Relive the '80s (whether you originally lived them or not) through the medium of flippers and metal balls.
The rise of video games in the arcades of the 1980s might have done much to expedite the decline in profitability of pinball machines, but today, video gaming and pinball are frequently combined to resurrect the age old compulsion to have "just one more go" at setting a new high score by flipping, trapping, and nudging a metal ball for hours on end. Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection takes the nostalgia factor to a higher level than your average game of video pinball, faithfully recreating ten 80’s-era tables manufactured by Williams with top quality artwork and authentic sound effects. Its highly realistic ball physics and solid Wii controls deliver what is assuredly one of the best virtual pinball experiences yet created, and only a few missed opportunities to better exploit the video game medium prevents it from being a flawless package for pinball aficionados and gamers alike.
From its (quite puzzlingly low quality) intro movie onwards, it is obvious that Pinball Hall of Fame strives to fully recreate both the game itself as well as the experience of playing in an arcade during pinball’s golden age. Table selection involves exploring a virtual arcade, where appropriately '70s/'80s-sounding music can be heard with the occasional interruption by a faux news report. There are even a few machines on view that are not playable, which may feel like an irritating tease to some, but fills out the arcade presentation nicely.
The ten classic tables on offer from Williams' heyday do not include any machines that utilised licensed properties, so some pinball veterans may bemoan the absence of a personal favourite. However, those on offer are among some of the industry's most famous and innovative products (including Black Knight, Pinbot, and Whirlwind) whose recreations will surely delight anyone who gave over many coins to their physical counterparts in years gone by.
While the task of rendering these machines may seem meagre compared to harnessing the Wii's capabilities to fashion the land of Hyrule or chart Mario's celestial adventures, Pinball Hall of Fame does a very commendable job of meticulously recreating these legendary coin-guzzlers in exquisite, authentic detail. Original artwork is used to create high-quality textures that hold up under the scrutiny of even the closest of selectable camera views, which make it possible to get a strong sense of being inside the machines if you desire. Add in the use of lighting and reflection effects (which can be turned off if they are felt to obstruct your view of the action in any way), and the end product is strikingly realistic.
This attention to detail extends to the game's audio components. All ten machines come with sound effects intact, while the noise of the ball bouncing between bumpers, pinging off drop-downs, or slowly rolling down the table is always spot-on. The virtual arcade's background music can be mixed in to your liking using the options menu, a useful feature since the audio for some tables becomes grating over time. The ability to mix the different audio elements and select which tracks remain on the arcade playlist is a welcome inclusion, but begs for the use of custom soundtracks via the SD card slot, which is regrettably not included.
The astute construction of the game's tables does not come at the price of gameplay fluidity, which remains at a consistently high level no matter what chaos may ensue when multi-ball play is achieved. Progressive scan display is supported (and indeed is optimal for conveying the vibrancy of the tables' colours), while a widescreen mode is omitted due to the vertical orientation of the pinball machines represented in the game.
Of course, any presentation of video pinball lives and dies according to the quality of its physics engine, and in this case anything less than near-absolute realism would not suffice. Happily, Pinball Hall of Fame fully delivers in this regard; it is, without question, the most realistic game of pinball I've ever played on a console.
For anyone who has played on physical pinball machines to a significant extent, the weight and momentum that the ball possesses here is extremely satisfying, and every ricochet and collision feels completely accurate. It is even possible for your ball to become stuck in the table just as it may have done in real life, resulting in the player having to select the "Call Attendant" option to reset the ball's position. Simply put, any way that you can manipulate a pinball with flippers on a real table can be executed here.
Pinball Hall of Fame's core controls are logically placed and generally well-implemented. Utilising the Wii Remote and Nunchuk setup, the large trigger buttons (B and Z respectively) on the underside of each half of the controller correspond to a flipper control, making for an intuitive and comfortable setup. The flipper controls are highly responsive, and give a very satisfying feel to the controls overall, but the absence of a Wii Remote-only or other more traditional control method is a minor drawback.
