Games | NES | Pinball & High Speed: Video Pinball Done Right

Article by Ben Langberg | Nov. 19, 2010


Developer: Rare
Publisher: Nintendo
U.S. Release: April 1990
Format: NES

High Speed

Developer: Rare
Publisher: Tradewest
U.S. Release: July 1991
Format: NES

Pinball machines predate the earliest coin-op arcade games, so it’s only logical that home videogames have been simulating pinball from nearly the beginning. From the abstract Video Pinball on the Atari 2600 to the make-your-own Pinball Construction Set on early 8-bit computers, early pinball games experimented with the concept as best they could with limited computing power.

Eventually, computers and home systems became powerful enough to reasonably simulate the physics of pinball and the games started generally to fall into one of two camps. On one hand, there were games that tried to simulate the physics of a table as realistically as possible -- perhaps even licensing a real pinball machine. Eight Ball Deluxe falls into this category. On the other hand, other games strove to add additional videogame elements that would be impossible on a real pinball table—from stacking two or more tables in front of each other to adding videogame creatures that would torment, or even destroy, the pinball. Alien Crush? is a prime example.

For its two pinball games on the NES, Rare split the difference.

Pinbot starts off mimicking its arcade sibling, with all of the ramps, bumpers and skill shots intact. The ball physics are decent, the table layout is good, and it’s also one of the few pinball machines with an actual metaphor explaining Multi-ball (Pinbot needs eyes, you see).

However, once you’ve completed a round by collecting the jackpot, the table changes colors and a little critter works his way to the middle of the playfield, near a picture of the solar system. Slowly traveling around the planets until he rests at the Sun’s position, he’ll draw the pinball towards himself if you get close and try to eat your ball. Liberal use of the tilt buttons -- that would easily shut off a real table -- might save your turn from certain doom. If you somehow manage to collect another jackpot under these conditions, the table again changes color and additional creatures come out, this time aiming to destroy your flippers. More levels await players with greater skills than myself. The promise of further surprises keeps replay value high.

Having blown the surprise in their previous pinball title, High Speed starts off with fantastic elements that try to drag your ball to the gutter and otherwise torment you. They are reasonably spaced out and easier to destroy, so as not to distract too much from the actual pinball. The table design is not as dynamic as Pinbot’s, and the game lacks the mystery of which new baddie is around the corner. To make up for it, the ball physics are faster and more realistic, making the game harder overall. Plus, if you collect enough of the various icons, you can activate two bonus stages—each with their own level progressions.

Both games feature sampled speech (albeit a bit garbled), and while the graphics are detailed, they tend to go overboard on the pixel dithering. More recent pinball videogames have better physics—and certainly better graphics—than Rare’s 8-bit offerings, yet one unique feature keeps Pinbot and High Speed in contention even over 20 years later: a split-screen view showing the location of the flippers at all times. I’ve never seen this feature in another pinball game, and it really helps keeping the ball(s) in play, particularly during Multiball.

Now that I think about it, I bet Rare patented the idea, and then proceeded to never make another pinball game again. The jerks!

Previous: Metal Storm | GameSpite Quarterly 5 | Next: Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom