A eulogy for Pokémon Pinball

‘Pin-Poké-Ball’ didn’t have the same pizzazz

The Pokémon franchise is no stranger to excellent spinoffs. Between the lauded Mystery Dungeon crossovers, the well-regarded (if seldom played) Pokkén Tournament, and, of course, the cultural juggernaut that is Pokémon GO, there’s been a Pokémon game for just about every genre imaginable. Once upon a time, there were even two excellent Pokémon pinball games.

The original Pokémon Pinball is something of an oddity, even when viewed amid the eclectic Game Boy Color library. Released three years after the first Pokémon generation in Japan, and just a few months before Pokémon Yellow arrived in North America, the game was little more than two digital pinball tables with Pokémon theming. The two tables were “Red” and “Blue,” and they were excellent.

Gotta catch ’em all!

The most unique element of Pokémon Pinball is its catching mechanic. The eponymous pinball is, of course, a Pokéball, so it figures that you’d be able to catch Pokémon with it. To do this, you carry out a couple of archaic bumper-bouncing rituals to make a Pokémon spawn in the center of the table, then you bonk that Pokémon in the head a couple of times to catch it.

It’s not all that revolutionary — target-hitting goals in pinball machines are about as common as little silver balls — but it does wring some interesting digital charm out of a genre known for its tactility. When you catch a Pokémon, for instance, it’s added to your Pokédex, which helps the player maintain a bit of a personal bond with their personal cartridges. As they say, you’ve gotta catch ’em all.

Pokémon Pinball finds a few other novel ideas in its Pokémon theming; certain Pokémon, for instance, can only be captured in specific areas, and your area is randomly selected at the start of a game. You can also trigger a totally different target-hitting minigame to evolve your Pokémon and further flesh out that Pokédex. It’s full of charming concepts like this that make it feel less like a pinball machine in your pocket and more like a complete Pokémon game… that happens to also be a pinball machine in your pocket.

A sequel, kinda

A few years after Pokémon Pinball had come and gone, it received a sequel for the Game Boy Advance. Well, okay, it was a sequel in the same way Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire were sequels to Pokémon Red and Blue. Fittingly, the game was called Pokémon Pinball: Ruby and Sapphire.

The tables in Ruby and Sapphire are nearly identical to those found in the original game. Pokémon from later generations have been sprinkled about, and spaces that were previously occupied by static obstacles now feature more involved mechanical additions like a hatchery and a PokéMart offering small upgrades. The table is now a single scrolling screen rather than two distinct screens, and the physics engine and graphical quality have received a loving touch-up. In most respects, it is simply Pokémon Pinball but better.

One area where Ruby and Sapphire sets itself apart from the original game is in its bonus stages. The original Pokémon Pinball has bonus stages, where the ball is sent to a mini-table to achieve some simple goals, but they’re all fairly boring (Serebii has a great list outlining them if you’re truly curious). Ruby and Sapphire‘s bonus stages are leagues better, allowing you to play pinball-basketball with Spheals or hunt down an invisible Kecleon. These bonus stages hint at a rich iterative history to come for Pokémon Pinball, a franchise rich with potential to reimagine Pokémon in new and interesting contexts.

And then, nothing.

Unfortunately, since Pokémon Pinball: Ruby and Sapphire‘s 2003 release, the franchise has been entirely dormant. I’m inclined to chalk this up to the death of the handheld game, a concept I’ve lamented in the past. Pokémon Pinball is not the kind of game you sit down with for hours at a time. It doesn’t look like much on a big screen, and its simplification of the “gotta catch ’em all” philosophy doesn’t translate to home gaming quite as well as the genuine article. But if you have a Game Boy Color or a Game Boy Advance with a Pokémon Pinball game loaded onto it, you’re guaranteed a couple of damn good hours.

Even without a dedicated handheld to call home, I’d love to see Pokémon Pinball return one of these days. This year marks Pokémon Pinball: Ruby and Sapphire‘s 20th anniversary, and digital pinball technology has come a long way in the last two decades. I genuinely want to see the series make a comeback of some kind, even if that just means giving the same tables one more chance as DLC for one of the various pinball games on the Nintendo Switch. Hell, I’d be overjoyed to see either game on Nintendo Switch Online — at the time of writing, neither has been confirmed for the Game Boy or Game Boy Advance lines.

What I really want, though, is a brand new Pokémon Pinball game. For the last few years, Pokémon Pinball developer Jupiter Corporation has been near-exclusively developing games for the Picross series, and I don’t think anyone would be too terribly upset if they took some time off from that noble endeavor. So hey, why not bring back Pokémon Pinball? Right after you bring back Pokémon Sleep.

Sorrel Kerr-Jung
Freelancer - Sorrel Kerr-Jung has been playing video games for as long as she's been capable of pressing buttons. She's been writing news and features all over the internet for just over a year, and she started throwing words at Destructoid in late 2022. Find her on Twitter: @sorrelkj.