Cuphead: The Definitive Review – Part One

“Four times? You’re reviewing Cuphead a fourth time? Are you whoring for page views or something?” #1: Yes. Always. #2: in nearly 4,000 days as Indie Gamer Chick, with over six-hundred indies reviewed, there had been only one game I got wrong that I flipped my review status on without a single patch being applied: Terraria, which I did almost immediately. That one was easy to flip. I was annoyed by all the glitches. I was annoyed by the crashes and lagging while playing multiplayer. Then, as soon as I hit publish on the review, Brian and I turned it back on to “finish our projects” and “get it out of my system.” Twenty hours of playing Terraria later, we both realized that I might need to rethink things, and I did.

Cuphead is now the second time I admit I got a review wrong. Which is really fucking sad when you think about it since I wrote THREE previous reviews of it.

I needed a little more than a couple days to flip on Cuphead, a game that I thought I detested. In fact, took me four years to realize I never hated it so much as I hated the unfair aspects (that are REALLY in the game) that mostly happen late in the game and thus feel fresh when the time comes to do the writing. That and the fact that the final world is gated from players who choose the simple option the developers included. If Cuphead hadn’t told me “not good enough” when I got to the end with having finished all the bosses on simple, I probably wouldn’t have touched it again, given it Approved Status, and moved on.

But, I was a little.. a lot.. okay, extremely pissed that a tentpole indie game locked people out of the ending (and loads of other content). I rejected the universal argument of the developers and its superfans that “Cuphead couldn’t have an easy mode! It would have gone against the spirit of the game!” That’s seriously dumbest argument I’ve ever experienced as IGC. Cuphead DOES have an easy mode! Saying the easy mode for the bosses of the first three worlds should lock you out of the finale would be like arguing a car can’t have breaks because that prevents it from moving forward, which is all a car is supposed to do. Well, that’s just a stupid way of thinking, but locking players out of the finale of Cuphead is arguing that it only exists to create an extreme challenge. That the tribute to golden age cartoons, incredible attention to detail, and masterful direction are completely meaningless because the only point of Cuphead is to be hard. They probably didn’t mean to make that point, but by using difficulty to gate-off large amounts of content and thus defining Cuphead by its difficulty, Studio MDHR chose to make every other aspect but the difficulty of the game completely meaningless. Uh, Whoops?

My first time playing Cuphead, I beat all the bosses on SIMPLE. I didn’t consider myself especially skilled enough to beat the game on the game’s terms. The second time, I didn’t even try. The third time, I did beat Cuphead, and I admitted I’d gotten a lot wrong. I conceded that I really liked the shmup levels, and those moments of victory after suffering through dozens of defeats were some damn-potent happy thoughts. But, I still insisted I didn’t like the game. And, at the point I walked away from it after the end credits rolled, I believed that was true. Even when I ended up having talks with friends where they noticed I had a warmness about it I previously lacked. Then, my kid sister/future Spielberg-of-her-generation Angela, in the middle of a 30s/40s animation kick, picked up Cuphead last week to take a look at how a modern tribute to that style would work. I don’t watch the “video game awards” or whatever the fuck they’re called on TV, so I asked “hey, whatever happened to Cuphead’s DLC?” on Twitter. Everyone replied that Cuphead’s DLC had been dated finally literally the night before. June 30, 2022. Wait, that’s Indie Gamer Chick’s 11th Anniversary! I watched the trailer, and I became excited. And then this conversation happened in my head:

Me: Wait, why I am excited for Cuphead?

Brain: Because you love Cuphead, you fucking idiot.

Me: I…….. do love Cuphead! Oh. My. GOD!! I love Cuphead! Wait, I do? That can’t be right!

So, I loaded Cuphead up on my Nintendo Switch this time (the previous three sessions having taken place on my Xbox One) and set a new goal: instead of simply beating the Devil, I would get at least an A- on every boss AND collect every coin in the game, thus requiring me to beat all six Run & Gun levels as well. This time, I knew what to expect. All the surprises were gone. I’d gotten good at Cuphead, and with or without the Jiffy Pop hands that my Parkinson’s disease is starting to cause, by God, I’m going to beat this fucker good this time. How’d that go?

Well, if I’m doing another Cuphead review, I’m doing the most in-depth review on the game ever written, so that I never have to do another write-up about Cuphead ever again.. until the DLC launches.

Nobody can complain this time. I scored a 100%!

I’m breaking it into four parts. One for each world in the game.

INKWELL ISLE I

RUN & GUN #1: Forest Follies
STATED INSPIRATION: Contra III, Gunstar Heroes, and Donkey Kong Country
IGC LIKES: Simple layout, clear targets.
IGC DISLIKES: Lack of big set-pieces.

Forest Follies, the first Run & Gun stage, will never get credit for being one of the all-time great opening levels in video games. That’s a shame, because it is an all-timer, yet nobody talks about it. A big reason for that is people think of Cuphead primarily as a boss rush game. The six “normal” levels are treated as after-thoughts in the game itself, and thus fans do as well. That’s borderline tragic, because all six levels are rich in gameplay and properly pay tribute to genre-defining titles like Gunstar Heroes and Contra. I’m a big fan of those games, and I think that’s a big part of why I was so drawn to the Cuphead’s Run & Gun stages, even when I wasn’t admitting to myself I loved the overall game.

Like any great intro level, Forest Follies is the perfect introduction to Cuphead’s platform-and-spray mechanics. The enemies are basic and can be clipped with a single bullet. The coins are easy enough to fetch. The parriable objects are practically set-up for you to bounce off. All set in a gorgeous level that feels like you’re taking-on actual cartoon characters from the golden age of animation. It’s one of the few times you can assign the word “basic” to Cuphead, but this is a basic level. Just, one done really well.

Each of the Run & Gun stages has at least one distinct “mini-boss” that makes you sort of wish they’d expanded it into a full boss fight. The acorn maker is the only one in Forest Follies, and one of the few in Cuphead’s Run & Gun stages that doesn’t feel like an event. It feels like a wall (Cuphead is full of those too) that you shoot through. This is as big a “set piece” as Forest Follies has, and if it’d been a little more epic, I think Cuphead’s intro stage would have to be in the discussion for best video game levels of all-time. It’s certainly among the best intro levels, even if nobody will call it that.

RUN & GUN #2: Treetop Trouble
STATED INSPIRATION: Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, Mickey’s Garden (1935)
IGC LIKES: How perfectly the developers captured the spirit of their targeted inspiration: Ghouls ‘n Ghosts. The final platforming stretch and the battle with the giant beetle are among the best platforming sections in all of Cuphead.
IGC DISLIKES: The climbing section is a slog. The randomized lady bugs are annoying.

The second level is where Cuphead’s Run & Gun stages get teeth. From here out, the Run & Gun stages are all essentially as difficult as late-game levels in other titles.

Dealing with the woodpeckers would be tough enough without these lady bugs bouncing around. The randomness of which ones can be parried is especially annoying given that there’s a coin that can only be gotten via a parry. It’s one of those things that is wonderful in theory, but in practice, they really needed to rig the RNG so that there is one pink bug constantly bouncing around where the coin is. The stage is challenging enough without having a chance of missing the coin.

The climbing section goes too long and is made a bit annoying by how spongy the enemies are. You can forgo finesse by equipping the heat seeker. The trees soak up too many bullets no matter what you use, so you might as well cheese the whole thing. The left-right-left style of climbing gets pretty old. This is one of the weaker segments in all of Cuphead’s traditional stages.

Then, inspiration hits. Hopping across the leafs that are being held up by bugs makes you think they’re going to sink under your weight. Instead, semi-random fireballs kill the bugs, which make the platforms drop out under you. This is the type of memorable twist on traditional platforming that can only really work this well in a game that puts such a high premium on art and style. It’s really something special.

Finally, the mini-boss, a giant dragonfly, really hits all the marks of what you’d want in a battle that caps off this section (and indeed, the whole level). Unlike the climbing section, you absolutely need finesse and precision here, and the result is one of the most memorable and satisfying bosses in any platforming-shooter. In fact, like many of the best platforming sections, this part was so good it probably could have been turned into a full-on boss battle for the main game. If you could somehow combine this boss with Forest Follies, you’d have one of the great stages in gaming history.

BOSS #1: Goopy Le Grande in “Ruse of an Ooze”
STATED INSPIRATIONS: Dragon Quest, Balloon Land (1935)
IGC LIKES: Imaginative battle that encapsulates everything magical about Cuphead.
IGC DISLIKES: That I fought this boss second instead of first.

I’m using the incredible book The Art of Cuphead for discussing the order of the bosses. In ten years, I’ve never recommended any book on gaming more, at least until my own book comes out. Yes, I’m writing a book. It’s titled Indie Gamer Chick: Everything I Learned Telling People Their Games Suck, and it’s coming out in 2023. Anyway, while I fought the Root Pack first, this was meant to be the first boss. I think of them as co-first bosses. The Root Pack all remain stationary and fire projectiles at you. Goopy has no projectiles and instead educates players on a moving target.

PHASE ONE – LITTLE GOOPY: Goopy bounces around and occasionally throws a giant, inflated punch that you can easily duck under. It’s a really simple attack pattern that eases players into the boss battles. Combined with the Root Pack, these fights are probably as good a job at introducing players to the world and concept of Cuphead as possible. I really can think of no flaws with these encounters. With first bosses, keep it simple, stupid.

Goopy blinks before throwing his big knock-out punch, just like Mike Tyson in Punch-Out!! This was supposed to originally be a series of punches, just like in Punch-Out!!, but it had to be cut. However, they kept the famous “Tyson Blinks at 1:30 telegraph” in the game.

PHASE TWO – BIG GOOPY: After a few hits, in a homage to A Boy and His Blob, Goopy flips a jellybean in his mouth and becomes huge. The fight is still the same basic concept: let him jump over you, duck to avoid his punch. Everything is heavily telegraphed, so there’s no GOTCHA type gameplay. The genius of this fight is it gives the illusion of being more difficult, while in reality, it’s just mildly changing-up its attack pattern but uses the medium and art style to make the change-over spectacular looking.

SIMPLY OFF-PUTTING: This portion of the fight is missing if you choose simple mode. The battle ends with phase two. Besides the fact that players are gated out of the final world, the worst issue with simple mode is it gates players out of entire sections of fights. That’s strange to me, because it’s not like they couldn’t make adjustments to make these phases easier. The ways it could have been done are self-evident. That’s one thing I hate about Cuphead that I’m not letting go of: it doesn’t merely tell players who are of lower skill levels that they suck, but also they’re not even deserving of seeing some of the great set pieces in the game. It’s such a snotty, elitist attitude towards game development. They can use the excuse that it doesn’t “hold your hand” or “games in MY day” were like this. Yea, well lots of stuff was different IN YOUR DAY, but we ain’t in that day anymore. Difficulty is an accessibility issue, and it’s unethical to gate large portions of your game out for those who can’t handle higher difficulties in a game that ALREADY HAS ADJUSTABLE DIFFICULTY! Sorry, it’s just a dick move, and if you didn’t want people playing on lesser difficulties, you should have not included it at all. Welcome to the 2020s, where if you don’t give a shit about less-abled people, or in the case of Cuphead, you punish them for taking advantage of the options YOU included, you will be called out for being the complete assholes that you apparently are.

PHASE THREE – GOOPY’S TOMBSTONE: This is one of the best end-of-encounter forms in Cuphead. You’re still following the same basic principle of something moving back and forth, only now, instead of it being lethal to the touch, there’s timed attacks to avoid. Originally, this was going to feature two of the little blue goopies from Forest Follies. Smart move taking them out, as it would have massively thrown-off the difficulty scaling. This is one of the few instances where the team at Studio MDHR got a boss fight absolutely perfect.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Apparently, Goopie is the boss that changed the most from the concept phase. In early trailers, you could see Cuphead battling two at once. Other ideas that didn’t make the cut were Goopie using Rock-Paper-Scissors-based attacks, and a closer tribute to the Tyson fight from Punch-Out!! than what remained in the game. The developers had to give up a lot of ideas, but the restraint they showed is something a lot of first timers wouldn’t do. It’s really remarkable.

BOSS #2: The Root Pack in “Botanic Panic”
STATED INSPIRATIONS: Woody Woodpecker, The Jungle Book (1967)
IGC LIKES: The perfect introductory boss. The idea of secret phases within boss battles.
IGC DISLIKES: That there’s not more secret phases in Cuphead. Sal and Ollie are kind of forgettable in their designs, especially compared to the ultra-creepy Chauncey the carrot.

Really, this is the first boss in Cuphead, and the team couldn’t have possibly done better. Who says perfection is unobtainable? Okay, so it’s not TOTALLY perfect, as I’ll get into below, but seriously, this is an all-time first (or second) boss. The stated goal was that every phase would train players in an essential aspect of controlling Cuphead. In your typical game, this is done through seasoning the first level with elements. “Hey look, there’s a block with a question mark on it. Perhaps you should jump up and hit it!” It’s game design 101. Then, for bosses, you apply what you learned in the levels in battling them. But, in Cuphead, it’s assumed most players will battle the bosses first. Educating players in the heat of combat is harder than you think. It’s truly astonishing Studio MDHR created a boss that retains just enough of that Cuphead challenge while also functioning perfectly as Cuphead’s instruction manual.

PHASE ONE – SAL SPUDDER: All three Root Pack characters remain stationary, and you simply have to ping at them while dodging their attacks. For Sal, it’s jumping over four projectiles while he attacks (three in simple mode). The last one is always a worm that can be parried. There’s three cycles of increasing velocity, to give players a chance to get a sense of Cuphead’s hangtime and get into a rhythm for how to jump over projectiles. Besides maybe randomizing the order of which projectile can be parried, I can’t think of anything that they could have done better here.

SIMPLY OFF-PUTTING: This portion of the fight is missing if you choose simple mode. Because why would players who need an easier experience need to learn to dodge left and right?

PHASE TWO – OLLIE BULB: From jumping over projectiles to avoiding them by left to right movement. This is also the first example of giving players a tight squeeze to deal with, which will be a common theme throughout the game. I do have a major knock on this fight: the pink teardrops come in too fast to parry, even on Normal mode. I think I successfully did it once in all my attempts. Of course, if you beat Sal too fast or missed one of his worms, this is your last chance to get the three parries you need to get a perfect score.

“What part of this was inspired by the Jungle Book?” The carrot’s eyes. I’m not pulling that out of my ass. The Art of Cuphead book specifically says it was inspired by Kaa the snake. Which technically means it could have also been Hiss from Disney’s Robin Hood as well!

PHASE THREE – CHAUNCEY CHANTENAY: This is one creepy boss. While the other two Root Pack members are kind of forgettable, nobody will ever forget the creepy design of the finale of this encounter. This section is designed to get players used to the idea of multiple different types of projectiles coming at you at the same time AND firing while still moving. It’s really well done and makes for a truly exciting climax to one of the best intro bosses in gaming history. Of course, it could have played out very different. Then, the game was patched and suddenly it could play out very different!

SECRET PHASE THREE – CHAUNCEY CHANTENAY & HORACE RADICHE: Horace was one of the final attacks that was speced-out and deleted before the game went gold, and was so close to complete that Studio MDHR could patch it back in. So they did. If you do not shoot Ollie during his phase, he’ll vanish without crying, essentially skipping that entire phase. Doing this causes Horace Radish to spawn during the finale phase. He’s basically a homing top that you must jump over while also avoiding all of Chauncey’s attacks. It’s not a huge difference, but it makes the fight a more true “sum of all parts” finale.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT (HAH, NO PUN INTENDED!): Even though I’m flipping Cuphead’s ultimate verdict and conceding it’s one of the best video games ever made, indie or otherwise, I have a LOT of things to complain about, hence this comprehensive review being done so I never have to talk about the game again.. until the DLC hits on June 30. But, one aspect of Cuphead I don’t take any major issue with is The Root Pack. My one knock on it: that I think the pink teardrops during Ollie’s phase should have come in at lower speeds to make scoring a parry more reasonable. Otherwise, this is basically the perfect first boss for this kind of game. They nailed it! Maybe I’d make Horace a permanent addition to the third phase since he completes the “educate players” angle of the fight, but I’m happy they patched him in and won’t complain. Hell, the time between the main release and the DLC gives me hope even more deleted content will be re-added to the game. The Root Pack has another deleted member: Beetrice Lutz, who would throw her children at Cuphead. Come on, you gotta put that back in!

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BOSS #3: Ribby and Croaks in “Clip Joint Calamity”
STATED INSPIRATION: Street Fighter (franchise)
IGC LIKES: Most of the attacks and phases are fine-tuned and well balanced.
IGC DISLIKES: The final phase too heavily factors in RNG luck.

Cuphead changed a lot during its conception, and no fight exemplifies this more. Originally, every boss would have seen Cuphead fight it with different types of attacks. They wisely abandoned this for the sake of uniformity. Had they gone through with that plan, this fight would have been VERY different. Originally, lifebars would drop down on the fight and it would have felt much closer to the series they were paying tribute to with this battle: Street Fighter. Walking away from those plans didn’t hurt Clip Joint Calamity, but other issues cropped up that I can sink my critic teeth into. It’s a memorable fight, but also the first one where I can really get into the meat of the issues that keep Cuphead out of the conversation of “best game ever made.”

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PHASE ONE – BATTLE TOADS: The two characters alternate fire attacks. Ribby (the shorter, plumper one) shoots Ryu style fireballs, some of which can be parried. Croaks spits a series of fireflies that drift down at you. The fireballs must be avoided (or parried) but the fireflies are easily dispatched with a few bullets. In fact, they have four hit-points no matter which difficulty you play. When you get enough damage, this is one of the bosses where the transition between phases can still hurt you: the pair split apart, and Ribby must be lept over to avoid damage. Pretty basic stuff, nothing too intense.

PHASE TWO – FAN OF FROGS: Croaks turns into a fan and blows you towards Ribby, who claps energy balls that bounce towards you. It’s one of the easier attacks to avoid in Cuphead, The weird thing is, in simple mode (and Expert), the fireball attack from the previous phase also becomes part of this phase. Either way, it’s not too difficult to get the hang of the timing, even when you’re being pushed left by the current from the fan.

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PHASE THREE – CUPHEAD, YOU IGNORANT SLOT: For the first time in Cuphead, RNG luck overrides player skill. After having to dodge the machine spitting a few coins at you, the handle lowers and can be pulled by performing a parry on it, which starts the reels. The slot machine features three attack waves that are determined by a pull of the handle. The three waves are NOT equally difficult. The more desirable one is getting three snake heads (I thought they were frogs), which creates a series of platforms that must be jumped on. In regular mode, getting the timing down for these is a cinch (in expert difficulty, I kept messing it up). The other two modes are butt-clenching madness. Spin three tigers and the machine spits out a series of platforms that have balls bouncing up and down that must be jumped through. If three bulls are spun, the platforms will float in the middle of the screen with pillars of fire that randomly will go either above or below the platform. Oh, and the sides of all these “chips” are lethal.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: I get that it’s a slot machine and it’s supposed to be random, but maybe for the sake of difficulty and consistency, they should have gone with the illusion of randomness while rigging the machine so a player experiences every wave. The really weird thing is, when I beat Cuphead the first time, I never got a “desirable” series of chips during the final wave. Then, when playing on Switch for this review, I got a double snake-head, which led to a fast knockout and a perfect score. Even weirder: when I went back to get media of the other waves, I kept getting the snake heads, to the point that I wondered if the Switch version removed other waves. I got a lot of crap from the “git gud” crowd with Cuphead, but it’s telling to me that so many bosses can be beaten by gittin’ lucky instead. For a game defined by extreme difficulty, how tightly designed can it really be when you can have entire runs determined by random chance?

BOSS #4: Hilda Berg in “Threatenin’ Zeppelin”
STATED INSPIRATION: Alex Kidd in Miracle World, Contra: Hard Crops
IGC LIKES: Wonderful introduction to the shmup fights. The RNG factors are well balanced and equally difficult.
IGC DISLIKES: There’s no reason to hold-off on giving players bombs until Inkwell II.

