Stern Pinball Arcade Review

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In the golden days of arcades, before the earliest video game cabinets, there were pinball tables. Pinball was there, sucking down your quarters, parents’ quarters, and even your grandparents’ tokens like water. Before we used our hand, and eye coordination in head to head matches of Pong, it was the pinball machine that pushed these skills to the limit. Even after Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, and Centipede commanded our attention, these machines never went away. In fact, one company is still around today, albeit in a different form.

PROS: Fairly accurately replicates actual, real world tables in look, and feel.

CONS: Minor performance issues. Graphics quality is a bit uneven. EULA is bonkers.

FRANKENSTEIN: This collection has some machines that were bought out.

Pinball machines of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s had to do more than just challenge your reflexes. They had to draw your attention away from the array of video games in the arcade. Over the years some machines became surprisingly complex, utilizing all kinds of mechanical designs, like trap doors, rails, and models to engage your senses. A lot of machines also did very creative animations on LED scoreboards. They often gave point structures around hitting certain targets, or getting the ball to different parts of the board in a particular order. Even today, on a contemporary machine, there is just something magical about a pinball machine.

Of course one of the major tactics manufacturers use to get you to play their machines, is one that video game publishers use to get you to play theirs: licensing I.P.s. It wasn’t uncommon to see a table based on a popular film, cartoon, or even video game back then. The same is true today. Stern is one company with a long, and winding history. They made pinball machines, switched to video games, stopped making video games, and gave us more pinball machines. Over the course of that time there were ownership changes. As well as acquisitions of Data East, and Sega Pinball machines. These days, Stern still makes pinball machines. Not nearly as many as in the booming arcade scenes of the 80’s, and 90’s. But they make them. You can order one of the current offerings. For most of us, this would take up a lot of room, cost a lot of money, and we would also have to worry about finding someone to fix something should it break two years in.

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Fortunately, this is where Stern Pinball Arcade comes in. It’s made by FarSight Studios, the folks who make The Pinball Arcade. In fact, it’s pretty much The Pinball Arcade, but with a bunch of Stern’s tables, and free-standing. So rather than download TPA, and buy each table individually, or buy groups of tables for a platform, this is set. All you do is pop the cartridge into your Switch, and enjoy.

Like The Pinball Arcade before it, this collection does painstakingly make efforts to recreate the feeling of playing these machines. The initial way it does this, is by making accurate, working 3D models of actual pinball tables in its engine. For the most part you’re getting exactly that. Each of the digital tables looks as close to the physical tables as possible. Every flashing light, rail, flipper, and bell of each machine in the collection is here. The machines included in this bundle are AC/DC, Harley Davison, Starship Troopers, Star Trek (2009), The Phantom Of The Opera, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Last Action Hero, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, High Roller Casino, Mustang, and Ghostbusters.

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But it’s one thing to have machines that look like their real-life counterparts. It’s quite another to simulate how they play. This is the part Stern Pinball Arcade gets right. The physics of the game feel very, very close to an actual machine. And while I have only experienced the actual AC/DC table in the flesh, I can say the video game version here does feel on point with the real deal. The controls on the Switch feel responsive, and natural too. The triggers on the joycons act as your flippers, and the right stick acts as the plunger. There are also a host of camera options you can cycle through, and you can put the digital scoreboard in the corner. All of the tables have the same scoring systems as their real-life counterparts too.

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The game also looks great, whether you’re playing on the tablet screen or on the TV screen. Personally, I prefer the TV because with some of the more complicated tables, and multi-ball moments, it’s easier to see everything going on. Be that as it may, I still took it on a three-hour car ride to New Jersey, and it was the perfect kind of experience for a road trip. Something not overly involved, but also something you can challenge yourself, and other passengers to.  FarSight even added a challenge mode to give playing alone some legs. It will have you play each table, and give you a limited number of attempts to best a score metric before moving you to the next table. If you can hit them all, you essentially beat the game’s stand in of a campaign.

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There are a few problems with this one though you’ll want to be aware of. First, for those who get really particular about how things look, you’ll notice a ton of time into the tables. Not so much for the backgrounds. Ultimately this doesn’t matter much as you’ll be focused on pinball 99% of the time. But it is noticeable. Second, are the long load times. It can take up to 30 seconds to go between menus, and tables which seems weird as this doesn’t appear to be a taxing game. On the other hand I do get intermittent slowdown on the AC/DC table every so often. But none of the other machines ever give me such problems. It thankfully isn’t game breaking slow down, but it’s just strange. Also strange is the EULA. Not so much what’s in it, but the fact it is pushed like an early 90’s PC Game’s EULA. In most modern games, these are buried in an online manual, or small print somewhere in the back of a booklet. In Stern Pinball Arcade, it’s in the Options menu. It’s also probably why the screenshot, and video clip functions are disabled in this game. This is why the screen caps aren’t as crisp for this review. I was forced to take stills with purely old-school techniques. Due to the paranoia of either the developers at FarSight, the publishers at Alliance Digital Media, or perhaps even someone at CBS. God forbid somebody sees the Star Trek table in a review by a starving blogger on the internet.

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Fair-Use debates aside,  I still recommend pinball fans with a Switch look into this one. It’s a really fun game, with a lot of challenging tables to play. There’s something here for every skill level too. Starship Troopers isn’t a terribly hard to learn table, while some of the others have a lot more obstacles to overcome. The Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein table is completely bonkers, from the Frankenstein’s Monster torso to the insane multi-ball mode. It constantly yells “FRRRRANNNNKEEEENSSSSTEEEEEIN!!!!!”, at you, and it’s wonderful. The AC/DC table features many of the band’s biggest hits, and even works them into the game by having a jukebox inside of the table you can hit with the ball. Even the two more generic tables, Phantom Of The Opera, and High Roller Casino still feature a number of creative set pieces, and artwork. This sets them apart from a lot of the other tables in the collection. Whatever your experience level here, you’ll have a lot of fun with it.

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Stern Pinball Arcade is a little bit rough around the edges, and one could argue it feels a little barebones. Aside from the tables, there are some paragraphs detailing the history of each game. There are lengthy directions for each game too, that describe the scoring systems of each table in grave detail. There are also a lot of scans of classic advertisements that were sent to arcade operators when each of these were released. Compared with extras in other game compilations you’ve seen over the years, it isn’t very much of an incentive to pick it up. But the accurate pinball physics, and attention to detail are worth experiencing. You can spend hours upon hours trying to master each of these tables. At the same time you can also play a few short games when you don’t have a lot of time to devote to gaming. Whether you love pinball, or you want to play something out of your element, you might want to check this one out. And for those who have never played a pinball machine, this is a solid approximation of what you’d find. A few perplexing decisions aside, this is one of the better pinball video games you can buy.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

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