Released: October 1985
US Cartridge ID: NES-PN-USA
Supported Peripherals: Controller
ROM Size: 192 kilobit
Mapper: NROM-128 (16k PRG, 8k CHR)
Released with the 1985 test market launch in New York City of the Nintendo Entertainment System, Pinball stands as one of the eighteen titles buttressing the very foundation of the newly founded Nintendo of America’s experimental business venture. Working within the confines of an impossibly claustrophobic 24k ROM chip, Nintendo rewarded early-adopters with the most advanced pinball simulator of its time in this pixel-perfect port of their 1983 arcade game of the same name.
Drawing off of the popularity of mechanical pinball machines in arcades, bars, and other venues during the 1960s and 70s, video simulations of the quarter-munching pastime attracted a great deal of notice during home video gaming’s fledgling days. The rise of electronic home gaming allowed players to experience, in virtual form, the blinking lights and sounds of game halls without ever having to leave the comfort of the phosphor glow emitted by their wood-paneled console televisions. While Atari’s Video Pinball (Atari 2600, 1980), BudgeCo’s Raster Blaster (Apple II, 1981), and Brøderbund’s David’s Midnight Magic (Apple II, 1982) were each widely respected for their trailblazing efforts in providing consumers with a faithful recreation of the game, it was Nintendo’s Pinball that finally proved that video pinball could be just as frantically paced and as exhilarating as the real thing.
Pinball takes a more restrained and austere approach to table design than later NES releases (High Speed, Pinbot), eschewing the cutting-edge dot-matrix displays and loud digital sound bites native to the era in favor of providing a simple, solid, robust table that doesn’t need to rely on distracting the player with glitzy tech to remain interesting. Featuring a single table that spans the height of two screens, the Pinball table features a rather standard assortment of ramps, bumpers, and targets that grant varying point values when hit. The top half of the table features a three-reel slot that will reward the player with a stopper between the flippers if all of the reels stop on penguins, as well as a counting switch that provides increasingly large bonuses when struck.
The bottom half of the table has a number of features to entice the player away from the top screen, despite the very real threat of losing a ball. Three eggs hover directly above the bottom set of flippers, and hitting them will cause them to break, producing a newborn chick in its place; splattering the callow cluckers with the ball will provide a comforting illusion of safety in the form of bumpers that block the escape lanes. In a likely nod to Nintendo’s business before videogames (Nintendo began life as a company producing Japanese Hanafuda cards, and later on standard game card decks), hitting all five of the N-branded cards at the top of the screen will reveal a royal flush that will trigger the appearance of a block between the bumpers, in addition to changing the color of the table to a delightfully garish shade of orange not entirely dissimilar to the hue adopted by Gerber for its squash flavored baby food.
If, by happenstance, the ball finds itself caroming off a wall and into the red hole on the right side of the table’s bottom half, Pinball‘s third and final play screen, a mini-game, will appear. Pauline reprises her role from Donkey Kong as the damsel in distress, though with her hairy admirer absent, one must question how she ended up stuck in a box so far above the ground. In this tribute to Atari’s 1976 arcade game Breakout, Mario holds a girder (another Donkey Kong mainstay) above his head in order to bounce the ball upward. Each time the ball makes contact with a numbered circle, it will change color; whenever a row of numbers matches in color, one of the platforms below Pauline will shrink. If Mario manages to completely wipe out one of these platforms, Pauline will fall, but if Mario can catch her with his girder, he can walk her to the edge of the stage where she may follow a helpful sign to the exit.
Pinball ‘s play mechanics are surprisingly solid considering its age. The d-pad controls the left flipper, the A and B buttons control the right, and they respond just as cleanly and quickly as one would expect in a game that relies so much on reflex. The unfortunate omission of a tilt function, however, does little to add depth to an already simple game. The game offers two different game modes for both one and two players – Game A is a tame, slower experience that is fairly generous with its timing in allowing players to reliably hit the ball off the flipper in the desired direction, whereas Game B, though not quite greased lighting, is considerably faster. Both modes provide a good challenge, but like most titles in the genre, the only goal is to achieve the highest score possible; longevity is entirely dependent on the dedication of the player, largely because there is nothing new to see after the first five-to-ten minutes of play. One interesting, though highly unnecessary and annoying, twist is thrown in to surprise the player once the score reaches 100,000 points: the flippers, though still on the board, become invisible and remain so until another 50,000 points have been accrued using their phantom counterparts.
Aesthetically, Pinball doesn’t leave quite the same impression as it would have when it was first released. While an accurate translation of an arcade game that was only two years old was a feat (to say that the NES was a step-up from the hardware driving the Atari 2600 is a ludicrously overblown example of understatement), it looks positively ancient when set alongside the 8-bit machine’s later pinball efforts. To characterize the sound design as minimalist would be kind; the only tune in the game plays on the title screen, leaving the only aural accompaniment during game play up to the bangs and pings of the ball colliding with different objects on the playfield.
It’s impossible to not respect Pinball‘s achievements for the era in which it was released, but it hasn’t aged well. Long time fans will surely feel a great deal of nostalgia for the game, what it represents, and the memories associated with it, but those who haven’t ever played it before (and aren’t looking for the most archaic example of a genre game possible on the platform) might be better served playing High Speed or Pin-Bot.
Pinball (Cartridge Format)
Pinball (Famicom Disk System)