Ever since I was a young boy
I've played sim pinball.
From Raster Blaster down to Metroid,
I must have played them all.
But I ain't seen nothing like this
on any console at all.
The Wiimote and Nunchuk
come closest to real pinball.
The control scheme is a virtue,
like none you've ever seen.
Nunchuk is the plunger;
Wiimote enables lean.
Buttons are responsive,
no flippers will they stall.
Video pinball addicts and even casual fans,
sure for this game they'll fall.
The graphics aren't Infinity Ward,
but here they won't be missed.
No gameplay depth of Blizzard,
yet in an hour this is bliss.
For a casual game, Crave has done it.
They're hardly slow.
What makes this so good?
It's got realistic physics action.
Evokes an arcade feel and smell.
The music is just not smashin',
but history this game will tell.
Williams' flaws are very small.
Three tables per represented decade,
you'll trust you're at the mall.
I thought Bill Budge was the genre king,
but Crave just handed his developers' hat to him.
For these table games I have a tough test.
For real nostalgic sim, Williams is the best.
The order here is tall.
This fresh, fun and fine game sure plays a mean pinball.
At first blush, mechanical pinball seems to translate well to computer or console simulations. The interaction of the ball with the plunger; electrically triggered, spring-loaded bumpers and traps; electromechanical flippers; and even the basic physics of balls rolling and caroming off various surfaces all seem nicely suited to simulation in software. The largely static graphics also mean that an attractive game is easy to create without having to overtax less-powerful consoles. The audio is all about startling, jarring, mechanically inspired sound effects, without anything so complicated as the perfect positioning of running footsteps or weapons fire in a multichannel sound field. However, should you spend some hours or days playing console pinball games and then go out and try the rare tangible artifact at a local bar or your neighbor's rec room, you may discover that the video game versions are definitely entertaining, but aren't particularly good simulations of the real deal, despite the developers' often-hairsplitting attention to details and game physics.
The thing about console pinball is the same thing about some people's addiction to computer solitaire: ruled by the convenience and "time-suck" factors. In convenience, computer solitaire bests its real-world counterpart because you never have to shuffle the deck or lay out the opening card arrangements. With console pinball, the convenience lies in having a variety of tables all in one place, no stacks of quarters piled on the most favored machines' glass tops — the arcade equivalent of a long line ahead of you. Sure, the game's price is an expensive hour in an arcade, but for a lifetime of pinball on 10 tables, it's dirt cheap.
What I call the "time-suck factor" should be obvious in both games. Computer solitaire and console pinball are games that you sit down and intend to play for 20 minutes as a break from just about anything else, but when you glance at your watch again, you discover that more than two hours have passed. Besides knowing that you tranquilly enjoyed yourself, you really have no idea where that time went. That's a hallmark of a good game: simplicity, and the ability to lose yourself in it without having to throw in the towel because you keep losing. This makes Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection a damn fine game, although not much of a simulation, as the virtual tables ultimately possess little of the feel of their mechanical predecessors.
For starters, you can't easily see an entire pinball slate at once. You can't lean down over the glass and watch that chrome demon pop around, and then quickly glance downward or rock back on your heels to check those terminal lanes and flipper positions. This matters, though I don't know exactly why. After all, if the action is at the top of the table, that's where you're likely watching, should it be a real or virtual table. Plus, the console games scroll you right down to the lanes and flippers as "gravity" eventually overcomes "electromechanical" bumpers, pulling the ball your way. I expect it is has something to do with giving over our sense of spatial orientation — a big part of our sense of being in control of ourselves — over to the game.
In addition to automatically chasing the ball down the table, The Williams Collection does allow you to "quick scroll" to the lower part of the table, but it's nothing as rock solid as glancing downward. There's also isn't a thing to simulate that pinball wizard's rush of rolling back on one's heels, grasping both sides of the table, index fingers poised, with the semi-cybernetic aid of spastic, hair-triggered flippers, ready to fight that ball all the way back north.
