I’m no Tommy, but I have always loved pinball. For some reason, when I was a kid I was attracted to those strange tables even more than I was the arcade cabinets any time I’d venture into an arcade. I guess there’s just something undeniably fun for me about the purely tactile, physical feel of the game. It’s also something that takes a lot of dedication to master, with gameplay that combines a necessity for spatial awareness, tactical skill, and catlike reflexes with the need for devoted practice. In an age where real, physical pinball has become something of a relic of a bygone era, we have seen something of a digital pinball revolution occurring in living rooms across the world; any serious gamer can still appreciate the skill of the person holding that high score they’d love to crack.
You’d think that iOS gaming would be the perfect medium for digital pinball. After all, the devices in upright position are roughly the shape of a pinball table, and you’d expect mobile gaming and arcade appeal to play well together—who wouldn’t love to steal a few moments waiting for a bus or during study hall playing their favorite table?—and while there have been about a dozen decent attempts at developing or porting pinball to our favorite platform, (as well as innumerable poor attempts), the genre feels like it has yet to hit stride. Pinball Dreams HD (out now, $4.99) is definitely a step in the right direction, however.
Originally developed for the Amiga and released in 1992, Pinball Dreams was first released on the iPhone in early 2009 as Pinball Dreaming: Pinball Dreams and featured some slightly retooled graphics courtesy of Cowboy Rodeo. It held up well despite the years, but most of its greatest admirers did seem to be those who recognized it from its Amiga days and a certain appreciation of things firmly “retro” was required to become fully ensconced in it. Personally, I thought it was great, and I was more than a bit skeptical when I heard that Cowboy Rodeo planned to release a new, cosmetically altered version of it. It was the gameplay, after all, that made the original so great.
Oddly enough, it’s the gameplay that benefits from the game’s beautification. Optically, there are what purists might call some radical changes here, and while table design and the physics engine are identical to the Amiga version, the game plays smoother than ever. Ball movement in particular looks much more natural than in Pinball Dreaming, and apparently its speed is actually just as it was in the original game, something that Cowboy Rodeo says was not the case with Pinball Dreaming. It shows. Although the game’s physics are not totally convincing when compared to an actual table, they come impressively close, save for a bit of extra momentum the ball travels with at times. This momentum, however, is extremely important since, having no physical buttons to play with, or real-life flippers to flick, you can’t really tweak your shots like you would with a real table.
This is something that all iOS pinball games have to struggle with and they have taken a few different approaches—the most common of which is to lighten the ball and make it easier to get around the table with any kind of shot, but that’s not the case in Pinball Dreams. Instead, you’ll have to pick your spots and be crafty to use the momentum of the ball to send it fast and far enough to reach upper portions of a table and collect the biggest bonuses. The ball travels with considerable speed at times, too, and this means you’ll take a bit of a gambit when you try to get a quick shot off of a ricochet. Often it will bank off the edge of a ramp or the corner of a slingshot and back at the drain, testing your reflexes mercilessly.
I haven’t managed to pull off a drop catch or live catch and I don’t think either is possible. Most basic pinball techniques are pretty easy to pull off, however, such as the nudge pass, bounce pass, return lane transfer and trapping. The nudge pass is easy thanks to the added ability to shake the table in this version that was not present in Pinball Dreaming. Without greater flipper control, a post pass is unfortunately impossible, and although the presence of a pin in each table makes it difficult, I have executed some pretty exciting death saves and bang backs. Frankly, there is no iPhone pinball game that I know about that can pull off all of these tricks, as most either resort to overcompensating for the lack of flipper control in one way or another or just have a flat-out bad physics engine, but Pinball Dreams HD fares much better than most. In the older Pinball Dreaming I frequently felt like I was playing on a combination pinball/air hockey table, but that feeling only rarely crops up in Pinball Dreams HD, and overall the physics are realistic, fun, and provide some good challenge.
Make no mistake, however, the first thing you’ll notice about the new version of Pinball Dreams is its beauty, and that carries more than a significant advantage in several regards. For one thing, I never liked the way the original Steel Wheel table looked, and perhaps that’s why I never enjoyed playing it very much. Steel Wheel looks exponentially better to me in Pinball Dreams HD, and consequently I have found that it’s probably my new favorite table of the four. I suspect that the brilliant, Retina Display enhanced 3D graphics would help curious gamers who can’t stomach Amiga circa 1992 graphics to approach Pinball Dreams with new interest and help them to focus on the gameplay rather than being distracted by the retro visuals.
In addition to the Western-themed Steel Wheel, there’s the sci-fi/space exploration table, Ignition, the music-based Beat Box, and the horror-themed Nightmare, which has been renamed Graveyard, as it was known in a few other ports. Each table being based on a certain well known genre lends their appearances to potential campiness, but the only one that really seems dated is Beat Box, with its old school rap, “Rock Da House” lettering and graffiti paintjob. It’s dated in a way that’s fun and colorful, however, and is quite entertaining to play. All the others look like bona-fide classics, and play just as well, with great somewhat simplified late-80s table designs.
That the tables are so attractive and use such classic themes really makes them feel familiar and approachable. The layout of the tables might seem a little sparse and dull at first, but the scoring mechanics are easy to grasp and the placement of ramps, bumpers and targets is natural and never clumsy or awkward, even if they can lead to a higher difficulty than some more densely populated tables. These tables reward skill over luck, and still manage to be exciting and addictive at the same time.
The sounds are unaltered from the original version, and still sound great. The evil laugh in Graveyard, the gunshot-clapping bumpers in Steel Wheel, the rocket blasting sounds in Ignition, and the chirpy “yo!”s of Beat Box all get me amped up and frequently put a smile on my face. The game also features some of the finest chiptunes this side of the 8-bit era.
I would have liked more camera angles available, as I greatly prefer a full, static view of a pinball table, but both of the camera options provided here are pretty good and don’t distract me too much from the game. I do think that I could get better scores if I could see the full tables, however, which helps me to predict the angles at which the ball approaches a flipper. The landscape camera view is almost perfect though, with a small amount of vertical scrolling, and a really good viewing angle on the table. The portrait view is somewhat uncomfortable for me, as it follows the ball a bit too closely for my liking, but it’s not unplayable in that position either.
In addition to supporting the Retina Display on newer devices, Pinball Dreams HD also has integrated multi-tasking, (although there is no resume feature if you forcibly close the app from the multi-tasking menu or reboot your device), and Game Center leaderboards as well, which means you can challenge your friends for pinball supremacy, which is of course oh-so-important. There are currently no achievements integrated in the game, but it’s universal, which means you’ll get to enjoy it natively on all your iOS devices for the price of one download.
iFanzine Verdict: Pinball Dreams HD is a true classic remade and reinvigorated. Its four classic tables look and play better than ever, and faithful fans from the Amiga days and new pinball wizards-in-training alike will enjoy its crisp visuals, great design, well-balanced physics and fun to learn scoring mechanics for many hours. It’s one of the very best pinball apps available for the iPhone and iPad, and highly recommended.