Cuphead including shmup levels was jarring as hell to me at first. It’s one of those genres that I didn’t realize how much I loved when I first reviewed Cuphead. It felt like a party crasher. I later came to realize the shmup levels are the most consistently solid and balanced stages in the game. And also I’m apparently really good at shmups, as I could take these down with the fewest attempts. It all starts with Hilda Berg, whose design came from a power-up in the game Alex Kidd in Miracle World of all things.

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PHASES ONE, THREE, AND FIVE – BLIMP CHICK: Throughout the fight, tiny Zepplins will fly in and shoot projectiles at you. Blue ones fire single shots, every fourth of which will be a pink bullet you can parry. Green ones shoot four bullets. The zepplins can be shot down easily, but players might be better served avoiding them and their bullets to focus on shooting the boss. Hilda herself will laugh at you, with giant HA bullets flying at a high velocity. She’ll also eventually generate a large tornado at you. When you’ve done enough damage, she’ll launch herself at you, leaving behind a sequence of stars that transitions to the second and fourth phases of the fight.

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PHASES TWO AND FOUR – WHAT’S YOUR SIGN?: Once Hilda floats through the cloud of stars, she’ll transform into one of three constellations. In simple mode, the order will always be Taurus in the second phase, then Gemini in the fourth. In expert, it will always be Gemini in the second phase, then Sagittarius in the fourth. Weirdly, standard mode is where random chance factors in, with Taurus always being the second phase, but the fourth phase could be either of the other two forms. Remarkably, Gemini and Sagittarius are well balanced, which eliminates the RNG factor during the battle. It’s why I can’t excuse Cuphead when luck and desirability of other random phases factors into other battles: because I know Studio MDHR is capable of balance.

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PHASE SIX – CURSE OF THE MOON: One of the most scary and imaginative character designs in Cuphead, the giant moon is an unforgettable finale to the first shmup level. It’s also one of those moments where trial-and-error will inevitably factor in. When the face is inside the moon, you’ll have to simply avoid a series of stars that fly across the screen (some of which can be parried). When the face opens up, the space you can work with is cut in half and a parade of UFOs will march across the top of the screen. Keeping yourself in front or behind the lethal beams of the UFOs has a huge learning curve to it. For most players, they’ll make it to this final phase and perish several times before they get it right. It’s a bit frustrating, since this is by far the best portion of the entire battle, and getting there can be a slog after a while.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: This is one of those stages where I wonder if the developers wouldn’t have been better off creating a separate “checkpoint” mode. As I’ve said in previous reviews, gamers are great at rising to the challenge if that’s what they’re into. I’ve seen people who beat games blindfolded, for God’s sake. But in longer stages like this, where the difficulty escalates to a massive degree during the end sequence, it turns a great game into a bit of a slog as you inch back towards the section that keeps owning you. Yea, we get it: difficulty is the point. But sometimes that backfires and turns something amazing into something tedious. Checkpoints do not hurt Cuphead’s integrity in any fashion. All the lack of them does is gate out lesser skilled players and make it clear: you’re not welcome here. It’s so mean-spirited.

BOSS #5: Cagney Carnation in “Floral Fury”
STATED INSPIRATIONS: Aztec Adventure, Ghostbusters (Genesis), Swing You Sinners! (1930), Flowers and Trees (1932)
IGC LIKES: A perfect finale to Inkwell Isle I and one of the great boss fights in gaming history.
IGC DISLIKES: I’m not a jazz person and I can’t believe THIS is the theme that made it into Smash Bros. Ugh.

One of THE icons of Cuphead, the battle with Cagney Carnation was heavily inspired by several plant-based bosses in gaming history. It’s more than simply the juxtaposition of a cute, wholesome flower that suddenly screams at you and then looks like the most evil thing that ever eviled. It’s a boss that checks every box of the Cuphead experience: crowded, relentless, and maybe just a little too reliant on RNG luck. Unlike a lot of bosses, Cagney really only has two phases. But, the variety of attacks in the first phase makes it one of the more intense battles in all of Cuphead. Hell, in around fifty attempts at beating it on expert mode, I only made it to the second phase twice. Twice! They might have gone a little over-board.

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PHASE ONE – I’M PRETTY SURE CARNATIONS ARE A DIFFERENT SPECIES: No matter the difficulty, RNG factors heavily into the battle. When he becomes a machine gun that fires seeds into the air, one of the seeds is capable of scoring a parry on. Whether or not you’ll have a safe chance at scoring that parry is total random chance based on where it’ll fall or if other hazards have already spawned that will prevent it. Another luck-based attack is Cagney’s full-screen stretch. If he does this across the bottom lane, you should have a few moments to cleanly, safely plug away bullets without having to move a muscle. It’s still safe even if he chooses the top lane, which requires you to duck below it. But, this attack might not even happen at all. I had several battles where he never fired it once.

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PHASE TWO – SERIOUSLY, THAT’S CLEARLY NOT A CARNATION: RNG factors into the second phase as well. At the start of this portion of the fight, the bottom channel become deadly, and the fight moves completely to the three floating platforms. Cagney only has two attacks here: spitting projectiles and having spikes emerge from the three platforms. The projectiles are easy enough to avoid, and occasionally one will be pink and thus able to score a parry on. The spikes are problematic. He targets two at a time, and you only have a brief moment to get to the safe platform. Where RNG truly factors in is if you’re already on the correct platform. Especially if you’re using the spread gun and on the front platform. It’s essentially giving players an extended period of not having to do anything. Almost all my most successful runs against Cagney involved the sheer dumb luck of not having to dodge the spikes. For a game that demands players “git gud” it’s stunning how often players are able to walk away saying how lucky they got. But, for all my bitching here, this was seriously one of THE great matches in Cuphead. Bravo, Studio MDHR!

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: This is another boss that went through tons of changes over the course of development. This includes concepts like having all the seeds be parriable. I wish I could try that version of the fight. In fact, Cuphead was demoed several times over the course of its development at trade shows like E3, and I’d love to have access to those early demos. Maybe Studio MDHR should consider doing a collector’s edition of Cuphead that includes all the deleted content in playable form. They’re the developers of a game that has become a source of inspiration for a new generation of developers, and having access to those early builds would be very educational.

Click here for Cuphead: The Definitive Review – Part Two, where I’ll venture into Inkwell Isle II. The overwhelming majority of Cuphead owners never make it past this world. Why is that? I have the answers.

Worse Than Death (Review)

I’m not a horror person in general. I don’t watch scary movies. I don’t play scary games. I’ve never locked myself in a bathroom and chanted BLOODY MARY. I’ve never bungee jumped. I know people say “that’s not horror.” WHY ISN’T IT? You’re tying a rope around your feet and throwing yourself off a tall structure. If the point is to be scary, isn’t that horror? If you want an extreme sport, go play hockey using samurai swords and a puck that’s on fire. Bungee jumping is horror: a simulation of something that should kill you, only you walk away without the dying part. And it’s not for me. None of it is. Maybe I was traumatized by walking past those creepy-ass Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark covers in book stores as a child, but I just never got into the genre.

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Worse Than Death mixes comic-style art with neo-retro pixel art. It’s a bit jarring. I never really felt like either style was specifically in service to the game. It’s just how it looks. That’s fine, I guess. I normally hate it, but I’ll let it slide this time.

There’s always exceptions, but it’s certainly not something I seek out or get excited about at all. But, as Indie Gamer Chick, I feel it’s important to wet my whistle in as many areas of gaming as possible. I’ve actually bought tons of indie horror titles over the years. Most of them I don’t even remember the names of, let alone ever get around to playing. In those rare instances where I do, they have to live on their gameplay or storytelling merits, and most are utterly forgettable. I have a hunch I probably won’t forget Worse Than Death, but for the wrong reasons. It’s one of those games where you think you get the twist ahead of time, and then when you realize you’re wrong and the game goes in a completely off-its-nut direction, you can’t help but laugh.

The inspection screens always use the comic book art style. I suppose that was out of necessity, because these screens would be incomprehensible pixelated vomit puddles with the large-dot, faceless characters. Still, it makes me wonder if the whole game should have been done like this. It’s perfectly good comic book artwork. I’d buy a graphic novel by this artist.

In Worse Than Death, a pair of besties arrive at their ten year high school reunion. You’re Holly, and you’re trying to convince your BFF, a Fonz-lookalike named Flynn (I typed THE Flynn, which he should totally roll with), to attend the reunion party. He doesn’t want to because everyone is a bit pissed that he wrapped his car around a tree and killed the their friend, Grace. Yea, that’s just the sort of thing people hate. I don’t even get why you’d bother to show up if you’re a known pariah. Like, these things ARE optional, you know? I’m not exactly an expert on high school politics or dynamics. I was home-schooled. I kind of wish I hadn’t been. I would have gone to school with future NBA star Jeremy Lin if I had attended, and he would have no doubt fallen in love with me. I shit you not, I could be Mrs. Lin right now! Well, actually, probably not, as the minute he signed with the Houston Rockets would have been the moment I’d of filed for divorce. Anyway, among the things I do know about high school is that class reunions aren’t legally binding. If two people didn’t want to go, I can’t imagine why they would. “So the plot can happen” is basically the answer, though there is a kinda, sorta unseen force that seems to have pulled them there, maybe?

Thankfully, the developer didn’t skimp on sound design. Eerie songs and spooky sound effects play throughout Worse Than Death. Channel your inner SNES fandom and PLAY IT LOUD!

Anyway, supernatural shit starts happening and bodies start piling-up, as bodies tend to do. I kinda figured this was going to be the “everyone is already dead and this is purgatory and/or hell” trope. It’s not, and which is the only spoiler I’m going to do. I’ll just say that the plot goes so far off the rails that you question if it ever belonged on the rails in the first place. By the final third of the game, and especially the ending, the story is absolute bat shit on a stick, and not necessarily in a good way. The more that was revealed, the less tense the atmosphere got, which made the jump scares less effective and everyone’s motives less consequential. People keep dying, but it never feels like it matters. It’s supposed to be about secrets and the damage they do, but the back stories are kept too vague, to the point that the destructiveness of those secrets feels somewhere off in the background. By the end game, Worse Than Death had long since ceased being tense or frightening and had just become silly. I went from totally on the edge of my seat to giggling at what a train wreck the whole thing had become.

Of the three hours and change we spent playing this, probably twenty or so minutes was spent trying to figure this fucking thing out. My sister, Angela, finally got it after she took a bathroom break that mysteriously required her to take her tablet and ask what the name of the game was again. Funny how that worked out. This “puzzle” was clunky as all fuck and probably should have been explained better.

So, I must have hated it right? Well.. no. While I feel Worse Than Death ultimately failed to deliver on the promise the opening chapters had, to the point that the end game felt like it was satirizing its own story by time the end credits roll, I still never lost interest in seeing where this was all going. It helps that the writing is razor-sharp throughout. Developer Benjamin Rivers clearly has a gift for making compelling characters and creating dialog that feels almost always authentic. Some of the tropes, like the school bitch or the aggressive bully, feel forced and unnatural. But the relationship between Holly and Flynn feels totally real and affectionate, with the slightest hint of apprehension (which, by the way, the end-game makes sense of with the only aspect of the story where the payoff DID work, and there’s even an after-the-credits gag that put a smile on my face). Maybe the plot is completely off its rocker, but the characters made me and my entire family stick it out for the full three hours or so of gameplay. That was nice.

Worse Than Death’s #1 survival mechanic is waiting in the background while specters walk back and forth, a mechanic that loses its zing a bit when you’re often straight-up told you “feel cold” when they’re around. Plus, a lot of levels have places you can hide but no ghosts, which sort of spoils that later chapters will have the ghosts appear in those rooms.

Well.. maybe gameplay is too strong a word. In fact, you don’t encounter your first puzzle element until the second chapter of the game, and that element is simply finding a code for a door lock. Mostly, the game consists of story bits, exploring relatively small areas for clues, and finding keys or passcodes to open doors. There’s a handful of almost-Escape Room-like puzzles, but don’t buy this game for the problem-solving elements as they’re very basic overall. The survival-horror part of the game is handled better. You’re given not-so-subtle warnings when a danger element is approaching and must either hide in the background or make a run for it. These encounters are constant, but I never actually died from them. There were moments where I got particularly bold (IE impatient) and legged it, only to see a ghost was right there, but still managed to live. It never completely stops being tense, but as a horror experience, Worse Than Death was a lot better when it relied on atmosphere and jump scares. The game might have been better served removing all the hiding stuff completely.

I struggled with the ultimate verdict on Worse Than Death more than most games. To its credit, I was never bored playing it, except with the radio puzzle where we had it on the right channel but didn’t realize we apparently had to flip the switch up and down, and one brief spot where we got lost late in the game that was actually on me. Otherwise, the writing is always compelling. The characters are realistic enough to grow attached to. It does mistake “startle” for “scare” far too much, but what survival horror game doesn’t? It’s so much better when you’re walking by a mirror only to see a shadowy figure run across the reflection. THAT’S the type of horror it does best, and should have stuck to it. After the first hour, I would have bet the farm I was going to award Worse Than Death my Seal of Approval on the characters and atmosphere alone. I mean, yea, it’s weird that the character has to describe the details of seeing a dead body that’s hanging from the ceiling (“OH GOD, HER EYES JUST KEEP STARING OUT!”) because the chosen graphical style isn’t very good at showing off small details, but it’s still always eerie.

That’s a dog? Was its cause of death “infection by The Thing?”

But, that damn direction it took. I sat at my keyboard for ten minutes looking for the right words, and all I could do was make a “mmmmph” sound. I was so ready to feel an uneasy dread going into the finale, and instead I was just giggling by the end. Even worse, I was doing so at the game and not with it, because the ending is so sincere that it makes my heart hurt that it didn’t work for me. A bad ending normally doesn’t sink a video game, but in the case of Worse Than Death, it absolutely needed an incredible payoff. A mystery killer is great! Worse Than Death felt almost like I Know What You Did Last Summer, easily the most underrated horror movie that came out in the wake of Scream. Even if the game did silly things like instant-cure headache medicine (yea, because that’s how pills works, right!) or ghosts that come dangerously close to feeling Scooby-Doo like. I could forgive all that, because it sure seemed like everything was building to a great ending. Then the ending happened, and it sucked, and it retroactively made everything before it feel like a waste of time. It’s so jaw-droppingly whackadoodle that, after getting over the initial shock, we all just started laughing. It was such gloriously awful shit.

So, I can’t really recommend Worse Than Death. Granted, I’m one of the last people who anyone should go to for advice on which horror games to purchase. But, if you’re a non-fan like me, I feel safe in saying that Worse Than Death is not going to be an exception. Either way, I’m totally going to check out other games by Benjamin Rivers. No question he has a gift for dialog and atmosphere. Paying it off? Well.. to be determined. What about all the successful jump scares in the game, you ask? So what? I can do that too. Give me a pack of balloons and a thumbtack and I can startle my family every time with minimum effort, but that hardly makes me Stephen King.

Worse Than Death was developed by Benjamin Rivers
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam

$1.99 (normally $9.99) wasn’t really worse than death in the making of this review.

The Pinball Chick: Williams Pinball (Pinball FX 3 Set Reviews & Table Rankings) UPDATED to Include Volume 6!

Welcome to The Pinball Chick Complete Buyer’s for Pinball FX3’s Williams Pinball Collection. We’re going to keep recreations separate from original tables at The Pinball Chick. This guide will be updated as quickly as possible (about a week or so after each set releases) to add every new Williams pinball table. This guide will NOT include the 1up Arcade Attack from Mars stand-alone 3/4 Scale Tables. That will be reviewed separately. Each judge considers the best version (Single Player Zen or Classic Physics) in their rankings.

Please do not copy or reprint this guide. This was the work of nearly a year and hundreds of hours spent across multiple platforms. Passages may be quoted, but otherwise, please link directly to ThePinballChick.com Pinball FX3 Complete Buyer’s Guide to Williams Pinball page, and not the IndieGamerChick.com post you’re reading now.

To all Indie Gamer Chick Readers: please be sure to check my new site, The Pinball Chick! If you like this guide, please check out our 100 table guide to The Pinball Arcade!

Pinball FX 3 Williams Pinball Collection DLC Pack Ratings

Based on the Average Rating of the Tables between myself, Oscar, and Jordi. All reviews are done by me, Cathy, the Pinball Chick.

#1: Williams Pinball Volume 1

3 Tables for $9.99
Certifications: Medieval Madness (Pantheon Certified), The Getaway: High Speed II (Pantheon Certified)
BEST TABLE
Cathy: Medieval Madness (#1 of 21)
Oscar: The Getaway: High Speed II (#1 of 21)
Jordi: The Getaway: High Speed II (#3 of 21)

Welp, this is awkward. Since I previously had Getaway listed as “Good” (not even Great), Volume 1 rested in the second spot, behind the Universal Monsters Pack. I’ve since put a lot of time into Getaway and come to see that I wasn’t just wrong, but not even in the ballpark. My revised rating is Masterpiece, putting it as one of three Pinball FX3 Williams tables in the Pinball Chick Pantheon of Digital Pinball, along with Attack from Mars and Medieval Madness. Speaking of which, it’s here and it’s my #1 ranked table. Weighing the set down is novelty table Junk Yard, which Oscar considers the worst table not named “Champion Pub” in all of Pinball FX3. Neither Jordi nor I hated it that much, or at all. It’s different, but we think it’s neat. Really though, the headline here is “TWO Pantheon tables for $10.” Yep, that’s why this is #1.
SET RECOMMENDED

#2: Williams Pinball Volume 6

3 Tables for $9.99
Certifications: All three tables are Certified Excellent.
BEST TABLE
Cathy: Funhouse (#4 of 21)
Oscar: Space Station (#2 of 21)
Jordi: Funhouse (#5 of 21)

The first alpha-numeric table pack, and the first pack from Zen Studios that has a table never before (officially) converted digitally, William Pinball 6 statistically has the same scoring average (4.11) as Volume 1. Really, both packs are so good that you can’t go wrong buying either of them if you can only get one set. Me personally? Give me two historically amazing tables versus three simply great tables any day. Historically amazing is much harder to come by, let alone getting two in one $10 pack. Volume 6, meanwhile, has no agreed-upon weak links. I nearly dropped Dr. Dude to “Good”, but nearly isn’t doing. This is the only three-table pack where all three tables are certified excellent. Funhouse is worth the price alone, and while I’m not sure you can say that about Space Station or Dr. Dude, the boys might disagree with me. It’s your call whether historically excellent or all-around excellent is your cup of tea. It’s MY site, so #6 has to settle for 2nd place.
SET RECOMMENDED

#3: Universal Monsters Pack

2 Tables for $9.99
Certifications: Monster Bash (Certified Excellent)
BEST TABLE
Cathy: Monster Bash (#2 of 21)
Oscar: Monster Bash (#6 of 21)
Jordi: Monster Bash (#2 of 21)

Not having a third “drag” table almost certainly elevates the Universal Monster Pack, but actually, I feel it’s deserving of a top spot regardless. Would *I* put it #1? No. But it does score a 4.0 among us. Given our wide variety of likes and dislikes, it’s saying something that these two tables scored well across the board. The highlight is Monster Bash, George Gomez’s genuinely heartfelt send-off to an entire era of Bally Pinball. Monster Bash is a table that anyone of any skill level can enjoy, perhaps uniquely so among late arcade-era tables. Creature from the Black Lagoon is a decent, unspectacular, somewhat over-rated bonus.. BUT a great table to practice low-angle shots on. In fact, that’s probably the best thing I can say about the Universal Monster Pack: veterans can enjoy it, but it’s a tremendous introductory pack to pinball as well. Come for Monster Bash, and enjoy your complementary Creature.
SET RECOMMENDED

#3: Williams Pinball Volume 2

3 Tables for $9.99
Certifications: Attack from Mars (Pantheon Certified)
BEST TABLE
Cathy: Attack from Mars (#3 of 21)
Oscar: Attack from Mars (#3 of 21)
Jordi: Attack from Mars (#1 of 21)

Another pack that split our team. Attack from Mars is an incredible table. In fact, it’s the only table I describe as “perfect” even though I don’t have it ranked #1 (but Jordi does). I just can’t find anything wrong to say about it. The other two tables make for a much more interesting debate. Jordi and I disliked The Party Zone, with me rating it the second worst table. Dad actually liked it, saying that, yea, the game can be limited to two simple, forgiving shots. BUT that you’re rewarded for voyaging away from them to attempt higher risk stuff. Dad also thought Party Zone had educational value, teaching new players the need to nudge to get ahead.

