Although the first rudimentary pinball game predates the first videogame by several hundred years, the past several decades have seen the histories of videogames and pinball closely intertwined. The advent of the same circuit board technology which would eventually lead to the creation of videogames also gave a blast of style and substance to pinball, allowing for more complicated electronic mechanisms and more elaborate light displays and sound effects. For a brief period in the ’70s, there was even a bit of a pinball boom. Of course, as the relentless march of technology continued, the simple circuitry that had been used to operate pinball tables evolved to the point where the most complex games didn’t even need to feature many of the physical aspects of pinball. These new creations made much more money than pinball tables ever did, and so the older format was quickly retired to make way for the likes of Pac-Man and Space Invaders.
But even as arcades grew and changed, one could be sure that behind the Street Fighter II and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? cabinets, likely towards the very back of the arcade, there would be a handful of trusty pinball tables patiently awaiting the arrival of the next player worthy of inspiring an epic rock opera. And in the circular fullness of time, the era of massive arcades is now a relic of the past outside of Japan, so now you’re just as likely to find a lone pinball machine in your average dingy pizza parlor or pool hall as you are a heavily stained Mortal Kombat cabinet.
While I’m sure if you searched hard enough you could find a corner of the Internet where a community of hard-core pinball enthusiasts would verbally crucify anyone who’d dare imply that pinball has anything in common with videogames, their appeal is truthfully much the same. They both depend on dynamic sights and sounds to attract potential players, they both require a keen eye and small, precise hand motions to achieve success, and they both reward success with increasingly elaborate sights and sounds. The area in which they differ most markedly is that videogames were able to survive and thrive after the death of arcades by moving to PCs and home consoles, while pinball had no such option. Even the weakest of gaming consoles has at least a handful of different games on offer, while the greatest pinball table of all time is only able to treat players to the same several challenges over and over. Nobody buys a pinball table for their house unless they are really, really into that particular table (or really, really prone to making poor financial decisions). Playing pinball in the home just isn’t practical for anyone but the most enthusiastic pinball devotee.
Of course, considering their shared history, it only makes sense that videogames would attempt to solve this dilemma with videogames simulating pinball. Over the years, gamers have been treated to innumerable digital pinball games across every system imaginable. While these tend to show up most often grouped with card game variants and Arkanoid clones on PC freeware discs, a handful of big name publishers have taken a whack at making pinball games in the past, including Sega with Sonic Spinball for the Genesis and Nintendo with Pokémon Pinball for the Game Boy Color. And though a handful have managed to really nail pinball physics—allowing Mario to jump over trees may be fine in the land of gaming, but having a pinball haphazardly bouncing all over the place is sure to turn off anyone accustomed to the precision control of a traditional pinball table—few capture the genuine feel of the original game. So much of pinball is wrapped up in the physical act of standing in front of a table with fingers resting on the flipper buttons, sensing the low rumble of the ball as it rolls up and down, and hearing the slightly crackly fanfare and explosions piped from tiny speakers as the ball ricochets off bumpers and obstacles. It’s simply impossible to encapsulate such a visceral, physical experience in an entirely digital game.
So what are frustrated developers to do? Much like James T. Kirk facing the Kobayashi Maru scenario, they need to change the rules.
NAXAT Soft figured this out when developing their loosely affiliated Crush pinball games. Rather than trying to recreate the precise pinball experience, the Crush games instead opt to combine the compelling, unique aspects of videogames with the compelling, unique aspects of pinball great to create something that feels compelling, unique, and totally authentic to both its parents. The Crush series features solid ball physics and well-designed, multi-tiered tables every bit as enjoyable as the best physical pinball tables, but is also sports rockin’ 16-bit soundtracks and more swarms of shrieking monsters than all three Lord of the Rings films. Of them all, Jaki Crush' has the dual honor of being both the best of the series and the most obscure—most likely because it never made it out of Japan.
Just as Alien Crush? and Devil’s Crush used Geiger-inspired extraterrestrial and medieval fantasy motifs respectively, Jaki Crush’s design is inspired by traditional Japanese mythology; it’s filled to the brim with scowling oni and leering dragons. The table is three tiers high, with each tier presenting a variety of obstacles and targets, all of which feature the same attention to graphical detail that was a hallmark of so many of the best Super NES titles. The music, too, is uniformly excellent, somehow managing to simultaneously rock in a way that intensifies the action while also providing a touch of creepy ambiance to all the ghoul- and demon-slaying. And it deftly joins concepts from both disparate genres into perfectly logical outcomes. For instance, one of the demons lining the sides of the table will periodically begin to flash, and hitting its open mouth will teleport your ball to one of several small, hidden tables that serve as combination boss battles and bonus rounds.
However, the true brilliance of Jaki Crush comes from the way all of these elements work together to channel the visceral feelings of the old arcades where pinball tables made their homes. Obviously the physical feel of the game can’t be quite the same as real pinball, but the sound effects and the impact of the ball against demon flesh feels just as raw as the pinball experience. Just as animation which only replicates live-action film ends up seeming hollow and artificial, NAXAT understood that just mimicking real pinball in digital form will, at best, create a game that feels almost (but not quite) as good as real pinball. But by playing to the strengths of the digital medium while maintaining the essence of what makes pinball so much fun -- the speed, the flashiness, the visceral action—they managed to create a unique, and yet completely genuine pinball experience. No physical pinball table features scurrying monsters or openings that actually transport the ball to totally different tables. And yet Jaki Crush is so good at channeling the pinball spirit into these eleemnts that it all feels perfectly natural.
But for those more interested in a hardcore videogame experience, Jaki Crush fits the bill just as well. As the ball collides with the various creatures scurrying about the screen, they flash and explode in showers of flames and goo that call to mind the most white-knuckle arcade shooters. While pinball games are really only as fast as you want them to be, what with being able to essentially catch the ball and hold it like a soccer player trying to keep the crowd from getting overstimulated, Jaki Crush feels fast, especially during the boss/bonus tables. Creatures scramble about the screen screaming and squirming in a way that compels you to destroy them as quickly as possible. And though the bosses can’t actually injure you in any way, the manner in which they zip around the screen spraying tongues of flame and bolts of lightning while the music pounds makes you feel like you’re in for the fight of your life. Even gamers who traditionally dislike pinball will find that the fast, flashy, intense gameplay experience Jaki Crush offers is enough to win them over.
Sure, without an honest-to-god pinball table you’re not going to be able to get the real pinball experience in your home. But Jaki Crush’s combination of pinball mechanics with videogame style creates something that’s absolutely unique, but also uniquely pinball. If that makes any sense.