The series Nintendo is Great will explore every game ever released for a Nintendo console/handheld, beginning with the Famicom and working our way up to the Nintendo Switch.
RELEASE DATE: 02/02/1984 (JP), 10/18/1985 (US), 09/01/1986 (EU)
ALSO ON: Arcade (Vs. Pinball – 10/1984 – US, 1984 – JP), Famicom Disk System (05/30/1989), e-Reader (Pinball-e – 09/16/2002 – US), Virtual Console (Wii [11-12/2006 – WW] and Wii U [10/24/13 – WW]), Nintendo Switch (Arcade Archives: Vs. Pinball – 08/30/2019 – WW)
FEATURED IN: Animal Crossing (Gamecube, 2002)
Pinball used to be great. Or, at least, I used to think it was great back in the early ’90s, back before I played every pinball game on the NES (Pinball Quest forever). The top half of the board had seals that would bounce balls on their nose (if you collected all eight lights in the upper right hand corner) and penguins doing gymnastics. You could hang your ball on the 100 point bumper and make it go through the 1000-point target dozens of times, if you were lucky. With this technique, I could get 200,000 points in a single playthrough easily.
The bottom half had baby chicks in eggs (crack ’em all to get stoppers), playing cards that could be uncovered for points, good glory, so many bumpers, and seven numbered targets that, once hit, could send your ball back to the plunger. Neither the top half nor the bottom half of the board were all that exciting, frankly, but together, they made for a serious time sink for my younger self.
And, of course, there’s the bonus stage. Mario lives here, for some reason. As with all early Famicom outings pre-Super Mario Bros, Nintendo’s putting him to work. Here, Mario tries desperately to keep the pinball up in the air, a la Breakout, and knock out the floor where Pauline is held prisoner. So many questions: who trapped Pauline in what looks to be the vents of this pinball machine? Why can’t Mario just jump up there like the baller that he is and rescue her? Why does he need a pinball?
I demand answers, Mario.
I never asked these questions as a child. I didn’t care. Pinball, Mario, bonus stages, exercising penguins, energetic seals, balls, bumpers and points everywhere. I embraced the madness, as we do when we’re young.
Today, Pinball isn’t great. Your ball tends to sink like a stone and/or be attracted to places where you don’t want it to go. Neither the top screen nor the bottom screen are particularly engaging (Mario’s Breakout moment, on the other hand, has aged pretty well). Unless you love collecting points or watching adorable penguins do calisthenics, the whole affair grows tiresome quickly.
One royal flush, coming up.
In 1984, though? Pinball was the ultimate home pinball video game. Two screens with a bonus third screen? Talk about features. Your other options in 1984 were: Video Pinball for the Atari 2600 and Sega Flipper for the SG-1000, neither of which replicated pinball nearly as well as Nintendo’s attempt (I’m sure there are probably more – please let me know in the comments below).
Point is, Pinball got the job done for awhile. Today’s relic is yesterday’s moderate accomplishment.
Pinball is a leisurely flip through the machine compared to Vs. Pinball‘s drug-fueled anxiety trip. I’m not sure what happened in the few months between Pinball‘s Famicom release and Vs. Pinball‘s retooling for the arcade, but damn. The ball now moves like it just drank three Rockstars and snorted a few lines. This means you rack up points quicker and easier, but… at what cost? I’m thinking of the pinball’s well being here. It refuses to stop until it gets enough.
Fancy new point displays make the penguins say “Hooooo!”
Vs. Pinball has sharper colors than the Famicom version. Red, blues, and greens pop out of the screen and shimmer across your mind. All of the sound effects have been re-worked as well. The bumpers sound heavier, the pinball sounds springier, and the flippers sound more like real pinball cabinet flippers. Perfect for arcade play. One final curious change: the disconcerting “music”/noises in the background, like the game’s charging up. The latter, if in the wrong frame of mind, can be unnerving, although it does fit Vs. Pinball‘s overall “I’m on one” aesthetic. Still, those charging noises never resolve. Occasionally, they’ll cease and you’re left in complete silence. The noises always return, though, charging into the void, like a countdown to madness.
Mario in exile.
Vs. Pinball and Pinball are more or less the same game, but Vs. Pinball‘s unhinged qualities give it the slight advantage. It answers the question “What if I took drugs and played Nintendo’s Pinball?” without you having to take drugs yourself.
If this sounds appealing, you can find Vs. Pinball on the Nintendo Switch eShop for $7.99. Yes, that is still too expensive, despite the improvements. Nintendo also hasn’t included NES Pinball for Nintendo Switch Online’s NES catalog, despite “free” being the appropriate price for the game at this point. If you want your antiquated Pinball fix, you’ll have to pay up.
Slow down, Vs. Pinball: B-
PINBALL (FAMICOM DISK SYSTEM)
As the old saying goes, “All early Famicom games eventually make their way over to the Disk System.” Pinball is no exception, and it features – you guessed it – no quality-of-life improvements over the original Famicom Pinball.
But before you take a sledgehammer to your Disk System, consider: Pinball was only ever released for the Disk Writer, a kiosk in Japan that allowed you to write games onto a blank Famicom disk. The games themselves cost only 500 yen, which is about $4.60 today or about $3.25 in late 1980s money. Yes, this is incredibly affordable. Brand new games for the price of a rental and a blank disk? “Sign me up,” said every Famicom Disk System owner in Japan. The Disk Writer was so awesome and so popular, in fact, that they remained in use until 2003, thirteen years after the Disk System was discontinued.
You know you want one. I know I want one.*
So if you shelled out about four bucks for Pinball in 1989 (plus the cost of a blank disk), you probably wouldn’t feel too bad about zero quality-of-life improvements.
Paying next to nothing for Pinball and other Famicom Disk System games: A
Once again, I come to an e-Reader game. Once again, I ask why.
I love the e-Reader, though not because it’s a practical device. Scanning not just one, but several cards in order to play a really old game made no sense in 2002, and makes even less sense today. No, I love the e-Reader because it’s one of Nintendo’s really weird concepts that made it from a designer’s head to store shelves without anyone stopping it (other examples: Virtual Boy, Wii U, Nintendo Labo, etc). Every so often, the quality filter at Nintendo doesn’t work and we’re left with a train wreck that they either try to salvage for awhile or abandon as quickly as possible. The e-Reader, in America at least, was the latter.
Just because I love the e-Reader’s impracticality doesn’t mean that anyone should use the device and its cards for their intended purposes. They’re neat curios, released before digital distribution had hit consoles in any meaningful way. Nintendo was starting to realize that they could capitalize on nostalgia for their old games. They just hadn’t figured out a way yet.
According to Nintendo.fandom.com, e-Reader purchasers either received Pinball or Donkey Kong Jr. as a pack-in game with their device. While receiving Pinball for free is both welcome (free game!) and an insult (Pinball?!), what’s important here is that you didn’t pay for it. Even though it only cost $4.99 upon release, that’s still too much for what you’re getting.
Pinball-e is Pinball, only on the Game Boy Advance as filtered through the e-Reader. All e-Reader games have this fuzzy film/distortion over the visuals that even the Famicom/NES versions don’t have. I wasn’t thrilled about scanning cards to begin with, but scanning cards to access a sub-par port of the game? Goodnight, e-Reader. There will be no encore.
Not even once: D
PINBALL (ANIMAL CROSSING)
Eventually, I will no longer discuss the presence of NES games in Animal Crossing. I will discuss Animal Crossing itself and how none of its sequels have managed to measure up to the impact of the original, despite the series’ increased popularity. Not today, though. Today, I talk about Pinball buried within Animal Crossing.
Pinball is one of the eight games obtainable through Tom Nook’s Lottery, purchased from Redd’s tent or buried by villagers. Once you receive it, you can display it for your animal friends to see or hide it in your basement/bedroom, away from their nosy eyes and grabby hands.
Unlike Pinball-e, Pinball, as found within Animal Crossing, is a perfectly cromulent port. The fact that the game is a bonus and not the main game itself makes its presence much more tolerable.
Animal Crossing guest starring Pinball: B
PINBALL (VIRTUAL CONSOLE)
Lastly (thankfully, blessedly), we arrive at Pinball on the Wii and Wii U Virtual Console. I doubt Nintendo thinks so highly of Pinball or any of their early NES titles that they want to “preserve” them in digital form. No, Nintendo knows you have fond memories of playing their older titles, even the crap ones, and they will capitalize on it.
Buying Pinball for Wii? Sure, we all get bitten by the nostalgia bug. And considering most NES games on the Wii VC sold for five bucks and had solid emulation, you could certainly do worse.
Buying Pinball for Wii U? You can’t fool me twice, Nintendo. The NES VC for the Wii U turns down the brightness, undermines the color palette, and squashes the screen. Pinball and all other NES games aren’t unplayable, but their quality is severely lacking. Let’s not reward Nintendo for these half-assed NES ports on the Wii U, particularly given the admirable job they did with the Wii’s Virtual Console.
Indulging in Nostalgia, Wii Edition: C+
Indulging in Nostalgia 2: Wii U for What?!: D
*thanks to Indie Gamer Chick, BlockFort, and Nintendo.co.uk for the images!
Pinball‘s nearly four-decade journey across a myriad of Nintendo’s consoles began on December 5th, 1983, when Pinball was released for Game & Watch. Given their two month release difference (Pinball for Famicom released February 2nd, 1984), Nintendo likely developed both Famicom Pinball and Game & Watch Pinball around the same time. As one would expect given the Game & Watch’s limited technology, the latter is much more basic than the already simplistic Famicom version.
The top screen provides a couple 100 point bumpers, two flippers, and four rollover lanes, along with a hole in the middle that drops you down to the bottom screen with five hundred extra points. The bottom screen has a couple additional bumpers, two outlanes, and… that’s it? (Some of my pinball jargon might be incorrect, so feel free to correct me kindly in the comments below).
According to Nintendo.fandom.com, Nintendo “manufactured” 250,000 units of this game worldwide, which sounds like a moderate success. That’s great, and I’m sure citizens of the mid-1980s were probably captivated by Pinball, but this isn’t a lost gem by any means. Perfect for collectors and historians, needless for the rest of us.
*thanks to Nintendo.fandom.com for the image!