Everybody likes pinball. This is an irrefutable fact. Everybody hates the CD-i. This is also a factual statement. Someone decided to cross these streams. Now, this doesn’t seem to be the best use of the CD-i’s hardware, after all, there’s not much use for FMV or CD-quality sound in a pinball game, but hey, maybe they could use all that extra power to come up with some elaborate designs or some wacky gimmicks you wouldn’t see on a regular table. After all, there’s gotta be some reason to design a game for a system nobody owned instead of putting it on one of the myriad 16-bit consoles out there, right? RIGHT? Well, let’s hope we find one as we explore 1991’s Pinball, for Compact Disc Interactive.
Well, on the upside, Pinball features four tables, so at least we get some variety right off the bat. There’s Cyber, where the playing field is basically a robot’s skeleton, where you smack the ball off the robot’s joints for points. There’s Dogfight, where you use the ball to fire at World War I planes in the hopes of luring out the Red Baron. Third is Spring Break, where you head down to the beach for some sun-soaked flipper action, and finally, there’s Meltdown, which takes place in a runaway nuclear reactor. It should also be noted that none of the tables feature point inflation, so even really good rounds are going to net you scores in the thousands instead of the millions.
All of the tables feature their own little quirks and gimmicks to go along with the wildly different themes; Cyber features a magnetic strip that can catch your ball and keep it tethered in place while you bounce off the scoring bumpers. The flippers in Dogfight have fuel gauges that run down as you activate them, so if you’re wildly swinging without hitting any of the enemy planes, you can run out of gas and the flippers won’t work anymore. Spring Break asks you to hit beach balls sitting in the ocean that spell out “Spring” and later “Break”, and if you get through those two cycles, you can knock the ball into the cafe along the sides for big points. Meltdown features a reactor area with eight chutes that open and close, and if you can conk the ball in there regularly, you can rack up a pretty solid score in a hurry. In that sense, Pinball does a pretty good job of making the four tables feel unique from each other, and not just cheap palette swaps and such.
Unfortunately, though, the game starts to break down considerably when you actually start to sit down and play it. The first thing you’ll undoubtedly notice is that the game does not show the entire table at once, like Space Cadet Pinball that comes with Windows does. Instead, the camera tries to follow the ball as it zips around the table, and I do mean zips, as it’s almost impossible not to send the ball off at warp speed every time you swat at it with the flippers. The physics are mostly competently done, so you won’t have too many problems like the ball hitting an object and ricocheting off at an impossible angle or trying to aim your shot in a general direction and the game refusing to cooperate. As for the flippers themselves, you have the option of activating them independently of each other or binding both of them to one button, which, given the clunky design of the regular CD-i remote, is probably the better option, with the possible exception of Dogfight, due to the fuel system on that table.
The other big issue you’ll sense fairly quickly is that the tables either feel like there’s too much going on or not enough going on with no real in-between. For example, Spring Break’s field features the beach balls at the top of the screen, a lady in an inner tube, beach umbrellas that open and close when you hit them, a weightlifter on the right side of the board, and the cafe that takes up pretty much the entire left side of the board. Couple all that with the launch tube where you shoot the ball out to start, and that makes for a very narrow, very cramped table that’s very easy to lose a ball in if it bounces off an umbrella and comes shooting back down at speeds that make it impossible to react to in time. Meltdown sits on the opposite side of the fence; aside from some colored lights you can turn on at the top of the table and the reactor space in the middle, there’s nothing much more than some metal bumpers along the side and a lot of empty space in between. Also, none of the fun gimmicks you’d find on modern pinball tables are found in any of the four featured boards: there’s no multiball, no skill shots, no tunnels that take a ball in and spit it out somewhere else, no elevated ramps to second tiers, nothing, what you see is absolutely what you get.
What’s worse, what you see isn’t all that impressive. There is very little animation in any of the objects, even in motion. The ball looks like a white cardboard circle as it scoots around the board, interactive objects like bumpers either have an “on” or “off” setting and don’t flash or have anything besides those two frames, the plane targets in Dogfight look like they were crudely painted by a kid playing with watercolors, and when hit, a big gray splotch that represents smoke gets pasted atop the drawings, and the background of the Meltdown table is a hideous yellow color that gets tiresome to look at in between the pulsing red of the reactor core when you send a ball in there. The sounds, I suppose, are better, insofar as they’re pretty clear and serve their purpose, but there’s not very many of them. For example, no matter what table you’re on, smacking the ball against the side of the board sounds like dropping a marble onto a wood floor, no matter how hard or what angle it hits at. The Meltdown table also gets very grating especially because of all the metallic clangs you’ll hear, from the plunger putting the ball into play to the metal bumpers along the side to the stopper in between the flippers, and that’s not even getting the explosion sounds you’ll hear over…and over…and over again playing Dogfight.
Pinball for CD-i seems like a prime example of trying to force a square peg into a very round hole. It doesn’t really make much use of the CD-i’s capabilities, the graphics are incredibly underwhelming, the sounds are pretty sparse, and while there are four very distinct tables available, they either suffer from feeling tightly cramped or vastly empty, and when partnered with a scrolling, jerky camera and a ball that moves at the speed of light, it makes for a less than enjoyable experience. I really wouldn’t recommend Pinball unless you’re an unabashed mark for the genre or are just looking for something to pad out your CD-i catalogue. It’s not the worst game I’ve played, but when the most positive thing I can say about it is that it introduced me to the Radetzky March, that’s not a good omen.
Four unique tables to choose from, all with their own distinct twists.
None of those tables are terribly compelling, and the roving camera and amped-up ball speed make for a frustrating, occasionally nauseating experience.