COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Pinball on Saturn
Despite its popularity in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, the video pinball genre has suffered a steep decline in recent years. This is likely a direct result of the declining availability of real pinball tables in arcades, which are also slowly dying out. Though pinball is kept on life support thanks to the efforts of sole surviving table manufacturer Stern, few video game publishers seem interested in releasing pinball simulations in this day and age, outside of budget-priced compilations like Pinball Hall of Fame and the rare oddball title like Flipnic.
It's a shame that the genre died when it did, as the 32-bit era saw some of the best video pinball titles of all time. The Sega Saturn in particular was, perhaps, the last console to offer truly great and original takes on the genre. Only a few ever saw U.S. release, but import-savvy pinball fans should stay on the lookout for these Sega Saturn exclusives, some of which are among the genre's finest moments.
Last Gladiators / Necronomicon
Last Gladiators, along with its Japan-only sequel Necronomicon, are arguably the greatest pinball simulations to ever be released on any platform. All tables in both games are very well crafted, with special attention paid to detail and realism. The action plays out from an angled viewpoint, giving a good view of the entire table at once, with dot matrix-styled animations and announcements relegated to temporary windows that are always placed in such a way as to never block the player's view of the playfield. In short, they're both great sims that eliminate many of the technical problems usually associated the genre.
What really sets these titles apart, though, is the fact that they are metal to the max. The games are characterized by their symphonic heavy metal soundtracks (Necronomicon even features two songs written by John Petrucci, of the progressive metal group Dream Theater) and all-too-serious narration that runs in the background during gameplay. The table art fits the theme too, featuring all manner of bearded wizards and long-haired gladiator types.
This may sound cheesy, but in practice, all of these elements work together to make a game that's really exciting to play, in addition to being unintentionally hilarious at times. The guitar-heavy soundtrack, combined with the constant stream of loud sound effects and overwrought voice samples, create the same kind of noisy, kinetic life that a real pinball machine has. As a result, Last Gladiators and Necronomicon manage to successfully recreate the feel of playing an actual pinball table, as opposed to playing a simulation of a table's mechanics -- an achievement that few sims have ever accomplished.
Kyuutenkai: Fantastic Pinball
Developed by Technosoft (the company responsible for porting the fantasy-themed pinball title Devil's Crush to the Sega Genesis as Dragon's Fury), Kyuutenkai: Fantastic Pinball was not exactly designed with accurate simulation in mind. Kyuutenkai plays almost exactly like an entry in Naxat Soft's Crush series, in fact, complete with "living" bumpers, wandering enemies, and bonus rounds that take place outside of the main table.
Kyuutenkai introduces a few new features not found in the Crush games, however. The game allows you to pick between three characters before the plunger is pulled, all of whom have their own attributes that affect how the game is played. The pinball itself can also be powered up, allowing it to hit enemies and obstacles for greater damage. These improvements make for great additions to the Crush formula, and give the game much-needed depth and longevity.
Kyuutenkai has a few quirks related to physics and difficulty (it's damn hard!), but it remains a great throwback to the realism-be-damned video pinball games of days past. The overly anime look may be off-putting initially, but brave your way past all the gigantic eyeballs and squeaky voices and you'll find a worthy successor of Naxat Soft's 16-bit efforts.
The Pinball Ghetto
The Saturn also played host to at least two more pinball titles -- Hyper 3D Pinball and Pro Pinball: The Web -- both of which were released in the United States in 1996. Pro Pinball, while a decent enough simulation, fails to duplicate the aggressive energy of Last Gladiators, and suffers for only featuring one playable table. Sequels to Pro Pinball were later released on the PlayStation, but unfortunately, all of them also feature the same lethargic gameplay that plagues The Web.
On the other hand, Hyper 3D Pinball features multiple tables, but the tradeoff is that they all suck badly. By default, the game is played from a top-down view that nauseatingly shifts the camera around constantly, much in the style of shovelware PlayStation tragedies like KISS Pinball and Austin Powers Pinball. Other camera angles don't fare much better, as the graphics, sound, and physics in all of the tables are embarrassingly lame, making Hyper 3D Pinball in no way redeemable.
But hey, Last Gladiators alone is more than enough to make a Sega Saturn owner forget about these disappointments. Though the genre may be all but dead today, Last Gladiators and Necronomicon continue to reign as the kings of pinball simulation. It's simply unfortunate that there won't be many other challengers to the throne.
[Danny Cowan is a freelance writer hailing from Austin, Texas. He has contributed feature articles to Lost Levels Online and 1up.com, and his writing appears monthly in Hardcore Gamer Magazine.]