Flipnic: Ultimate Pinball – Review

On paper, pinball sounds like an endurance test of the most banal kind. In practice, however, the game is brought to life by the pings, dings, numbers, lights, and everything else that makes the player feel like they're somehow "winning." It's man and machine in noisy harmony, and it's great. Well, great enough to make us forget we're just flicking a metal ball up a sloped table-top for as long as possible.

Accordingly, Flipnic doesn't skimp on pizzazz. SCEI's uniquely Japanese take on this quintessentially American pastime puts a quite joyful emphasis on aesthetics over pinball purism. After all, pinball is such an inherently physical experience that's it's somewhat futile to try and transfer that same electric, bumper-clanging buzz to the comfort of our home sofas.

One of the best, and only, examples of a truly "classic" pinball videogame (meaning one that actually takes advantage of its videogameness) is the PC Engine's excellent Devil Crash, from all the way back in 1990. Gamers who have had the pleasure will undoubtedly recall that game's lasting image of a young maiden in the centre of the table, whose visage would gradually transform into that of a demonic reptile. It was a neat effect, but one that Flipnic's deformable landscapes (no, really) make appear suitably antiquated.

In the first of four tables, an entire geological change takes place when completing a mini-game brings about the freezing over of a central waterfall area. Admittedly, this in itself is also just a neat trick, but what impresses about Flipnic is that its sense of scale is not measured in purely visual terms. In this case, the new icy landscape now features a snowy cliff-face which must be hit several times to cause an avalanche and enable a skilful mountain-climbing mission, the completion of which transports the player to an extra-dimensional, zero-gravity boss encounter. It's a far cry from sloped table-tops, and so it should be.

Like all pinball games, however, Flipnic is essentially a shoot-'em-up. It requires an acute sense of rhythm and timing as well as a keen memory to get the most out of it. The key difference is that pinball players must learn to tame and coax the "bullets" into position before firing them. It takes practice, but it really is possible to hit the balls accurately with a steady enough nerve and a confident sense of control.

And like most good shoot-'em-ups, Flipnic can be downright infuriating. There are a frightening number of occasions (for want of a more violently bitter term) when no amount of skilled flipping can save our drop of silver from being bounced clean off the table. Arguably, this frustration factor is endemic in all pinball games, but Flipnic's lofty sense of genre-breaking ambition only compounds the problem by greatly raising the stakes.

Unlike real pinball, this is a game of winning and losing. Each table must be completed for the next to become fully accessible, and this involves fulfilling a series of interconnected mission objectives, such as destroying a set of power nodes to weaken a Spider-Crab enemy who must then be found and fought in another part of the area. But while this system amiably distances Flipnic from the high-score chasing origins of the genre, it imbues the game with a stinging Sword of Damocles clause that can cruelly rest the player's progress on the fickle bounce of the ball. All of a sudden, the words "Bumper Village" lose their fun factor, and a cut-scene that warns of an approaching U.F.O is more likely to invoke a wearied sigh than any kind of excitement.

Yet what keeps us hooked throughout all this hardship (aside from those unshakable completist tendencies) is the sheer hypnotic beauty of the game. Flipnic is a glowing testament to the value of lush, inventive presentation: From the soothing voices of the in-game commentators and the sweet sounds of the muzak accompaniment through to the delicious hues which tint the 'reverse' tables and the unashamed cheek in ripping off Pong's two-player mode. This is a game that dearly wants to be loved.

It's unfortunate, then, that such a beguiling front-end is offset by the ruthlessness of the game's ill-fitting emphasis on progression and unlocking new areas. In offering the kind of depth that other pinball games so routinely deny, Flipnic seems to have lost some of the carefree, localised fun on which the genre is built, and stumbled upon a whole new set of structural problems. It looks, sounds and even plays like the best pinball videogame that could possibly have been made for the PlayStation2, but it's too pushy and restrictive to be as spectacularly entertaining as it ought to be. Flipnic sure plays a mean pinball, but maybe just a little too mean. [Rating: 7.0 out of 10]