Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection Review
Before there were video games, there was pinball. Ironically enough, it was a commonly accepted form of entertainment (in contrast to the "geeks" that only played video games in the ‘70s and ‘80s), and you could find these brightly-lit, ultra-addictive tables in bars, clubs and, well...just about anywhere people would normally go to socialize and congregate. You needed decent hand-eye coordination, excellent reflexes, and a penchant for massive high scores via points, which were your only reward back in the day. Obviously, there was always a bit of luck involved, but those who could flip and "nudge" with the best of them had a big advantage. Now, FarSight and Crave are bringing us another entry in the Pinball Hall of Fame series, and The Williams Collection is arguably the best installment yet. However, you really need to have a few like-minded friends, and if you weren't around during the pinball era, you might lose interest very quickly.
But then again, that's kinda the point, isn't it? It's all about nostalgia with titles like these, and the developers provide us with a simple yet effective visual palette that is neither lacking or impressive. One could argue they didn't have a tough challenge, just because all they had to do was recreate pinball tables, and that's a valid argument. However, we're not looking for anything too special in this category; all we really need is the aforementioned faithful recreation of the pinball tables. Now, for those who aren't familiar, this includes a great deal of intricate detail. The designs included range from the fire-laden backdrops found in Firepower to the hidden ramps and pathways in Taxi, and that's enough to make this game graphically acceptable. There's little in the way of environmental or character visuals, although there are a few basic backdrops in the arcade you can view, and you'll see a few people playing the machines. It's not anything spectacular, but it's there. Normally, when evaluating the graphics of a game, there's a lot to consider and analyze, but our job is easy with The Williams Collection: there are pinball machines, and they look just fine.
In many ways, the sound is far more important. Recreating the pinball tables is one thing, but you must also capture the ambiance of the pinball world, which includes a lot of electronic beeps, bloops, and robotic talk. It's like a slot machine - only far more entertaining - and amidst the old-school effects is the often-mocking words of the table itself. In its own fashion, the table will groan when you tilt, laugh when neither flipper makes contact with the ball, and light up like an electronic aurora borealis when your points skyrocket. Basically, FarSight does a good job of presenting the player with an authentic atmosphere, and it's almost entirely due to the sound. It's not quite as clear or intense as we remember, but then again, playing pinball in the heat of the moment alters the senses a bit. Perhaps we're remembering things a little differently. There's no voice acting or any other effects to speak of, so this category (like all the other score-able categories) is simply evaluated. The sound isn't anything too special, but it fits nicely into the overall presentation.
If you've never played pinball before, you're not only young, but you're also missing out. Granted, we have unbelievable video games that make the interactive games of yesteryear appear archaic by comparison, and the pinball machine is all but dead. You'll have difficulty finding one anywhere these days, and some may ask: "is it possible to make pinball fun in a video game?" After all, pinball isn't exactly a sedentary activity; you're standing up and actually jiggling the table like a madman occasionally, and the only buttons you press are for the two flippers. In video games, all you ever do is press buttons (unless we're talking about motion sensing), so playing pinball with a gamepad and a television isn't really the same thing. Still, the developers do an admirable job of producing the surprisingly engaging entertainment we enjoyed when playing pinball with our friends all those years ago. In all honesty, before playing, we were most concerned about this transferal, just because we weren't entirely sure how playing pinball on our PlayStations would work.
Well, as it turns out, everything works out okay. As soon as we pulled back on the right analog to prepare for our play time, we were instantly reminded of pinballin' so many years ago. There are several camera angles to choose from, but the selection is a little bizarre, primarily because you only need one: the angle we all had when looking down at the table. A problem often arises when the camera zooms in too close to the top of the machine when you first launch the ball, just because you can't see the entire layout of the table. The path of the ball is always essential, and when you can't line things up ahead of time, it makes playing that much more difficult. Furthermore, for some strange reason, it seems the flippers are almost too far apart...when you miss in pinball, most of the time, it's because it went around behind or you simply timed it wrong. We don't recall the ball disappearing in between the flippers so often, but again, it was a long time ago, so maybe our memories are a bit fuzzy. It was still awfully annoying, though, and made the Williams Challenge very difficult.
The Williams Challenge is one of the gameplay modes available in the game, and it requires that you beat the table goal within three tries. If you can, you will continue to move on through a series of machines, thereby opening up more for the Table Slide Show. Like the game itself, the rewards are simple- points and pics. The higher the score, the better you did, and in addition, you can check out some of the cool flyers for each of the machines. The vast majority of the gameplay revolves around flipping and nudging your way to pinball superstardom, and all you need is the R1/L1 buttons and each analog stick. The left analog allows you to nudge the table, which lets you maneuver the ball just a tad in a certain direction. But if you keep jerking the table, it'll eventually tilt and that'll be the end of your turn, which is a colossal annoyance and a rookie mistake. It's easy to keep that from happening, though, especially because most tables will warn you when you're pushing the limits and risking a tilt. The responsiveness of the flippers is decent and everything relies on your ability to time your strike and keep that little metal ball rollin' around up top.
In addition to the Williams Challenge, there's a tournament mode that supports up to four players, both a Table Art and Audio Gallery, and 8 classic Williams pinball tables prominently featured in the gameplay: Black Knight, Firepower, Funhouse, Gorgar, Pinbot, Space Shuttle, Taxi and Whirlwind. For the record, our least favorite was Funhouse and our favorites were Pinbot and Black Knight. Without a few buddies to play with, you'll be limited to the Williams Challenge, which might take you a while to complete. There just isn't much of anything beyond that, but when a game is priced at $14.99 (that's even $5 less than a typical budget title), it's tough to quibble. We do wish there had been a few more tables and a few more gameplay modes, but pinball is pinball. If you loved playing those classic tables when you were younger, this might make for a good rainy day purchase.
3/17/2008 Ben Dutka