Black Rose fared better. An incredibly tightly-packed table that introduced the Brian Eddy signature “centralized target”, it’s also one of the tables that debuted in Pinball Arcade but wasn’t done justice until Pinball FX3. The better physics makes this table such a joy to play. That is, when the outlanes don’t swallow up your multiballs right off the bat. Overall, this is one of those “buy the masterwork, get the other tables as a bonus” type of deals. How much you like that bonus depends on if you like the absurdly overly-simply Party Zone or the potentially fun but often unfair Black Rose. Anyone should feel perfectly fine with just Attack from Mars.
SET RECOMMENDED

#4: Williams Pinball Volume 5

3 Tables for $9.99
Certifications: None
BEST TABLE
Cathy: No Good Gofers (#9 of 21)
Oscar: Cirqus Voltaire (#12 of 21)
Jordi: Tales of the Arabian Nights (#11 of 21)

A solid pack with a variety of tables that lacks a particular “highlight” but has not a sinker in the bunch, either. No Good Gofers isn’t much to look at, but the variety of shots and frantic modes make it a lot of fun, even for the Lawlor haters among us (ahem, Daddy). Cirqus Voltaire makes its digital pinball debut in a non-busted way (the Pinball Arcade version saw the ball skip rails) and can be fun when it’s not a grinding, frustrating slog. Finally, Arabian Nights is just a perfectly decent table that’s main complaint is unbalanced scoring. Volume 5’s main weakness is having two John Popadiuk tables and one Pat Lawlor table, meaning there’s nothing really here for the more conservative pinball fan. Or not. The fact that we all picked a different table for best-in-set really speaks volumes to the sheer variety offered in Volume 5.
SET RECOMMENDED

#5: Williams Pinball Volume 4

3 Tables for $9.99
Certifications: None
BEST TABLE
Cathy: Red & Ted’s Roadshow (#8 of 21)
Oscar: White Water (#5 of 21)
Jordi: Red & Ted’s Roadshow (#8 of 21)

With Volume 4, we welcome you to the more polarizing sets from Zen Studios. Williams Pinball Volume 4 barely squeaked by with a 3.0 or “GOOD” average. This mostly owes to controversial White Water, which both Jordi and I rated BAD while my father, Oscar, went with GREAT. It’s on the top ten list for the Internet Pinball Database (then again, so is Tales of the Arabian Nights and Scared Stiff, neither of which are worthy of top ten all-time status). White Water’s issue is it’s one of the most prohibitively difficult tables ever made. One feature I wish Zen Studios had was the ability to access the “coin door” to mess with the features so my Dad and I could duel under our silly “Galactic Rules” (ten balls + ten potential extra balls + all hurry-ups and modes set to extra easy). Without that, all we have is a table that feels like it’d have a lot of potential if it had less bouncy slingshots, less hungry outlanes, and wasn’t so damn crowded. Roadshow’s sheer girth as the only SuperPin converted to digital by Zen Studios is a marvel, but the complicated rules might turn off many players. Hurricane actually has legitimate value as a table to practice shots on, but it’s also a bit of a slog. Nothing outright offends, and your mileage may vary on White Water. Volume 4 is worth getting but not as a priority.
SET MILDLY RECOMMENDED

#6 Williams Pinball Volume 3

3 Tables for $9.99
Certifications: The Champion Pub (Certified Turd)
BEST TABLE
Cathy: Theatre of Magic (#5 of 21)
Oscar: Safe Cracker (#18 of 21)
Jordi: Theatre of Magic (#9 of 21)

By far the lowest rated set by our three-person panel, Volume 3 is the only set that failed to clear the “good” average and thus fails the recommendation of The Pinball Chick as a site. As an individual, I think Theatre of Magic is terrific and rated it a “Masterpiece.” That sentiment was not shared by my team. Jordi rated it “great” while Dad, not a fan of the works of John Popadiuk, considers it his worst table and awarded it BAD based on its lack of balance. Theatre is still by far the highlight of this set, which also features our unanimous choice for worst table in Pinball FX3 (and Pinball Arcade, for that matter) in Champion Pub. A table with literally no redeeming value, unless you want to stare at the pretty artwork. Safe Cracker is also here, and despite being perhaps the most bizarre Williams/Bally table of the DMD era, it’s actually pretty horrendous and didn’t earn a single positive vote from our team. Volume 3 is all about Theatre of Magic, and if you don’t like it, this is the easiest pass you’re getting in Pinball FX3’s Williams Collection and the only set that didn’t win us over.
SET BARELY NOT RECOMMENDED

The Pinball Chick’s Pinball FX 3 Williams Pinball Collection Table Rating Index

Pinball FX 3: Williams Pinball Season One + Universal Monsters Pack + Volume 5
Total Tables: 21
Masterpieces: 5
Great: 6
Good: 6
Bad: 2
The Pits: 2

Special thanks to Steve Da Silva for his guides, which were very helpful. I’ve linked to them all.

THE PITS

#21: The Champion Pub

Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 3
Type: Pick ‘n Flick
TABLE FACTS
1998 by Midway Manufacturing, 1,396 Units Sold
Based on a concept by Pete Piotrowski
Art by Paul Barker & Linda “Deal” Doane
Music & Sound by Rich Carle
TRIVIA
-Along with Cactus Canyon, one of two tables that had its production cycle halted by Midway as they transitioned to the Pinball 2000 system.

REST OF THE TEAM
Oscar: The Pits (#21 of 21)
Jordi: The Pits (#21 of 21)
THE PINBALL CHICK CERTIFIED TURD
Link to Strategy Guide

The Pinball Chick team disagrees often on a wide range of pinball topics. So, it really is telling that Champion Pub has twice now been our unanimous choice for the worst table in a collection of recreations. Champion Pub was ranked #100 out of 100 tables by all three of us in Pinball Arcade as well.

Sometimes you hear the concept of a game or a pinball table and you say to yourself “gee, that sounds amazing! I can’t wait to try it!” And then you actually play it, and you realize that what sounded amazing to you (and those who made it) could never actually work when done for reals. The Champion Pub is probably the best pinball example of it.

The Champion Pub has one of the most bizarre development cycles in pinball history. It has no lead designer, and the primary concept came from an engineer by the name of Pete Piotrowski. Piotro Pete was awarded several patents still in use in pinball today, but he wasn’t a game designer by any means. So the people of Williams came together to bring this idea of his to life. The result is one of the worst tables I’ve ever played, and one of the most notorious for breaking down. You don’t have to worry about that in the digital version, though there is a prominent dead zone smack dab in the middle of the table where marooning balls is a common hazard. In real life, you’d have to call an attendant to un-stick the ball, or accept a TILT in order to shake the ball loose. In Pinball FX3, the ball magically teleports to the chute to be auto-launched back onto the field. That’s nice, I guess.

At one point I launched a ball so hard off the ramp that shattering the glass would have been in play.

Pub is such a bad table. The layout is garbage. The fighting concept is extremely poor in execution. I landed head-shots that counted as body shots so many times that the boxing gimmick fails completely. This is also extremely unstable in Pinball FX 3. More than once, the game credited me with starting a multiball despite not having done so, giving me XP for doing so and even leveling-up the multiball boost. This happened once *after* I’d already gamed over and was entering my initials. Like the real table, there’s a gap that allows you to land live balls back into the starting chute, and this seems to trigger the multiball glitch. Since you can use a boost that gives you extra points while in multiball, it’s never clear if you’re scoring based on what’s really happening or what the engine THINKS is happening. Sometimes the camera wouldn’t do a close-up of the jump-rope or speed-bag minigames, and other times it would. It was never consistent.

Signature Mode: The Champion Pub’s boxer toy is a very ambitious concept. Too ambitious, as it turns out. Even on real tables, the censors couldn’t detect several direct hits that should count. Champion Pub didn’t get proper route-testing either, as Midway was nearing the end of manufacturing traditional tables. It begs the question: with holographic tables on the horizon, why wasn’t this idea saved Pinball 2000?

I feel horrible about this because Champion Pub has fans out there, and having a digital version of a rare table that’s hard to find in working condition (and would breakdown if you got it anyway) sounds like it should be awesome. In theory, this version should be better than a real table. All the fun of the original without any of the mechanical failure bullcrap. But the digital table is every bit as unstable and broken as a real Champion Pub machine. It’s the worst of the Williams tables, easily.

#20 The Party Zone

Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 2
Type: Pick ‘n Flick
TABLE FACTS
1991 by Midway Manufacturing, 3,862 Units Sold
Designed by Dennis Nordman
Art by Greg Freres & Jerry Pinsler
Music & Sound by Dan “TOASTY!” Forden
ALTERATIONS
-Licensed music has been removed.
TRIVIA
-Characters and references from previous tables Party Animals, Elvira & the Party Monsters, and Dr. Dude and his Excellent Ray are all present.
REST OF THE TEAM
Oscar: Good (#15 of 21)
Jordi: Bad (#18 of 21)
Link to Strategy Guide

The Party Zone can booked at as part of an unofficial series of tables by Dennis Nordman that all have similar layout-concepts. Nordman specialized in the “Valley Style” where key targets are off to the side while the central playfield is empty. Party Zone’s twist on that concept is having a gigantic head plug up the center that may or may not insta-drain your ball. Well, that’s.. different.

Dennis Nordman is NOT my favorite designer, but he’s actually made some truly inspired works. Party Zone isn’t among those. In fact, Party Zone is the weakest Nordman you can get in Pinball FX3. The problem is you’re not truly incentivized to be bold or daring while playing it. Games of Party Zone can really come down to repeating two shots until the cows come home (the cows presumably have gone elsewhere to play a better table). One of those two shots is INCREDIBLY forgiving, to the point that you almost forget that there’s a completely unfair toy smack-dab in the center of the table that has a good chance of insta-killing your ball.

Signature Shot: Captain B. Zarr’s “select-a-song” has a novel, jukebox-ish feel to it. But, the kicker might throw the ball straight down the outlane or drain with no hope of recovery. The shot isn’t worth a lot of points, either. Shamefully, Party Zone’s signature shot is one you’re better off avoiding.

I’m sorry, but I’m of the belief that if you lock the ball on a target designed to score points and the lock throws the ball down a drain or outlane, that’s straight-up robbery. These were designed to cost $0.50 a play, after all. If you’re going to cheat players out of their balls, Nordman might as well of dressed-up like the Hamburglar and beat up school children for their lunch money with crap like that. And what’s actually here isn’t really that good. There are targets in the upper corners that are actually fairly easy to hit, especially the right one which triggers most of the modes of the game. In fact, the “comedian” shot has one of the most forgiving margins for error in DMD pinball. Really, Party Zone’s biggest crime is that it’s a lumberjack table. You can try higher risk shots, but the wood-chopping ones pay off enough that world records could be set just by repeating the same shots over and over and over and over and you get my point.

THE BAD

#19: White Water
Member of the 7K Club

Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 4
Type: Kinetic
TABLE FACTS
1993 by Williams Electronic Games, 7,008 Units Sold
Designed by Dennis Nordman
Art by John Youssi
Music & Sound by Chris Granner
TRIVIA
-The Bigfoot is modeled after designer Dennis Nordman’s appearance.
-The truck seen on the backglass was based on Nordman’s 1952 Dodge.
REST OF THE TEAM
Oscar: Great (#5 of 21)
Jordi: Bad (#17 of 21)
Link to Strategy Guide

This is the one that gets me blown-up like Robert De Niro in the beginning of Casino.

Our resident curmudgeon Oscar disagrees with Jordi and me. He was delighted with White Water’s brutal, no-holds-barred take on the finesse-type table. Suddenly, all that leather and whips I found in Mom’s closet makes sense.

There’s two types of pinball tables: operator’s tables and player’s tables. White Water is an operator’s table. It’s designed to look pretty, lure in players, make money, and then kick players to pay up for more or let the next idiot pony-up. I consider myself a reasonably skilled player and even after putting a few hours into White Water alone, I still frequently had games that lasted under a minute. For all three balls. There’s no ball save unless you literally score no points. The left outlane is one of the most hungry I’ve ever seen. The orbits are narrow and too steep. In the normal Pinball FX 3 mode, most shots done towards an orbit will result in a straight-down-the-middle instakill if it’s anything but a full-strength hit. This is the one Williams table where I actually preferred Classic mode more. The physics aren’t as punishing. Plus, I’ll give credit where it’s due: the scoring is relatively balanced. Assuming you can, you know, actually keep the ball alive for thirty seconds.

Signature Shot: the iconic upper-right flipper shot is one of DMD pinball’s most notoriously difficult-to-master shots. That’s going to be especially true here, because Pinball FX3, like most digital pinball, has not quite mastered the plunger as of yet. My kingdom for a plunger accessory!

And the crap thing is, this SEEMS like it should be a fun idea. White Water rafting! Wavy ramps! Whirlpools! Robin Williams.. oh wait, that’s bigfoot. Bigfoot!! But, like The Party Zone, White Water is designed to look great but game over quickly. Dennis Nordman must have been an all-star with arcade owners for as often as he cranked out brutal but irresistible tables. It was suggested to me that you had to use the tilt on this table more than any other, but I *was* tilting and it didn’t matter for drain-shots. The problem is, Pinball FX3 has relatively weak tilting. Sure, it’s powerful enough to save from the outlanes. But there’s also a limit for how many times you can use that. Plus, many times I’d start a multiball only to have the VKU feed an unplayable house ball straight down the drain. White Water not having ball save is a crime against humanity. After a certain point, you just have to concede that a table isn’t fun, was never supposed to be fun, and move along. White Water should never have been ported to Pinball FX 3. It’s a table designed to cheat players out of quarters, and nothing more. Easily the most over-rated machine of the solid-state era.

#18: Safe Cracker

Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 3
Type: Kinetic
TABLE FACTS
1996 by Midway Manufacturing, 1,148 Units Sold
Designed by Pat Lawlor
Art by John Youssi
Music & Sound by Dan “TOASTY!” Forden
TRIVIA
-Safe Cracker was developed under the assumption it would be based on the board game Monopoly.
-Designer Pat Lawlor later did do a Monopoly-themed table for Stern in 2001.
-The only “small body” table done by Williams/Bally in the solid state era.
-Despite the flyer advertising 10 unique “Magic Tokens”, twenty different ones were made.
REST OF THE TEAM
Oscar: Bad (#18 of 21)
Jordi: The Pits (#20 of 21)
Link to Strategy Guide

“Let’s have a smaller table, but let’s pack as much crap into that smaller table as we would a normal table.”

Safe Cracker has its fans because it’s just so weird, but I really was just bored silly by this table. And that’s heart-breaking for me because Pat Lawlor is my all-time favorite designer. But, not every idea is a home run. Clearly Safe Cracker wasn’t, as operators weren’t inclined to order it. At 1,148 units, it’s his lowest-selling table (at least from his Bally era). In part because the table is significantly shorter than other tables, which makes it look kind of dumb when displayed near other tables. The other reason is because it runs on a timer instead of having three balls. Safe Cracker is a anomaly among pins. As one reader of mine put it, a niche of a niche. Combining pinball with a board game.. a very slow, very basic board game.. the primary draw to players was the idea that you’d win real collectible coins by playing well. Of course, that novelty is lost in a digital translation.

Signature Feature: The board game is extremely limited and based on chance. When I finally got to the center and got my first non-existent token, I didn’t feel accomplished. I felt like luck finally played out for me. I’d played rounds where I’d added tons of time extensions, but because the dice rolls didn’t work out for me, I didn’t make it to the center. The time I did happened during one of my less well-played rounds. By the way, getting the achievement for this table requires you to get all twenty magic tokens. It took me a full day of playing nothing but this terrible table to get that. On the plus side, I ended up #14 on the global leaderboard.

All that remains is a basic, bland, overly crowded table with nubby electro-mechanical era flippers. Safe Cracker feels like one of those higher-end toy pinball tables you spend $200 for at Christmas.. nowhere near arcade quality, but kids are dumb and won’t realize it.. then you watch in horror as your kids play a couple rounds, then never touch again. I’m not even exaggerating. It feels like a toy pinball table. The point of the table is really to move the action to the backglass, where the board game takes place. You roll dice, move spaces, and if you can make it to the center of the board, you win a real life coin. Only you don’t here. An animation of a fake digital coin falls and that’s it.

Signature Mode: “Magic Tokens” earned by reaching the center of the board (and very rarely via special rewards on the main table) can be spent on “Assault the Vault” mode, a timed multiball mode with a relatively complex scoring system. This opens up TONS of problems. Safe Cracker is too small and too packed to accommodate a four-ball multiball mode. Also, Pinball FX3 doesn’t segregate standard scores from Assault the Vault scores on the leaderboard. Thus, the only way to compete at all is via Assault the Vault, which makes the standard play a slog you work through only on the off-chance you MIGHT win a Magic Token. You can’t actually control winning or losing Magic Tokens no matter how well you play since the board game aspect is pure random chance.

I could totally get why this table would be so memorable to arcade-goers from the 90s. Not a lot of games rewarded you with actual, corporeal keepsakes you got to take home with you. The only possible reason to want to play Safe Cracker can’t translate to a digital recreation. So, like, why bother? This table sucks without it.

THE GOOD

#17: Hurricane

Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 4
Type: Pick ‘n Flick
TABLE FACTS
1991 by Williams Electronic Games, 4,400 Units Sold
Designed by Barry Oursler
Art by John Youssi & Python Anghelo
Music & Sound by Paul Heitsch
TRIVIA
-The concept of a ball being transported via a basket contained in a reel (as seen in Hurricane and prequel Cyclone’s Ferris Wheel) dates back to 1935’s Barrel Roll. It works functionally the same here as it did 85 years ago.
REST OF THE TEAM
Oscar: Good (#11 of 21)
Jordi: Bad (#19 of 21)
Link to Strategy Guide

Hurricane is probably one of the better tables to build primary angles into your muscle-memory. Whether or not the clown will scare newcomers away, I’m not sure.

The finale of Oursler’s Roller Coaster Trilogy (following 1985’s Comet and 1988’s Cyclone) and, in my opinion, the weakest of the three. Hurricane is a good table, but in Pinball FX 3, it’s not a great one. Many Pinball FX 3 tables feel like the slope is too steep or the gravity is too strong in the standard mode with the specialized PBFX3 physics. That stood out so much more in Hurricane than any other table. I own a real Hurricane table. It’s not even remotely this hard to get the balls up the ramps or clearing orbits. I’d made flush hits that should have easily had sufficient enough force to climb the front ramp, only to see the ball stop just short of the top and come back at me. But, here’s the weird thing: EVERY ramp had this “YOU ALMOST HAD IT” phenomena going for it. Accessing the Ferris Wheel? YOU ALMOST HAD IT! Accessing the Hurricane roller coaster? YOU ALMOST HAD IT! Accessing the Juggler? YOU ALMOST HAD IT! It got to the point where only trapped tee-shots could ever hope to get the correct force needed. It didn’t feel on the up-and-up. Yea, this isn’t present in Classic mode, but (1) the physics are TOO rubbery-bouncy in any table’s Classic mode for my tastes and (2) you don’t get XP, boosts, or super powers in Classic.

Signature Shots: the Cyclone and Hurricane ramps are both hated by professionals for their ability to chop-wood on, but ideal for newbies wanting to drill commonly-used angles into their muscle memory. The Hurricane shot is actually deceptively difficult and mastering it is almost a rite-of-passage.

