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Pinball Wizardry Lost in the Digital Versions

Short on fun, long on cheese, these hot tickets come nowhere close to the true experience.

February 01, 1996|AARON CURTISS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's nothing quite like a good game of pinball to soothe the soul and put the universe in its proper perspective. A crowd of friends, a couple of cold ones and just the right touch of tilt are the stuff of which memories are made.

Older folks (read over 30) would hardly recognize the tables they grew up with, though. Digitized readouts, blaring music and all manner of electronic burps and buzzers have turned familiar old pinball tables into pretty sophisticated pieces of hardware.

And now even the table is gone.

A hot ticket in the home video game market these days is digital pinball. Both 16-bit and 32-bit machines boast their own versions as well as the 8-bit Game Boy. But I doubt Tommy would have much luck mastering these sanitized versions, none of which come anywhere close to duplicating the feel and touch of a true pinball experience.

(For those readers who don't know who Tommy is: Ask your parents.)

Short on fun, these games all run long on cheesy themes. Ruiner Pinball for Atari Jaguar, for instance, takes the threat of nuclear annihilation and wraps it into a digital table that is colorful and noisy but rather dull.

Same goes for Last Gladiators Digital Pinball for Sega Saturn. This one comes closest to imitating the look of a real table, and some of the flipper movements even had a little finesse to them. In the end, though, control was too coarse and basic to be any fun.

Getaway for Game Boy was just plain lame. I cannot figure out why anyone would shell out the equivalent cost of at least 120 games of pinball for an 8-bit cart that is about as close to pinball as cribbage. Because the entire table can't fit on the screen at once, it has to scroll, which has the tendency to confuse the eye. It's just more trouble than it's worth.

One thing cool about PaTaank for 3DO is that it puts players inside the pinball machine. And while this is quite a technical achievement requiring umpteen calculations to compute random ball motion, it doesn't necessarily add up to a fun game. For one thing, I got pretty dizzy bouncing from bumper to bumper and gave up in frustration after a few hours.

In the end, pinball will always be pinball. There's something that connects you to the table that no video game I've seen can duplicate, a certain physicality and social element that sitting on the couch with a joypad will never match.

Staff writer Aaron Curtiss reviews video games regularly. To comment on a column or to suggest games for review, send letters to The Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, CA 91311. Or send e-mail to Aaron.Curtiss@latimes.com.

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