Pinball FX2: Preserving An Endangered Species

by Matt Helgeson on Dec 23, 2010 at 08:20 AM

If you had asked me last January if a pinball game would have made my Top 10 year-end list, I’d have said you were crazy. However, that’s exactly what happened. Frankly, I wasn’t even familiar Zen Studio’s Pinball FX. All I knew was that, a few days after Pinball FX2 was released, the people in the Game Informer offices were buzzing about the game – led by Reiner, who couldn’t stop bragging about his pinball skills.

I was intrigued, so I downloaded the free game and redeemed a code for the first pack of tables. Soon enough, I was addicted. Zen Studios did an amazing job with this game. Its tables are well designed. The ball physics are amazing (and just a little bit faster than reality, which may be the key to this game’s appeal). Even better, the way that it engenders competition between you and your Xbox Live friends is genius. In the middle of a ball, the tension ratchets up when you get the onscreen notice that you’re closing in on a friend’s high score. It’s the closest thing I’ve seen to the competitive feeling engendered by standing around a pinball machine at a bar or arcade.

But mostly, this game reminds me of what a great game pinball is. There’s a subtle balance of skill and chance that makes it incredibly addictive. It’s a perfect mix of the addiction caused by gambling (which, certain card games aside, is all luck) and video games (which is primarily skill based). There’s definitely skill involved – those with better reflexes are going to be better than those with poor reflexes. Each table has it’s own strategy; getting to know the ramps, bonus multipliers, etc., always pays off in bigger point totals.

Still, if you’re honestly with yourself, every great pinball score has a good degree of luck involved. Every once in a while vagaries of skill, chance, and physics combine to provide you with that “perfect” ball. You start to get that sense that you’re unstoppable, as you hit ramp after ramp, watching your multiplier skyrocket. I can’t think of a better feeling in gaming. I’m thankful to Pinball FX2 for reminding me of how great pinball can be.

It’s sad, because pinball machines are becoming an endangered species in the real world. Increasingly, finding a table is a near impossible task, and that’s sad to me. Right now, Stern is the last remaining manufacturer of new, original pinball machines on the market, pumping out themed tables based on licenses like Iron Man and Avatar. A few other small companies hang on re-releasing classic tables. The era of pinball as a mass-market entertainment is over.

Like many species, there are a number of reasons that pinball is on its way to extinction. Obviously, video games took a big bite out of the industry – but, interestingly, that didn’t stop it from mounting a major comeback in the 1990s, which was a new golden age for pinball. I think the bigger factor, as it often is in nature, is the destruction of pinball’s “natural habitat”. Arcades in America are long a thing of the past, and the ones that do survive are more likely the Dave & Buster’s style family fun centers that aren’t going to devote much space to pinball. But arcades haven’t been a vital part of American gaming culture for a long time. The bigger problem is changes in bars in America. The corner dives where pinball machines were at home are fewer and farther between than ever – especially after smoking bans went into effect in most major American cities. Newer bars, even in suburban areas, are now going for more modern and stylish designs that emulate upscale clubs and restaurants, leaving little room for blinking, noisy pinball machines. Even if a new retro rock bar opens in your city, odds are that it’s going to get an old classic table used for the nostalgia factor rather than a state-of-the-art machine from Sterns.

That’s sad to me, because as a kid growing up in a small town, pinball was just as important to me as arcade machines in feeding my growing gaming habit. I’m equally grateful to the team at Zen Studios for helping to preserve a little bit of that magic. Pinball FX2 is a great game and I encourage you to go buy it now.