And, while we’re on the subject, you can’t post any high scores online playing in multiplayer. And that’s a damn shame because it means my Father (known here as Oscar) and myself are both global-leaderboard contenders, so we can’t duel each-other traditionally. Instead, we have to watch each-other play a full game. There’s really no reason to not have that. Heck, make a Hot Seat leaderboard if you have to.

Hurricane is one of the tables where you can’t really see the back of the table at all unless you use one of the cameras that follows the ball. I wish there was a better top-down view to practice on.

Anyway, it speaks to the potential quality of Hurricane that, even with YOU ALMOST HAD IT syndrome, the table is a lot of fun. Heavy on toys and gimmicks but with a layout optimized for casual fun. Professional pinballers (yes, they exist) hate Hurricane because you can easily “chop wood” (repeat simple shots and grind up points) and draw out matches. Also, Hurricane is easily the table that you’ll want to use the Skillshot boost on the most. You can post a top 500 global score just by having it, the Score boost, and hitting the skill shot all three balls. It worked for me.

#16 Creature from the Black Lagoon
Member of the 7K Club

Featured in Williams Pinball Universal Monsters Pack
Type: Finesse
TABLE FACTS
1992 by Midway Manufacturing, 7,841 Units Sold
Designed by John Trudeau
Art by Kevin O’Connor
Music & Sound by Paul Heitsch
TRIVIA
– The concept for basing the table on Universal’s Creature from the Black Lagoon was chosen after the decision was made to incorporate a hologram.
ALTERATIONS
-Mortal Kombat characters have been removed from the Pinball FX3 version.
-Licensed music has been removed.
REST OF THE TEAM
Oscar: Great (#9 of 21)
Jordi: Good (#12 of 21)
Link to Strategy Guide

Thankfully, I can praise the art direction without feeling like I’m propping up a convicted pedophile. Yeah, Creature from the Black Lagoon is a looker. I absolutely adore the clashing, dulled colors. If there’s such thing as a technicolor table, this is it.

Combine one of the most clever themes with one of the most maddening layouts ever and you get Creature from the Black Lagoon. Designed by John “Horrible Human Being” Trudeau, my main problem is the right lane is blocked by a “transparent” whirlpool that’s isn’t actually transparent. I play the game muted and thus get no cues on when balls are being VKUed to the right flipper, so I’m kinda screwed by this choice. And what am I being screwed by? A feature that’s barely used. In dozens upon dozens of rounds, I only once was able to get into the whirlpool. Granted, doing so paid off huge and single-handedly gave me table mastery status and (at the time) a top 100 global score, but still, it’s a high visual price for a relatively barren feature.

My team struggled to agree on what, exactly, is the signature shot of Creature. Hypothetically, the multiball is it, but it’s universally agreed upon to be among the weakest two-ball multiballs in the sport. Move Your Car is easily the most exciting and white-knuckle, but the table isn’t driven by it. Really, Creature stands out by being so different from other tables of the era. It’s the only “anti-flow” table that actually kind of works.

You get there via a two-ball multiball that has no ball save attached to it. Activating multiball was no problem for me. But, the mode would pretty much end in under three seconds every single time I did so, with the very first ball taking a trip down an outlane no matter how I hit it. Creature has too many brickable shots to keep up with such an unforgiving setup. You CAN restart multiball once but that requires hitting the snack bar within a limited time. Damnit, I don’t want to get mad at this table. It sure seems like it should be tons of fun. But the drain is so huge it could be legally be described as a canal, the outlanes are too hungry, and Creature just plain frustrates too much. Good table, over-rated, next.

#15: Black Rose

Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 2
Type: Finesse
TABLE FACTS
1992 by Midway Manufacturing, 3,746 Units Sold
Designed by John Trudeau & Brian Eddy
Art by Pat McMahon
Music & Sound by Paul Heitsch
TRIVIA
-Prototypes used black pinballs, but this idea was abandoned due to visibility issues.
-Artist Pat McMahon created X-rated backglass art for less prudish European markets, but the art was never used.
REST OF THE TEAM
Oscar: Good (#13 of 21)
Jordi: Great (#6 of 21)
Link to Guide

Change what I said about Creature from the Black Lagoon: THIS is the prettiest table in Pinball FX 3.

Yep, this is a John Trudeau table. Yes, the man is a disgusting creeper. Developed alongside Creature from the Black Lagoon, Black Rose has all the hallmarks of a Trudeau design: maddening mulitballs that are designed to drain out before you get a chance to play them. A wide drain. Starving outlanes. But, Brian Eddy (Attack from Mars, Medieval Madness) co-designed it, and his design signature (a prominent central target) is along for the ride. Like the Darth Vader table in Star Wars Pinball, Black Rose is really notable for being a valley-style table, with an empty center for a playfield that runs the length of the board, with the primary target against the back wall and all other targets off to the sides.

Signature Shot: Black Rose’s broadside shot is the prototype for all Brian Eddy designs to come. It’s a low-percentage survival rate if you miss, but the concept works wonderfully and direct hits reliably feed the right flipper for a trap. Oddly enough, the broadside doesn’t drive the table’s scoring though. It feels disconnected from the rest of the flow.

And that primary shot is absolutely maddening. It’s crowded, but in one of those logical pinball-type of ways. Hitting the target spoon-feeds the right flipper the ball (just hold it for a trap and you’ll be delivered the ball safely every time). But, the wide drain and sharp angles makes nearly every other target super high risk. Actually, I kind of love it, but I don’t think it loves me back. Combine it with one of the most impossible video modes I’ve seen (walking the plank, which requires you to pump the action button, which nobody in my house could successfully pull off) and a cannon that, I swear, misses manage to drain out every time. Plus, there’s absolutely no semblance of risk/reward balance. Easy shots pay off huge. Difficult shots aren’t worth anywhere near as much as they should be. Black Rose has a fun swashbuckling theme, but I can’t help but wonder if this table would had instead been a 1995 – 1998 Brian Eddy design that had the same fine-tuned scoring balance his other works had.

#14: Tales of the Arabian Nights

Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 5
Type: Finesse
TABLE FACTS
1996 by Williams Electronic Games, 3,128 Units Sold
Designed by John Popadiuk
Art by Pat McMahon
Music & Sound by Dave Zabriskie
TRIVIA
-Tales of the Arabian Nights is the first pinball table with a vertical magnetic diverter, which is used for the Genie shot.
REST OF THE TEAM
Oscar: Good (#17 of 21)
Jordi: Good (#11 of 21)
Link to Strategy Guide

Every single primary angle has a high degree of risk. There’s not a lot of tables that can say that.

Much like John Popadiuk’s soccer-themed nightmare World Cup, Tales of the Arabian Nights shirks the idea of calculated risk entirely. Both primary targets of the table are high-risk shots that spoon-feed the drain and necessitate quick tilting reflexes to truly master. Frankly, I never could get the hang of tilting. As a result, I probably said either “are you kidding me?” or simply moaned in agony dozens of times while playing Arabian Nights. It’s just too damn hard a table to truly be great. That you can’t even shoot main targets without risking the ball draining out can cause great rounds to end suddenly and very, very painfully. Arabian Nights is probably the most difficult good table of all the Pinball FX3 William recreations. That difficulty is not tempered with reasonable scoring balance. Don’t get me wrong: it’s fun to get tons of spins of the lamp, which can end up racking up massive points. The problem is you really can just chop wood by shooting at the lamp if you can charge its value up enough. The bumpers, ramps, and other shots don’t pay off enough. Tales has horrible scoring balance issues. Not as bad as Theatre of Magic, but then again, it’s not as fun either.

Signature Shot: while I think most would agree that the lamp is the most satisfying shot of TOTAN, the Genie drives the entire table. Unfortunately, it also often drives the ball straight down the drain with no possible hope of saving it. This is one of the few tables with Pinball Arcade’s version is superior. You can save the ball with a nudge so much easier.

And, frankly, I think it needs a little more time to cook. On a real Arabian Nights table, the magnetic field in front of the genie really shouldn’t lead to an instakill drain-out on players. In the Pinball FX3 version, you have about a 10% chance of a houseball when activating any mode. That number seems to increase when you begin multiball, as over half the time, at least one of the three balls (usually the first one) was unplayable upon being served. That’s especially damning on a table with an already extremely hungry drain and no ball-save for multiball. Arabian Nights also features some tight squeezes among its very cluttered layout. Shots based around using the lower portion of the flippers are among the most difficult shots of the solid-state era. And, again, they don’t really pay off enough to justify it. Arabian Nights is a legendary table, and while it still can be fun (and potentially more fun if the magnetic stuff is stabilized), the prohibitive difficulty muffles the enjoyment. Sometimes legends don’t live up to their reputation. Tales of the Arabian Nights is that type of legend.

#13: Junk Yard

Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 1
Type: Pick ‘n Flick
TABLE FACTS
1996 by Williams Electronic Games, 3,013 Units Sold
Designed by Barry Oursler & Dwight Sullivan
Art by Paul Barker, Pat McMahon, & Linda “Deal” Doane
Music & Sound by Kurt Goebel
TRIVIA
-Junk Yard is the final table of Barry Oursler’s career.
-Contains modes from other Williams/Bally tables Creature from the Black Lagoon, Attack from Mars, Addams Family, and Terminator 2.
-References other tables such as Earthshaker, Dr. Dude, Safe Cracker, Who Dunnit, and The Getaway: High Speed II.
REST OF THE TEAM
Oscar: The Pits (#20 of 21)
Jordi: Good (#14 of 21)
Link to Guide

I can just hear the pinball community now. “YOU MURDERED WHITE WATER BUT PUT JUNK YARD #7? JUNK YARD?!” What can I say? Guilty pleasure.

Junk Yard is based mostly around a single gimmick: a second ball that’s suspended by a chain that you whack to hit other targets. At first, a person might think the wrecking ball is all Junk Yard has going for it. And yeah, this is a pretty limited table. There’s no secondary flippers. It doesn’t have orbits to shoot combos. It doesn’t even have bumpers. From what I can gather, it’s one of the least popular tables among professional players, where matches end up slogging and players resort to chopping wood (shooting low-risk targets to grind up scores). Skill shot, extra ball, and Time Machine mode are all shared by a single, easy-to-hit target. It sort of has to, since the rear of the table needs enough room to make the wrecking ball gimmick work. This table shouldn’t be good.

Signature Shot: The wrecking ball is dumb fun. Yea, I totally get why pros hate Junk Yard, but this was easily the most popular Williams Pinball FX 3 table in my house among the less hardcore pinheads in the Vice family. At least until Funhouse came along.

But, I like it. In a guilty pleasure sort of way. Easy to get multiball, easy to get jackpots and super jackpots. A few video modes. A few roulettes. Even the backglass comes into play with random chance prizes that don’t totally destroy the balance. Is Junk Yard a finesse table? No. But it wasn’t meant to be one. This is a rare pinball table from the era where it feels like they knew the end was near and decided to just make the most wild designs imaginable because they might not get another chance to. As the finale to Barry Oursler’s esteemed career, he could have done worse. Well, unless you’re my father. Oscar absolutely hates this table. “Junk Yard is so bad that you have to believe Champion Pub could only be worse if it was trying to be, deliberately.” Ouch.

THE GREAT

#12: Dr. Dude and His Excellent Ray

Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 6
Type: Sharpshooter
TABLE FACTS
1990 by Midway Manufacturing, 3,983 Units Sold
Designed by Dennis Nordman
Art by Greg Freres
Music by Chris Granner
TRIVIA
-Dr. Dude is the first table to offer a “family setting” in the operator’s mode specifically to tone down the language and themes.
-Dr. Dude is rumored to have started life as a laboratory-themed sequel to Elvira & the Party Monsters, but it was felt it was too soon to release a sequel to table that would then compete against a table still being sold.
REST OF THE TEAM
Oscar: Great (#7 of 21)
Jordi: Great (#7 of 21)
THE PINBALL CHICK CERTIFIED EXCELLENT TABLE

Come on, guys! The Bill & Ted license was right there and would have pushed Dr. Dude over the 10K mark for sure.

God, this one hurts.. in more ways than one. I rated Dr. Dude “Masterpiece” for Pinball Arcade, one of the true surprises in the 100 table collection. In fact, Dr. Dude finished #11 out of 100 there. Here, it’s #12 of 21 as of this writing. Why the drop? Well, because the central channel in this valley-style table is, for lack of a better term, evil. Hmmm.. actually, maybe genocidal is a better term. You absolutely HAVE to shoot at both the R-E-F-L-E-X lights AND the “I” Exam, but any and all of those have a huge chance of the ball going limp and falling straight-down the drain. These shots go beyond merely high-risk. Without a proper defense nudge (which Pinball Arcade has and Pinball FX3 lacks), these shots are downright suicide missions. Ones you, again, MUST DO in order to play Dr. Dude well.

Signature Shot: The infamous parody of Bride of Pin*Bot’s billion-point shot, Dr. Dude’s Gazillion Point Shot is tied to an out-and-back ramp that feeds into a caged spin-disk called the Molecular Mixmaster. It’s a satisfying shot, but like every other shot in the Pinball FX3 version of Dr. Dude, it punishes you. Dr. Dude is second only to White Water as the most difficult recreation Zen Studios has done. It’s so hard that it’s almost mean-spirited.

Dr. Dude is still really fun, because there’s nothing quite like it. It’s a Sharpshooter on the basis that precision is rewarded above all, but the speedy, bouncy balls also make it flow like a Kinetic (you can’t even trap balls fed off VUKs) while allowing enough flexibility in strategy to feel like a Finesse table. It’s so weird, but kind of brilliant. The scoring system is unique and, yeah, you can chop wood. That is, if you want to chop the most dangerous, high-risk wood in pinball. Sure, go for it. What keeps it from masterpiece status for the whole team is the lack of defensive options and the tendency of multiballs to clear each-other out instantly. Dr. Dude and his Excellent Ray is excellent, but it should be historically so, and instead it’s merely exceptionally so.

#11: Cirqus Voltaire

Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 5
Type: Finesse
TABLE FACTS
1997 by Williams Electronic Games, 2,704 Units Sold
Designed by John Popadiuk & Cameron Silver
Art by Linda “Deal” Doane
Music & Sound by Rob Berry & Dave Zabriskie
TRIVIA
-Cirqus Voltaire had the highest production budget of any standard Williams/Bally table, in part because mechanisms used in it were being tested for the Pinball 2000 initiative.
-The only Williams/Bally table to have the Dot Matrix Display inside the cabinet, and only the second table overall (Capcom’s Flipper Football was first in 1996).
-Cirqus Voltaire is the first solid state table with a disappearing pop bumper, though this feature existed as far back as 1958 with Williams’ Gusher.
REST OF THE TEAM
Oscar: Good (#12 of 21)
Jordi: Good (#13 of 21)
Link to Strategy Guide

“Let’s give the most expensive table ever a generic circus theme. And we’ll have the bonus points be themed like judges giving scores like in the Olympics, because we don’t know what a circus is. CAN YOU BELIEVE THE PINBALL DIVISION IS LOSING MILLIONS FOR MIDWAY?”

When you play the work of John Popadiuk, you could totally understand why silverball enthusiasts would give him money to make a limited edition table.. and then be crushed it didn’t live up to their expectations (and what they got wasn’t remotely close to finished) because it turns out it’s hard to build and release tables when you don’t have a big ass company like Midway actually supplying materials and facilities for it and a continuing paycheck depends on you actually finishing your work. I get it. Dude made some amazing tables when he worked for Midway, parent of Williams/Bally. Theatre of Magic, World Cup Soccer, Tales from Arabian Nights. All ambitious, and often wonderful pins. He even got tapped to do one of the holographic tables in the Pinball 2000 line: Star Wars Episode One. A case could be made that it was him, and not Pat Lawlor (or Brian Eddy, though I think he’s out of the running by virtue of only having three tables), who was the greatest pinball craftsman at the end of the arcade era of pinball.

Personally, I prefer the white-knuckle challenge of Lawlor’s work or the sheer elegance of Eddy’s catalog to the kooky mad scientist vibe I get from Popadiuk. But, gun to head, if I had to convince a non-pinhead that there’s more to pinball than meets the eye, I’d probably use Popa’s work first. And with Cirqus Voltaire, you can totally see (1) why he’s so cherished and (2) why Williams cratered around the this time. Adjusted for inflation, Cirqus Voltaire is the most expensive traditional pinball table designed to be routed (earn quarters) ever made. But, like so many post-Addams Family tables, it was prone to breaking down, and OUT OF ORDER signs earn no money. I’ve encountered exactly two Cirqus Voltaire machines in the wilds of the San Francisco Bay Area in my lifetime. Both were unplugged and wearing such signs.

Signature Shot: People remember Cirqus most for its Ringmaster. Well, that and lots and lots of neon. Dad heard that Cirqus Voltaire was a “fill-in-the-blank” concept that could have been tied to the 1996 Olympics, but a deal wasn’t reached.

That’s why you have to love Pinball FX3, and really the entire digital conversion revolution as a whole. While Cirqus Volatire is THE dream table many fans of silverball would love to own for real in their homes, it’s also a massive investment. In near-mint condition, CV will run you over $10,000, and if you lack engineering skills, you’ll be spending even more due to issues with the Ringmaster toy breaking down. Which it will. I imagine many a pinball dream has turned into a nightmare with a Cirqus Voltaire investment. It’s why owning Pinball FX3 makes sense to even the most starry-eyed would be pinball owner. 98.5% of the fun, only that missing 1.5% means you won’t ever spend hours giving a deep cleaning and waxing to a table, nor will you start banging your head on the glass when an inevitable mechanical failure happens.

Signature Feature: technically called the “BOOM! Balloon”, Dad calls this the “whammy bar.” Which shows the old age is getting to him, as this is NOT a bar. Actually, this is an example of perfectly placing a potentially chaotic element. Despite being a tarted-up pop-bumper, you’re unlikely to die using the BOOM! It also is finely turned in terms of scoring, and the extra ball you can use for it feels like something that’s difficult to earn. One of the last truly great features for any Williams/Bally table.

Speaking of which, like many late Williams tables, Cirqus is based around a primary toy target. In this case a green Ringmaster that, I swear to God, looks just like Flabber from Big Bad Beetleborgs. If you use the enhanced visuals, you’ll have the theme song to the song stuck in your head. Unlike Attack from Mars or Medieval Madness, the Ringmaster is off-center with a short orbit behind it. In theory, it should make for a faster-running experience. Instead, the opposite is true: Cirqus Voltaire is actually a slow, deliberate table based around simple angles and lots of multiball modes. And, it’s fun. There’s some weirdness I don’t get. The large ball on the left of the table feels gimmicky and just clutters an otherwise immaculate playfield. Of all Popa’s work, this one feels the least wacky and most simple. Like the rest of his resume, there’s also scoring balance issues that are further compounded by Pinball FX3’s boosts. But, really great table. One of the better recreations in Pinball FX3.

#10: Fish Tales
Member of the 12K Club

Free to Download with the Pinball FX3 Launcher
Type: Finesse
TABLE FACTS
1992 by Williams Electronic Games, 13,640 Units Sold
17th Highest-Selling Solid State Table
Designed by Mark Ritchie
From a concept by Python Anghelo & Pat McMahon
Art by Pat McMahon
Music & Sound by Chris Granner
TRIVIA
-One of four tables (along with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Popeye Saves the Earth, and Doctor Who) with “Lightning Flippers”, 1/8 inch smaller flippers.
-Fish Tales is the highest selling table converted to digital by Zen Studios so far.
REST OF THE TEAM
Oscar: Good (#7 of 18)
Jordi: Good (#8 of 18)
Link to Guide

Simple elegance. They really couldn’t have chosen a better table to be the freebie.

Designed by Mark Ritchie (kid brother of the legendary Steve Ritchie, designer of Getaway: High Speed II), Fish Tales is free for everyone as the sample Williams recreation table for Pinball FX3. Probably a good choice for it, too. It’s one of the best selling pins ever, at over 13,000 units made. I joked that Fish Tales was required to be installed in every tavern as part of their certification. I can’t imagine children of the early 90s would be interested in a fishing pinball game. Then again, one of my favorite launch-window Dreamcast games was Sega Bass Fishing. And I did basically use Animal Crossing as a fishing game..

