I love pinball. The first time I ever dropped a quarter in one was at the Tasty Freeze in my grandparents' hometown of Mendon, Michigan in the mid-80's. The machine was Black Knight, and I was around six or seven at the time. I probably lasted less than two minutes before losing the last ball, but the flashing lights and erratic pinging of the steel ball across the playfield had me entranced. I was hooked.
Growing up during the heyday of arcades, I was lucky enough to be exposed to dozens of different machines over the years. Sadly, after the pinball boom of the 90's died down, tables are becoming harder and harder to find outside of occasional sightings in bowling alleys or theatre lobbies. The holy trifecta of pinball companies (Gottlieb, Bally, and Williams) have all closed down or shifted into other areas, with Stern being the only major manufacturer left in the game.
Gottlieb has already gotten a collection in the Pinball Hall of Fame series, although the Wii version was a PAL exclusive. For their sophomore effort, developer FarSight has turned their attention to Williams.
Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection for Wii (also available on PSP and PS2) brings together ten classic tables spanning from the 1970's to 1990. The tables included are: Black Knight, Firepower, Funhouse, Gorgar, Jive Time, Pinbot, Space Shuttle, Sorcerer, Taxi, and Whirlwind. The selection covers a good range of tables from Williams's history, although a few personal favorites of mine such as Cyclone, F-14 Tomcat, Attack from Mars, and Medieval Madness are absent. Maybe we'll get a follow-up someday, in the meantime there's always PinMAME.
The game has three modes: Arcade, which allows you to select any table of your choice to play; Challenge, which lays all ten tables in front of you with the goal of reaching a high score on each before losing your last ball, and Tournament, which allows up to four players to compete against each other for the best score.
In Arcade, the table selection takes place in a recreation of a typical 80's era arcade. Sprinkled in between the playable tables are a few mock arcade machines, and the radio broadcasts generic sound-alike music to fit the time period. Amusingly, one of the songs is a dead ringer for The Who's "Pinball Wizard". To complete the atmosphere, the arcade is filled with the electronic bleeps and whistles that will bring nostalgic gamers right back to the days of the Reagan White House and Hair Bands. This ambiance can be turned down during gameplay if you'd like to focus just on the sounds of the table.
Four of the tables are already unlocked for free play in the arcade, while the others cost a credit. You start off with a generous 50 credits, and more can be earned by hitting the match score at the end of a game or completing table goals (think XBL Achievements) on each machine. These include hitting skill shots, activating certain features of the table, advancing the score multiplier to the maximum, and reaching a particular high score. Many of these can easily be completed in regular play, while others might take a bit of dedication to reach. Completing the first set of five goals on a table unlocks another set of more difficult "Wizard Goals" and allows you to activate free play on another table. Eventually you can also unlock additional skins to change the appearance of the pinball and mirror modes for each machine.
To help you figure out exactly what you're supposed to be doing, there's an extensive narrated tutorial for each table explaining the ins and outs of gameplay. This is a huge help both for players unfamiliar with the machines and veterans who haven't touched them for years. Even on tables I was fairly familiar with such as Black Knight and Pinbot, I learned a few things. Many of the tables also include a scan of the original sales flyer, a nice little extra.
Control is handled using the Wiimote / nunchuck configuration, with the Z button controlling the left flipper and the B button controlling the right. The launch plunger uses the analog stick, which allows you to adjust the strength in order to hit skill shots on certain tables. The tables can be nudged left and right by shaking the nunchuck and wiimote respectively, giving gameplay a very natural feel. Unfortunately there's no way to nudge upwards, preventing you from attempting a death save if the ball drains down one of the outlanes.
Physics (the most important feature of any pinball game) are extremely well done. The ball moves fast and feels realistic. Glitches such as the ball passing through flippers or targets are very rare. Experienced players will have no problem hitting targets and ramps or pulling off moves like flipper passes. The tables themselves are excellent reproductions of the originals, from the layout to the artwork to the sound effects. There's even a reflective effect that gives the appearance of looking at the playfield through the glass top. Purists might notice a few slight differences here and there, but this is about as close as you'll be able to get to the actual machines.
Pinball Hall of Fame retails for $30, however I found a copy in the discount game rack at Target for only $20. I was very appreciative of this considering my 19 month old accidentally knocked over the Wii and scratched my original copy. He's lucky he's so damn cute.
For gamers who are more familiar with pinball video games like Devil's Crush, Pinball of the Dead, or Metroid Prime Pinball, keep in mind these are recreations of actual machines. There won't be any monsters wandering the playfield to squish or boss fights against dragons and giant centipedes. However, if you're looking for one of the most authentic pinball experiences in video game form, this is a sure bet. Highly recommended for fans of the genre.