Curmudgeon Gamer
Curmudgeoning all games equally.
08 April 2008
Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection (Wii version)
Having been disappointed by the previous entry in the series, the Gottlieb Pinball Hall of Fame, mostly because the included games didn't click with me, this one was bound to be a winner. Williams pinballs just seemed deeper than Gottleib pinball tables from similar years. Overall, the new package is extremely good, possibly the best collection of virtual pinball tables on the market. The package falls short of perfection in a couple of areas, but that doesn't tarnish much of the sheer awesomeness to be found on this disk unless you're an enthusiast.

Just to get the issues about tables that are "exclusive" to one system or another out of the way, these are the games in the Wii version: Black Knight, Firepower, Funhouse, Gorgar, Pin*Bot, Space Shuttle, Taxi, Whirlwind, Jive Time and Sorcerer.

They are all unlocked at first, but only some are available in "free play." A new file begins with 20 tokens, and more are earned for earning replays and specials, making matches after games, and completing "challenges," special tasks available on each board. Playing a non-free table costs one token per game, per player. Unlocking a table for freeplay costs 100. It sounds restrictive, but enough good tables are free to start with, and enough tokens are granted for completing challenges (many of which are harder to avoid earning), that even terrible players should have plenty of tokens. Further, completing all the basic challenges on a table awards one freeplay unlock on the table of the player's chosing, as well as making available a special set of harder, "wizard" challenges.

The games, as mentioned, are much more interesting to us from a gameplay standpoint, as opposed to just historical interest, than the Gottlieb collection. In particular, four of the tables, Pin*Bot, Taxi, Whirlwind and Funhouse, came at the lead-end of the 90s pinball boom. Whirlwind and Funhouse were both designed by the designer of classic games Addams Family Pinball and Twilight Zone (and they show -- Pat Lawlor many certain trademark ideas from these tables in lots of his other games). Funhouse in particular is a gem, showing off a lot of the panache with which Bally/Williams pinball would use to win over players a couple of years later. Whirlwind's infamous spinning sandpaper disks are just as maddening, but not moreso, as on a real table, and that's an accomplishment. Many of the other games are also entertaining in their way, mostly except for Jive Time, which doesn't hold up well for players who grew up playing 90s pinball.

Best of all, the play itself seems to be scrupulously accurate. The game somehow avoids falling prey to the problem that nearly all video pinball suffers from, namely, that some shots are pretty much impossible to make because pinball relies on timing more strict than the game's framerate, meaning that some shots cannot be made when the ball comes down a flipper inlane because its velocity isn't synced right with the frame rate to enable those shots to be made. Well that might not be totally accurate, but that's how I conceptualize the problem; the result is that , in many other games, some shots that should be easy are maddeningly difficult when they shouldn't be. The emulation in this package is exceptionally good about this, meaning I was able to hit both the center ramp in Whirlwind and the Extra Ball target from the left inlane, two shots that are separated on the board by just a wall. That kind of fidelity to player timing would be above the call of duty in any other game, but in a package of pinball tables, it's downright essential.

That's the good, and what a lot of it there is. But there's still some bad to get out there. Let's get it over with.

Wii controls. Overall the flipper controls, using the triggers on the Nunchuck and the Wii Remote, are very good. By letting the player control one button with each hand, the game feels that much closer to real pinball. Motion controls, on the other hand, are a bit iffier. Players used to moving their hands as they play Wii games will have to be careful not to accidentally nudge the table as they play! I have yet to accidentally tilt the machine, but neither have I successfully been able to use a nudge in a way that feels analogous to shoving a real table. It's a great idea, but the technology isn't there yet.

Ball jumping. Twice I've managed, somehow, to cause the ball to skip through the playfield wall that leads to the flipper, sending it directly down into the drain. It's true that one of the times the ball had enough horizontal momentum that it skipped right up the outlane and back out onto the playfield (!), but it was still disconcerting. It may have done with one of those accidental nudges I mentioned, but unless there was an earthquake I fail to see how the ball could completely jump a wall like that in real life.

Incomplete respect paid to the tables. Yeah, hard to believe I'm leveling this charge.
And for the most part, the play is great. But for before the game starts, and after it finishes, the software doesn't care at all. Some of these games have somewhat entertaining attract modes, match displays and high score entry routines, but for some bizarre reason the developers figured they'd use their own super-lame UI elements for all these things. This is most shameful in Funhouse, which does play the High Score music and even plays the game's victory lightshow in time with it behind the ugly initial entry window, but leaves out such details as Rudy's congratulations to the player, and kills the Game Over music and lightshow dead in favor of the game's painfully generic rock soundtrack the moment play ends. The failure to use the games' own match routines and displays, in favor of a stupid little stop-the-number minigame, is particularly galling. Yeah, there's an aspect of Get Off My Lawn-ism in my complaints here, but for a package that seemingly prides itself on fidelity, and takes its name from the ever-lovin', blue-eyed Pinball Hall of Fame, to neglect something like this is kind of shameful.

But most players, I suspect, won't care about those things. The fact remains that this may be the best pinball compilation ever made. It's amazing, but in nearly all cases, tables made specifically for video pinball turn out to be so much worse than those based off of real tables. This collection is just about the best you can get without spending a month's pay getting a physical machine... or resorting to less-than-legal means.


--John Harris at 00:58
Comment [ 3 ]

Comments on this post:

The PSP version is great stuff. I'm on my third battery recharge, having run it down twice completely before that just on Pinball Hall of Fame: Williams Collection.

As someone who played very little pinball when the games existed anywhere reasonably accessible, I don't notice the missing things you do. I appreciate what's here on its own terms, although I wouldn't mind the more extensive treatment you've mentioned.

And I don't care much for Jive Time either, but I do like the Gottlieb Collection a lot. Again, I don't have any predisposition toward the tables, and I like some of the mechanical tables like Ace High and Central Park in the earlier set. In fact, for those kinds of more primitive tables, I think the ones in Gottlieb blow Jive Time out of the water.

By Blogger jvm, at 08 April, 2008 14:27  

I'll admit, it might be the case that I really started playing pinball during the 90s, on machines like Addams Family, so games that follow that kind of design are the ones I find myself enjoying more. I do like some of the ideas on the Gottlieb tables, but they tend to be a lot more random, and prone to sudden drains before the ball even touches the widely-spaced flippers than in the Williams collection.

By Blogger JohnH, at 09 April, 2008 08:15  

Great review! The only thing I would like to point out is that Jive Time will appeal to anyone who ever played it in real life. The nostalgia trip is great. Just doing a weak launch and hearing the sound of the ball rolling up and back down the launch lane brought back great memories. I used to go with my older brother in the 60s to play pinball and this is the machine he taught me to "nudge" on. In real life (and in this sim) you really couldn't beat it without learning to nudge the table without tilting. My action/violent video game addicted 13 year old now owns the majority of the high scores on this table and together we are working on the last two wizard goals. After completing the wizard goals on three other tables this one is proving to be the most challenging.

By Blogger Tod, at 23 July, 2008 14:36  

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