Now that the Christmas-New Year holiday is officially over I decided to go with something easy this evening. According to my master spreadsheet, there is a Sega Saturn pinball game that has yet to make it’s way into the database: Pro Pinball by Empire Interactive. What game could be easier to process than a pinball game? Unfortunately, this is also the first Sega Saturn disc of this project to give me substantial trouble. Instead of booting, the Saturn just goes into its audio CD playback control console and offers to play any of the 25 red book audio tracks on the CD while thumping its stereo, 3D, rotating, ostensibly Gouraud-shaded volume power cubes. After enough console resets, the Saturn eventually agrees to play the disc and I fire up the video recording on my video capture card as I do not want to deal with this again.
Right away, the title screen informs me that this may merely be a new platform port of an existing game in the MobyGames database, Pro Pinball: The Web, already known to be available for DOS and Windows. Neither the Saturn plastic case copy nor the CD-ROM mention “The Web” but the title screen clearly does:
I’m not sure why the bottom of the title screen appears cut off. Perhaps a PAL game shoehorned into an NTSC format? The game’s boldest selling point is its endorsement by one Rick Stetta who I guess is the Kasparov of pinballing (Wikipedia knows something of his exploits). “The ultimate and most realistic computer pinball game I’ve ever played.”
It’s time to give it a whirl, especially since I went through so much trouble to get the game to boot in the first place. The main menu has an options screen with a sound test which also allows you to set the graphic sharpness (soft vs. sharp). I didn’t see a difference between the modes. Further, the main menu offers you a slideshow which shows up-close details of all aspects of the pinball table. Curious feature, but there it is.
The actual game is, well, a pinball game, pure and simple. Yes, the physics are all there and all very realistic. The control scheme is quite reasonable, with left on the gamepad affecting the 2 left-side flippers and the C button (the right-most button on the Saturn controller) triggering the right flipper. However, the response lag caused by piping the A/V through my ATI video card is killing me. Anyway, the ball is released, bounces around, hits things, the score mounts up, stuff flashes, there’s a dot-matrix screen where animations occur sometimes, and the game occasionally declares “Ball Frenzy!” where it shoots out lots of balls for you to bounce around simultaneously. The most interesting feature of this game that I have never seen before in a pinball sim is the ability to jolt the table, either forward by pressing up on the gamepad, or left or right by pressing the top left or right buttons on the controller.
Audio-wise, the game should stay entertaining with those 25 aformentioned red book CD audio tracks. And the right and left flippers actually come out of the correct speakers, though this was my first clue that something was amiss in the audio path between my Saturn and my headphones– the stereo was reversed.
So what’s my overall impression? Yeah, it’s a phenomenally accurate pinball simulation. But I have to tell you, I’m still highly partial to Epic MegaGames’ Epic Pinball. It occurred to me that this game might appeal to the pinball purist the way that the venerable Chessmaster series might appeal to the devotees of that timeless strategy game. Frankly, if I’m itching for a perfectly authentic pinball experience, I can always find some arcade or bar nearby with a machine. But I always appreciated the way that Epic Pinball brought some unusual twists (like the Enigma table) that you can’t get with a real pinball machine. Accurate computer simulations work best for things we can’t easily do in real life, like build cities or civilizations.