Okay, point taken.

What strikes me most about Fish Tales is how simple it is. Clean layout. There’s no supplemental flippers. There’s no skill-shot with the auto launcher. There’s no complex step-by-step objectives. The targets are simple, the ramps and orbits have clear, easy shots. Maybe too easy in the case of the ball lock. It got to the point that I could very easily shoot three consecutive shots into it without breaking a sweat. Not that the rest of the table is easy. In fact, I died as a result of the multiballs that lock triggers. Still, Fish Tales feels like a table that brings the best qualities of the early 80s through the early 90s without any of the confusing, overly elaborate excesses.

Signature Shot: The boat’s horseshoe leads into one of the most intense but simple combo-shooting experiences in PBFX3.

The result is a pretty dang good game. And, like most other Pinball FX3 recreations, this is a solid port job. The biggest flaw in Fish Tales is that Mark Ritchie designed the table to use standard flippers, but the machine shipped with the infamous “lightning flippers” that are very slightly smaller than normal flippers. This was done at the request of UK operators who were pissed that players lasted three minutes at a table instead of under two. Many owners of real Fish Tales tables change over to standard sized flippers, since that was Ritchie’s intent and all the angles were based around them. But, Pinball FX3 offers no such option, and uses the Lightning Flippers despite them being a last second addition to the game to cave in to the demands of bitchy arcade owners. Do the right thing, Zen: give us normal flippers.

#9: No Good Gofers

Featured in Williams Pinball FX3 Volume 5
Type: Finesse
TABLE FACTS
1997 by Williams Electronic Games, 2,711 Units Sold
Designed by Pat Lawlor & Louis Koziarz
Art by John Youssi
Music & Sound by Vince Pontarelli
TRIVIA
-Rumors persist that a prototype that featured a gopher popping out of the center of the playfield existed, but no tangible evidence for it has ever been found. The whitewood (undecorated prototype) lacks this feature, and no function for the gopher exists in the scoring code. However, it is insisted by insiders that fifteen prototypes with a third gopher exist.
-The Hole-in-One is the highest open-ramp shot in pinball.
-Pat Lawlor’s final table for Williams/Bally.
REST OF THE TEAM
Oscar: Good (#16 of 21)
Jordi: Good (#16 of 21)
Link to Strategy Guide

Why not just spring for the Caddyshack license? It couldn’t have cost THAT much by 1997?

Pat Lawlor’s work isn’t exactly known for being newcomer friendly. No Good Gofers, his final table of the arcade era of pinball, is one of his more difficult tables, but also feels like his least inspired work as well. The whole situation is bizarre, because both Gottlieb and Williams made extremely similar tables based on golf that had gophers because they were trying to stoke a Candyshack vibe. No Good Gofers came out four years after Gottlieb’s Tee’d Off and is clearly the better table in every single way. But still, I get a strange “this isn’t really what I want to be doing” vibe from Gofers. Lawlor was coming off Safecracker, which had been designed to be based on the board game Monopoly until Williams dropped the license and he had to switch the theme around at the last second. I always got the feeling Gofers was a rebound table, like he was coming off the disappointment of Safecracker being unpopular with operators and not resembling his original Monopoly vision and his heart wasn’t into it. Plus, there’s been a persistent rumor (completely unverified) that Gofers originally had a large, animatronic gopher toy in the center that was vetoed halfway through development as a cost-cutting measure. If true, that means he dealt with two straight tables that got the screws put to them by Williams.

Signature Shots: the circle is Gopher’s iconic hole-in-one shot, which is technically the tallest open ramp shot in pinball. The star is the “putting green” which you tap in off a bat shot. Mastery of both these is essential to playing No Good Gophers well.

Whether it’s true or not, No Good Gofers is still a really fun table. Maddening, like any Lawlor pin tends to be, but fun nonetheless. It’s probably one of his faster tables, as evidenced by a VKU throwing the ball at the flippers like a baseball pitcher. But, the absurdity that a golf-based table would play very fast actually works. Even better, the difficulty is tempered with a lot of safeguards to assure fairness. Gofers has one of the more generous kickbacks of the late Williams era and frequent ball save activation. It’s a hard table that goes out of its way to be enjoyable, which is, frankly, the hallmark of Lawlor’s body of work. Well, that and modes. Lots and lots of modes. Do you know what the problem is when you make extremely mode-heavy tables? All but a small handful of them tend to make you wish you were playing the more scoring-heavy ones. It throws an otherwise balanced table’s scoring out of whack. This is further compounded by Pinball FX3’s scoring and mulitball boosts. It’s also one of his least pretty tables, in terms of layout and placement. Gofers is a lot of fun, but it also feels slightly phoned in and an underwhelming swan song for Lawlor. He was supposed to have the first of the holographic Pinball 2000 tables, but his Magic Blocks project was cancelled to devote resources to Revenge from Mars and Star Wars: Episode One. The man deserved to go out on a higher note than Gofers.

#8: Red & Ted’s Road Show
Member of the 6K Club

Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 4
Type: Sharpshooter
TABLE FACTS
1994 by Williams Electronic Games, 6,259 Units Sold
Designed by Pat Lawlor, Dwight Sullivan, & Ted Estes
Art by John Youssi
Music & Sound by Chris Granner
TRIVIA
-The final member of the SuperPin line, and the only one not based on a licensed property.
-Red is voiced by Carlene Carter, daughter of June-Carter Cash and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash.
-Rumors persist that Earthshaker originally was going to feature a construction worker’s head where the Earthquake institute was located, but Williams made designer Pat Lawlor choose between the shaker motor or the head, and he chose the motor while moving the talking head concept to his next table, Funhouse. Red & Ted acts as a sequel to Earthshaker and features two heads AND a shaker motor.
-Briefly held the record for most expensive pinball production until being replaced by Stargate (1995 Gottlieb).
REST OF THE TEAM
Oscar: Good (#14 of 21)
Jordi: Great (#8 of 21)
Link to Guide

I’ve always wondered if this was originally supposed to be based on a licensed property and the construction stuff was added when negotiations for something broke down.

1993’s Twilight Zone is wide(bodi)ly considered the greatest pinball table ever. Red & Ted’s Road Show is Pat Lawlor’s follow-up to it, and you’ve got to feel for him in the same way you feel for Francis Ford Coppola every time someone talks about anything he did after the Godfather or Godfather II. Once you’ve made anything that’s, according to fans and many peers, “the best ever“, you can’t possibly live up to that prior work again. Road Show doesn’t remotely try to feel like Twilight Zone. The only similarities are being part of the SuperPin line of gigantic wide body tables (in fact, Road Show is the final of the series) and being a mode-heavy experience. Lawlor has a reputation for making the most complex pins imaginable. This one might be more convoluted and confusing than even Twilight Zone.

Signature Shot: Ted (on the left) drives the table, and also drives you mad with their inane chatter. While the characters are supposed to stir memories of Rudy (from Funhouse), the way the Red & Ted heads are used just isn’t remotely interesting.

More than any other Williams Pinball Season 1 table, Red & Ted’s Road Show requires a time investment just to get a feel for what you’re supposed to be doing and how the massive volume of modes work. There’s over twenty, mostly named after cities. There’s a vast, wide open playfield with two nightmare-fuel ventriloquist heads that serve as the primary targets, but most of the modes are activated by shooting ramps and targets behind them. You know what? Just watch this video courtesy of Bowen Kerins and the Replay Foundation. It’s 33 minutes long. Yea, it really requires that much time to figure this thing out.

Did you watch it? LIAR! You did not! And you really should, because you’ll be expected to do all that. Is it fun? Well, yeah. I mean, obviously. I have it ranked as “great.” But Red & Ted has issues. The scoring balance is wonky, with some of the easier modes worth more points than harder ones (and hell, that’s before you factor in Pinball FX 3’s boosts). My Dad’s been on my case all year for rewarding tables that FUBAR the risk/reward balance, especially since that was the main complaint of my Nintendo’s Pinball review. Yea, that’s a legitimate complaint. What can I say? Nintendo’s Pinball isn’t fun. Red & Ted is. Theatre of Magic is. And there’s something about the SuperPin line that makes hitting high degree-of-difficulty shots feel so much more satisfying. My biggest issue with Red & Ted is there’s simply too many things to keep track of, with too many important elements based on chance. Multiballs have an uncanny knack for clearing each-other out. Maddening table, but oh so fun too. Also, I’m going to go ahead and say it: worst launcher/skill-shot ever.

#7: Space Station

Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 6
Type: Sharpshooter
TABLE FACTS
1987 by Williams Electronic Games, 3,804 Units Sold
Designed by Barry Oursler
Art by Tim Elliott
Music & Sound by Brian Schmidt
TRIVIA
-Space Station is the first digital recreation by Zen Studios that has never had an official digital conversion.
-This sequel to 1984’s Space Shuttle was a huge flop for Williams due to high production costs of the Space Station toy.
-Prototypes featured a drop-target that was removed to shave costs from production. The target would have virtually been a blind-angle anyway.
-At the moment artist Tim Elliott was drawing the space shuttles for the backglass art, he looked up at his TV to see the Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded.
REST OF THE TEAM
Oscar: Masterpiece (#2 of 21)
Jordi: Good (#15 of 21)
THE PINBALL CHICK CERTIFIED EXCELLENT TABLE

Nobody at Williams said it out loud, but let’s be real: arcade operators didn’t order Space Station because of the Challenger. Really, they should have re-themed the table, keeping the Station concept but adding Sci-Fi elements. The shuttles were probably depressing for arcade goers looking for escapism in 1987, even if it was released 23 months after the disaster. For many young people, it was their JFK moment, where the world got too real. Who wants to be reminded of that when you’re in an arcade?

While 1984’s Space Shuttle wasn’t an unprecedented hit by any means, its success bought the pinball industry valuable time and convinced arcade owners the medium wasn’t done yet. Williams especially had suffered a string of catastrophic commercial flops, with some of their tables outright hated by operators. Space Shuttle might have attracted players with a cheap plastic space shuttle toy, but it wooed players back to Silverball with its absolutely stellar gameplay. Without question, Space Shuttle saved pinball.

Signature Feature: while many would argue the Space Station ball-lock is the main feature, I’d argue that the stacked roll-over lanes are the key to successfully utilizing the roll-overs. The bottom U-S-A lights on the bottom multiply the value of the Stop & Score, aka the the hurry-up drop target & ramp that leads to the station. The 1-2-3 lights on top increase the bumper value AND re-activates the locks for multiball. Space Station is the ideal table to practice lane-switching since it features the best roll-overs in all of Pinball FX3. There, I said it. Someone had to.

The sequel would have nearly tanked it again, had Williams not just run off a string of global hits like High Speed, Pin•Bot, Comet, and F-14 Tomcat. Tables that feel like they’re taking gigantic steps towards what the sport would become during the DMD era. Space Station, in many ways, feels like it’s deliberately trying to slow the medium down and catch its breath. Hence, Space Station takes on the feel of an early-80s sharpshooter, with the focus being tight, precision shots and lots of lights and targets. The focus instead is on taking the target-shooting and refining the scoring to be as razor-sharp as humanly possible. Incredibly, a 1987 table thus manages to somehow feel like it’s paying tribute to a bygone era. Weird.

Notice something missing? Well, if you’ve ever cursed annoying inlanes, this is the table for you!

Speaking of weird, Oursler wasn’t totally against outright experimenting. Throwing players of all-stripes off balance is the fact that Space Station has no inlanes. Instead, the slingshots actually buffer the small outlanes. It makes a precision-shooting table dip its flippers to test the Kinetic waters. It never succumbs to outright chaos, but it puts it all on the player to prevent it from happening. So actually, this old-school feeling table takes quite a bit of getting the hang of. In the case of Space Station, it’s a successful experiment, though a lot of players hate it, and I can totally understand why. Multiballs are incredibly hard to keep alive and tend to clear each-other out, especially if you’ve already lost your kick-back. But, brave the lack of stabilizing inlanes and you’ll find one of the most inspired and fine-tuned tables of an entire generation. What generation that is, I’m not quite sure.

THE MASTERPIECES

#6: Theatre of Magic
Member of the 6K Club

Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 3
Type: Finesse
TABLE FACTS
1995 by Midway Manufacturing, 6,600 Units Sold
Designed by John Popadiuk
Art by Linda “Deal” Doane
Music & Sound by Dave Zabriskie
TRIVIA
-Originally the table was going to be based around famous magician David Copperfield and production started before even finding out if he was interested. Copperfield allegedly wanted too much money, but the concept didn’t require a famous name attached to it.
-Theatre of Magic originally had a disappearing drain post, but arcade operators complained that posts led to extended play times and Midway mandated they not be used anymore.
ALTERATIONS
-Mortal Kombat references have been removed.

REST OF THE TEAM
Oscar: Bad (#19 of 21)
Jordi: Great (#9 of 21)
Link to Guide

Not to be confused with Capcom Pinball’s Magic. Speaking of which, Zen Studios has worked with Capcom in the past. God willing, we’ll get a Capcom PBFX3 pack that contains Pinball Magic, Breakshot, Big Bang Bar (less than 10 units made it into the open market), and Airborne. I’d pay $19.99 for that four pack. Are they any good? I don’t know. I’ve never played any of them. Even Breakshot. Here’s hoping!

While John Popadiuk’s story once he left Williams was, ahem, less than inspirational, Theatre of Magic has left its mark on pinball as one of the most popular and influential tables ever. I’m surprised operators allowed this to become such a big hit. A relatively easy (by the standards of the era) table based around shooting combos, Theatre of Magic is built for fun, with any quarters it ate being secondary to that. Theatre utilizes the magic gimmick to its fullest potential. This includes a heavy use of magnetic areas, including magnets that save balls from outlanes. It’s ambitious, and it works.

Signature Shots: Theatre of Magic’s tri-orbital layout drives the flow of the table while the magic box activates modes and contains the jackpot. It’s a high-risk, high reward design that changes as the game goes along. Both the magic box and right staircase reveal key shots. This is a table that begs to be explored. The most finesse-heavy of Pinball FX3’s finesse tables.

Theatre of Magic is a player’s table, and a genuine masterpiece. But, it’s hardly perfect. In fact, my ranking of it at #4, in the masterpiece category, was the source of controversy in the Vice household that led to a full-blown shouting match. I felt the the biggest flaw is the high-risk center orbit that, depending on the angle the ball enters it, can lead to a no-hope (even if you attempt to tilt it) instakill drain-out. My Dad, a pinball purist, felt that an instakill orbit was nothing compared to the utterly broken scoring balance. Simple orbits pay off too much. The multiball is too easy to trigger (even average players should be able to activate it every ball) and jackpots are too easy to come by. The biggest rewards in Theatre come from relatively easy shots. Also, there’s a video pinball mode on the dot matrix display that’s possibly the worst video pinball ever made. Why would you do a video pinball mode that bad on any real pinball table? Come to think of it, once we’re doing a video pinball mode on a video pinball game, we’re sort of through the looking glass. Ugh. But ultimately, it feels like a table designed primarily to be fun, not to make money. I can’t justify ranking Theatre of Magic this high, except to say that it’s insanely entertaining. Isn’t that why we’re all here?

#5: The Getaway: High Speed II
Member of the 12K Club

Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 1
Type: Sharpshooter-Kinetic
TABLE FACTS
1992 by Williams Electronic Games, 13,259 Units Sold
18th Highest Selling Solid State Table
Designed by Steve Ritchie
Art by Doug Watson & Mark Sprenger
Music & Sound by Dan “TOASTY!” Forden
TRIVIA
-High Speed and Getaway were based on the designer Steve Ritchie’s 1979 experience leading California police on a high-speed chase in a Porsche.
REST OF THE TEAM
Oscar: Masterpiece (#1 of 21)
Jordi: Masterpiece (#3 of 21)
THE PINBALL CHICK PANTHEON OF DIGITAL PINBALL MEMBER
Link to Guide

Getaway is yet ANOTHER table that was notorious for breaking down in real life. Getaway had one of the worst fatal-flaws in all of pinballdom. Balls would get stuck under slingshots, which would short-out the MPU. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the owner’s manual had a misprinting that instructed operators to use a 48 volt lamp light instead of a 20 volt. Smart.

I didn’t get Getaway at first. I’d never played High Speed, the industry-altering table this is the sequel to. Frankly, Getaway’s design made little sense to me. It’s a sharpshooter-style table, no doubt about it. You absolutely NEED precision to hit targets and string together combos and make tight squeezes through orbits, or shoot the Ritchie-signature short-orbit loop. Great, it’s a sharpshooter! Duh! But, no sharpshooter ever has had such a live ball. In fact, while the target placement and scoring system are exactly what you’d expect from a sharpshooter, Getaway feels like a kinetic. Even accurate shots go flying, and missed shots could go anywhere! Not only are the balls lively, but they move so fast and test your reaction times. I suppose that’s keeping with the car chase theme, but still, it felt like the two styles clashed too much.

Signature Shot: Getaway’s supercharger is really a fancy temporary ball lock. But it also leads to some of the most thrilling moments in DMD pinball. To get jackpots, you have to put one or more balls in the super charger, which lights the multiball lock, now tied to the jackpot. It’s genius.

Having put dozens more hours into The Getaway since I first wrote this review, I’m not too proud to admit it: I was wrong. The Getaway II is absolutely stellar, and worthy of being the sequel to a table that brought pinball design into a new golden age. But, I also think it’s safe to say that many players, even good hardcore pinheads, might need time to “get” Getaway. It’s a difficult table where many of the targets that are necessary towards driving the score are extremely high risk. Well, assuming you miss, hence the necessity for precision.

The pace of Getaway is the stuff of legends. Shooting the orbits charges up your RPMs and also lights the Burn Rubble reward, which is surprisingly balanced as far as random awards go. I mean, besides the two random chances at extra balls, once of which can be snatched from video mode. Speaking of which, even notoriously anti-VM grouch Oscar gives props to Getaway’s video mode for being simple, easy to understand. I’m not totally sold on this being #1, and frankly, I’m stunned my scoring-balance loving Daddy can forgive the completely ridiculous Redline scoring. Nonetheless, the boys were right and I was wrong: Getaway is one of the best tables in Pinball FX3. There, happy?

#4 Funhouse
Member of the 10K Club

Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 6
Type: Finesse
TABLE FACTS
1990 by Williams Electronic Games, 10,751 Units Sold
27th Highest Selling Solid State Table
Designed by Pat Lawlor & Larry DeMar
Art by John Youssi
Music & Sound by Chris Granner & Jon Hey
TRIVIA
-Rudy is voiced by Mortal Kombat co-creator Ed Boon, who also voices Scorpion, Shang Tsung, and others in those games.
-The clock featured in 1993’s Twilight Zone table was originally designed for Funhouse, but the feature couldn’t be finished in time and was held over for future use.
-Funhouse is actually a remake of a 1956 table “Fun House” designed by Williams founder Harry Williams that featured unique “trap doors” under the gobble holes.
REST OF THE TEAM
Oscar: Great (#8 of 21)
Jordi: Great (#5 of 21)
THE PINBALL CHICK CERTIFIED EXCELLENT TABLE

Golly, Zen Studios keeps getting better and better. By the next generation, I expect the smell of Windex on the glass will be present.

There’s tables that sold more than Funhouse, and there’s tables from it’s era that are more remembered than Funhouse, and yet, no table from it’s era produces the warm feelings of nostalgia and a more innocent time quite like Funhouse. It’s the comfort food of the pinball universe. Which is kind of funny because Rudy, the giant ventriloquist dummy head voiced by Ed “GET OVER HERE” Boon, is one creepy S.O.B. But seriously, there’s no table that Gen Xers collectively celebrate as much. A table where they can list off exactly when and where the Funhouse they dropped their quarters in was. There’s always a sense of warmness in their cadence too. No other table does that to people. It’s warm and fuzzy in that sense.

So, no pressure in converting a table that does all that to digital, Zen Studios!

