Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection Review
For those who have been gaming long enough, it's hard to deny the major role that pinball machines played in building today's video game industry. I was barely tall enough to see through the glass by the time that video games started crowding out pinball machines in local arcades, but sometimes I forget that many of today's gamers weren't even born by the time most arcades in the US had started to go out of business. For them, pinball has got to be one of those bizarre old-timey things that just made no sense.
Crave Entertainment's Pinball Hall of Fame has been around for a few years, and even this Williams Collection title has made it onto some systems as early as the beginning of 2008, but we're finally seeing it on the PS3 with a few new pinball machines to help make up for the wait. What you'll get is a package of thirteen classic Williams-branded tables spanning roughly the final thirty years of pinball's history. We start with 1970's Jive Time, moving through the late 70s (and the first talking pinball game, Gorgar) and plenty of 80s classics, and onto a few pinball games exclusive to the PS3 and 360 versions of the game, including Medieval Madness and No Good Gofers, both from 1997. The full list is available on Wikipedia.
If you're looking for a ton of background info or a complete lesson on the century-plus history of pinball, The Williams Collection is only going to be a small piece of the puzzle. It instead tries to throw you into the deep end of nostalgia by putting you in a virtual arcade, complete with neon lights, the sound of nearby machines adding to the ambiance, and a soundtrack of a dozen 80s-style rock and electronic songs that match the setting nicely. Most of the machines are playable right from the start, and from there you can complete specific goals - there are five for each game - to gain more credits to use at other pinball machines.
Each table is pretty detailed and true to the original, right down to the "For Amusement Only" notice put on almost all pinball machines after they were switched over from a form of gambling to pure entertainment, but it's the feel of the whole thing that really makes the difference. The game's simulated arcade is pretty basic and the overall soundscape of being in an arcade aren't what I'd call amazing (for that you'll need to listen to some of the MP3s in this free collection - I recommend the 1981 MP3 for the clearest sound), but the responsiveness of each table's controls, the way the balls careen around, and the lights and sounds of each machine do a lot to immerse you on their own. While the arcade you tool around in does have video games, you can't touch them or really even see them well: the focus here is entirely on pinball, but considering I spend the majority of my arcade time during the mid-to-late 80s, for me the experience isn't really complete without seeing both side-by-side in detail.
The graphics of the tables themselves sometimes is a little disappointing, too. Even on the PS3, the developers couldn't quite get enough detail to achieve photorealism for these pinball classics. But beyond that, some of the bright and garish colors may have worked for yesteryear's pinball tables, but they can work against the presentation in a video game released in 2009. Admittedly, I think that there are a few pinball-based video games, not based on real-life tables, that simply work better visually than what you get here - Epic Pinball and Sonic Spinball from the 90s come to mind as well as Metroid Prime Pinball on the DS. But with those, you just won't find the authentic nostalgia factor that you get here.
The developers did try to toss in a few extras to make things interesting. You'll of course see online leaderboards with high score tables, up to four players can take turns on any given table, you can "call an attendant" if your ball does wind up getting stuck somewhere, and you can fiddle with the camera (although I found the default one worked really nicely). What may be the biggest disappointment, though, is that Williams' pinball games based on licensed properties are nowhere to be found. It's probably not surprising considering the licensing costs that would likely have gone into getting this going, but it still would have been nice to see classics like Terminator 2 and Indiana Jones recreated here as well.
Maybe one day we'll possibly see some kind of arcade simulation that includes tons of classic games from a number of publishers along with pinball machines, stuff like Skee-ball, and more. Having virtual quarters you'd actually use in the arcade would be fun, and the developers could even have fun simulating the arcade-goer stereotypes we'd so often see. I think it's possible that we'll get something like this one day, complete with downloadable versions of classic arcade games that could be installed in your virtual arcade, but until then, Pinball Hall of Fame and a copy of MAME loaded with classic video games is probably the closest we'll get.
Considering just how expensive and rare a pristine pinball machine is nowadays, The Williams Collection may be one of the best ways for old time arcade aficionados to relive the days before Nintendo, Data East, Sega, and Capcom took over their favorite hangouts. It may not perfectly recreate the whole experience and the selection of machines isn't the most well-rounded, but the action on the table is what matters most and Crave Entertainment most certainly did get that right. I imagine that most younger gamers will find themselves wondering what the appeal of a metal ball bouncing around under a piece of glass is when compared to a "real" game, and because of that I would recommend that only those with the nostalgia bug even consider buying this game straight off, but maybe the modest $30 price tag on Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection will help ease people into the experience.