Pinball wizard returns

December 28, 1998|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

Pinball machines are noisy, lurid and vulgar. They're trash and flash, entertainment without substance, mindless electromechanical monsters full of sound and fury that signify nothing. They victimize the hopelessly addicted and devour time and money with no hope of a real return.

In other words, the pinball machine is a great American art form.

Sadly, these marvels of engineering are slowly disappearing, the survivors relegated to dark corners of arcades dominated by video shoot-em-ups, hideously expensive racing games, and screens displaying overdeveloped humanoids whose only goal seems to be ripping each other's spleen out.

But there's bright side. The same technology that replaced pinball machines in the hearts and minds of today's juvenile delinquents has allowed us to preserve the tradition and even extend the art form in ways that its creators never envisioned.

Every year, in fact, you'll find a couple of new PC pinball titles on the shelves. If pinball is part of your past, or you're looking for new ways to waste time, they can provide a delightful escape from real work.

Like many great games, pinball is is easy to learn but difficult to master. You can play for 10 minutes and drop everything in a second if the boss walks in. And what PC pinball lacks in tactile realism, it makes up for in economy - once you've bought the game, you can drop virtual quarters in the slot forever without running out of change.

This year's pinball titles include one that stands out, and it comes directly from the Evil Empire itself. Microsoft Pinball Arcade is a loving tribute to the game, a detailed recreation of seven historic tables manufactured by D. Gottlieb & Co., the outfit that invented modern pinball in the 1930s and persevered into the '90s.

Before you buy any title, however game, consider the issues involved in converting pinball to the computer screen. First, real pinball machines provide a physical experience. They're large and three-dimensional, with a playfield (the part with the bumpers and flippers) and a back glass, where the score appears and artists do their best to lure you into the game with gaudy illustrations.

Playing real pinball also requires more than pushing flipper FTC buttons. You have to grab the machine and shake it from time to time to nudge the ball into the proper bumper or bring it within range of your flippers. This isn't cheating - pinball machines were designed to be nudged, but only so far. Shake the machine too hard and you activate the tilt mechanism, which ends your game on the spot.

Early pinball simulations were slow, cartoon-line and two-dimensional, but today's fast computers and video adapters can produce near-perfect reproductions, with true-to-life ball physics and digitized sound. The problem is one of perspective. Putting the whole table on the screen, including the back glass, means sacrificing detail on the playfield. But leaving the back glass out of view robs the game of some of its visual appeal. So all pinball games have to make some compromises.

Microsoft's programmers opted for playability by leaving the back glass off, although you can view these works of art and learn the history of each table through the Help system. Some other pinball simulations give you a choice of views.

The view you do get is superb - an almost photographic reproduction of each table. And playability is excellent. Like most simulations, Pinball Acrade uses the shift keys to activate the bumpers and two adjacent keys to "nudge" the table. Ball movement, bumper reaction, sound and flipper action are close to perfect. If you're playing in the office, I suggest a set of headphones - pinball machines are noisy and you don't want to attract undue attention.

Microsoft's choice of tables was designed to illustrate the history of the game - one pinball machine from each decade, beginning in 1931 with Baffle Ball, the first widely-played pinball game. Don't expect much from it - early games didn't have fancy lights, bells, buttons or flippers to keep the ball in play. They were mostly used for gambling, which is why pinball games were banned for years in many communities.

More interesting is 1947's Humpty Dumpty, regarded as the first modern pinball machine because it introduced the use of flippers to keep the ball in play and introduce an element of skill to the game. Oddly, the six flippers were angled outward, which takes a while to get used to.

Of the others, my favorite was the Spirit of '76, which may have been the high-water mark of traditional pinball. It's eminently playable, with great sound and none of the electronic gimmickry and distractions of later games. I love the back glass, which includes portraits of John Glenn and Davy Crockett.

I also enjoyed the 1982 Haunted House. This was the first game to introduce a three-level playfield, including one with reverse gravity, and featured silly but effective haunted-house music as part of the game.

But these are largely matters of taste. All the tables are beautiful reproductions. Try them out for yourself. Unlike a many of today's entertainment titles, this $30 Windows 95/98 game will run on a farily modest computer - a 90-Mhz Pentium with 16 megabaytes of RAM and a CD-ROM drive.

One word of warning. Always use the "nudge" keys on the keyboard. If you're like me, you'll find yourself shaking your desk or table to nudge the pinball machine. This will, in fact, shake up your monitor, computer, coffee cup and everything else balanced on your desk - but it won't affect the game.

Pub Date: 12/28/98

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