Standalone Wii Review: Gottlieb Pinball Classics

I have to confess to being a member of the generation that put the first nails in the coffin of Pinball.

My earliest recollection as a child in the 1970s was not being able to see over the top of the table without sitting on a barstool and games consisting of wild button presses in a vain attempt to keep the ball on the table. Videogames came quickly on the scene and were more accessible as well as offering an animated TV screen — what kid could resist that? I still liked to play pinball occasionally, but videogames were clearly the New Big Thing.

As I got older and arcades began dying in the late 90s, the pinball machines with their brightly lit backglass, colourful playfields and the challenge of keeping the silver ball in play became far more interesting. Whilst I can easily relive the videogames of my youth via MAME and numerous cross-platform collections, pinball is not an experience easily re-created in the home and I just don’t have the space to accommodate the real thing.

Ironically it is through videogames that pinball machines which otherwise would never be played by gamers today can live again. Farsight Studios has seen fit — in cooperation with the Pinball Museum — to create a collection of virtual tables modelled on some of the best of Gottlieb’s repertoire and System 3 has graciously brought this to us on the Wii in the UK. Indeed, seeing this game in a Woolworth’s catalogue (R.I.P.) and learning a follow-up collection of Williams tables was planned is what caused me to come back to gaming consoles and buy a Wii!

Gottlieb is one of the pioneering American pinball makers along with Bally, Midway and Williams. Their tables may not be as readily recognised in the UK, but they were the first company to make pinball machines and they have made some really fine ones.

This collection spans the 1930s-1990s and the tables are faithfully re-created including effects such as electromagnets, sound effects, lights, drop targets and moving playfield elements. The level of detail is quite good, although the focus has clearly been on the playfield and backglass art with textures on the front and sides of the machines being a little unpolished and rough-looking (though to be fair you rarely get a glimpse of these). There is also an option to enable a glass table effect – which reflects the backglass on the playfield as if you were looking at it under a glass surface, but I find this distracting and keep it turned off.

The tables included are:

* Genie (1979 wide-body table)
* Eldorado – City of Gold (1975, jungle themed)
* Black Hole (1981, featured reversed lower-level)
* Ace High (1957, card themed)
* Big Shot (1973, billiards themed)
* Central Park (1966, very challenging; lots of bumper action)
* Play-Boy (1932, flipperless mechanical)
* Tee’d Off (1993, Golf Theme)
* Goin’ Nuts (1983, Unreleased wide-body table with unique timer-based play)
* Victory (1987, Racing theme)
* Strikes N’ Spares (1995, Novelty Bowling table using balls and flippers to hit pins)

The tables are well emulated and the physics feel spot-on and consistent without the glitches or “off physics” you sometimes find in video pinball, though some tables, like Black Hole, have a ball which is extra bouncy and there is a (thankfully) very rare clipping issue where the ball can fall through the table in the lower playfield.

The games can be played in one of three ways:

“Gottlieb Challenge” presents the tables in a fixed order and there are three attempts to achieve a target score on the current table. Beating the challenge score progresses you to the next table; failure ends the challenge. High scores are recorded and ratings assigned at the end of the challenge based upon performance.

“Tournament” mode allows play-through of all tables by 1-4 players and scores are recorded as with the Gottlieb Challenge. Your score in the tournament will also earn you credits to use in the Practice Arcade and to buy codes to unlock extra features. These credits are also earned when you “match” after a game is over during regular play.

Both Gottlieb Challenge and Tournament score points to determine standing based upon the score required to get a replay on a given table which is based upon actual pinball tournament rules.

“Practice Arcade” puts you in a virtual arcade where you can view each table as a 3D model, display the history of the table (with text and audio), original sales flyers, high scores and — most helpfully — the primary methods of scoring points (also accompanied by text, audio and rotation and zooming on the areas being discussed). Only some of the tables have free play enabled to start. Achieving goals related to each table’s play mechanics can enable free play on other tables. Tables without free play can be played using the credits you earn from Tournaments, getting a “match” after a game or playing the novelty Love Handle and Fortune Teller machines.

There are a few unlockable features, namely Payout Mode which enables you to play the card-themed table Play Boy in either Black Jack or Poker mode to earn credits. There is also an unlockable option to disable table Tilting and to change the appearance of the ball. Some people might be annoyed by the lack of free play on all tables, but the tables are still playable as credits are readily earned and accumulated, and the challenges aren’t really challenges without some kind of reward. If the challenges are too challenging you can also apparently buy codes to unlock features using your credits, though I have yet to investigate this.

The controls are pretty straightforward and only minimally utilise the motion controls of the Wii. The B button is the right flipper and Z is the left. The direction stick on the nunchuck controls the plunger and is implemented as a proper analogue control so that you can control how far back the plunger goes (though the visuals indicate a full range of plunger travel, in practice anything more than the slightest flick will produce a shot of identical strength, so this is an area that could have used some more finesse from the developers). It might seem better to use the remote given that it’s on the plunger side and would lend itself to a pull/thrust motion for ball launch, but using the stick and releasing it seems like a faster, more intuitive process.

The 1 and 2 buttons scroll through the camera angles, but only whilst the ball is in play. Before the ball is launched the camera shifts to an angled view near plunger with the ball and plunger visible. I think it would have been a good idea to have the ability to set camera angle before play; on the plus side the camera angle is remembered between games – although I find some tables play better with certain camera angles than others.

Tilting the machine is enabled; the option to switch it off is something that must be earned (although the manual doesn’t indicate how). A sudden jerk on a controller causes the game to react as if the corresponding table side had been “nudged”, but it really does need to be a sudden jerking motion and requires a bit of practice to pull-off effectively. On one hand it seems like it should be easier, but if it was too easy you’d end up accidentally tilting the tables a lot which wouldn’t be any fun. Given my sometimes spastic reactions to events in the game I’m glad it’s not more sensitive! It probably could have been tweaked a little, but is functional the way it is.

Pause is via the – button, so you may need to remember to shift your grip a little when playing to avoid pausing mid-game (or play a little less vigorously than I do).

Nice bonuses are information about the Pinball Museum in Las Vegas which is a non-profit venture that has amassed the largest pinball collection in the world (Las Vegas Pinball Hall of Fame Pinball Museum, Nevada NV — at last a reason to visit Las Vegas besides gambling!). You also get a photographic tour of the Gottlieb pinball factory to see where the machines were built.

Things I would like to have seen:

1. 480p support. The PAL resolution of 576i looks quite good in the close-up camera modes with very fine detailing on a large screen, but using the fixed full-table camera setting suffers a bit detail-wise; fortunately none of the tables really requires this camera mode to play well.

2. The ability to choose camera angles independently of playing the game would have been appreciated, but changing angles in-play isn’t terribly difficult.

3. I would have enjoyed the ability to “tour” the tables: zoom in/out and review the backglass to better appreciate the effort that went into to virtualising these machines.

It’s a great package all told and considering you can get it for under £20 online it’s a bargain that fans of real pinball shouldn’t pass up.