Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection

June 20, 2008

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.

Perhaps one of the most faithful adaptations of real-world pinball ever, Pinball Hall of Fame — The Williams Collection (PHoF) for the Wii recreates ten classic Williams pinball tables spanning three decades of legendary machines. While none of their licensed tables (like their “Addams Family” table based on the 1991 movie) made the cut, the sampling we do get are indeed worthy of the title Pinball Hall of Fame, including “Pinbot”, a table that was also adapted for the NES back in 1990. Each table has unique features that distinguish it from the other nine, although some of the older tables like “Jive Time” and “Firepower” seem almost primitive compared to the later offerings like “Funhouse” and “Whirlwind”.

Of course, only four tables (“Taxi”, “Gorgar”, “Funhouse”, and “Pinbot”) are available for Free Play in the Practice Arcade when you first boot up the disc. You can pay credits to play on the other six, and can unlock them for Free Play for 100 credits; alternately, completing a table’s initial Goals will allow you to unlock any table you want for Free Play. Completing a table’s initial Goals also reveals that table’s “Wizard Goals”; completing those harder tasks unlocks optional features for that table, such as disabling tilt, applying various skins to the ball, or even turning on “Mirror Mode”, which reverses everything on the table! If you don’t know how to complete a given Goal, each table’s Instructions are available from the pause menu, which will take you on a narrated Power Point-like slide presentation that will show you every target and explain every indicator, sort of like a guided tour of the table. These instructions are an invaluable and awesome feature that I would have killed for when playing some of these tables in real life.

PHoF‘s other two modes are Tournament and Williams Challenge. Tournament mode is basically just that: official pinball tournament scoring for up to four participants, complete with leader board. The Williams Challenge pits one player against all ten tables, giving you three tries on each to achieve a minimum score, awarding you points based on your final score. Both of these modes count towards earning credits in the Practice Arcade and completing Table Goals, so a good performance or two can quickly allow you to unlock more tables for Free Play without ever spending an actual credit. These modes give the title more depth and coherence, elevating it from being simply a random collection of virtual recreations of real tables.

For someone who has played on the real machines, PHoF provides a nearly perfect translation to virtual pinball; the tables look, sound, and in some cases even feel like the genuine articles. You can tell that developer Farsight Studios put a lot of effort into making these collections of polygons as faithful as possible, right down to the classic slamming click when you break a machine’s replay score and reflections in the table glass (the latter of which can be disabled in the options). I experienced none of the questionable physics that I felt when playing Dream Pinball 3D, with everything reacting pretty much exactly as I expected. There was the rare instance of the ball sometimes passing through objects when things got crazy — sometimes even vanishing off the table completely (and being replaced in the plunger for free, thankfully), but that’s a minor problem. There’s even a “Call Attendant” option from the in-game pause menu that will reset the ball position for those rare — but real! — cases when the ball gets stuck on an obstacle and you don’t want to risk setting off the Tilt sensor getting it unstuck (which is what would probably have to happen in real life).

Further aiding in the experience is the superb “smart camera” that always keeps your primary flippers in view if there is any chance of the ball heading that way; when the ball is engaged in a cluster of jet bumpers or otherwise “safe”, the camera zooms in a bit to give you a better view of the action, and it naturally zooms out to encompass the whole table once the chaos of multiball starts. There are many other camera options available, but I found the default to be pretty much perfect and never felt the need to change it. I never had an issue tracking the ball even at high speeds, which made the game play smooth and enjoyable.

The controls are equally smooth, due largely to the inherent simplicity of pinball itself. The Nunchuck’s Z button mans your left flipper(s) and the Remote’s B takes care of the right. Motion sensing handles tilt responsibilities, and the C-stick works your plunger. The manual also mentions that the A button will activate “Magna Save” on tables with that feature (which is only the “Black Knight” table in this collection, although the in-game Instructions say to use the C-stick?). Finally, the – button toggles whether or not your score and other pertinent backboard information is displayed while you play, which can be distracting but is never obtrusive.

Bargain priced at only $20 where I picked it up (although some retailers apparently still carry it for $30, so YMMV), Pinball Hall of Fame — the Williams Collection packs an astonishing number of authentic pinball tables onto one convenient, easy-to-play disc. Every pinball fan worth his (or her) flippers needs to add this to their Wii library, especially if they have fond memories of playing the real machines contained within; this is one of those Wii titles that could be perfect for your “non-gaming” parents as well. Non-fans without pinball experience will probably find a mixed bag of experiences, but still an overall superior product to that offered by Dream Pinball 3D.

Score: 4/5

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