I’ve talked about companion texts in Flare Path before , but I’m not sure I’ve ever used this column to air my companion games theory. In short I believe certain games have soul mates – titles that compliment them so perfectly that the idea of playing one without the other is almost unthinkable. The two games that make up a companion pair are usually very different. The partnership works because themes cross-pollinate. Because pacing and player demands balance out. Because game (A) creates a craving for game (B) and vice versa. This week by a happy accident I found myself in the presence of the most perfect pair of companion games I’ve ever encountered. This week I’ve been bouncing, like a jet-kicked ball bearing, between American Truck Simulator and The Pinball Arcade.
I’m going to assume you know all about American Truck Simulator (peruse these pieces then purchase, PURCHASE, P-U-R-C-H-A-S-E! if you don’t) but, like me a month or so ago, relatively little about FarSight’s creation. Veteran Pinball Arcadian? Feel free to smile indulgently at the fresh-faced enthusiasm that follows, and, via the comments section, augment my clutch of table recommendations with some of your own.
I blame my painfully numerous BPA (Before Pinball Arcade) years on my rural upbringing and limited exposure to Adam Smith. In the bucolic English backwaters where I was brung-up, pinball tables and Adam Smiths were rarer than triffids. Tragically, I managed to reach manhood without ever pulling a plunger or experiencing the dizzy thrill of MULTIBALL. There was a moment in late 2013 when I came very close to taking the plunge, but something hexy or winged intervened and the impulse passed.
Quite why it returned six or seven week’s ago I really couldn’t say. All I know is that just after Christmas I found myself nervously stepping across the threshold of a bona-fide Aladdin’s Cave, a vast interactive museum full of noise and light, colour and humour, inventiveness and intricacy. I found myself hunched over a series of aged entertainment devices every bit as absorbing, subtle, and characterful as the best videogames. As a computer gamer I am, of course, accustomed to stumbling upon gems at regular intervals. This was different, however. Inside The Pinball Arcade the layer of sapphires, emeralds, rubies and diamonds is shin-deep.
Scampering from captivating table demo to captivating table demo I quickly realised I was in danger of being overwhelmed and overstimulated. Sensing there were months, years, of pleasure lurking in each of the five multi-table season packs, I resolved to focus rather than flit. I rationed myself to a small selection of machines and set about mastering their particular challenges and savouring their unique characters. All of the tables described below come from the Season 1 Pack (A bargain £11.50 until 1800hrs this evening) I’ve been playing most of the five daily for the last month and have yet to tire of or triumph over any of them.
Restless in Reno? Jaded in Jackpot? Sombre in San Diego? If you’re looking for the perfect way to unwind after a long day in the cab, the ideal way to change the pace but maintain the illusion, look no further.
Ye Olde Medieval Madness
This 1997 glee jamboree is so highly regarded by pinball aficionados there have been recent reproduction runs to satisfy collector demand. Spend a lunch break bombarding keeps, rescuing damsels and topping trolls via FarSight’s faithful facsimile and the adulation is Bally easy to understand. The masterly way designer Brian Eddy ludologises knightly tropes, the stream of immaculately delivered one-liners that keep the mood light and ludicrous, the splendid physicality of playfield elements like the drawbridge and castle towers… you don’t need to be a pinball connoisseur to recognise you’re in the presence of a masterpiece.
My favourite bit of Medieval Madness? Gosh, impossible question. Winding-up the peasants with left ramp shots is always a joyous process. I love their anguished “They took our gruel/shoes/children/pinball machine…” exclamations. Watching the castle shake and flail after demolishing the drawbridge and portcullis never gets old. And the damsel quips! They’re the funniest things to issue from my speakers since my last Father Ted marathon.
Even MM’s dinky score-screen animations are a delight. Defeat the dragon then pop a sphere through the damsel’s turret window and the game pauses while a sturdy pixel knight shins up a ladder to complete his chivalric duty. Bash a sizeable hole in the castle walls and mounted men-at-arms thunder towards the breach. Love has been lavished on even the tiniest details of this table. The combined effect is mesmerising.
In its dangerously moreish Pinball Arcade incarnation this 1996 Dennis Nordman table dispenses points, extra balls, and jackpots like a Shilka SPAAG dispenses lead. It’s so generous, so eager to forgive slow reactions and clumsy flipper twitches, there are moments when I find myself questioning the realism. If the real machines were this magnanimous then they must have been responsible for countless flat beers and forgotten cigarettes.
Gaping ramps, big flippers, and out-of-the-way outlanes partially explain the friendliness of the PA recreation. Gratifying toys, a sumptuous soundtrack, and a beautifully integrated low-budget horror theme are, together with the ego-massaging easiness, at the heart of the appeal. The far end of the playfield is dominated by a wooden monster crate that emits chilling growls when clattered. Bashing the box five times triggers ‘Terror From The Crate’ mode, a frenetic multiball mode introduced with characteristic wit by wisecracking table narrator Elvira.
Other colourful mini-games include the collection of a set of mutant ‘deadheads’ via rollovers at the top of the table, the squashing of ‘leapers’ (the jumping frogs that guard the ramp entrances), the activation of spider spinner on the backbox, and the elevation of the shoot-here-to-advance ‘stiffometer’. Boredom is utterly impossible on this table. There’s always something tempting to aim for. Something new to catch the eye or tickle the tympanums.
Tales of the Arabian Nights
FarSight’s approach to demo-ing is commendable. Not only does the free base game come with trial versions of all the DLC tables (sessions automatically end when you push your score above the lowest entry on the High Score Table) it includes a complimentary no-limits table, the evocative Tales of the Arabian Nights.
