It’s easy to see The Pinball Arcade as a digital heaven for fans of pinball. The game’s goal is simple, to take classic pinball machines of all sorts and recreate them as perfectly as possible in a digital form.
It’s a game which has already appeared on many platforms, with an impressive catalogue of tables from the ages. The PS4 version arrived digitally late last year, bringing with it improved versions of the 22 tables of the first season, but last week saw a retail release of everything so far, alongside an exclusive challenge mode.
However, this is a game that’s far from complete. Though the first season is out on PS4, the second season is yet to arrive on the console and the third is starting to appear. In fact, coming to the PS4 in the next couple of months are the first handful of third season tables, as part of a regular and steady drip feed of content.
But even just from the first season, there’s an extensive selection of tables to enjoy. They cover a wide variety of themes and styles, and it’s fascinating to see how the inexorable march of technology affected these machines. The earliest pinball table in the pack, 1973’s Big Shot, has a distinctly spartan and pure feeling and design compared to the extravagant light shows and increasingly complex layouts of the 80s and 90s.
I was able to compare two of those more modern tables, Monster Bash and Tales of the Arabian Nights, to their real life counterparts. As someone who’s not overly familiar with pinball, outside of the handful of videogames I’ve played, it really highlighted the attention to detail that has gone into each table’s recreation.
I find that some of the textures could be higher in resolution, but this is a fairly minor quibble when you have the impressive lighting system. Set the room lighting to “dark” in the settings to really show things off, but whatever the settings, you’re in for a real treat as each table’s increasingly complex set of lights and parts gets under way during play.
The lighting effects are quite easily an improvement over the PS3, but are only really telling when going between platforms in quick succession or with side-by-side comparisons. The PS3 lacks the lustre that the PS4 has, where each bulb casts its own, more vibrant light source, as in this quick comparison shot.
And the ball physics feel similarly impeccable. With no perceptible lag and a rock solid 1080p60 frame rate, it’s all down to your reflexes to hit the ball at the right point to hit it sweetly up the ramp or spot the right moment to jog the table (with a quick flick of the left stick) in the right direction to alter its course. Luck naturally plays a part after the ball has left the flipper and it veers off up the table, but it’s on your reflexes to deal with what happens after.
I’m not a pinball connoisseur, so I’ll admit this is something of an unknown to me, but I felt the only thing missing was the occasional bobble of the ball off the table from bouncing off an element, which I noticed several times when playing on the real Monster Bash machine but not in the game, and not discernibly on the real Tales table.
Part of what helps to make pinball compelling is just how complex the tables can be. Each has a particular set of goals for you to achieve, and it’s through completing these that you’ll earn the bigger bonus scores. You don’t need to know how to go about certain tasks to have a bit of fun, but each table has detailed instructions on how to perform various tasks.
Knowing those will certainly come in handy when taking on the Challenge mode, which is only in the retail release of the game. It’s a twist which sees you taking on a series of tables, either by manufacturer or as the full season, giving you three attempts to beat a baseline score tailored to each table and then pushing as far beyond it as possible.
Some of the target scores feel a bit easy and if you know your way around a table or are just nice and sharp with the flippers, you can get some ridiculous points tallies. There’s also not enough variety in the series available, but that’s where Tournament mode will soon come in, bringing fresh challenges for various difficulty levels alongside online leaderboards. But it’s not in the game just yet, set for a patch in the coming months as another sign of the regular evolution this game is seeing.
By being in a state of constant evolution, it would be easy to see The Pinball Arcade on PS4 as not being finished. It lacks many tables that are in other versions, online tournaments are yet to be patched in and so on.
But what’s there is a step up in quality that takes time to develop. The visual fidelity is a big improvement, though perhaps not a big enough leap to tempt people to upgrade from PS3, and it’s thoroughly enjoyable to play such realistic replications. Table by table, it is becoming the definitive, one stop shop for die hard pinball fans.