Zero-word summary: See my userpic.
(This entry has been revised on July 8th and again on July 15th; revisions are marked.)
So let me begin with some background. I am, to be honest, really not much of a pinball player. I've always wondered how it is that someone is supposed to get into pinball in the first place; modern pinball games are quite complicated, but typically provide little in the way of explicit instruction (the little inserts in the lower left are really not enough) or implicit guidance. Meanwhile they have their whole own set of terminology and conventions that I don't know how one is supposed to learn in the first place -- one reason those instruction inserts are so unhelpful is because in addition to their brevity, they're also written in pinballese. For many years, "LOCK IS LIT" was my own personal pinball equivalent of "PC LOAD LETTER". (I know what it means now, thank you, you don't have to explain.)
As a kid I would play my grandparents' Star Explorer
machine, a pinball machine made for the home, whenever we visited them. These days I don't think I'd find it very fun, but it held my attention at the time. It's definitely not great pinball, though. You can't even control the flippers separately. I also played Sonic Spinball on the Genesis, which really
shouldn't count. (Mostly a fun game, but eventually I got good enough I could beat it, and the final boss fight takes so long and is so tedious that it counterbalances the rest of the game.) That game at least allows you to control the flippers separately, but you can win without ever doing so.
Eventually I started playing the famous "3D Pinball for Windows -- Space Cadet", which taught me some actual basic pinball skills. A complicated game, to be sure, but once I found the manual hidden away on the hard drive, it became comprehensible. (Also, even before then, the in-game messages do provide a fair bit of guidance, and there's also the flashing arrow pointing you towards whatever it is you need to do to begin or complete a mission.) Still, for all I've played, I don't think I can claim to be good
at pinball. Better than a total newbie, I guess. (I'm also too weak to nudge the machine effectively, unless I'm somehow doing it wrong.) And more relevantly, I continue to find most pinball machines baffling.
But there is one pinball machine I love, and that is Medieval Madness
. I encountered it by chance as a kid at an arcade I never had the opportunity to return to. Unlike with other pinball games, I immediately understood what I was supposed to do: Shoot the castle! OK, there's actually considerably more to the game than that, but the design of the table -- both the physical layout, and how the game responds when you do shoot the castle -- makes it clear that this is something you want to do, and even if you have no idea what else is going on, well, at least the game is guiding you to do that one thing. (And having now learned how the game actually works, it isn't that
complicated on the whole. I think; maybe I'm just saying that because I understand it now.)
And on this, the pinball community seems to agree with me; Medieval Madness is a top-rated pinball machine. It's #4 on IPDB and #1 on Pinside. I'm guessing that they're judging it on different criteria than I am, but that reinforces the conclusion -- apparently it's a great pinball table for serious players and newbies alike.
(The writing is another matter. It's mostly funny, but some of it is seriously cringeworthy. Sir Psycho is already pretty bad, but the "sexy princess"... ugh.)
There's a Medieval Madness machine at Pinball Pete's here in Ann Arbor, and I play it a lot. Unfortunately, it isn't always in the greatest condition; a fact of life with pinball machines, I know. Also, it costs 50¢ per play, and that adds up over a while. But recently I learned that there exist pinball video games that license actual pinball tables -- as well as the free Visual Pinball and Visual PinMAME -- and I decided to give that a shot.
First, I bought Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection ($10 used on Amazon) for the Wii. Foolishly, I forgot when I was buying it that only the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions include Medieval Madness. Oops. So I tried running Visual Pinball and Visual PinMAME under WINE, me having long ago accidentally rendered my copy of Windows unbootable -- I've heard tell of a way to restore it, but I am not trying that out just for some pinball. I don't know whether it was due to WINE or what, but I couldn't get the part of Visual Pinball that allows you to actually play the games to work. So finally I decided to shell out the $30 for a used copy of the PS3 version of Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection. (There is also apparently a PS3 version of The Pinball Arcade, yet somehow I can't find anything but the PS4 version. Perhaps I'm missing something.)