Again, this isn't to say The Williams Collection on Wii isn't a very good game; it's merely that it can claim to simulate pinball only in the loosest sense of the word. It's not a version of pinball, really, so much as it's video pinball, a game distinct from its inspiration. As much as the addictive quality of the console games may remind you of this same trait of mechanical pinball, it's where the similarity ends.
As for the nuts and bolts of the game, the Wii's standard-definition graphics and analog audio are more than enough to deliver The Williams Collection without perception of a lesser experience than any of the latter-day consoles. Control via the Nunchuk (plunger and left flippers) and Wiimote (right flippers and interface control) is smooth and comfortable, but doesn't differentiate itself from other console pinball control, save in one aspect: You can use the motion sensor in the Nunchuk to bump the tables. This is indeed a unique addition, but unfortunately you tend to forget it's there, especially if you've spent most of your pinball hours with video versions lacking a similar feature — or you grew up playing pinball in the late 1970s, when most table operators set the machine's motion sensors to such a degree of sensitivity that if someone sneezed, you tilted.
The Williams Collection includes three modes: Williams Challenge, a basic format where you must meet the target score before progressing; Practice Arcade, essentially free play on any table with multiple player score tracking; and Tournaments, following the standard pinball tournament for four players, or one player, to rack up single-player high scores. Practice Arcade features only 10 tables for empty-pockets open play. "Credits" — you know, quarters — are required for the remaining, locked tables. By completing Table Goals, you can eventually unlock all the tables for free play in Practice Arcade. This seems an efficient model for goal-oriented types, except you earn lots of credits playing just passably in various modes; unless you're exceptionally bad or exceptionally young, you're never going to run out of credits to play those locked tables in Practice Arcade. Ergo, the whole business of unlocking tables for open play is pointless. This would be a drawback in The Williams Collection's gameplay design save for the fact, with a game like this, I firmly believe, you've paid your money, you deserve infinite time on any table you wish.
My chief complaint with The Williams Collection is almost entirely subjective, related to my personal nostalgia window: If your youthful pinball career ended pretty much on New Year's Days 1980, these tables will be neither classic nor even memorable, since you won't have even heard of most of them. Jive Time and Gorgar, from 1970 and 1979, respectively, I well know. Black Knight of 1980, I do recall, as perhaps it appeared right before the act of hanging about in arcades playing pinball machines was supplanted by chasing girls who very definitely did not hang out in arcades playing pinball machines. Space Shuttle, originating in 1984, I vaguely recall: I think I may have encountered this machine but once, some long while after its release, stuck alone at O'Hare during an interminable weather delay, when I had to come to terms with the fact, had I kept at the double gin martinis without finding something else to do off and on, I was going to run out of cash and be way too far out to sea to hear my flight called. But, due to that aforementioned Lake Michigan of stingily diluted Bombay, it may not have been Williams' Space Shuttle. It could have been a pachinko machine situated right next a flashy CD jukebox spinning old Flock of Seagulls chart-toppers. In the game manual's introductory paragraph, someone has written that these machines "span arcade pinball's golden age." They're nice video versions of fun tables, but, lamentably, save perhaps Jive Time, the writer must have meant "golden years," not "golden age."
Finally, the music that accompanies trips to The Williams Collection's arcade is hideous. It's meant to recall the actual aural wallpaper of arcades of the 1980s, an era that is known, with humor, as the years of "hair metal," but in music circles and in our memories, they're far more associated with a variety of "new wave" records and the birth of "technopop." So why is it that all we get in this game is the grating, puny hard-rock portion of that era's musicology? If the developers were shooting for satire, I can assure them that in this case, two minutes of satire is plenty.
All this whining and pining for bygone days aside, Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection is an entertaining game you'll pick up and put down, quite possibly for years to come. It's well worth the paltry price, particularly if you're old enough to remember when arcade plays were just a quarter per play, but still you'd be mortified to tally exactly how much money you spent machine-hopping in those dark, stuffy chambers of teenage delights.
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