Pinball Fantasies HD [iOS] Review

Pinball Fantasies - logo

There are certain games I really enjoy playing on a computer but would never consider in real life. Take golf: I’ve loved various golf games over the years ever since the original Leaderboard, but I’ve never picked up a real golf club in my life. Pinball is another example: I’ve never played on a real table; but the Amiga version of Pinball Dreams and its sequels (released by 21st Century Entertainment and programmed by DICE) turned me into a fan of computerised versions.

And that is why I approached this HD update of Pinball Fantasies (Pinball Dreams’ sequel) with some trepidation, fearing I would see another fond gaming memory trampled to death by a poor remake.

Happily, I needn’t have worried. Developers Cowboy Rodeo have done an excellent job of updating the original game in a sympathetic way, retaining the elements that worked, whilst making changes where needed to bring the game up-to-modern hardware.

The most noticeable difference is in the presentation. Each of the four tables in the game is instantly recognisable to fans of the original; they just been given a lick of HD paint, making the colours much more vibrant and the tables really eye-catching. It’s most obvious on Partyland (my favourite table in this collection). It was always one of the most colourful tables and the new HD graphics really make it look better than ever.

Pinball Fantasies - Partyland

 

The same is true of the audio. All the tunes and sounds that you remember are still there; they have just been beefed up to take advantage of the improved audio quality of new devices. Play the game with headphones plugged in and it becomes a really immersive experience.

Gameplay-wise, I’m happy to report that very little has obviously changed. The original Pinball Fantasies had very well designed gameplay, with tables offering lots of opportunities to score highly and some cleverly balanced risk-and-reward elements. Whilst tweaks have been made, these are mostly minor. Indeed, the changes are often so subtle, that you will probably not notice the majority of them. The game is as slick, fast and addictive as ever and it’s a lot of fun to firstly work out the scoring system on each table and then master it so you can really go for the those mega scores.

Perhaps the biggest single change is the introduction of a more dynamic camera which follows the ball around the table, rather than the view remaining static. I confess I was a little concerned that this might impact on the gameplay or create visibility issues when it came to hitting specific targets. In fact, like so many other aspects of the game, it has been implemented very well. It adds a natural flow to the game, making it easier to get a feel for the whole table, and causes not issues at all.

Of course, there are a few issues that prevent this from being the perfect pinball fix. In particular, the new physics engine doesn’t feel quite as good as the original. The ball feels “heavier” and a little less responsive, meaning that some shots that I can remember pulling off with ease on the Amiga are a lot harder. 20 years ago, I had a number of favourite shots on each table – shots that I could almost pull off with my eyes closed, but which scored heavily. At first I thought that perhaps I was just mis-remembering how easy these shots were (or that my reactions and skill levels have reduced over the past 20-odd years). Reading some of the reviews, though, it’s clear a lot of other people feel the same (or maybe we’ve just all grown old together!)

The other major issue perhaps relates to the hardware more than the game itself. Whilst the game is perfectly playable on the iPhone, the screen can be a little small and the game cramped as a result. For a game that relies at least partly on reactions, the reduced space can sometimes be a problem.

Playing on an iPad brings its own challenges. I find the game works best in portrait mode. However, in order to make the controls work, you have to hold the iPad by the bottom corners. Whilst this is OK for a couple of games, the unevenly distributed weight soon makes it quite uncomfortable, so unless you’ve got an iPad stand available to take the weight, you’re unlikely to manage more than a couple of games.

It’s also a shame that there’s no integration with Game Center. Whilst the top few scores for each table are recorded in the game itself (a feature of the original), you’ve got no way of checking how that compares with the high scores of other players (although in my case, I probably don’t want to know!)

Given my negative experiences with other iOS remakes of classic games, I resisted downloading any of the Pinball games for a long time. However, consistently positive reviews eventually convinced me to part with £2.99 for Pinball Fantasises HD, and I finally gave in! Pinball Fantasies shows what can be achieved when a sympathetic developer takes on an old IP and takes the time to understand why the original was successful, rather than just churning out any old game with an established name attached to it

Now, go away. I’ve got a high score to beat on Partyland!

(Note: there are actually 2 versions of Pinball Fantasies available on the App Store – a standard and HD version. Whilst the HD version costs a little, I’d say that the improved graphics and dynamic ball make it well worth the small amount of extra cash).