I played this 1996 John Papadiuk creation happily for weeks before taking the plunge with the season 1 pack. The unpredictable spinning lamp in the centre, and a loop that can hurl the ball flipper-ward at a fair-old lick, adds agreeable edge to proceedings. As with the other late Nineties tables in this selection, the theme has been embedded with amazing flair. The jasmine-sandalwood-and-cardoman aroma of Old Baghdad and Sinbadian adventure pervades everything on the table. In the space of a minute you can go from battling rocs and riding flying carpets to debating bazaar purchases and sneaking into harems.
In my last session I came excruciatingly close to completing one of the few objectives that has thus far eluded me – the rescue of the princess. My scimitar was studded with all seven of the requisite gems, and I’d sliced my way through all but one of the skeleton sentinels guarding her glass cell when an unanticipated bounce and poorly-timed flipper flourish snatched glory from my grasp.
There’s not a great deal of humour in Arabian Nights, but the soundtrack and pixel animations aren’t totally giggle free. The ankle-biting scene and yelp of pain that plays every time a ‘snake-charming’ skill shot is missed, still makes me smile.
Theatre of Magic
When contemplating my first Pinball Arcade foray I naively assumed I’d find most pleasure in the company of designs that mirrored my own interests; initially I sallied in the direction of F-14 Tomcat, Space Shuttle and Judge Dredd. After a month of biffing bumpers and lighting locks, I now realise that pinball classics come draped in the unlikeliest apparel.
In the engrossing Theatre of Magic (1995) you play a stage magician endeavouring to perform a set of eight different illusions and rise through the ranks of the profession. The playfield features a couple of staircase-styled ramps, a wiry tangle of ramp returns, and a crucial magic trunk. Hits rotate the trunk eventually revealing an opening. Pop a sphere into the hole – no mean feat – and the currently selected illusion begins.
Every illusion is different but all require speed, precision and a cool head. To free your glamorous assistant from her straitjacket you must push balls down to the jets (with every impact her hand edges towards the release buckle). To propel the tiger saw through the trunk you must nudge the captive balls. To shuffle the spirit deck, the spinner on the right loop must be spun multiple times. During the 25 seconds of an illusion bid the opportunistic improvisation of ordinary play makes way for something more focused and fraught.
A not insignificant part of Theatre of Magic’s charm is generated by its male and female compères. As the balls ricochet and different illusions and specials are triggered, Mr and Mrs ToM narrate, advise and encourage. Shoot for the trunk! Shoot for the centre staircase! You have the magic! Hocus Pocus! AMAZING! The overblown delivery is absolutely perfect.
A visit to Gorgar’s garish lair always leaves me breathless and exhilarated. Arcade contemporaries like Space Invaders and Asteroids might have been more in tune with the late Seventies Star Wars zeitgeist, but Barry Oursler’s landmark ‘talking’ pinball machine outshone all when it came to sensory stimulation and tension building.
While it’s the titular monster’s stilted outbursts (Gorgar. Got. You! You. Hurt. Gorgar!..) that went down in pinball history, it’s the inspired heartbeat soundtrack that ensures games end in a sweaty frenzy of flashing fingers and throbbing temples. The longer you keep a ball in play, the faster the audible heart pounds. Towards the end of high-scoring play phases, the background beat is a tachycardiac blur and, chances are, your own ticker will be doing its utmost to keep up.
Relatively simple and unforgiving compared to most PA tables, Gorgar isn’t without rules intricacy. The action-punctuating magnetic snake pit is the key to really big scores. When primed with various combinations of drop-down and spot target shots, it pays out lavishly. After 100+ sessions I’m still 70,000 short of the ‘score 550,000’ wizard goal (I’ve also yet to complete the ‘1-2-3-4 special’ goal). More importantly, after 100+ sessions, every time I sit down to play I’m still blown away by the excitement and challenge served up by this flawless 35-year-old design.
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There was only room for ten clues in last week’s collage. Roman had to leave out the mugshots of Chelsea Clinton, Graeme Garden, and Charlie Hungerford.
theme: London’s bridges (defoxed by AFKAMC)
a. Victoria Railway Bridge (Stugle, foop)
b. Cannon Street Railway Bridge (unsolved)
c. Millennium Bridge (foop, corinoco)
d. London Bridge (Matchstick)
e. Albert Bridge (AFKAMC, Arglebarf)
f. Tower Bridge (Stugle)
g. Waterloo Bridge (AFKAMC)
h. Kingston Bridge (mrpier)
i. Queen Elizabeth II Bridge (foop)
j. Vauxhall Bridge (phlebas)
* * * * *
Below is a list of ’25 Things You Might Find On The Moon’ (‘Things’ and ‘Might’ are used here in their broadest possible senses). For purposes of obfuscation, the ‘things’ have been stripped of vowels and had spaces repositioned. For example, if ‘Neil Armstrong’’ was present, he might appear as…
The last five entries in the list – those marked with asterisks – are especially fiendish. Not only are they vowel-less, they have also been anagrammed.
BS TFL CK!
3. LNRL NDR
4. FLLNS TRNT
5. GLTRNS PRTR
6. RPSR CT
7. BRNMN CHSN
9. FLCNFT HR
10. FLCTYS HGWLL
12. PLTCR TRLT
13. RTHSS HDW
15. GNCR NN
16. MN SRGS
17. GL DLVBR NCH
19. THM SNNDTHM PSN
20. HSSLB LDCMR
22.* LGL FLB
23.* LZRD NZB
25.* MK DNK
All answers in one thread, please.