MICRO PINBALL WIZARDRY
BY JOHN J. ANDERSON
Many parallels have been made between the advent of videogames and the advent of pinball. Concerned citizens once warned about the dangers of pinball, just as they warn of the dangers of the videogame today. It has been said that the advent of coin-op videogames sounded the death knell for pinball. However, true pinball types have no love lost for the videogame.
It is a rich irony, I then suppose, that pinball has become such a popular subject for videogame simulation. Serious pinball simulations began with Bill Budge's Raster Blaster for the Apple, which became one of the most popular programs of 1981. Budge showed that a pinball simulation could be refined to a point where it carries nearly all the excitement of the real game.
I, for one, never mourned the passing of pinball (if in fact it has passed away). The reason: I was never much good at it--at least compared to the scoffing arcade wizards who usually flanked me as my five balls flashed by in seconds. Then I would step back and watch one of them rack up a million points or two.
It was a different story, though, in the privacy of my own home. There I could play as many games as I wanted, to refine strategy and learn the "feel" of the flippers. I was taken with the realism of Raster Blaster; after a couple of games it is tough to remember you are playing the game on a microcomputer, and not a pinball machine. The two levels of difficulty offered by the game managed to foster an addiction that kept Raster Blaster at the front of my game software box for some time.
You can still buy Raster Blaster, and any true pinball simulation afficionado will want it, if mostly for archival purposes. Raster Blaster set the standard by which other games must be measured.
DAVID'S MIDNIGHT MAGIC
When I joined the magazine, I discovered I wasn't the only one with a penchant for microcomputer pinball. Soon after, David's Midnight Magic, by David Snider, came on the scene, and stole our hearts away.
Though quite clearly based on many of the same concepts that brought Raster Blaster great success, Midnight Magic is more fun to play. Its two sets of flippers create a much more exciting scenario, and present opportunities for "finesse moves" that transcend mere scoring. the addicted among the editorial staff began assigning style points to various successfully executed pinball maneuvers. An entire new vocabulary sprang up spontaneously to describe various moves. I dare mention none of its unorthodox notation here.
For sheer playability and addictive value, David's Midnight Magic has yet to be beat. It was the first simulation to include a "tilt" feature, which added richly to its appeal, along with the ability to save high scores to disk. Though it has only one play mode, that one is enough for months of enjoyment.
Another feature I like is that the program uses paddles for input in the Atari version, as opposed to joysticks, the way Raster Blaster does. The paddles are much easier to control, and push-button action is faster. Of course if you don't have paddles, the news may not sit so well that they are in fact mandatory for playing Midnight Magic.
With the advent of Night Mission, I thought the limit had been reached. Bruce Artwick, who has nearly single-handedly set the standard for microcomputer flight simulation, created a pinball program that is fully reconfigurable. That is to say, if you don't like the way it plays, you can make it play differently. Very differently.
The program is, in fact, a tour de force in user configurability, and Artwick's commitment to realism is positively, well, obsessive. The user may redefine the forces of gravity, bounce, friction, ball speed, flipper power, tilt sensitivity, as well as screen color and virtually every other factor affecting game play. In addition to this, altered play modes can be saved to disk, along with high scores. Nine play modes are provided, and another 100 can be configured by the user. Sound like enough flexibility? Bear in mind that the two-screen adjustment menu includes variables like left V threshold, velocity X, velocity Y, and right V threshold.
Enough is going on in any game of Night Mission to keep the player busy at all times. There is a theme at work, too: that of a World War II nighttime bombing run. This really gives you the feeling of playing an old-fashioned pinball game, where a story takes place. I only wish it had a second set of flippers.
Though joysticks are the preferred peripheral in the Atari version, Night Mission can also be played very effectively from the keyboard, and in fact this gives better access to the tilt capability.
PINBALL CONSTRUCTION SET
Not wishing to be outdone, and having in Night Mission quite a tall order to top, Apple graphics master Bill Budge struck back recently with Pinball Construction Set. My mind boggles to think of anyone topping this latest feat. Budge took the concept of configurability a step further--he wrote a program enabling the user to easily design entirely original pinball machines--and save them to disk.
Designing your own pinball games is as much or more fun than actually playing pinball on them, and Pinball Construction Set makes the process a breeze. Using your joystick as a "mouse," you move the gloved pointer around screen, picking up and moving parts around at your own whim and fancy. The program uses a system of pointers and icons similar to that used on the $10,000 Apple Lisa machine.
The process of game construction can be as naive or sophisticated as you please. But if you get serious about it, serious tools are available to you. These include tools to shape and paint the board, magnify areas for detailed work, reset point and bonus values, and alter gravity, speed, and bounce.
Multi-flipper games (for which you may by now have sensed my preference) can be created with no difficulty. But creating a game that has that special "something," like Midnight Magic, will take more than a bit of trial and error experimentation. Testing a prototype is easy and mandatory. After it has been refined to the point where it really plays, and you want to save it, it can be copied to disk as a unique and self-contained pinball program.
Pinball Construction Set is not as yet available for the Atari computer, but there is no reason to doubt that it will become available in Atari format soon.
Years from now, your kids may ask you about that strange program you still boot from time to time on your old Apple II or Atari. It will be a bit difficult to explain that the game is a simulation of an ancient, mechanical arcade game, long since obsolete. What will be easier to explain is why you've kept it around; simply let the kids try it.