Hints & Tips for Videogame Pioneers by Andrew Hewson [Book Review]

Hints & Tips for Videogame pioneers

A while back, Hewson Consultants kindly sent me a review copy of their rather excellent audio CD, showcasing some of the superb tunes that accompanied their 80s 8 bit games. Whilst on their website doing a bit of background research for the review, I came across a reference to Andrew Hewson’s forthcoming book, Hints and Tips for Video Game Pioneers, recalling his early days in the nascent videogames industry. I paid my money and eagerly awaited the book’s publication…

… And waited

… And waited.

For perfectly understandable reasons (which Hewson explains in the book’s introduction), it took rather longer to publish the book than expected. Happily, I’m able to report it’s been worth the wait.

There have been a number of recent books looking at the development of the early software houses (Chris Wilkins and Roger Kean’s books on US Gold and Ocean spring to mind). However, the Hewson title has a distinct advantage: we are getting the information straight from the horse’s mouth (with apologies to Andrew Hewson who, I am sure, has no equine characteristics!) Whereas other books are composite histories based on interviews with many different people this is the recollections of one man – the founder of Hewson Consultants.

This makes for a fascinating read, as you really get the sense of what it was like to be involved in those early, heady days of the industry, and how things changed (and became more difficult) as the decade progressed. The sense of fun gradually giving way to a more professional, business-like approach, which stifled creativity (Discuss). Hewson doesn’t just focus on the games that his companies produced, but looks at the development of the whole company, its ethos, expansion, relationship with the computer press, Hewson’s rise to prominence and gradual decline. Of course, there is plenty of information on their most famous titles, together with quotes and insights from some of the developers behind them, but the majority of the book is Hewson’s reflections on his time in the industry.

Hewson is very honest in his account and sometimes fairly forthright in his views (his views on software piracy are, understandably, pretty strong). He is open about the highs and lows of running Hewson Consultants, outlining where he made good decisions and where he made mistakes, as well as acknowledging the role that luck (as well as a lot of hard work) played in Hewson’s success.

Hewson himself has a scientific background and this comes across in the book and helps set it apart from other, similar titles. The focus is not just on the aesthetics of the games or the PR side of the industry (although both feature). He also understands and considers the problems that faced coders (beyond the obvious “early machines were limited in what they could do”) and the more technical aspects of the industry. In my (all too rare) idle moments, I’ve often wondered how a professional tape duplication plant worked. Now, thanks to this book, I know (at least in a general sense).

The text is well written with an engaging and easy-to-read style. Where there are occasional forays into more technical areas, they remain readable for the layman. The book is mostly arranged chronologically, giving it a clear structure, whilst individual chapters are broken down into various shorter sub-sections. This makes it easy to pick up and read when you have a few spare moments or it can be read from cover to cover in a few hours.

Turning to the downsides, there are a couple that stand out.

First up, images: or rather, the lack of them. For a book that is about a highly visual medium, it’s a real disappointment that the book is more or less image free, with no screenshots of any of Hewson’s games. In fairness, Hewson addresses this point in the introduction, arguing that the company produced so many games that selecting just some would have been an impossible task. Images (particularly full colour ones) also drive up production costs, making the final book more expensive. Even so, a couple of images per chapter would have brightened up the book a little and demonstrated how Hewson’s games evolved over time.

The second issue is that the book rather fizzles out towards the end. The section on the Hewson Consultant days feels very thorough, giving a rich, detailed account of the company’s highs and lows. By contrast, the section on 21st Century Entertainment (Hewson’s successor) feels a little superficial and lightweight. It feels like an add-on – something the author had to include because it was part of his experience in the industry, but that his heart was not really in it. Again, in fairness, Hewson acknowledges this in the introduction, noting that he found this part the hardest to write – partly because of personal circumstances during the writing process, but also because he could never (even at the time it was operating) muster the same enthusiasm for 21st Century Entertainment as for Hewson. This clearly comes through in the text, but it does leave the final few chapters with a slight sense of anti-climax.

So, bearing in mind those issues, would I recommend you buy it? Absolutely! Whilst images would have been nice, they are not a deal breaker (we can always look them up on the internet). Similarly, if I’m honest, I was more interested in the Hewson Consultant side of the story anyway, so the greater focus on that was fine by me. Hints and Tips for Videogame Pioneers is a fascinating read and I would definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in retro gaming or the early years of the industry.

The book is available from the Hewson Consultants website for around £15 + delivery(paperback) or as a special hardback edition for £24.99 + deliv. A Kindle edition is also available for around £7.