Space War may have ushered in the coin-operated (coin-op) videogame generation, but like dinosaurs that once dominated the Earth before humans, pinball machines once ruled the arcades before videogames. Only to be preceded by Kinetoscopes and Nickelodeons (the primordial ooze of coin-ops), pinball reached a level of simplicity and elegance in gameplay only occasionally matched by modern games such as Tetris. But make no mistake, Pinball is not completely extinct and again like dinosaurs, remnants of its existence can be found in unexpected places. The most obvious of which is video-pinball that tries to replicate the physics, mechanisms and addictiveness of pinball onscreen and via pixels and sprites.
Pokémon Pinball is Nintendo's newest foray into that genre, but only this time, they've added two very potent ingredients to the concoction: the resurgent Game Boy Color and the phenomenally popular, Pokémon. This devastating combination makes for what is easily the most high-profile video-pinball game in recent memory. However, with Nintendo struggling against competitors in its native home of Japan, you have to wonder if they are tempted to overwork the cash-cow that has allowed them to endure the onslaught thus far in the Console Wars. So is Pokémon Pinball simply over milking the udders or will it develop into a newly prized cash-calf?
The first thing I noticed about Pokémon Pinball was the oversized shape of the cart due to the built-in rumble feature. This is the second Game Boy cart to include it and it represents Nintendo's consistent approach in bringing accessible new gaming technologies to the consumer. It may jack up the price of the game by a significant margin, but in this case, I think it's well worth it. The subtle vibration that it generates is a terrific match for the mild tremors and shakes normally incurred by the various bumpers commonly found in pinball games. Add the ability to tilt the field and you already have a game that is on the right track to capturing the pinball experience.
After playing the game a while, it's not hard to see why Nintendo transposed the Pokémon franchise to this format. Traditionally, pinball games contain various puzzles in the form of complex mouse trap-like contraptions scattered across the playing board. Unraveling these contraptions require a scheme of targets to be accurately struck with the ball at the right time in the right order. Upon completion of the procedure, points are awarded (the more complex the procedure, the higher the points). In the case of Pokémon Pinball, a Pokeball is used for the ball and actual Pokémon are used to replace those very contraptions that form the concept of scoring. It's a near perfect match because Pokémon themselves are varied, diminutive in size and pack in much complexity as well. The usual glitzy flashing lights of regular pinball are replaced by the animated antics of Pikachu's electric shocks and literally hundreds of other Pokémon. It also plays up the advantages of video-pinball by making a genre that typically feels very mechanical seem very organic and lively instead. It's an unexpected offshoot, but very welcome at the same time.
Gameplay in pinball really boils down to competing against other players by obtaining ridiculously high scores. For diversity, Pokémon Pinball incorporates the "gotta catch'em all" philosophy into two playable fields of red and blue. Depending on the color fields, certain Pokémon are unleashed during the game by hitting particular targets and switches. Then these Pokémon are captured by pouncing the ball them and captured Pokémon are then (surprise!) added to the database of the Pokedex. Switching stages, Pokémon evolutions, bonus stages, and all sorts of Pokémon-isms are thrown in to keep things interesting. But at the same time, developers never lose sight of what pinball is all about. Scoring points still takes precedence over everything else and all the other features don't distract, but add variety in a very good way.
I don't have many complaints about Pokémon Pinball. I was initially very distracted by the way the field is divided in two and the way the ball moves between the halves. The field doesn't scroll through seamlessly, but instead jump cuts with a split second delay in between. That ever so slight delay really drove me up the wall, but surprisingly, the more I played and the more involved I became, the less I noticed. Sure enough, after logging in countless hours, I didn't even notice.
So while I don't think Pokémon Pinball is the Second Coming of the franchise, it's definitely a game of substance. The developers clearly understand the dynamics that have kept the game of pinball such a timeless classic and the Pokémon franchise isn't cheaply exploited, but well integrated. Most importantly, the game is very fun and addictive. Yet in the end, I found Pokémon Pinball to be extremely clever, but not quite cathartic, keeping it from the absolute pinnacle of today's games.
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