Signature Shot: Rudy is as iconic as any shot in pinball gets. But, this is one table with a famous shot that withstood the test of time. The bat shot to Rudy’s mouth is among the most challenging and rewarding in the sport. Plus, hearing the mouthy butthole scream “ahhhhh!” when you smack him is so satisfying. Then again, 9-year-old me was terrified of him, so he has it coming. The switch our tables were plugged into turned them all on, and once I stood at another table only to glance over and have Rudy talk at that moment.. let’s just say it was years before I was alone in that room again.

Well, congrats: you guys did it! Funhouse is one of the few early 90s tables that lives up to a towering reputation even in digital form. It has a high degree of difficulty and deliberately stresses players with one of the most maddening multiball drops in the sport. Yet, connecting on shots is breathtaking and pulling off the incredibly-difficult jackpot while keeping the other balls alive is a thrill like few other tables have. There’s something primal about mastering Funhouse, and my family got to experience that together. Myself, my father Oscar, and my 10-year-old sister Angela, traded the world record for Pinball FX3’s Five Minute Challenge Mode in the game several times. Dad beat the previous champion first (his first Pinball FX3 World Record), then I beat him, then Angela beat me (her first ever pinball World Record) before Dad regained his title. Finally, I took it back for a second time and have kept it ever since. Angela, meanwhile, has the highest five minute score recorded on a Switch. All of this in a 24 hour span, mind you, and all of us scoring MUCH higher than all other global competitors while my Twitter followers watched in disbelief. “How can you guys be so good that you’re trading world records AT WILL?” Well, we’ve played a lot of the real table. Still, it was magical while it was happening.

Surprisingly, we’re still the champions nearly a week later. I’m sure these won’t last much longer, but the 24 hours we spent playing hot potato with an actual world championship will stay with me forever. Thank you, Zen Studios.

Of course, that type of experience isn’t one that’ll be common among other players. But, what will be is the sheer elegance of Funhouse’s design and surprisingly fine-tuned scoring. The biggest knock I have is that Funhouse relies a lot on the plunger, but Pinball FX3 hasn’t exactly gotten the mechanics of the plunger properly adjusted to analog controllers. There’s a strong chance that Funhouse could move into the #2 or #3 spot on one of Arcade 1Up’s upcoming digital pinball tables that they’ve partnered with Zen Studios with, assuming they properly map the plunger. Funhouse would have passed Attack from Mars, at least in my view, with a proper plunger. The Steps shot is nearly impossible to clock without it, especially on Nintendo Switch. But that’s literally my only major complaint. Rest assured, gen-Xers: your favorite table is back and it’s still amazing.

#3 Attack from Mars

Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 2
Type: Kinetic
TABLE FACTS
1995 by Midway Manufacturing, 3,450 Units Sold
Designed by Brian Eddy
Art by Doug Watson
Music & Sound by Dan “TOASTY!” Forden
TRIVIA
-Attack from Mars is the first electronic game with an epilepsy warning.
-Despite what you’d think, Attack from Mars was not inspired by the Tim Burton film Mars Attacks!, which exactly a year after the table hit arcades. Nor is it inspired by the 1962 trading cards the film is based upon.
-Attack from Mars and sequel Revenge from Mars were developed into a successful line of slot machines in 2011.
-Artist Doug Watson also provided the voice and script for the Martians.
REST OF THE TEAM
Oscar: Masterpiece (#3 of 21)
Jordi: Masterpiece (#1 of 21)
THE PINBALL CHICK PANTHEON OF DIGITAL PINBALL TABLE
Link to Guide

The real life table was the first pinball machine (and one of the first arcade games in general) that came with an epilepsy warning. My family has an Attack from Mars in our collection that has the strobe lights removed. Besides roughly eight-dozen tables not yet included, my #1 wish-list item for Pinball FX 3 is being able to turn off certain flashing lights. Epileptic people can’t play real tables if they have strobe lights (unless we buy our own), nor can we just go up to the operator and ask if they’re unscrew the lamp lights just for us. They’d be annoyed by it. Video pinball should be their ticket to pinball heaven, but nobody is including options for us. Yet, at least.

Brian Eddy is one of my favorite pinball designers, but the man only really led the design on three tables: Medieval Madness, The Shadow (based on the Alec Baldwin movie, itself based on an old pulp magazine), and this. All three are masterpieces in the annals of silverball. That the medium faded out just as Eddy was hitting his stride is one of the great tragedies of gaming. Attack from Mars is a wonderful table. One of the fastest, high-thrills pinball machines ever made. And one of the best in terms of layout. A clean, simple design with clear targets and simple angles. The challenge comes not from impossible shots but relying on players to feel the pressure of a high score as it draws near. Eddy understood that the best challenges in pinball are ones players put upon themselves.

So, what’s the problem with Attack from Mars? No seriously, I’m asking you. Because I left this part of the review blank for days while I finished off the other tables. I’m here right now trying to figure out a negative thing to say. I can’t. Attack from Mars proves perfection isn’t unobtainable. The scoring balance? Rock solid (even if the “count by hundreds of millions” shtick feels forced). The modes? Easy to grasp, difficult to master, with a perfect tempo. The theme? So much fun. I’ve heard player after player who has been buying these sets tell me that, going in, they thought it’d be Medieval Madness or Theatre of Magic they’d keep returning to, but it turned out that Attack from Mars was that game instead.

Signature Shot: the Saucer is one of the great targets in all of pinball. A brilliant concept executed to perfection. Attack from Mars is a close cousin of Medieval Madness. Replace the alien invasion theme with sword and sorcery and really, the two tables aren’t that different.

I hear you asking “so, why isn’t it #1?” Simple: there are two tables more fun than it. While Attack from Mars is genuinely flawless (one of only four games I feel you can say that about, along with video games Tetris, Portal, and an NES Homebrew game you’ve never heard of called Böbl), and one of the best pinball machines ever made, I feel, even at its fullest potential, Medieval Madness and Monster Bash are just more fun. I can’t stress enough: Attack from Mars is the perfect table. In fact, it should be the first table that everyone learning the in’s and out’s of modern pinball practices on. I just watched my nine year old niece get her first wizard mode. Brings a tear to my eye. But Attack from Mars also proves you can be perfect and still not the best.

#2: Monster Bash

Featured in Williams Pinball Universal Monsters Pack
Type: Finesse-Kinetic
TABLE FACTS
1998 by Williams Electronic Games, 3,361 Units Sold
Designed by George Gomez
Art by Kevin O’Connor
Music & Sound by Vince Pontarelli
TRIVIA
-The final traditional pinball table to carry the Williams brand name, and the final traditional table completed in the Williams/Bally family (Cactus Canyon had development and production halted).
-Released on the 9th birthday of Cathy “Indie Gamer Chick” Vice (aka The Pinball Chick, aka ME!). Hey, it doesn’t get more trivial than that!
REST OF THE TEAM
Oscar: Great (#6 of 21)
Jordi: Masterpiece (#2 of 21)
THE PINBALL CHICK CERTIFIED EXCELLENT TABLE
Link to Guide

It’s worth noting that the art for these tables aren’t 100% arcade authentic. Changes were made in order to assure an E rating, which in some cases Zen Studios was likely under contractual obligation to do.

Initially, I had Monster Bash #1, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt Medieval Madness is the most purely fun, perfectly-balanced real table recreated by Pinball FX3. It’s the table I’ll be going back to the most. And thus, Monster Bash wins Miss Congeniality, by a razor thin margin. It really only comes down to how darn precisely measured the scoring for Medieval Madness is. Monster Bash is slightly more chaotic, based around stacking modes, though unlike Medieval Madness, most of those modes don’t center around wacky multiball. Modes are super easy to trigger, and really, this is one of those zany fun tables Midway (under the Williams label) was cranking out at the end of the 90s. Like Junk Yard, there’s a sense of finality to it. The knowledge that Pinball 2000 is going to be the future, and win or lose, traditional pinball was dead for Midway. Monster Bash feels like George Gomez is personally thanking every fan of the sport for their loyalty with a balls-to-the-wall experience that simultaneously feels like every late-era table, though done in a way that feels one-off and totally original even twenty-years-later. Just.. wow. How the hell did he pull that off?

Signature Feature: Monster Bash is based around tons of stackable modes. In this picture alone, you can see the entrance to the Frankenstein multiball, the Mummy shot, the Bride of Frankenstein’s ball & chain orbit, and the Wolfman’s shots. Just off picture are two more monsters: the Creature from the Black Lagoon (a surprisingly difficult off-angle shot) and Dracula’s casket. Every single mode is huge fun, except maybe Wolfman’s. That almost NEVER happens in pinball, where there’s no stinkers in the bunch.

My top two tables have a lot in common. They’re player’s tables that feel like a love letter to every eccentric pinball trope. And stacking modes. Lots and lots of modes. Monster Bash is toy-heavy and built around triggering Monster Bash mode, where every single toy becomes active. If you’re playing in the standard mode and have unlocked the scoring boost, you’ll want to save it for this (and stack it with the multiball boost). And by God, this mode alone is probably the greatest multiball of all-time. Monster Bash isn’t perfect. Monster Bash mode is so central to gameplay that everything leading up to that feels more like an arbitrary checklist. I don’t get excited for the other modes the same way I do for starting anything in Medieval Madness, though they’re still all fun just as experiences. Also, that Phantom Flip is a pain in the butt. Not only does it often miss, but those misses can easily drain out. Call the Ghostbusters! Having said that, the edge still goes to Medieval Madness. The greatest mode doesn’t make the greatest table. But don’t let that scare you off. Bash is good enough to be worth the $9.99 pricetag of the Universal Monsters Pack alone.

#1: Medieval Madness

Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 1
Type: Finesse
TABLE FACTS
1997 by Williams Electronic Games, 4,016 Units Sold
Designed by Brian Eddy
Art by John Youssi & Greg Freres
Music & Sound by Dan “TOASTY!” Forden
TRIVIA
-Tina Fey of Saturday Night Live fame provides voices for The opera and cockney princesses.
-Brian Eddy didn’t work on another pinball table until twenty-three years later, when Stern tapped him for their 2020 Stranger Things table.
ALTERATIONS
-Some artwork has been toned-down or removed in order to secure an E rating.
REST OF THE TEAM
Oscar: Masterpiece (#4 of 21)
Jordi: Masterpiece (#4 of 21)
THE PINBALL CHICK PANTHEON OF DIGITAL PINBALL TABLE
Link to Guide

The best of the best. At least until Zen ponies up to do Twilight Zone. Well, assuming it’s even possible to do Twilight Zone justice in digital form. Pinball Arcade didn’t even come close, with their version finishing #26 of 100 tables (Great/Great/Great from the Pinball Chick team, for a table that is universally recognized as the best ever). No pressure, Zen!

What can I say about Medieval Madness that hasn’t been said? It’s one of the all-time greats. It’s one of the last great Williams/Bally tables. It’s designed for chaotic, flipper-mashing mayhem. It guest stars Tina Fey (no joke). This is a wonderful table. Like a more refined, idealized version of Attack from Mars that slows the action down (changing the table style from a Kinetic to a Finesse) with a Dungeons & Dragons theme. Which makes sense, since both are Brian Eddy designs. Same basic concept, really. There’s a large, primary target in the center of the field that you chip at. There’s simple orbits on the sides with easy-to-access loops. There’s tons of quick-to-activate modes. Really, it’s Attack from Mars on steroids: bigger, stronger, and slower. But slower in a good way. Really, Medieval Madness couldn’t have handled being as fast or as bouncy as Attack from Mars. It would have ruined the table.

Signature Shot: Medieval Madness’s drawbridge/castle shot is the last truly iconic shot the Williams brand would ever have. But, don’t mistake this for being a rerun of the saucer from Attack from Mars. While the concept is functionally the same, the actual drawbridge is every so slightly angled and it’s crowded by two absolute bastards of rails that completely change the risk/reward dynamic. You need to successfully destroy four castles to get the necessary-for-high-scores Battle for the Kingdom wizard mode. But, every single drawbridge shot will have you clinching your teeth hoping you didn’t wiff the shot just enough that it’ll fall straight down the drain. Medieval Sadness 😦

Medieval Madness’ greatest strength is that there’s no wasted room. Every single successful shot feels like the player is getting something out of it. Multiball modes stack. You can cycle through progress of different modes. The biggest issue by far is that the table’s primary target, the castle gate, is designed in a way where the ball has about a 30% – 50% chance dropping straight down the middle from a variety of angles. Which, frankly, is the exact same issue with Attack from Mars. There’s “smart angles” that you can take shooting it, but the margin for error of those angles is razor thin. Also, the super skill shot (which you do by holding the left flipper) is worth less for skilled players (irony) than a standard skill shot because it doesn’t give you multipliers for making it, and multipliers are a bit harder to come by than the points you get from the super skill. But, like I said, nit-picky, as you can tell from the ranking here. Any would-be pinball designer should study Madness in laboratory conditions just to learn how you properly balance risk-reward. Let it be said: no table of the dot-matrix-display era handles scoring better. Medieval Madness is a legend for a reason, and the best real table on Pinball FX 3.

The Pinball Chick: Williams Pinball: Universal Monsters Pack (Pinball FX 3 Review)

Creature from the Black Lagoon and Monster Bash are legendary tables, but I’ve barely gotten to play either. And that’s really weird because Creature from the Black Lagoon was in my family’s personal collection for years, but the fucking thing never worked. It was like everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Apparently whoever had it before us had issues with it too and in attempting to repair it (and also follow mod guides despite having no engineering background), he actually did more damage to it. In 2016, we traded it along with a few other tables that were, ahem, problematic for some working ones. I’d like to think the guy who ended up with ours went on to have wacky adventures with his Creature from the Black Lagoon table. Maybe he had to travel into the heart of the darkest jungle to retrieve the magical power supply or replacement ROMs to get it running. Maybe it was like that frog from those Looney Tunes shorts and it drove him to the streets, just him and his broken table. Maybe we’ll be reunited someday and it’ll fail to register targets for old time’s sake. Or maybe I’ll just get another off Craigslist. One that’s been fully cleaned and shopped wink wink. You’re not actually supposed to type wink wink in a Craigslist ad but, God, it would be so helpful if sellers did.

Or, I can skip all that shit and just buy the Pinball FX 3 Universal Monsters Pack for $9.99 and enjoy my 99.9% discount on a real table.

UPDATE: My father found the gentleman we traded our Creature from the Black Lagoon to. The table was fully restored and sold to an owner who was very happy to get it. Aww, I always tear up for happy endings.

Yes, yes, the hologram is there and works like a hypothetical working table would. I’m convinced it’s the sole reason the table is “legendary” because the gameplay is just alright.

By the way, Creature from the Black Lagoon, the actual pinball machine, is one of the most notoriously difficult tables to repair. In-part because getting replacement parts for faulty components is difficult. ESPECIALLY if you’re anal about “authentic parts”. The famous green hologram on the table? Yeah, it wasn’t made to still work decades later and many have since rotted into an non-functional sludge-blue. But hell, even replica parts can run you hundreds of dollars, and those parts don’t install themselves. There’s entire guides dedicated to do-it-yourself replacement kits and work-arounds and modifications and homemade solutions just for this table. If you genuinely love this Creature from the Black Lagoon pinball but lack any semblance of engineering skills, you’d be a fool to spend the thousands of dollars (hell, up to $15,000!) on a real Black Lagoon pinball table (or ANY real table, because ALL need repairs at some point). Even if you got a mint condition, rarely (if ever) routed table, it’ll eventually break down. You’ll need to fix it, and if you can’t, you’re stuck with a gorgeous but large and expensive paperweight. Hell, my Dad DOES have engineering skills and still couldn’t fix ours. Shit, $9.99 for a very well-made digital approximation of the same table is sounding pretty fucking sweet right about now.

It’s worth noting that Creature from the Black Lagoon is hardly alone in being a white elephant. I can’t stress enough to people who’ve imagined owning a real pinball machine of their own: unless you’re truly passionate about it, don’t do it. Stick to recreations. Go to Craigslist and look at all the non-professional dealers selling their tables. They were you once.

Anyway, we have two new Pinball FX 3 tables released in time for Halloween that required the Universal license, which Zen Studios already had. They have a set based on Jurassic Park and another based on miscellaneous Universal movies ET, Back to the Future, and Jaws. I was hoping for a fourth table based on Schindler’s List. Or, maybe one based around Sid Sheinberg’s ego, but it’d probably require a 200GB file size. There really were tables based around Back to the Future and Jurassic Park, but those were done by Data East and Sega Pinball, both of which still exist today as the modern Stern, which has a deal with Pinball Arcade. So, sadly, it’s unlikely we’ll see them recreated anytime soon.

And the sadness continues, as two tables that would have fit perfectly with the theme that were hypothetically available (they were by Midway under the Bally license) couldn’t be used. 80s B-Movie hostess Elvira is actually something of a legend in pinball circles because she was the theme of two iconic pins: Elvira and the Party Monsters and Scared Stiff. I think Party Monsters (which, believe it or not, was digitally recreated for Atari Lynx) was a little overrated while Scared Stiff is every bit as deserving of its reputation (and wallet-busting $8K – $11K price-tag on the second-hand market) as it gets. However, Elvira signed on to do a third table with Stern recently, and Stern is partnered with FarSight Studios to do The Pinball Arcade/Stern Pinball Arcade. I prefer Pinball FX 3 to FarSight’s pinball engine, but I really just want these tables recreated regardless. Maybe the two companies can work out some kind of trade: the 90s Universal tables (Back to the Future/Jurassic Park) for the two Elvira tables. Call me guys. I’ll negotiate it for you.

Monster Bash is a truly fun, thrilling table and a great way to introduce players to stacking modes. It’s a table that feels like a last-hurrah for the golden age of solid-state pinball.

So, two tables for $9.99. Is it worth it? Well, frankly, Monster Bash is worth it by itself. It’s the best of the recreated Williams tables I’ve played yet. Creature from the Black Lagoon is vastly overrated historically. Which is not to say it’s bad. Overrated doesn’t mean bad. It means overrated. It’s not an all-timer. It’s just a solid, maddening table that simply has one of the best themes in pinball history: a loving tribute to Drive-Ins. It’s also the work of a truly reprehensible human being, so your mileage may vary on how much enjoyment you can get out of it. I’ll be giving full reviews to the tables by themselves in an upcoming Indie Pinball Chick post that rates and ranks all fifteen Williams tables in Pinball FX 3. Until then, just know that I absolutely recommend this set because both tables are worth preserving and fun. Creature from the Black Lagoon, for its extreme difficulty, is still alright. Monster Bash, on the other hand, is absolutely deserving of its legendary status. I look at the Universal Monsters Pack as paying $10 for Monster Bash and getting Creature from the Black Lagoon as a throw-in bonus with it. And hey, at least their version works!

Pinball FX 3: Universal Monsters Pack was developed by Zen Studios
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Steam

$9.99 did the Monster Mash in the making of this review.

Universal Monsters Pack is Chick Approved.

A review code for the Switch version was supplied by Zen Studios. We bought it on Xbox One.

Table Index

Williams Pinball: Universal Monsters Pack (Pinball FX 3)
Total Tables: 2
The Pits: 0
Bad: 0
Good: 1 (Creature from the Black Lagoon)
Great: 0
Masterpiece: 1 (Monster Bash)
Total Quality Tables: 2
Price per Quality Table: $4.99

 

Whipseey and the Lost Atlas

I pre-ordered Whipseey and the Lost Atlas based on the cover art and one screen shot. It looked like it aspired to be an indie tribute to Kirby. Those don’t happen as often as you would think. Also, the preorder offered $0.50 off the purchase price. You guys really should only pre-order digital games if doing so nets you a discount. Otherwise, it’s not like the eShops will run out of copies. And then, on Tuesday morning the game unlocked and I started it. And right away, I could tell something was off. The scrolling didn’t feel smooth. The controls didn’t feel 100% responsive. Attacking was awkward and clumsy.

It only took me a minute to realize all these things. I genuinely try to review games and not their developers, but I do have to ask: if I realized this stuff was off that fast, why didn’t they realize it sooner? Like, before releasing it?

