Pinball Dreams

It's no secret that arcade games don't tend to fair too well on DOS-based computers.  Occasionally a product of great merit will come along, like the Wing Commander series or the Wolfenstein games, or Bethesda's under-appreciated Terminator: 2029, but the majority of arcade titles for the PC wind up on the bargain shelf. Then, totally without warning, Amtex Software reared its head, asked PC gamers "Hey, remember pinball?", and dropped Tristan on us.  Those of us who answered the call have known since that day that there is still a good avenue for PC arcade games to follow.

The biggest problem with my hard drive (chronic lack of free space notwithstanding) is that too few pinball games reside there. Amtex got the ball rolling, (Forgive me; my anti-pun software is on the blink.) but other pinball products have been slow in coming. Just a little while ago Sierra released its Windows-based Take-a-Break Pinball, which I haven't played because I don't run Windows. Just about a month ago Amtex put out its second pinball game, Eight Ball Deluxe.  (One word about that game:  don't.)  Until now those two have been the only major pinball releases.  Fortunately, 21st Century Entertainment has released Pinball Dreams, and in doing so has helped keep PC pinball alive and well.

Pinball Dreams is a vertically-scrolling pinball game that uses your monitor's full width to display the table, ala Eight Ball Deluxe. This means that only about 1/3 of the table is visible at a time, and the view scrolls as the ball moves.  Unlike Eight Ball Deluxe, Pinball Dreams offers four different pinball games in one package. Titled Ignition, Steel Wheel, Beat Box, and Nightmare, the tables are based around the themes of space travel, railroads, music, and horror respectively.  Each game offers unique artwork, theme music, and sound effects which correspond to the board's theme.

Installation is quick and relatively painless.  I panicked momentarily when the program asked me for my user number, (Big Brother is watching you play pinball.) and then realized it was  referring to the serial number printed on the disk label.  Once installed, the game takes up about three megabytes of hard drive space, a welcome break from the trend toward space-hogging megagames.

After the game's title screen, the player is shown a menu of the four tables, each with its logo drawn in colorful VGA (a must to run this game).  Loitering on this menu flips the player to the high scores screen.  A tap of the space bar returns you to the menu, where F1-F4 select the pinball game.

The system requirements sticker on the game's box lists a 20Mhz 286 as the minimum required system, with a 20Mhz 386DX being the recommended platform.  I pity anyone trying to play this on a 286.  On my 20Mhz 386SX the game was unplayably slow with full sound and music options on.  With just sound on the ball flight was extremely leisurely, like playing pinball underwater.  (I actually found this to be a useful speed for learning each table's layout and experimenting with the nudge button.)  With the sound completely disabled the action was perfect, the ball movement and vertical scrolling smooth as glass.

Once the program is up and running at a decent pace, the game is very impressive.  The ball's flight is quite realistic and the action is a blistering non-stop joyride.  Once the lights started flashing and the bonuses began to mount my adrenaline level shot up just like I was in front of a real arcade table. Pinball Dreams does a commendable job of recreating the feel of a real pinball machine.  Additionally, the smoothness of the vertical scrolling is unsurpassed.

Each pinball table is drawn in vibrantly colored VGA graphics. The graphics may not be quite as good as those in Eight Ball Deluxe (although not far off), but they don't clutter the playfield as much either.  Each table is well- designed, offering a wide variety of shots that must be mastered to blast your score into the stratosphere.  (Those who say that pinball isn't a strategic game are the same people whose quarters get swallowed by the minute in the arcades.)  The designers have also done well in avoiding any unfair features that take control away from the player and damage the gameplay (like the ball-hogging triangular bumpers just above the flippers in a certain other vertically- scrolling pinball title).

As good as this game is though, there are a few drawbacks that detract a bit from the gaming experience.  For starters, there's the copy-protection scheme.

The manual states that the Pinball Dreams disk carries no on-disk protection scheme, then immediately explains that the game can be installed a maximum of three times before the installation disk is rendered useless.  This leads me to believe that someone at 21st Century spent some time working for Oxymorons R Us. I had thought that this kind of ugly self-destructive protection scheme was dead and buried. If I reformat or replace my hard drive I shouldn't have to worry about being permitted to reinstall software I legally purchased.  If a company feels the need for copy protection, it should use a code wheel or photocopy-resistant manual lookup key. On second thought, don't do that either; the more time I waste rummaging around my desk for a manual or wheel, the less time I have to play the game it applies to.  (The manual states that a replacement disk can be obtained through 21st Century, but neglects to say if this service is free or not).

Protection scheme aside, there are a few areas in the game itself that could stand some tweaking.  One such area is inherit of the vertical-scrolling perspective itself.  When you cradle the ball with the flipper to stop the ball's motion and set up a shot, you will usually find that the object you are aiming for is above and beyond your field of vision.  I don't know about other pinball players, but I find it difficult to aim precisely at a target I can't see.  A way to scroll the playfield while cradling the ball would go far in alleviating this headache.

The nudge (english) control is activated by the spacebar, like in Tristan, and nudges the table up and down.  While this can be helpful, the additional ability to nudge left or right, as is present in Eight Ball Deluxe, would have added to both the control and the realism of this aspect of the game.

Another point of frustration is the way the ball reacts when rolling down the face of a flipper.  It has the tendency to slow down in the middle of the flipper and speed back up as it approaches the tip. Until you come to predict this illogical speed fluctuation expect to lose a lot of balls into the drain by having them rocket past the end of the flipper while you line up a shot.

My only other major complaint lies in the previously praised design of the four pinball tables.  Simply put, they're just too similar to each other.  Although the actual layout for each table is unique, they tend toward the same features.  (All four tables have two flippers only, at least one ball trap, and three of the four feature multiple ramps.)  Also, the scoring systems, especially in regard to bonuses and jackpots, are all extremely similar.

One feature that has been left out of all PC pinball games I've played is a speed control.  Eight Ball Deluxe allowed the player to alter the table's pitch and the power of the bumpers, but I'd like to see a control that lets the player fine tune the speed to his or her personal taste.  (I'm getting slow at the old age of 23).

Despite a few drawbacks, Pinball Dreams is still a huge amount of fun.  It's not quite as realistic as Tristan (the ball bounces a little too enthusiastically and approaches Ludicrous Speed too easily), but the sheer speed of play, combined with the need for strategic shot- making skills, makes this a highly-addictive game I'll come back to time and time again.  Pinball Dreams is a welcome addition to my painfully congested hard drive. Of course, as crowed as things are I'll always make room if someone has sense enough to come out with a revamped version of EA's Pinball Construction Set.