And so we get to my list of complaints. Now, I spent much of last night glued to the game -- though the fact that my cell phone was charging and there are no clocks in the game room here contributed to that -- so evidently it's not all bad. And it's not! But I got it to play Medieval Madness, and that has some serious problems. (OK, those aren't the only problems.)
Let's start with the biggest, most obvious one: The bumpers don't work properly. Oh, the physics on them is fine -- the ball hits them and is sharply repelled. But the game
part of the game frequently doesn't register the hit. Maybe you're still scoring points for them, I don't know. But it doesn't consistently display the "N jet hits for super jets" screen, and when it finally does, you can see that in fact, all those earlier hits didn't register. You'll hit the bumpers a large number of times, only to finally be told, "49 jet hits to activate super jets". Did they test this at all?EDIT July 8th:
The following two paragraphs seem to be largely wrong; see the note after them.
Meanwhile, the underlying engine seems to have not been quite prepared for how, well, 3-dimensional a game Medieval Madness is. Now it's not like the game engine can't handle the fact that pinballs move in three dimensions; otherwise, there'd be no way to jump the moat to lock a ball. (Or to pick a different table, otherwise there'd be no way to perform a skill shot in Tales of the Arabian Nights.) And I have even seen it happen that when you hit the castle, the ball jumps over the side of the drawbridge and lands in the moat, as it often does on a real machine. So that's good.
But the castle gate, and the trolls, are another story. When you destroy the castle gate, it doesn't seem to retract into the castle; instead it just disappears. Now that may not sound different, but I've seen it happen in this game that on destroying the castle gate, the ball actually continues into the castle a little rather than bouncing back down. Maybe that's somehow possible on a real machine? I doubt it. And then there's the trolls. Rather than popping out from under the playfield, the trolls just... appear. What would happen if a troll were to appear underneath a ball? On a real machine, the ball is launched into the air. I have no idea what would happen here. (I didn't see this happen while I was playing; it's not something that happens all that often.)EDIT July 8th
: OK, actually I don't think the problem is in the underlying engine at all -- it seems to have no problem handling vertically moving components in, say, Funhouse. I think the problem here is just a half-assed implementation of Medieval Madness, not any problem with the underlying engine. (The drawbridge doesn't seem to move quite right either, by the way.)EDIT July 15th
: Medieval Madness doesn't seem to be the only game with a half-assed implementation: Tales of the Arabian Nights seems to have significant problems as well. I've never played the real table, but some of the things in the left loop seem to work inconsistently, similar to the bumpers in Medieval Madness.
Let's now turn to problems that affect other tables as well. The physics is dodgy; the ball seems to sometimes do impossible things, and on one table (I forget which -- Pin-Bot, I think?) I'm pretty sure I was able to (more than once) get the ball to clip through the right outlane wall, returning it to the plunger. Meanwhile, the game's random number generator, or its use of it, seems to be broken. Firstly in the physics -- getting a skill shot in Medieval Madness is easy, yes, but in this game it requires literally zero
skill; the ball will go down the left lane and give you the skill shot every time. Other things seem to be insufficiently randomized as well -- for instance, in every game, in the catapult minigame, it was the cat that was worth 500,000. (I also got the "sexy princess" every game (ugh), but based on my experience with the real machine, getting the same princess over and over is not too unexpected.) Now it's possible I'm wrong about this, and I don't know how I'd judge this for tables I'm less familiar with, but I'm pretty sure there's something wrong with the randomness in this game.EDIT July 15th
: I have definitely seen the ball clip through walls now, no question.
As for the tables other than Medieval Madness, I can't say how faithfully they're implemented; Medieval Madness is the only one I'm familiar with. I didn't notice anything like the gate or the trolls, but when it comes to something like the bumpers not working properly, well, I could have easily missed that were I unfamiliar with the table. (I suppose I could compare against the in-game instructions -- more on that below -- but I didn't actually read the instructions for most tables. Or I can look up instructions online, if I really care.)