The shit thing is, Whipseey looks so good in screenshots. It’s a photogenic game. I bet it ends up a best seller by virtue of release date and how fun it SEEMS like it should be.

Whipseey is not good. And that’s a shame, because it sure seems like it could be fun. Despite looking like Kirby, most of the action borrows from entirely different games. Your primary attack is a whip that mechanically functions like original generation Castlevania games and only works straight in front of you. Sounds great. The problem is that it’s clunky to use, with a delay. It’s also not really suitable for mid-jump attacks, and that’s a big problem because the game is built largely around platforms and enemy placement that forces you to mid-air attack. Maybe if the button placement was different, it’d be easier to pull off. But Whipseey doesn’t offer button mapping. On Switch, B jumps, Y whips. I found it quite awkward switching between the two on a standard Joycon. None of the other buttons do anything. So why not offer mapping, or at the very least, some kind of dual button scheme?

On the plus side, the collision detection is absolute shit. It works against you, sure, but you can hit bosses and enemies sometimes without making contact. So there’s that.

See how far my whip is from making contact on this, the first boss? It’s almost a full character length from it. But, this landed. It caused damage. That’s how bad the collision detection can be. That’s fucking embarrassing. I guess to make up for this, the developer gave the boss an electrocution move that has no telegraphing. The first two bosses are genuinely some of the worst I’ve ever seen. Here’s a full video of that boss fight if you want to see me get credit for a few hits I completely whiffed. Also, who makes their first boss an underwater fight unless that’s the entire game’s theme? For fuck’s sake!

The combat is bad. The platforming is worse. Instead of Castlevania, think Donkey Kong Country 2 or 3. Whipseey has the ability to do a Dixie Kong-style helicopter glide, and that’d be great. But the game is filled with instakill spikes with less than accurate-feeling collision detection, instakill pits, and lots of enemy crowding. And the game seems to have a thing for putting something above your head, and a pit in front of you, so that you go to jump but the platform above you cuts off the angle and you fall into a pit. The jumping just feels off. The gravity too heavy, the angles tough to judge. It’s never intuitive. The helicopter thing or the parts where you swing from your whip would be fun if the physics were refined and smoothed out. They’re not, and consequently they’re just not fun.

I really don’t have that much to say about Whipseey. I wanted to quit multiple times while playing it, finally giving up on the last boss. There’s only five levels, none of which rise above bland in terms of design. Things really don’t start to get interesting until the fourth and fifth levels, which had potential to be a bit more than simply bland if all the mechanics had been given more development time. But that means you’re over 60% of the way through the game before the level design feels ambitious. Before that, it’s just enemies being placed in dickish positions, or stuff like hopping on enemies to clear pits. In other games, the “bounce across enemies to finish a section” can be a highlight (see Super Mario 2 with the fish). But for Whipseey, if you fail to make the jump, even if you manage to float back to the starting platform, you’re dead. The enemy never respawns, and despite the door you came from being RIGHT FUCKING THERE, you can’t enter it and then go back and try again. You have to throw yourself into the pit and try again.

Also, this guy moves back and forth. So it’s not like you have a stationary target to hit. It’s incredible how many things Whipseey manages to do wrong in only five levels.

It’s rare that I play a game where it feels nothing goes right, but that’s Whipseey. You get a free life if you collect 100 gems. You get gems from enemies. But, when you whip enemies, the gems don’t just drop. They go flying behind them. In a game based largely on pits. Guess where most of those gems end up? If you run out of lives, you have to start a level again. Guys, it’s time to get rid of lives systems. You’re not doing anything to help your platform game by adding busy work of replaying levels for the sake of “challenge.” Come up with something better. If you need to force players to replay entire stages as a punishment in order to make your game harder, you’re doing it wrong. And, if you’re afraid of pissing off the blowhard crowd that wants to be punished for poor play because privately getting spanked is their kink, make it optional. In Whipseey, there’s a menu for “options” but the only thing you can change is the sound. Bosses are all boring. Enemies are boring and often cheap. There’s only five levels. There’s no power-ups. There’s no twists. It runs out of ideas fast. There’s only one potentially memorable set-piece (set on a train) and it ends up playing quite poorly. I feel like a bitch for going off this much a first-time developer’s game. This really wasn’t a fun review for me to do, but to my credit, it wasn’t a very fun game I was playing.

I’m not actually going to complain about the length. Some might not want a game with five relatively normal sized levels for $6 though. If Whipseey had been just okay, I’d probably been fine with the length. If it’d been good, I probably wouldn’t have been. It wasn’t either of those things. I was happy to get to the end.

All these little problems that add up to overall pretty terrible experience screams of a game that was rushed from conception to market as fast as could be done. NOTHING I’ve seen here leads me to believe developer Daniel A. Ramirez should quit. He clearly had a vision and saw it through to completion, and has a finished game that, when I saw it, I wanted it. And then I played it, and I wish he’d worked on it longer. If this had been given an extra spit-shine when the levels were done, with the rough edges smoothed out and less emphasis on dick-headed enemy placement, Whipseey and the Lost Atlas could have been a memorable indie romp. Instead it just feels like an unfinished prototype. But, it sure looks great in pictures. Big deal. So did Ryan Leaf.

Whipseey and the Lost Atlas was developed by Daniel A. Ramierez
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam

$5.49 (normally $5.99) doesn’t do great with whip-based indie tributes in the making of this review.

Iron Crypticle

The guys at Tikipod clearly know what they’re doing when it comes to freshening-up moldy oldies. Hot off the heels of my infuriating time with ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove, my next game in my Backlog from Hell was another revival of a long-lost game. Here, Iron Cryticle is a tribute to Smash TV, which isn’t exactly a classic that withstands the test of time. I got it for Xbox Live Arcade in the late 2000s and was not a fan at all. The game show theme was inspired, but the actual gameplay was overly long and very bland. During my #IGCRetroBlitz (the # is part of the name) for Midway Arcade Origins back in January, Smash TV was part of the lineup and I was reminded just how awful it was. Rooms that seemed to last forever. Uninteresting weapons. Bosses so spongy that players might be better off just hanging out and waiting to see if they’ll die of natural causes. It’s a terrible game, and if not for the game show gimmick, nobody would remember it today. Want proof? Ever play Total Carnage? No? Well it’s the sequel to Smash TV and it doesn’t have the game show theme. Told you.

Crypticle’s got spongy bosses, but only “barely to the point of annoying” spongy. Not “we soak-up firepower to such a degree that you have to wonder if the developers really just had contempt for you” spongy.

But, people do remember Smash TV, and twin-stick shooters are a perfectly fine genre. The failure of Smash TV to hold up is based around the fact that it was designed specifically to rob quarters from bored teenagers in the early 90s. But the idea of a twin-stick shooter with a series of single-screen rooms, branching paths, waves of enemies, bonus rooms, and tons of pick-ups is solid. Tikipod and co-developer Confused Pelican (who is presumably not Alvin Gentry) had a perfectly good road map to make the ultimate Smash TV tribute. Actually, the means to improve the formula are self-evident. Just remove the quarter-thievery objective and focus on a great experience for players. And they’ve done it.

The biggest hurdle Confused Pelitiki had was keeping the experience fresh. In Smash TV, even the first room overstays its welcome. For Iron Crypticle, gameplay is sped up and rooms are shorter and offer a lot more variety than just relying on enemies and landmines for the challenge. Rooms have different themes with pros and cons depending on if you want to rack up points or stockpile weapons. There are online leaderboards, so points might matter to you. There’s a lot more going on than just moving towards bonus rooms like there is in Smash TV.

By the power of Grayskull!

It helps that the enemies are more varied and that you can unlock more guns and more power-ups with each play-through. There are magic spells you can save up to clear out enemies. There’s a dash move to aid in escaping tight jams. There’s a satisfying variety of guns that spawn with relative frequency. Hell, they even threw in a Bubble Bobble-style letter-collecting thingy where if you spell B-O-N-U-S you clear a room automatically and get tons of goodies. They even went the extra mile and made collecting points more fun by having them stack for bonus multipliers. It’s like Tiki-elican did forensic analysis on the carcass of Smash TV and said “why is part boring and what can we do to unboringfy it?” Smash TV had two players. Iron Crypticle has four. Smash TV lacked in variety. Crypticle breaks up the levels with shops or arcades where you can earn bonus points playing a very decent side-scrolling platformer called Castle Crushers. If Iron Crypticle had a game show theme, it’d been exactly the Smash TV update that people have wanted for thirty-years now.

It’s not perfect. I really hate that, even on easy mode, you’re limited to five continues and once they’re gone, it’s back to the beginning with you. Shouldn’t that type of game-over condition be reserved for higher difficulty levels and people who are looking to challenge themselves? I think so. Even on easy, Iron Crypticle isn’t a slouch, especially when playing by yourself. You can buy extra credits in the stores but they’re relatively expensive and you’ll probably have to skip on upgrading your stats to be able to afford them. Crypticle gets teeth late in the game and I wasn’t able to finish the primary quest. Usually this is a deal breaker for me. I mean, I lost my shit when Cuphead gated me out of the final bosses even though I accomplished more than over 90% of other Cuphead players. Surely that should apply here? Especially when Tikipod whispered to me what happens after the final boss and I ended up giving them a black eye just for THINKING of doing what they apparently did.

Okay, I wish the game wasn’t so darkly lit, and I wish some traps stood out a bit more. I lost track of how many times I took damage because I just didn’t notice I was moving next to something deadly.

Well, it probably would have killed the game. Maybe even should have killed the game. But once you play Iron Crypticle once, you unlock a “bonus mode” that’s just one single “endless” room. Kill waves of enemies, reach the second wave, etc, etc. It basically turns Medieval Smash TV into Medieval Robotron 2084. But here’s the nutty part: I actually like this mode more than the normal mode. It’s pure, scoring-driven, white-knuckle action. All the cool weapons and upgrades from the normal mode thrown into a single-roomed non-stop killathon. I loved it. And, even better, you can still unlock new items and weapons in this mode that become available in all modes. That is such an inspired decision, and it changes the dynamic of the game completely since Endless mode is no longer just a tacked-on time waster. And that, my friends, is what puts Iron Crypticle over-the-top and makes it one of the best action indie games I’ve ever played.

What I like best about Iron Crypticle is what it represents. It reminded me that many developers fundamentally get it. Pay tribute to the *spirit* of the original while revamping and modernizing everything you know it did wrong. It might not carry the same theme, but Crypticle feels like Smash TV, only a version of it fully-realized, fleshed-out, polished, and modern. It’s a throwback that nobody my age can possibly get bored with. One that even the most stuffy, hardliner retro fan has to concede does right by original. It succeeds as a tribute, and soars on its own merit. There is no better way to show how much the classic meant to your life than making a better game inspired by it. It sure beats getting a tattoo!

Iron Crypticle was developed by Tikipod & Confused Pelican
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam

$3.99 (normally $9.99) recommended against using Joycons because they SUCK for twin-stick shooters in the making of this review.

Iron Crypticle is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

 

ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove

I consider Greg Johnson to be a friend. We’ve got a good rapport with each-other and I was one of the few who was positively gaga over Doki Doki Universe. Nobody bought Doki Doki. Hell, most fans of ToeJam & Earl don’t even know about it. It’s a lot like TJ&E, but it’s not exactly the same game the developmentally stunted among us played as children in 1991, and thus they had no interest in it. But, I like Greg and I like his team. So this wasn’t the most fun review for me to do. Consider this a trigger warning for all you old people who have ventured to my blog: the following review will, in no way, harm the memories of your childhood spent being a latchkey kid raised by a Sega Genesis. It’s perfectly reasonable and logical that I, an individual who was two-years-old when the original ToeJam & Earl came out, would not be swayed by nostalgia for a game that meant nothing to my childhood. And trust me, in the case of Back in the Groove, that nostalgia is absolutely necessary. You know how sometimes I wonder out-loud “who exactly was this game made for?” Not here. I know exactly who TJ&E: Back in the Groove was made for: fans of the original. And only fans of the original. I really feel like an uninvited party-crasher here.

I do like the idea of Back in the Groove and what it represents. Here’s a game from a franchise that failed over and over again to maintain or cultivate a substantial audience and claw its way out of cult-status. One where the fan base is rabid enough and starved enough that they can raise half-a-million via crowd-funding, but not on big enough to justify a revival on its own merit. There is a sect of snobs out there who believe Kickstarter should be reserved only for new developers bringing new ideas. Nuts to that, says I. In fact, I would say that Kickstarter is tailored specifically for these sort of comebacks, where the angry and demanding fan-bases can step up to the plate, pony-up their dosh in advance, and assume all the risk that a publisher would have to be off their rocker to take. ToeJam & Earl, dare I say, is quintessentially a crowd-funding project. Fans can buy the creators a truckload of shovels to dig up the corpse, tie electrodes to it, blast it with lightning, and then admire the unholy abomination they brought back from the dead together.

Back in the Groove feels like a game that’s been in a coma since 1991, and consequently is oblivious to the whole concept of being “woke.” Tons of fat-shaming present. I’m not outraged or anything. It’s just sort of jarring to see a new game in 2019 not give a shit about political correctness. Earl can eat anything, even toxic food. Why? Because he’s the fat one. And, as we all know, conventional wisdom tells us fat people can and will eat anything. That’s how they got fat in the first place, right? It’s almost refreshing how out-of-fucks to give it is.

Credit where it’s due: Back in the Groove feels just like the Genesis original. For fans of series, that’s probably all they need. It’s best to think of Groove as a remake. You walk around sprawling randomly-generated maps looking for parts of your ship. Along the way you run away from enemies, engage in lots of item-hunting, and, if you’re me, ask yourself what all the fuss is about. ToeJam & Earl was certainly ahead of its time. It was released in 1991, years before games like Mario 64 or Banjo-Kazooie popularized adventurous collect-a-thons. But, besides a misguided Xbox release in 2002 that honestly wasn’t that bad, the series has been dormant ever since a 2D platform sequel that I personally liked more when I played both games as part of Sega Genesis Classics. Panic on Funkotron had a weird Dr. Seuss quality about it and felt like a polished product. 1991’s ToeJam & Earl felt like a proof of concept that hopefully someday would see its potential fully realized.

That’s not what Back in the Groove does. Combat, for instance. Back in the Groove, especially in later levels, spams the screen with enemies that move faster than you and take a LOT of health off (or steal the goodies you’ve collected). You get things like tomatoes or slingshots that you throw at enemies to fight back with. But, in order to call them up, you have to bring up a menu of all the “presents” you’ve collected. And the game doesn’t tell you what the presents you collected are. They’re labeled with question marks, and the only way to find out what they are is to either open them, thus using them, or find a character to pay a relatively large amount of resources to tell you what they are. You’re basically reliant on luck to be able to get the right present that allows you to fight back. Oh, and while you’re fumbling through menus hoping to find something defensive to use, the game doesn’t pause. The enemies are still coming at you. The ones that already moved faster than you and were at a major advantage to begin with. You can skip that and run, but in many levels the only means of escape is jumping into water. Water which will, itself, start to drain your health. Yeah. Combine this with the fact that the mystery presents might not help but themselves spawn even more enemies or bullshit to deal with, and you suddenly have a game that is just outright fucking with you.

Why is it like this? Because that’s what the original was like.

The fact that half the items will absolutely fuck you over is infuriating. Games are supposed to be fun, right? But at one point I opened three straight presents which, in order: spawned more enemies, put a giant neon sign above my head that drew the enemies to me, and then put a rain cloud above me that caused lightning to strike down upon me and warned me I couldn’t go back into the water to hide. Fucking really? I know the running gag with me is I have bad luck with RNG, but COME ON! How is this shit supposed to be fun?

When I complained about this, fans of the series were aghast. “How dare you complain that this unfair, clunky shit is unfair and clunky? That’s what we wanted! It’s what we paid to make!” And you know what? They’re right! This is exactly what they asked for. They wanted all the cheesy, crappy mechanics that made most people abandon the series decades ago to return intact and unaltered. They got their wish. Consequently, ToeJam & Earl is the perfect remake. It was shitty and borderline unplayable in 1991 and it’s shitty and borderline unplayable in 2019. Bravo.

And that makes it hard for me to discuss it. Sometimes I say a game wasn’t made for me, but this time it’s specifically true. I can’t remember a Kickstarter project that has been made just for one core set of gamers to this degree. Even Shenmue III looks like it aspires to evolve past its deeply-flawed origins (Update 2021: Well, was I ever wrong about that!). ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove rejects progress and advancement. It plays and feels like an early 90s project that was too ambitious to work as desired, but hey, at least it’s ambitious. And if this were 1991, that would be fine. But it’s 2019, and it’s not. Bringing all the problems back, deliberately this time, would be like a family bragging about how webbed toes are passed through the generations like they were a priceless heirloom.

Take the levels. They’re randomly generated, so we shouldn’t expect too much. But there’s a very limited amount of set pieces. A normal grassland, a desert, a snowfield, and levels that are dark where you use a flashlight to see. I played through 19 levels and that was the extent of the variety. The themes repeated over and over again. Because the levels are randomly generated, they all feel samey and very, very bland no matter what the theme is. Sometimes the elevator would spawn in a screen that was absolutely saturated with enemies, like the men in black that zap you with a cattle-prod and steal all your presents. Or sometimes a level would begin with a screenful of enemies AND a hula-dancer that stun-locks you, because apparently you can’t resist doing the hula with her even if there are enemies chasing you and eating you right at that moment. I’d go so far as to say ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove has the worst randomly generated levels for this kind of game I’ve ever seen. They’re never interesting, which completely undermines the whole “never the same game twice” shit that random levels are supposed to assure. Who cares if it’s never the same twice when it’s dull at best to begin with?

Greg Johnson is a cool dude. One of the classiest acts in gaming. I was, and still am, a huge fan of Doki Doki Universe, his unsung magnum opus that never got is due. The weird thing for me is that ToeJam & Earl is one of the more remembered duos in gaming. Not Mario & Luigi level, but not obscure either. Yet, unless you play co-op, there’s no interplay with them at all. Meanwhile, Doki Doki Universe turned even the most stonehearted of owners into mush with the genuine and moving relationship between a robot and a sentient balloon. Because of that game, I know this one phoned it in. Over the course of Doki Doki, its stories are fleshed out, its characters get development and arcs, and we, the players, form a personal connection to them.

ToeJam and Earl, on the other hand, get no development at all. Besides an opening cinematic that shows them to be so stupid that they’re practically mentally handicapped, they are defined entirely by their character models, not any writing or story or interaction with other characters. They’re aliens. They like music. They fart. But the thing is, after Doki Doki I know Mr. Johnson is capable of better than this. These aren’t characters. They’re cynical, lazy brand mascots designed to appeal specifically to children from 1991, at the height of Nickelodeon and Ninja Turtles. Again, I can’t help but wonder if the reason this game forgoes character development and an actual story is because the original didn’t have it. The only reason this bothers me above all else is I fucking know Greg is better. This shit is beneath him.

When I was whining about how the enemies are faster than me, the solution given to me by fans was “don’t pick Earl.” Yea, what was I thinking? Picking one of the main characters in a game that bears his name? Well, I’ll have you know I picked Earl because it seems like half the food you find is spoiled, which makes all the characters but Earl take damage and throw up. In my last run, I counted the rotten food v non-rotten food. It was 12 for fresh, and 14 for rotten. That’s just how this shit works. It seemed like most of the bushes I shook led to either spawning more enemies or dropping bowling balls on me.

So why isn’t Back in the Groove better? There’s so many buttons on game consoles today. Each of the major three platforms has two rows of shoulder buttons. Why not let players shuffle through the presents with the triggers while they’re trying to run from enemies? Because the original didn’t have that. Why does seemingly most of the shit you can uncover while searching the world turn out to be a trap? Because that’s how it was in the original. Why was almost no effort made to tighten the controls and make the exploration and combat more comfortable and responsive? So it would feel more like the original.

