IGN Review of Pinball Hall of Fame - The Williams Collection
Decades before videogames grabbed hold of the market, there was pinball. Even through the evolution of game technologies and the move towards the virtual, pinball managed to hold on with advancements of its own. It's tough to bring these experiences home due to their use of, well, real objects and gravity, but developers have certainly tried over the years turning the experience into a videogame one. Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection is the latest effort, and honestly despite its bargain price it's one of the best virtual pinball experiences I've ever played and it comes extremely close to the same fun you'd get on the actual machines.
Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection gets it: if you're going to create a compilation of pinball for the home consoles, you go to the classics by the people who made those classics. Back in the day Williams was responsible for many of the pinball machines that wound up in pizza parlors, 7-Elevens, bowling alleys, bars, and any of the umpteen other places these quarter-suckers ended up.
Initially I was extremely nervous about this compilation when the title screen launched with some of the most horrendous, low resolution full-motion video seen this side of the third millennia. Whatever video codec the developers decided to use, it's like they used a SEGA Saturn development kit to compress their introduction.
Luckily, that's about the worst thing that can be said about The Williams Collection. Outside of the awful video introduction, everything else about this pinball package is surprisingly top-notch. The disc contains several licensed machines out of Williams' line-up from the past three decades, each accurately recreated for play on the home console. At least half of the names should be familiar to anyone who's flipped a few silver balls in their day. Pinbot. Whirlwind. Black Knight. Funhouse. Space Shuttle. Even the lesser known ones should ring familiar: Gorgar, Taxi, Firepower, and Sorceror might not have been huge successes in arcades, but chances are you've dropped a token or two in them even if you can't immediately remember them. And for those who need a truly old-school pinball machine in their collection, Jive Time has that quaint mechanical design of the pre-microchip era.
It should be noted that the PlayStation 2 version omits two machines out of the line-up: Jive Time and Sorceror didn't make the cut. But honestly, due to the much cheaper price point ($14.99 for PS2 compared to 29.99 on Wii) eight machines versus ten does not bring the overall score down.
The PlayStation Portable version adds a couple of exclusive features to the mix: Game Sharing support and a cool vertical mode. Game Sharing enables players to send select pinball tables to friends who don't have the game. These can then be used for multiplayer, where the players can wirelessly compete against each other simultaneously for the best score. The "vertical mode" is the game's ability to use the PSP's widescreen vertical, rotating the PSP to get a taller view of the table. It's a cool option, but ultimately useless due to the way the buttons are mapped -- the plunger/tilt control on the analog stick are completely out of reach in this mode.
Developer FarSight has had some experience in virtualizing pinball with previous pinball collections -- the team worked on Crave's previous compilation from more than three years ago: The Gottlieb Collection. That experience really shows in The Williams Collection. What failed in The Gottlieb Collection – fewer (and boring) tables with low resolution textures – has been resolved in this collection. First of all, the collection is a great selection of machines, and each of them have been rendered in 3D using high resolution scans from the actual pinball table. The visual engine used in The Williams Collection runs at a slick 60 frames a second even when a triple multiball is in play. And the developers even employ a fantastic amount of camera options for those who want to get the best view of the action. The sound effects are also spot-on to their realworld counterpart, from the raspy voice of Pinbot to the "kaching" of the mechanical bells from Jive Time.
What's more, the pinball physics – what truly makes or breaks virtual pinball – are extremely well done. The balls weight and gravity is accurately represented as it rolls around the playfield. The excellent physics engine is confirmed for those with true pinball prowess: traditional skills such as catching and flipper passing (quickly flipping a "caught" ball from one flipper to the other) can be pulled off with the same finesse as it's done on the real machine.
The collection even presents the ten tables well. Each game is selectable in a virtual arcade, and can be jumped in and out with impressively short load times. It's a shame that the developers had to tease and pollute the arcade with several unplayable "dummy" machines instead of simply making a game room with the ten games exclusively, but it's a minor nitpick. Some machines are Free Play unlocked, but others require spending tokens to play – luckily you get a pocketful right at the start and earn more by hitting the match number at the end of a game.
An added incentive to play each machine is the game's included achievement system: each table has about a half-dozen tasks to complete, from reaching a high score to triggering a specific event on the machine. Nailing every achievement on a table rewards players with the ability to unlock Free Play on the machines that don't have it, as well as open up other cheats like custom balls and options on the title screen. The achievement system is clearly an easy way for the developers to increase replay, but it actually works because it dangles that carrot in front of players' noses with specific pinball machine tasks. The fully-narrated tutorial does a wonderful job showing all the special shots and table locations, too, so if a task eludes you, just follow along with the designers to see how to get the job done.
Apart from the missing Sorceror and Jive Time machines on the PlayStation 2 edition, the PSP, PS2 and Wii versions of The Williams Collection are virtually identical. The PS2 version has a slight framerate hiccup in the table select interface compared to the Wii edition, but it's far from anything that should be docked. The PlayStation 2 and PSP versions' flipper controls are mapped to the shoulder buttons on the traditional controller; on the PlayStation 2, the right analog stick handles the plunger controls and the left enabling table nudging controls in all four directions. PSP shares the plunger and table nudge on the single analog nub. On the Wii, players must use the Wii Remote/Nunchuk combination, using the Z trigger on the Nunchuk and B trigger on the Wii Remote for flippers. The table nudging is handled via controller motions – functionally it's not quite as tight as the PS2 and PSP's analog, but it's certainly more intuitive (and fun) to shake the controls in the direction you want to bump the machine.
I am slightly disappointed that the Wii version doesn't have an option for Wii Remote-exclusive control. I can understand why the developers didn't include it: the analog stick works extremely well for plunger pull-and-flick. But I would have loved to have had the option to hold the Wii Remote in "classic" orientation, with D-pad for left flip, Button 2 for right flip, and control shaking for the directional nudge. A minor complaint, but let's file this one under "Wishlist for a Sequel."
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