Much like the arcades that once housed them, the classic pinball table is something that many of today’s gamers might not recognize, let alone appreciate. Their high degree of maintenance and large footprint make them less than ideal for most personal dwellings, which further pushed them into obscurity as the video game industry shifted towards home entertainment. The love of pinball born in the 70s hasn’t completely gone away, however; ever since the Atari 2600 the silver ball (or in that case, blue square) has appeared in pixelated form on pretty much every console and handheld, with varying degrees of success.
One such offering for Nintendo’s Wii console is Dream Pinball 3d from Southpeak Games. Featuring six virtual tables, Dream Pinball 3d comes off more as a demo of some pinball creation software utility than a serious pinball offering. Five of the tables contained on this disc are essentially interchangeable, nearly palette-swaps of each other with the ramps moved around and a different assortment of sounds. The sixth, “Amber Moon”, was originally created by a different studio for a Cyber Pinball World Cup of some sort, although it still seems strikingly similar to the other five. All six tables feature at least five flippers (“Amber Moon” has an astounding eight), multiball play, and the usual assortment of ramps and targets. They look impressive graphically, and the sounds aren’t any more obnoxious than those of an actual table, but they just don’t feel… well, real.
There are several factors contributing to this feeling of unease. The first and perhaps most apparent is the default camera, which follows the ball in play much too tightly, to the point of committing the cardinal sin of taking your eye off the important part of the table: your main flippers. As the ball zooms around the field the camera sometimes feels like it has no idea where it’s going next, leading to frustrating situations when a carom or downramp sends the metallic sphere rocketing between the flippers without you even being aware of it until it’s too late to react. Should you activate multiball on a table the camera pans back to encompass the whole field, but that’s just being considerate more than it is actually being any sort of good camera programming. The game features a total of seven different camera angles, but none of them are ideal.
There also seems to be some sort of issue with the actual ball physics, although I can’t quite put my finger on what, exactly. It could just be a side effect of the camera troubles, but the ball didn’t always feel like it was behaving the way I was expecting it to do. Flipper speed is another problem, as they are tighter than usual and reach their “on/up” position almost instantaneously; this is when I could even see the flippers in the first place, as they are often hidden behind other elements of the table and frequently emerge unexpectedly. For what it’s worth, less experienced pinball players might not even notice these shortcomings.
One aspect of Dream Pinball 3D that not even experienced pinball players can gauge, however, is its “ball change” feature. Once you’ve obtained a predetermined score, the game asks “Are you ready for ball change?” and the next time you shoot the ball into one of the table’s chambers it will emerge as one of six different materials with different ballistic properties. I personally didn’t really notice any difference, which is probably due to the above issues I had with the overall feel of the game. There are also four different difficulty settings, which affect the number of balls available as well as the duration of various timers; each difficulty has its own high score board so you don’t have to worry about your seven-ball “Easy” runs crushing your three-ball “Hard” attempts.
Dream Pinball 3D takes minimal advantage of the Wii’s unique control interface, using the Remote’s motion control to “shake” the table like in real life and mimicking pulling back on the plunger to put the ball into play. If you opt to use the Nunchuck, its sensor can tilt the table as well. Using the Nunchuck feels more natural, putting control of the left flipper(s) on the Z button while the right flipper(s) respond to the Remote’s B; these controls revert to the more traditional left on the D pad and the 2 button, respectively, when using the Remote alone (in its “NES” position).
Overall, Dream Pinball 3D is an accurate representation of what pinball has become in the “virtual” era. While that may be good enough for those who have never experienced a real pinball table, it simply tastes artificial and hollow to those who have. Making matters worse for Dream Pinball 3D is the fact that a more faithful pinball disc came out for the Wii approximately a month prior to its release that basically trumps it in every way: Pinball Hall of Fame — the Williams Collection. This unfortunate timing shunts Dream Pinball 3D firmly into the Rental category, especially for diehard pinball wizards.