Let’s Talk About Psycho Pinball

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I don’t know about you but I don’t care much for pinball in general. It’s one of those games that is way too precise to help my brain function normally and yet way too fiddly to really maintain my attention. I can’t say I ever really get much pleasure from the idea of physics being the game’s only major feature, mostly because it reminds me of the time when my GCSE physics teacher decided to have a massive red pen essay-fest in one of my books because I wrote on the top line of the book and forgot to underline the date once. We’re talking sixteen lines of red pen (seriously, Dr Everitt, I HAVE NOT FORGOTTEN THIS) all about how I was an awful human being for using the top line of an exercise book.

THIS HAS NOT SCARRED ME FOR LIFE AT ALL.

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So when it comes to games involving physics, I am often reminded of those times with a modicum of venom and vitriol. Thankfully for Psycho Pinball, this wouldn’t be happening for another three years or so because in 1994, I’d only just entered the horrifying world of secondary education. Psycho Pinball is so-called not because it features any form of psychosis or some such. It is actually the name of the armadillo character that features as the game’s mascot as it were. He isn’t the ball – although he bloody well should be – but you will occasionally assume control of him when the time comes through a series of mini-games that I will dive into.

Missed opportunity but having an armadillo as the ball might be tantamount to animal cruelty given that it pings about the place so frantically, I’m surprised the metal balls in these machines don’t explode after a while.

What do you mean it’s not real? VIDEO GAMES AREN’T REAL?!

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Pinball games in the past have suffered from several major problems: they’re either one table and no more, the physics are shot to pieces, or the game jumps from screen to screen in a jerky manner that gets very frustrating. Psycho Pinball has the honour of avoiding all of these traits by basically being a GOOD pinball game.

How on Earth do you manage to make a decent pinball game, you might ask (or not, I dunno, I ain’t your muvva). WELL. Firstly, the problem of only having one table is bypassed brilliantly by having a total of four. But here’s the kicker: three of them are separate tables. You can play them separately all you like. You can choose from Trick or Treat, a horror-themed table; Wild West, a – shock – wild west themed table; and The Abyss, an underwater-themed one (which so happens to be my favourite). But here’s another kicker: the fourth table, the game’s main table, actually CONNECTS all of these tables together. You can access any of the game’s other tables via this one when you fulfil certain criteria – each being light three objects and shoot the ball into the table’s respective ‘mouth’. Light three fish to go to The Abyss, three ghosts to go to Trick or Treat, and light three bullets to go to Wild West. And the best thing is that losing a ball in those tables brings you straight back to the main table and you can continue playing with that ball.

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The fact that you can visit the other tables and still lose a ball but just be returned to the main table either way is a great enough idea but what’s even better is that everything you do on that table when you lose the ball (table multipliers aside) stays put if and when your return to it. Rewards and lit up objects all stay valid. Some more obvious things such as the pre-mentioned table multipliers and the extra balls do not stick around but they don’t on any table either way so you can’t exactly get your knickers in a twist over that one.

You can have up to 5 balls, depending on the challenge you wish to set yourself, but why you’d decide to have just one ball is beyond me unless you’re some sort of masochist. Or you want a very short game.

Goodness alone knows that you could be off the table in about twenty seconds in this game, such is its preciseness. Be slightly off and you’re either doomed or you’ll feel slightly sick watching the ball ping about everywhere like a fly in a jar.

Where the hell did that simile come from?

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The wonderful thing about every table is that everything is laid out completely differently and plays like a completely separate game of pinball. There is so much on each table to find and master. You’ve got no end of little cracks, holes and whatnot to try and work your way into and around. Everything has an effect on the way you play that table. The Abyss has vents at the sides that balls can get shot into. If you’ve unlocked the vents feature, that means the ball will blow back and forth across it from vent to vent, giving you access to a second ball. Essentially, you’re getting multiball features here.

Sorry, let me say that again for you: essentially you’re getting M-M-M-M-M-MULTIBAAAAAALL! features.

Play the game, you’ll understand.

You can leave that ball going for as long as you want but hit it out of its trajectory and you’ll have to play with both balls which can get quite disorientating. But hey. You made your bed. You lie in it.

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Aside from the table’s features (OF WHICH THERE ARE MORE THAN I CAN ACTIVELY MUSTER TO COUNT), three mini-games are thrown into the mix as well. You still have to access these by performing certain things within the tables themselves but you’re transported to different locations to take part in these mini games. The main table’s game is easily the best and most interesting: a grid-based game where you have to roll Psycho across panels that will disappear after a short length of time. The aim is to move Psycho from one rocket to the other without falling off. Do so within three tries and earn bonus points. Do it first time and you earn MORE bonus points!

