Genre blending is a splendid little thing. Diddy Kong Racing, one of Rare’s greatest Nintendo 64 games, is a wonderful mix of racing and adventure. Mario & Luigi Super Star Saga is a clever RPG with platforming elements thrown in. Games that stick adamantly to a certain form run the risk of getting stale, and introducing elements from other genres is a great way to keep things fresh.
Video game pinball is no stranger to this phenomenon. I remember the high hopes I had for Odama when I first heard about it sometime a few years ago. A pinball-based tactical wargame? That sort of thing just sells itself. Mario Pinball Land, similarly, had you explore typically Mario-esque worlds with a peculiar ball-shaped Mario. Interesting concepts, and rarely seen, too. But the games themselves didn’t go over so well with critics, sometimes cited for their unreasonable difficulty (Odama, oddly enough, was described as being both too easy and too hard by different reviewers). If I had to wager why, I’d say it was because relying on absolute precision and a fair share of luck, which are both huge components of typical pinball games, don’t extend so well to games with a somewhat larger scope.
Seeing these kind of conceptual pinball games reminds me of an obscure NES pinball game I played when I was a lot younger. I can’t be the only kid whose mother completely dominated video game pinball — both of my parents are far better at the genre than I, and I can only imagine that it’s because their senses became highly attuned to such games during the sixties. Because of my mother’s fondness for them, we used to get a lot of pinball games, four of them for the NES alone. The one I’d like to talk about now is Pinball Quest, a 1990 release by Jaleco.
Pinball Quest is similar in some ways to other NES pinball games, hosting a handful of generic tables, but the main attraction of the game (because believe me, those other tables are pretty damn bad) is RPG Mode.
You play a ball-shaped guard whose castle is raided, the similarly ball-shaped king attacked and possibly killed, and the human-shaped princess (?) kidnapped. You’re plunged into the courtyard, where you have to break the tombstones to find a ghost, who dispenses invaluable information. He advises you to travel to the castle of the evil lord who has ordered this kidnapping. Luckily, his castle is right across the way. You just have to break through the wall and make it to the top of the stage. The game’s a little finicky, so this might take a while if you’re not lucky. I haven’t gotten any better at this since I was five.
Up at the top, there are skeletons wandering around, and you’ve got to bust them up. As you defeat them, as with any enemy in the game, you grow stronger. And after they’re all defeated, they form the first boss of the game: a somewhat larger skeleton. He’s not any trouble, even when he launches his skull and it flies around at random. Spooky.
And so you march upwards through the castle. You encounter a shop, as you do after every stage, where you can use accumulated points to purchase stoppers and stronger flippers, or even try to steal something if you like (Hint: this almost never works). In the next stage, you fight a witch, and… well, before emulators, that’s as far as I ever got. She is the first boss who can sap your strength, and if a boss does that enough, your ball is sent back to the previous stage immediately. She can also heal herself at any time until you break her machine. This is frustrating enough, but later bosses are a great deal more aggressive, and I can’t imagine that the average player wouldn’t lose quite often given how video game pinball can be such a game of random chance.
Savestates got me through the rest of the game. It’s actually pretty short; there are only six tables in all, and the only real goal in any of them is to reach the boss and defeat it. The most noteworthy thing I can think of is that when at last you defeat the final boss, you drop through a hole and find an enormous, evil magnet, which is destroyed in a dramatic cutscene. This event is not given context by the rest of the game, but I guess a magnet would naturally be a pinball’s ultimate foe. So, yeah! Good going, noble pinball.
Especially when considering the shortness and linearity of the game, it definitely could have done better by having more than one possible thing to do on a given table, much like real pinball. The other non-RPG pinball tables in the game suffer from this same sort of problem: there’s only about one interesting thing on each of the boards. They’re barely worth describing, though the music from each of them has haunted me for 17 years.
Pinball Quest has the potential to be a classic game. What separates it from the big boys is that it’s kind of crappy. Perhaps it would have been more fondly remembered if it were a little more forgiving: if your ball drops through your flippers at any point, you’ve got to start from the beginning of the previous stage, half of your strength gone. Well, luckily, you don’t have to defeat any bosses you’ve previously beaten, you just have to claw your way back to the top — but any damage you have dealt to the boss on the stage you’ve just dropped out of is reset. And given the wonky physics, your ball will probably fall through the bottom more than once. I don’t know how my mom beat this game, given how frustrating some of the later bosses are – I’m afraid she has more wicked talent than I.
Still, there’s some merit to this game. I can’t think of any other adventure pinball games before this one, but there are plenty of others that follow in that sort of spirit – Sonic Spinball, Mario Pinball Land, and Odama all come to mind. Of course, none of these are really considered fantastic games. I did like Kirby’s Pinball Land, but that stuck a bit more to pinball routes than the other games. I’m not really willing to rule out the possibility of a great adventure pinball game, as all of these games have fun aspects, but the track record isn’t too promising.