Stern Pinball Arcade Review

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I have a fondness for classic arcade emulators. The idea of preserving gaming of the past for the next generation of gamers as well as so those who were there get to re-experience the joys of their youth is a mission that I fully support. That’s the reason I’ve taken the time to review so many Arcade Archives titles in the past. I find it even more impressive when developers take on the endeavor of trying to preserve non-video arcade games. Stern Pinball Arcade is a project built on that mission. When you start-up the game, the main menu reveals the mission statement of FarSight Technologies Inc. They have tasked themselves with preserving classic pinball machines in digital form for the next generation of gamers and the conservation of an important part of gaming history. While they may not have executed this goal perfectly, I fully appreciate what they have attempted to do with this game.

The graphics are probably the part of this game I was least impressed with. I’ve played a few other pinball games in the past and this one comes off a bit underwhelming. The difference is that this particular game was recreating existing real world tables and those other ones were creating entirely new ones in digital form. FarSight definitely had the harder go of it and while they didn’t execute it perfectly, they landed well above the minimum.

The first thing you’ll notice is the menus. They’re a simple mixture of light and dark blue with rounded borders and serif block letters. It’s a nice general style but the letters are pixelated on the edges. Highly readable, but you will notice the pixilation easily if you look at the menu for an extended period of time. The show room tries to create an arcade feeling but really it comes off more like an empty pool hall with pinball machines in the corners. The background is a brick wall that looks pretty average as far as in-game assets go and each pinball table is backed by a wooden wall that looks just a bit better than the bricks. Personally, I don’t feel the need for all this atmosphere. A simple scrolling menu with a few screenshots for each table would have been just as if not more effective overall.

On the other hand, I really liked that they took the time to recreate the entire machines. From the legs to the display covers, you get a fully detailed recreation of each pinball table available. Every little light, bumper, and switch has been recreated as an interactive element in the game. They did an excellent job of staying true to the machines. But the visual quality of the tables is lacking. This is most noticeable, in my opinion, with the Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein table. The graphics look low caliber like they were focused more on the objects in totality rather than preserving the texture and feel of each specific piece. Granted, having never seen the actual machine in real life, it’s quite possible the table just looks that way because of how old it is. Understandable for an independent studio, but having played other games from FarSight before, I expected just a bit better than what they’ve done with this particular title. Everything is pretty lackluster. For instance, when completing goals for each table you get a simple white text notification over the center of the screen for a few seconds. This should have been more celebratory in my opinion.

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The game runs very smoothly and realistically as far as graphics are concerned. The lights on the machine. The speed and movement of the balls. It really does look like you’re playing the actual pinball table. And furthermore, they even preserved the video screens for each machine and made them displayable as a floating HUD in the top left corner or the actual display depending on which view you prefer. You can use four different views when playing and toggle on/off two different camera settings. But truthfully I couldn’t figure out what multi-ball camera actually does. I won’t say that this is an amazing looking game, but I did appreciate how accurate these pinball machine recreations are to the original tables.

The gameplay is thankfully the best and most realistic aspect of the game. It’s very simple to play as far as controls. You use X or the right stick to launch the ball with the plunger and use either set of shoulders to move the flippers. You can choose in the options whether you want L1/R1 or L2/R2. You can also use the left stick to nudge the table but if you do it too much you can get a tilt which freezes the machine and requires you to call an in-game attendant from the pause menu. I appreciated that extra touch.

What I really liked about the gameplay is how each of the 10 different tables not only looked different but played and felt different. You actually end up having preferences for which tables you like to play because they really are different gameplay experiences. And not just the fact that each table is different with its own layout, missions, sounds, and design. The tables actually “feel” different. Some have more resistance from the flippers. Some tend to gutter you more. They have different rolling speeds for the balls. It’s really like playing different tables in an arcade. I can personally say my least favorite table is The Phantom of the Opera and my favorite was either AC/DC or Star Trek. This is the best aspect of the entire game in my opinion.

The normal mode lets you play each machine whenever you want in the traditional three ball scenario with the possibility of winning extra balls. Each table has its own missions and quirks to make it a separate experience. Some of them even have mini-games in the screens. There is also a challenge mode, but it’s very difficult and a bit unfair. You are tasked with playing each machine in a set order and achieving a certain score to progress. You must achieve the score in a single credit/three ball scenario but you have three credits per a table to achieve that minimum score. The problem with this is, as expressed before, you won’t enjoy or excel at every table. Meaning that in my case I couldn’t even get past the first round because the mode starts with The Phantom of the Opera, which is my worst one. Ultimately I was very impressed with how Stern Pinball Arcade plays. The Stern Pinball corporation should be proud at how well FarSight recreated their spectacular machines.

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The sound was ok in this game. The menu music was a bit odd for me because it’s rock and roll with people screaming in the background. But it’s not screaming like at a live performance. It’s trying to recreate the sound of people at an arcade. The problem is that not all arcades played rock and roll so for me I didn’t really identify with this atmosphere. I would have preferred if it was just rock and roll without the background noise because then it just would have been a soundtrack which is fine. There’s an announcer who reads the name of each machine as you switch to it in the show room. Each table has its own sounds and music. Some of them sound much better than others. The newest ones seemed to have better/stronger effects. The older ones weren’t as well-balanced between sound and music, often causing some of the effects to be drowned out. I can’t say if this was an accurate representation of the machines themselves or just poor sound mixing on the part of the developers. The only sound option is setting the menu music volume. I’d say in totality the sound is ok, but not great.

This is of course not a plot based game, but there is a decent amount of writing. Each table comes with a digital print of the original flyer/ad for the machine. I thought that was really cool. There are also history sections and detailed tutorials for each table that can be accessed through the “table menu”. The mission statement of FarSight Technologies Inc. can be found on the main menu as well as in the table menus. Writing may not be the reason why you play this game, but it definitely can play a role in the experience if you want it to.

There is some mild replay value in Stern Pinball Arcade, but it could have been done so much better. The game is free to download, but you have to buy add-ons to get access to different tables. Even with all $40 in add-ons, that will still only leave you with 10 machines with Ghostbusters on the way for most likely an additional $10. Each table has a local leaderboard with extremely high scores to beat. So far I’ve only gotten the minimum high score for each one. There are also five special objectives for each table. Some of which are way easier to achieve than others. What’s really sad is that there are only eight total trophies and they all pertain to the Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein machine. Even with the add-ons the game doesn’t add any additional trophies. That was a really short-sighted decision on the part of FarSight and I can’t understand how it happened with such pricy expansions. I have to say that this game is sadly not worth buying at the price of these add-ons. I don’t know what you get with the basic download, but the first bundle pack is $20 for only four tables. Buying tables on their own are $10 each. You will pay almost the price of a AAA title just to get 10 machines, not all of which you will enjoy. This also presents an issue about challenge mode. I have all the tables so I can play it, but I don’t know how/if it works if you just get one of the machines. While the game plays well enough it’s certainly not worth the price.

Stern Pinball Arcade is a great concept that was acceptably executed, but I believe it could have been better and more effectively priced and distributed. The gameplay is highly realistic, but the graphics and sound are just ok. Even if the writing is as good as it gets for a pinball game, I still can’t condone this price or lackluster trophy list. Unless you grew up playing these specific machines, I have to say that Zen Pinball 2 is the better buy. It’s more cost-effective, has better graphics and sound, and the tables are more modern as far as the themes. FarSight Technologies Inc. did accomplish their mission of preserving classic tables, but they failed to create a game worth paying the price they’re asking for it. Sorry but I gotta say pass.

rating-6

REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to editor@brashgames.co.uk.

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