Or fail. Whatever. Do what you want.

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For the Wild West table, you’re transported to a constantly moving set of train carriages and have to traverse them and obstacles to get the bonus points at the end. Being hit by an obstacle sets you back to the table simple as that. You don’t get a billion chances here. You either make it or you don’t and more fool you for not doing it. It’s trickier than it looks, mainly because the jumping can be a bit suspect.

Somehow getting to this one feels a bit harder than the rest because the layout of the table does make things a little more difficult for ANYTHING to be done. Either that or I just suck at it but THAT IS FOR ME TO SAY AND YOU TO NOT SAY.

Don’t be rude.

Anyway.

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Returning to The Abyss for the final mini-game and this one has you travelling inside a whale to burst its ulcers.

I AM NOT FUCKING KIDDING YOU.

AGAIN.

Like, seriously… you grab hold of crab that are floating up in bubbles, then you throw them up to grab hold of and BURST ulcers, which then fill up the whale’s stomach so that you can eventually jump up and grab the bonus points.

I am starting to severely worry about the developers of this game that they managed to come up with something quite so disturbing…ly ingenious. Like, seriously. That’s genius. Every pinball table now needs a whale ulcer-popping mini-game. That should have been made law YEARS ago. But no. Too ‘weird’ for people. Pah. You make me sick.

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Trick or Treat doesn’t have a mini-game and at times, it feels like the table that has had the least amount of attention attached to it. There’s less going on in this level and it’s much more difficult to get big, massive scores. There’s still enough on the table, features-wise but it doesn’t have the same amount of appeal because there’s not as much going for it. If anything, this table doesn’t quite work on its own. When it’s part of the connected multi-table, fine. On its own? Go play The Abyss instead. It’s better. Because I said so.

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Physics-wise, the game feels very right. It’s particularly good when you set the game’s speed onto it’s highest setting. Adjusting the speed makes the game incredibly frenetic but it shows of the calibre of the developers in creating the table physics to be spot on. Everything feels as though it’s just right. The flippers flip perfectly. The way everything shots off from bumpers and static objects is exactly as you would expect. There doesn’t feel as though anything is wrong with it. The only time it looks odd is actually when you put the game onto its slowest settings. Even though the physics are the exact same, it looks very floaty and doesn’t look natural. It is though. You’re just watching it at a speed not meant for… well… human eyes? I dunno. Look. I was told I was going to fail physics. The ball looks like it’s moving the way it ought to but I’m not exactly the best person to be asking.

FYI: I didn’t fail physics. I got an A. Fuck you, Dr Everitt.

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In comparison to a lot of other pinball games, the smoothness of it makes it leagues above other pinball games. You can’t even compare this to something as slow, clunky and wildly unresponsive as Sonic Spinball. That wasn’t even a proper game, let alone a pinball game. At the very least, this one features beautifully defined graphics and the sort of soundtrack that any other game would be proud to feature, whatever it might even be.

The camera follows the ball up and down the table so that when you reach the upper part of any table, you’re not jolting onto a separate screen and being caught off guard by anything randomly appearing in front of you or by flippers that you COULD have pressed to move up even further. Besides, you get a big look at the table before you even start so that you’re aware of what to expect.

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And perhaps this is where the game’s only tiny flaw might be. It is a pinball game. It is the video-game equivalent of a pinball table. It isn’t, as such, a game so much as a simulation. Not that it’s a BAD simulation at all. In fact, far from it. But perhaps the reason that other pinball titles are looked on so fondly is that they tend to feature a purpose outside of the pinball mechanics. Yes, Sonic Spinball is a shit game but you were at least aiming to do something. If they had combined that idea with THIS execution then bloody hell, Sonic Spinball would have been an absolute JOY. Outside of that, you’ve got other titles that try to include boss battles and missions and all that. This is a game of ‘BEAT YOUR HIGH SCORE’ and perhaps it has missed a bit of a trick there.

But then again, perhaps not. I mean… it depends. Perhaps they could have done more with Psycho’s involvement and included more of him in mini-game style missions… I dunno. I’m not Codemasters and I don’t think I could stomach more whale-ulcer shenanigans OH HO HO HO STOMACH PUN. OH MY.

Sorry. Not sorry.

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Basically, Psycho Pinball is just a damn fine pinball game because the developers managed to do something slightly more unusual with the game. I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t call it charming as such, but rather a very professional game on the inside. At its heart it is. This is the gaming equivalent of going to your job as a CEO of a mega conglomerate dressed in a onesie. You can do the job brilliantly but it doesn’t exactly look as though you can.

Do you think they make armadillo onesies?

Actually scratch that. I don’t even wanna know.

(Psssst… email me if you find one…)
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