The Nunchuk’s analog stick serves as the perfect input mechanism for each table’s plunger (used to put the ball into play), while the essential ball-saving ability to nudge the table is handled by motion control. Moving the Nunchuk in your left hand will move the table to the left, while a shake of the Wii Remote nudges right. While this doesn't feel like the tightest form of control, in this context the imprecision is entirely appropriate, introducing a degree of nuance to the task of table manipulation. Shake too vigorously and the table's flippers will lock as the "TILT" message appears, while a subtle gesture can redirect a rapidly descending ball onto the tip of your flipper or save it from the outlanes. Wii’s motion controls all too often seem gratuitous and poorly executed, but in this case they are both fun and functional.
Finally, the 1 and 2 buttons control your camera view, with 1 selecting a fixed or smart camera style and 2 cycling through variants of each. The range of perspectives is appreciated, as you’ll find some are more appropriate for certain tables than others (for example, the smart camera does a good job of granting a better view of the action when the ball is bouncing around at the top of a table). An option to pre-determine the camera selection or change it from the pause menu would have been preferable to having to do so in-game, as it would have eliminated the possibility of inadvertent button-presses during gameplay.
Naturally, realistic physics and great controls mean that Pinball Hall of Fame's gameplay is essentially as appealing as the real thing. Unlike many pinball games available for Nintendo platforms, in this case there are no additional elements bolted on to the fundamentals of pinball such as bonus mini-games, boss stages or collection elements. This will please purists and may attract casual/lapsed gamers with its accessibility and nostalgia value, but those who have never understood pinball’s appeal will find little here to change their opinion.
With that said, the number of classic tables on offer means that Pinball Hall of Fame packs in many more challenges than your typical pinball game, and the selections offer significant variety within the classic experience. Some tables are quite basic (such as the pre-microchip-era Jive Time, which features one set of flippers and an open layout), while others reside at the other end of the spectrum (like Funhouse, a table littered with ramps, holes, and spinners that constitute a scoring system verging on the arcane). Players will inevitably find their favourites for continually upping their high scores, but each one has its own appeal.
Aside from making ten classic tables available at your fingertips, Pinball Hall of Fame only takes limited advantage of the video gaming medium. First and foremost, there are no online leaderboards, and the in-game score table is limited to only five spots, which is less than adequate if multiple people are playing on the same Wii. The default high scores are not complete pushovers to beat, but the inability to compare your best scores with other players is most regrettable. This option would have given valuable context to your achievements, as well as provide further incentive to compete and improve your scores (which, after all, is the very essence of pinball).
On the positive side, Pinball Hall of Fame includes exhaustive explanations (complete with visual aids) of the sometimes highly complex scoring systems, a very helpful tool when determining how to best approach each table. There are also sets of table-specific achievements based on reaching certain goals, such as maximising a bonus multiplier or activating multi-ball. These can be challenges unto themselves, and prove necessary in earning credits to pay for the use of unlockable tables and other bonuses. The Williams Challenge further tasks players with playing through the entire roster of machines. All these aspects combine to create an incentive structure that deftly encourages players to learn the ins and outs of each table, developing their pinball skills in the process.
For those that appreciate somewhat more direct competition, Pinball Hall of Fame features multiplayer options for a single table or a tournament across multiple tables. Players take turns after each ball, thankfully limiting the amount of time players spend watching their opponents on each table. In tournament play points are awarded based on the quality of scores attained on a given table, meaning that even a seemingly insurmountable lead built up over several stages can be wiped out by one blistering performance at the end. These modes provide an additional competitive element to the game and can be good, tense fun, but pinball clearly remains a primarily solo experience.
In essence, the game of pinball is one of less than total control with a high potential for frustration, so this game is clearly not going to hold lasting appeal for everyone. Furthermore, Pinball Hall of Fame is unapologetically faithful to its source material, and doesn't offer any olive branches to those who have never found pinball compelling. Nevertheless, FarSight Studios has crafted a wonderfully authentic pinball experience with Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection, so those of you that have ever gotten a kick out of the real thing should strongly consider picking this up. Indeed, this is an impressive package for anyone who relishes a high score challenge. Its greatness is denied by a few missed opportunities (most notably online leaderboards), but if you give it a chance you might find flipping a metal ball all over the place to be more fun than you had previously thought.