Having (mostly) covered the actual play of the game, let's turn to the interface. Rather than a simple menu where you can select which pinball game to play, the developers made a 3D virtual arcade -- which takes a fair bit of time to load, and needs to be accessed every time you want to select a different machine (which then itself needs time to load). Fortunately, we are spared having to control some player avatar walking around this arcade; within it, you can simply use the left and right buttons to select a machine, making it just a harder-to-use (since you can't see where you're going) menu... except that there's a separate "upstairs" and "back room" you have to separately navigate to. I bet somebody got a really nice bonus
Let's now talk about where the gameplay and interface intersect -- the camera! Rather than a fixed camera that gives you a good view of the overall table, you can choose between several different "Smart Cams". (I found Smart Cam 2 to be the best.) However, there's no menu option for this; you have to switch between them during the game with the circle button. And no, you can't do it before the game starts, because, you see, there's a separate "Plunger Cam" (when the ball is on the plunger), "Smart Cam" (most of the time), and "Multiball Cam" (for multiball), and you can only switch the one that's currently active. (I generally found Plunger Cam 3 to be the most useful; of course, that doesn't matter for Medieval Madness, since it has an autoplunger. I never really tried any of the other Multiball Cams; Multiball Cam 1 is fine.) Your camera settings are remembered between plays of the same table... until you leave that table. Then the next time you play, you're going to be going "Oh crap I'm in Smart Cam 1, let me hit the circle button while nothing important is happening" all over again.EDIT July 8th
: There actually is a way to get a full-table camera (of which there are several you can switch between); press the square button. But like every other camera switch, this must be done mid-game. That said, on the whole I found the Smart Cam better. (Although I'd like to revise my above statement -- I often find Smart Cam 3 better than Smart Cam 2.) Oh, here's another annoyance for you: You can only cycle through the cameras in one direction! And if you activate the left plunger in Funhouse, there's no
good camera for that.EDIT July 15th
: Having played some more, I think Smart Cam 3 is generally the best normal camera, though there are some exceptions. Also, Multiball Cam 2 actually is better than Multiball Cam 1.
(By the way, in every menu in the game, triangle is the cancel button, in defiance of all convention.)
One good thing about the game is that it does provide detailed instructions for all the tables; I don't know if they're complete
instructions, but they're pretty good. And it's not just a block of text; it actually shows you on the table what it's talking about. (You still may encounter problems with pinball jargon though -- I had to look up what a "Special" was. It means a free game.) Unfortunately, the interface gets in the way again; you have to page through these explanations a little bit at a time to find the part you care about, the pages can't be flipped very rapidly, and each page contains only a few lines of text. Even on most of the simpler tables, this is about 50 pages long; for Medieval Madness, it's about 80.
(Another side note -- when playing, if you pause, there's a menu option to reset the ball position. This is amusingly but unhelpfully labelled "Call Attendant".)
What I would like to exist, but does not, is some sort of table inspection mode, where you can just examine a table up-close without playing it. On some of the more complicated tables, I couldn't get a good sense of the physical layout of the tables without actually playing, or sometimes even after actually playing. Where do the ramps and habitrails lead, for instance? And what do all the lights and markings say? You'll never be able to read those during play (unless you use a terribly close-up camera). The instructions will tell you the significance of the lights, of course, but it's nice to be able to read them, as well as just more generally getting to examine the table art, some of which can be in places you'll hardly even be able to see during play.
They've also added five "table goals" (essentially achievements) to each table. Normally I'm opposed to achievement systems, but I'm pretty OK with it here. However, once again implementation problems get in the way. Completing all five table goals unlocks five further "wizard goals"... but you can't get the wizard goals to register as completed unless you've already unlocked them. If you completed one earlier, or even in the same game where you finally completed the fifth table goal? Too bad! You have to do it over. (This actually happened to me playing Taxi, with the "get 4,600,000 points" wizard goal.)EDIT July 15th
: This has now happened to me a lot
. It was especially a problem in Sorcerer (which has one normal goal -- the extra ball -- that's harder than many of the wizard goals) and in Tales of the Arabian Nights (which has a similar situation with the Harem Multiball (ugh), though in this case the difficulty seems to be due primarily to the table's broken implementation mentioned above). At least now I've unlocked the wizard goals on all tables (Jive Time included) so I never have to worry about this again!
