (Theatre of Magic, Medieval Madness, Bride of Pin*Bot, Monster Bash and Twilight Zone) and that’s just the stuff I’ve had time to play. The only genuinely bad table in there is the Star Trek: TNG one, and that’s because of a strange quirk in the table physics that will unfailingly send the ball screaming down the left drain if you try any shot at all on the centre ramp. The free Tales of the Arabian Nights table is also one of the better ones and Pinball Arcade is far less stingy with its trial sessions than Pinball FX, allowing you enough time to get a good sense of how each table will play before it asks you for cash. UI and payment woes aside this is the pinball game I’ve been waiting for the last decade and a half; it doesn’t matter how ineptly Farsight have built the surrounding infrastructure when the core game experience is just so good.
(If you like pinball, anyway.)