Tuesday 10 July 2012

High Speed

Pinball on the NES. Think it will work? My vote is no.

About this time last year I made a post about Pinball FX 2, coupled with some comments about busy visuals, lack of realism and various other nitpicks and moot points. But that was before proceeding to play the game for the rest of the year and beyond, because I kid you not, I am still enjoying Pinball FX 2 to this day, tackling Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet, taking out my revenge on Doctor Strange for blasting me into space. This affordable Xbox Live Arcade download has definitely reached my top ten favourite video games of all time, and it's given me a fresh new perspective on the industry as a whole.

So suffice to say I've become a bit obsessed with pinball as of late, but what's particularly intriguing is the fact no pinball game prior to this one has kept me hooked. I've played many, but the time spent playing has amassed to mere minutes, not twelve months and counting.

For me, three things can hurt a pinball simulation - graphics, physics and a reduced field of view. Pinball video games by nature are very demanding, requiring a team of highly skilled individuals to get the genre right. But of course as it's catering for a comparatively niche market to other genres, the skills and budgets aren't always there to deliver a top experience. Even Zen Studios struggle - features such as slap-saving are almost totally out of the question in Pinball FX 2 (assuming you don't want tilt warnings), and you often find that developers are forced to produce more forgiving tables to compensate.

But in that case, you're building a table around an engine. What happens if you do the reverse, and build an engine around a table? Well you get something a bit like High Speed on the NES, released by Rare(ware) in 1991. It's a bit of a disaster.

Originally released in 1985, High Speed stands as a milestone in the pinball community, introducing the world to the concept of "jackpots" and being the first table to have a complete musical soundtrack, as well as digitised voices and light shows. It was an extremely popular machine, shipping over 17,000 units across the globe (a lot by pinball standards) and is still frequently seen in service today. Or so say our American friends.

So perhaps there was some logic when Rare created this adaption for an ageing console. Certainly High Speed has some fans, and many of those fans may have owned Nintendos. Unfortunately this is Rare's second attempt at bringing pinball to the home, having tried to deliver 1986's Pin*Bot to NES customers in a year prior to this, and it doesn't appear that they've learnt from their mistakes.

Yep, High Speed on the NES fails for the three reasons I described above. The game lacks the colour palette to cope, so much of the once vibrant visuals have degraded into a murky grey, and though arguably these days it means the game is more authentic than it was twenty years ago (real High Speed tables weren't originally future-proofed, so the artwork has a tendency to rub off over time), High Speed relies on colour more than Pin*Bot, so the game looks a great deal worse than its predecessor.

Also, as to be expected from a game from this era, the physics are imperfect. Making shots is harder than it should be, and you can't always rely on the ability to trap balls thanks to wacky collision detection. Interestingly, like Rare's attempt at Pin*Bot, the table is "tilted" to create a greater sense of three dimensions, but this merely causes the game to feel small and cramped, and thus exacerbates the inaccuracies.

And even though the playfield is tilted, the camera is still forced to scroll upwards and downwards in an often disorientating fashion to get a full view of the action. This is partially compensated by Rare's decision to keep the camera away from bottom flippers - only the top two thirds of the table scroll so you're not forced to guess where the ball is going to land as often, but it doesn't resolve the issue entirely, and has you question why they bothered tilting it at all.

Unique to the NES adaption are items to collect, generated obstacles to avoid and bonus tables - elements impossible to recreate in the real world, giving the game more of a purpose on home consoles. But purists will claim the additions ruin the experience, and as there's no way to turn these features off, you're stuck with them through thick and thin. But hey, that orange thing which drags your ball down the centre and ruins the game entirely? Totally needed! Why complain?!

There are a selection of other problems, such as the digitised voices which force the game to pause, and the unskippable jingles and screens which appear whenever you drain the ball. Rare were happy to occasionally litter the playfield with pools of water in an effort to slow down the pace of the game, yet failed to implement a much-needed ball save feature which would have done the job just as well.

On the plus side, it can cope with multiball, on the down side, to "complete" the game you have to aim for the silly bonus stages, which detract from the pinball experience entirely. Though reasonably accurate in some respects, High Speed on the NES is a far cry from the 1985 table, to the point where they're almost entirely different games, so this is by no means a substitute for the real thing.

So in conclusion, unless you're desperate to play a partially-accurate version of a pinball classic, this NES version of High Speed can likely be ignored, though granted, you were probably doing that already. It failed to address the problems of its predecessor Pin-Bot, and though Rare deserve some credit for trying, the fact of the matter is this is on the wrong system. Put this on the Mega Drive or SNES, or any console that could cope with more than sixteen on-screen colours, and we might have had a winner.


  1. I loved both Pin-Bot and this game. Given the technical limitations, I feel that Rare did an excellent job as compared to many of the other 8-bit pinball games (David's Midnight Magic by Brøderbund, Night Mission Pinball by subLOGIC, Advanced Pinball Simulator by Codemasters). Admittedly, those games were on home computers while this was the fully tile-based NES, but I much prefer the ball physics and general look of Pin-Bot and High Speed.

    1. High Speed on the NES looks impressive... until you compare it to the real thing:

      honestly, most "8-bit" pinball sims suck for one reason or another. The physics on this one aren't particularly terrible for the day, but I don't think it's a pretty game by any means, and I think everything could have been a lot better if they'd held out for the SNES.

      The other thing is that though there are boatloads of crap for home computers, Pinball on the NES (the 1983 one from Nintendo) was very good for its day, and is arguably more playable than Pin*Bot and High Speed. But I might be imaginging things.

      On the subject of pinball experiments for 80s home computers...