This brings me to my next complaint: The unlocking system. Why does this even exist? I paid for the game, I'd like to just be able to play the pinball tables in it. (Fortunately, Medieval Madness starts fully unlocked.) Instead, of the 13 tables, only 4 start fully unlocked for free play mode. Most of the rest are available, but require spending credits. You start with 20 of these and it costs 1 to play a game; things that give you free games instead give you 1 credit. However, completing table goals gives you a bunch, and completing wizard goals gives you even more. You can spend 100 to unlock a table for free play; you can also unlock a table for free play without spending credits by completing (for the first time) all five goals on any table. (I assume you can also do this with wizard goals, but unsurprisingly I haven't been able to do that.)
Still, it's not terrible
; at least I was able to unlock all the tables after a single night of playing, right? (Granted, one that went much longer than I originally intended.) Well, not quite. One table, Jive Time, starts entirely locked. How do you unlock it? I don't know. You can't spend 100 credits on it, because you can't even access its menu. (Yes, you have to load a table before you can spend 100 credits to unlock it for free play. More loading time!) I didn't realize this till after I had collected 100 credits to unlock it, the final table. Fortunately, there was one table, Black Knight, on which I had completed 4 of the 5 table goals already, but not the fifth. I went back, got the fifth, and when asked which table I wanted to unlock, selected Jive Time. (Why do you even have the option of selecting tables you've already unlocked?) I then went back to the menu, back downstairs, to the back room, and Jive Time... was still locked. So, I don't know what's going on there. (There are also other unlockable options, such as mirror mode. I don't know how to unlock those at all.)EDIT July 8th
: Apparently, looking it up, Jive Time is unlocked by beating the Williams Challenge -- an additional mode I hadn't tried -- and the unlockable options are unlocked by completing all wizard goals on all tables. Yikes!EDIT July 15th
: Actually, the way it works is that completing all the wizard goals on a given table unlocks the unlockable options for that specific table. Seeing as the unlockable options are nothing too essential, I'm pretty OK with this.
Finally, before I conclude, a word on the selection of tables. As I've said above, I'm not really a pinball enthusiast; I basically got this for Medieval Madness. So if you are a pinball enthusiast -- who I assume this game is intended for -- I may not be the best judge. (Although if this game is for people who really care about pinball, why does it have so many implementation problems? Why don't the fricking bumpers even work right in Medieval Madness?) But, on the whole, I can't say I was too impressed with the selection of tables. Most of the tables were, uh, very old-school -- simple, yes, but, well, a bit too simple. I generally found them repetitive and tedious. Then there were the more modern incomprehensible tables. Yikes. (Of course, the game does have instructions. Maybe I should revisit these after reading those.) So aside from Medieval Madness, there just weren't a lot of tables I found to be that fun (and as for those, well, I get the impression I'd be better off playing them in another form). No Good Gofers I liked; I didn't really understand it, but it was at least somewhat comprehensible, and I think I might want to sit down and read the instructions. Taxi was also fun, but again a bit on the repetitive side. Tales of the Arabian Nights was interesting, and while still basically incomprehensible, at least it offered a fair amount of in-game guidance, in the form of explicitly telling you to shoot certain targets -- if only there were a table inspection mode so I could see what those targets were!EDIT July 15th
: Having played a bit more, and read more of the instructions, I have to say that the selection of tables has grown on me. A lot of the old-school ones I still don't like, but some of the more modern ones I called "incomprehensible" earlier really were worth revisiting after reading the instructions, in particular Whirlwind. Also Funhouse, if you're not too creeped out by Rudy. But definitely not Pin-Bot. I really do not like Pin-Bot.
In short: It is pretty unlikely that you should buy this.
PS: I found Medieval Madness substantially easier here than on a real machine. (I managed to light Royal Madness for the first time, though annoyingly I failed to then actually start it.) I don't know why this was. In particular the damsel ramp seemed to be easier to go up. Also, it seemed that I would less often miss the castle or the ball lock and hit a troll target instead, which normally is pretty common. Oddly, though, I had trouble hitting the peasant ramp. No idea what would cause all this. Maybe just luck.EDIT July 15th
: Well, I managed to activate Royal Madness now. :) Still haven't managed to win it though...