You know what? Why didn’t you fucking people just keep playing the original one? If you wanted to pretend that thirty years of design innovation or gameplay conventions didn’t spring into existence since ToeJam & Earl came out, why even bother asking for a remake, let alone raise $500,000 for one? So you can play the same game with fancier graphics? Wait, aren’t you the same generation that completely lost their shit when Lucasfilm added CG clutter to the original Star Wars movies? Will you make up your mind on what you want? Same old shit with a fresh coat of paint or a real sequel that fully realizes the potential of the game that was important to your childhood? The best remakes are ones that pay tribute to the spirit of the original while righting all the wrongs that were a result of technological limitations. Look at the Resident Evil 2 remake. Part of the reason for the fixed camera angles was to “direct” players and create more effective jump-scares, but the bigger reason was the technology wasn’t there to give players full control without too many compromises being made. By 2019, the tech was there and had been perfected for over a decade. Now imagine if fans said “that’s cool, but you better bring back the horrible fixed cameras, or else.”

I didn’t even realize that you had to talk to a guy in a carrot suit to level-up. That’s another issue: you can’t tell good things from bad things. Dude in a carrot suit = good. Hula dancer = bad. Update: you can tell because good characters have a very subtle sparkly effect. I double checked and yea, it’s there.

So, while I’m genuinely happy that ToeJam & Earl fans had their successful campaign and got exactly what they asked for (that’s not a joke, for all the bitching I’m doing, I’m always happy to see long-suffering gamers get their day in the sun), I question whether this is really what they should have asked for. If I had been a fan, I’d wanted to see the series catch on with gamers of all stripes, sell a ton of copies, and finally be here to stay. Isn’t that the best way to show your love for something? To want it to be successful? Not that I think ToeJam & Earl fans want it to fail. They clearly love the series. But they only want it to do well on their own terms. I’m sorry, but that’s not reasonable at all. Those are not the type of fans who should be catered to, Kickstarter or not. It’s no different from music fans who discover a band, fall in love with them, and brag about them to everyone. It’s their band. Until they get successful, have their albums go gold, and get big gigs. At that point, they’re sellouts, and you spend the rest of your days telling people how they used to be cool. No, you used to be cool. They’re still cool, mostly because they’re making more than just a small group of disloyal people happy. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove could have been a good game, but “fans” didn’t challenge Greg Johnson and the development team to bring the concept to its fullest potential. They wanted a remake. They got a remake. They’re happy with it.

And it assures ToeJam & Earl will always be just their thing, and theirs alone.

Well, they can have it.

ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove was developed by HumaNature Studios
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam

$19.99 challenged Greg and crew to do DLC with *hand-designed* levels in the making of this review.

Treasure Stack

I never really liked Wario’s Woods. When I was still fawning over NES Remix, the moment I realized the series was running out of steam is when the Wario’s Woods shit started during NES Remix 2. Now, considering that the Remix series turned chicken shit like Urban Champion, Clu Clu Land, Baseball, Tennis, and Ice Climber into chicken salad, that really gives you an idea just how bad Wario’s Woods is. It’s horrible. Cynical too. Nintendo had struck gold with Tetris but they didn’t own it and wanted a Tetris-like to call their own. They had Dr. Mario, which was a big hit for reasons I’ll never understand because Dr. Mario is fucking boring. Yoshi’s Cookie is fucking boring. And Wario’s Woods is clunky as all hell AND fucking boring. It’s the worst of that initial Trilogy of Not-Tetris. It was the second-to-last Nintendo-published NES game, with only StarTropics 2 coming out afterwards. Not exactly a riveting send-off for the console that made them famous. If you told me an indie developer would make the Wario’s Woods formula somewhat compelling, I’d say you must be high. But here we are: an indie tribute to one of the worst “major” puzzlers ever, and it’s not bad.

Treasure Stack isn’t great either. For those unfamiliar with the concept: multi-colored treasure chests rain down from the heavens into a well, two boxes at a time. You’re a little dude or dudette at the bottom of the well who has to platform around, grabbing and stacking the chests. Occasionally keys will come down with the treasures. If you match a key to the right color chest, it detonates the chest and all chests of the same color connected to it. The platforming guy/gal controls smoothly and has a grappling hook they can use to grab blocks from high up in the well and quickly bring them down to the base, which is what sets Stack apart from Woods. It’s clever and it works. And there’s special items that automatically clear blocks out. It sounds great, and it would be.. except the garbage blocks.

I’m guessing color-blind players will not enjoy this one as much.

I don’t know why the game needed garbage blocks. The formula for Treasure Stack wasn’t exactly something that lends itself to fast-paced action-puzzling. Without them, the game would still be difficult enough once the chests/keys start dropping faster. Especially since you’re left up to the whims of chance as to whether the game will generate the right color key you need to set-off the elaborate combo you’ve been preparing without having to rethink the whole thing if it doesn’t come fast enough. And even the keys you often can’t count on to be your salvation because I swear to God they constantly come down paired with a treasure chest of the same color, which means the key and the chest that are falling will detonate upon landing and thus you can’t do anything with them. It happened to me all the time and was annoying. They really should rig it so a chest and a key of the same color NEVER come out together. It would make the game ten-fold better. But really, the garbage is the big issue here. Everything about the garbage blocks saps the fun from Treasure Stack. The meter for triggering them fills up too fast. When they activate, they blanket the top spot of each column in the well. Just a couple of minutes into the game, the meter starts filling up quite fast, while the colored chests/keys rain down even faster. It’s just not reasonable to be able to keep up with them even if you had four hands and two brains. And I don’t have four hands.

Even worse is that death is instant if you reach the top of the well. A game like this really called for a Tetris Attack/Pokemon Puzzle League style grace-period where you have a couple of seconds to fix the problem before being declared KOed. You can have a relatively comfortable three-space gap from the top of the well and end up dead a moment later. Hell, I’ve had better conditions and not survived the next ten seconds. And because your character can only leap one block, recovery is next to impossible once you reach a certain point. By five minutes in, Treasure Stack’s action is so fast that it’s well beyond the point of reasonable management. If the blocks fell horizontally instead of being stacked on-top of each other, you’d have a lot more time and the stacks in the well wouldn’t become insurmountable instantly. Treasure Stack, more than any well-based puzzler I’ve ever encountered, feels like it’s designed specifically to smother you.

I can’t remember a well-based puzzler where you can go from feeling nice and relaxed to overwhelmed and defeated in such short order. And not in a good way, either. The tide turns so quickly that you can’t even process how you failed. It just sort of happens.

This probably makes it sound like I didn’t like Treasure Stack at all. And for solo play, I really didn’t. It just does too many core gameplay mistakes to be enjoyable. But Treasure Stack is designed with multiplayer in mind. There, the rules are a bit different and the game absolutely shines. Playing online, you get a lot less garbage blocks, and they only come as the result of your opponent racking up combos and other assorted puzzling shenanigans. I wish it were more clear which actions trigger more garbage blocks so I could try focusing on that. Sometimes I would set up very elaborate combos only to see but a single garbage block drop on my opponent. But still, the way multiplayer is oriented allows for Treasure Stack to be appreciated. You actually have time to experience the thrill of very elaborate combos, something I feel is next to impossible to pull off in solo play.

I won this match. It wasn’t quite the same thrill as winning at Tetris 99, but still, in your face person I beat.

I can’t help but wonder if Treasure Stack released a bit too early. Some fixes have already been done. I bought the game on Friday, and at that time there was no option to play another round of solo play. You had to go all the way back from the starting menu to get another game going. That’s already been fixed, less than a week later. But there’s a lot more patches coming. Maybe Treasure Stack needed a bit more cooking. Especially since the game is so dependent on online multiplayer. You only get one chance to make a good first impression, and players who are turned off by the initial batch of problems might not return after their first play session, thus hurting the game’s online player pool. This is the type of stuff developers should think about but don’t. I get that it must be an exciting and anxious moment to see your game on the marketplace, but if you’re multiplayer focused, remember that multiplayer indies die a miserable death if they can’t cultivate and maintain a sizeable user-base to support the game. If your title is buggy when it comes out, which is when you’ll get most of your sales, you’re handicapping your chances right out of the starting gate. I genuinely believe that Treasure Stack will be good as a solo game eventually, but as of this writing it wins my Seal of Approval strictly for the multiplayer, which is awesome. Whether it’ll ever succeed as a fun and frantic single-player experience is possible but not a certainty.

It’s hard to gauge potential in a game. When something is wrong, we know how much it hurts it, but we can’t know how much the fix of it will improve the overall experience. I do believe the foundation of something really good is here, but how good can it be? I don’t think Treasure Stack will ever have the cerebral elegance of Tetris, the white-knuckle action of Pokemon Puzzle League, or the combo-heavy frenziness of Puyo Puyo. It’s going to be somewhere between those even if it peaks. But, I would have guessed Wario’s Woods was beyond salvaging and that’s clearly not the case. It shows how inspired the development team is that they polished that turd to a golden shine. There’s something here with Treasure Stack. Multiplayer proves that. Get a four player local game going and you’re going to have a blast. There’s cross-play with online multiplayer, which as of this writing has a lively user base. Those modes make Treasure Stack worth a look. Single player might be awesome at some point, but right now it doesn’t, ahem, stack up.

Treasure Stack was developed by Pixelakes
Point of Sale: Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Steam

$19.99 noted “why aren’t there power-ups for the character? Stuff that lets him jump higher? Come on, if you’re going to have a platformer in your puzzler with jumping, you gotta have power-ups for the character!” in the making of this review.

Treasure Stack is Chick-Approved.. Christ, that’s five in a row, maybe I’m going soft.. and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Farm Together (Review)

I feel really bad for Farm Together. It was set to be my new zen-like gaming addiction. My substitute for Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook, which I used to and play half-engaged while the other half of me thought about work stuff. And, for a few days at least, it was just that. Then Tetris 99 sunk its fangs into me and Farm Together fell completely off my radar. Granted, the two games have nothing in common besides their addictive, veg-out potential. Still, choosing Tetris 99 over Farm Together is like selecting your drug dealer based on which one has the most teeth.

Developed by XBLIG all-star studio Milkstone (whose game Little Racers STREET was featured in my 2013 Indie Royale bundle), Farm Together is a remake of their Xbox Live Indie Game it Avatar Farm. A glossier, more polished, souped-up version of it. It’s not so much a game as much as just a grind-for-the-sake-of-grinding time waster. But hey, those have a place in the big tent of gaming. Basically, you plant crops, wait a while, and then dig up those crops for slightly more resources than you put into planting them. Then you buy and unlock slightly more expensive crops that you plant, wait, and harvest for slightly more resources. Rinse and repeat about two-trillion times, and that’s Farm Together. There’s no real goal or end-game. You just plant, wait, and harvest. You can also buy cattle, birds, and fish that you feed, wait, and harvest. The wait times vary, but the basic concept never changes: place object, tend to object, harvest object. Sometimes the objects are permanent investments that you eventually make a profit on (the cattle, trees, the flowers, or fish). Sometimes they’re a one-time thing (most of the veggies). But the crux of game is grinding to get resources to grind more.

If they start singing, I’m packing my shit and getting out of here.

It’s a fucking grind, and nothing more. But, I kind of admire it. There’s no micro-transactions that speed up the wait times, which probably was very tempting to include because drooling addicts such as myself would have caved in and bought them. And because there’s no ultimate end-goal, you’re free to go about things at your own leisure. I focused on slowly getting permanent resources to blanket my farm. Trees are a permanent investment that will slowly result in a net-profit. Veggies are one-and-done. Flowers are also permanent but require constant watering to yield the best results. Raising animals seemed unbalanced and too expensive, so I avoided it unless it was related to a challenge in the game. I had no interest in watching them just stand around asking for food. I already feel like a monster for letting my Nintendog go 15 years unloved and unattended. OH GOD MUDDY, I’M SO SORRY!

It’s a simple, arcadey/mobiley setup, but one filled with gross limitations. For example, there’s no way to set up an irrigation system to tend to veggies and flowers. Or at least an efficient way. There’s a sprinkler you can purchase, but the sprinklers only tend to two squares. Mind you, your tractor services nine-squares at a time. And that sprinkler, instead of costing a reasonable resource to purchase, costs the relatively rare and valuable pink medals. Having to give those up just to be able to let two squares linger without needing to micro-manage them like the world’s fussiest baby is ridiculous. Given how much emphasis is given to decorative shit to purchase (which you usually spend diamonds on), why aren’t the sprinklers more cost efficient? Hell, they’re listed alongside the fencing items and are, as far as I can tell, the only thing in their category that actually does something besides sitting there. I didn’t even realize they were there at first.

Trees were my primary method of making money. They’re permanent, don’t require watering or any tending to, and some of them bear fruit multiple times during a “year cycle.” If you plan to be playing the game long, they’re the way to go because they’ll eventually be net-positive after a week or so with no effort required. All the crops “level-up” which basically just makes them give you more money. And hey, trees are pretty and they make air and stuff for us.

And that’s where Farm Together fails: it seems to want the grind to be the central focus and does nothing to take the edge off that. For me, one of those “ta-da!” moments in games like this is when you no longer need to grind. What limited options there are in Farm Together for that in theory work, but they’re too expensive and not efficient. I hired a farm hand. The section I marked him for barely clipped the edge of where I kept llamas. What did the farm hand do? Ffed the ffucking llamas. Over and over and over and over and over, completely draining my money. And maintaining him didn’t save me any time or money compared to just doing the work myself. As for the sprinklers, they do the job, but two squares for one medal is not remotely reasonable a price. Really, the sprinklers should cost diamonds, not medals. But that’s the story with Farm Together in general. It seems like whatever option would lead to the game being less tedious is the option that was declined in favor of enhancing the grind.

And there’s so much more missing. You can’t upgrade your tractor, and doing everything nine-squares at a time is too slow and clunky. You need to fill it up with gas, which thankfully doesn’t cost money. But it drains quickly, requiring you to dash back to the pumps every minute or so of harvesting. And the first pumps you get actually are too slow to fill back up themselves, which is a real kick in the ass for impatient types such as myself. Eventually you’ll get a gas station for 25 pink medals, but even a full tank won’t last you very long when you have a LOT of stuff to harvest (which you will because that’s, you know, the point of the fucking game) keeping you dashing back to the gas pumps like they have the only bathroom on the place and you just won a binge eating contest at Taco Bell.

And you never can get the tractor to do more than nine-squares at a time. Why not? I mean, it’s a game about farming. Give me a god-damned combine harvester as opposed to dry-humping my crops nine-squares at a time. Fine, maybe Farm Together aspired to be slow and grueling like real farming is. But I’m not sure that excuse flies. When you place an animal down, they will stay in the square you dropped them in. No fencing required. I wasn’t aware animals operated on the honor system like that. Certain types of crops that you can’t plant side-by-side in real life (such as tomatoes and sunflowers) can be done with no consequence here. You can put predatory fish in the same body of water as the shit they would normally eat with no apparent drawback. I think realism was thrown out the door. Farm Together doesn’t at all present itself as a farm simulator, so to hell with saying “real farming is hard work” and let me have more shortcuts.

I came to dread seeing those little water-needed symbols. Annoyingly, it sometimes rains in the game but the rain doesn’t actually water the plants. Apparently flowers are quite snooty about the water they drink. What am I using? Fiji Water or something?

Which brings us to the big hook. The one that I kept forgetting was the main selling point despite it being in the fucking title: online play. You can go to other farms to help harvest their crops for extra experience points. Whatever you dig up goes to their bank account instead of yours, and safeguards are in place to prevent abuse. The person who wanted me to review this was the one who couldn’t wait to get me playing this, but for me, I guess I’m weird because I wanted to take on the responsibility of harvesting all the stuff I planted myself. I mean, what’s the point of going to all the effort of planting the stuff if you’re not the one getting to see how much your own hard work paid off. If I set up a domino rally, I’m not inviting someone over to push the first block over. That shit was hard work! I want to be the one to do the fun part! Don’t get me wrong, a lot of people are enjoying visiting other farms. For me? When I saw the effort others made it make their farm look like a.. you know.. farm, I felt like a kid who just presented a formless clump of Legos to her mother and said “look, it’s a Transformer!” or something. One dude I visited basically made Seaworld, and here I was thinking my shit looked good because I finally smartened-up and started putting things in clumps of nine for even-harvesting with the useless tractor. I was so embarrassed that I never turned on the ability for others to visit my stuff. My farm wasn’t good-looking. Others have full resorts going. I just shoved shit wherever I could find room. Story of my life. I never was good at decorating cookies during Christmas, either. I just would slather on a large clump of frosting and eat it. That’s basically what I did here.

This dude had a full seaside resort thing going. My cleverness began and ended with me naming my farm “50 Shades of Hay.” And then it turned out there really was no particularly useful hay in the game and I felt like an idiot.

But, for all the bitching I’m doing, I’ll give Farm Together this: it’s cathartic. Farm Together is NOT a game. It’s a Slinky that you shuffle the coils back and forth from one hand to the other because it’s the only activity that’s keeping you from grabbing an automatic rifle, climbing a water tower and taking out the entire town. It’s bubble-wrap that you sit there, slack-jawed, popping one air-pocket at a time like a fucking psychopath. It’s the adult version of that children’s toy with the colored pegs and the hammer that you sit there smacking the pegs down, then turn the thing over and smack them on the other side. I don’t know what that’s called but it’s always my go-to gift for people I hate because their kid will make a lot of noise with it and drive them insane, which makes me happy because fuck them, am I right? What Farm Together is not is Sim City for rednecks. It’s a mobile-style resource grinder, like Clicker Heroes with a farmer’s tan. Those obviously have a place in gaming. That someone as jaded as me can easily lose themselves in something like this has to be indicative of something with merit, or at least I’d think so. And yea, maybe it’s a bit over-priced at $20 and the DLC is lame (it’s just accessories that change your appearance but otherwise accomplish nothing). And there is something undeniably satisfying about completing a mission in the game (which is just harvesting X amount of resources) or reaching the point where previously expensive items can be bought in bulk. I don’t know if I’d call it “fun” or “compelling” but it’s certainly endearing. When I thought I had enough playtime to do this review, I kept turning the game back on to get screenshots and inevitably would put another hour or two into work every time I did. That seems like it’s important to note. So yea, go ahead a try it. It’s dumb and it’s a bit lazy at times, but it’s a perfectly fine time-waster. Certainly better than bubble wrap.

Farm Together was developed by Milkstone Studios
Point of Sale: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Steam

$19.99 ♪♪ Farm Together.. right now.. over me ♪♪ in the making of this review.

Farm Together is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

*A friend purchased a copy of Farm Together for me. Because I chose to do a review of it, I purchased a second copy out of pocket. All games reviewed at IGC are paid for by me.

Hollow Knight: Voidheart Edition

During my Cuphead re-review, I noted that nobody wants to be the one person not having fun at a party.

Taking that a step further, you especially don’t want to be that person because some assholes will swear you’re only not having fun for the sake of being contrarian. But that happens a lot. If you’re a moderately popular and influential critic and you’re not enjoying an overwhelmingly popular indie darling, fans of the game will believe the only rational explanation is you’re intentionally not liking it for the sake of being different. Trust me when I say, it’s not worth it. And besides, I bought Hollow Knight three times: twice for me (first on Steam, then on Xbox One), and once for my friend William. This wasn’t Press X to Not Die, which cost a couple of bucks and I could send it to friends as a sadistic joke. I wanted to like it. I wanted to love it. I didn’t want to be that person at the party.

But I am yet again. I actually sort of hate Hollow Knight. And not just in a “not for me” type of way. I don’t think it’s a well made game.

I laughed far more at making this than anyone in their right mind should have. What can I say? When you sit on the bench to save, it kept making me think of that Klay Thompson meme. I love that meme. When we eventually build a Klay Thompson statue outside the Chase Center, I want him to be posed like he is in that meme.

Let’s strip out all the (insanely gorgeous) art and (not really all that clever) writing and talk about the thing that should matter most in a game: the gameplay. The thing I take issue with for Hollow Knight is how it seems to be made specifically to be less fun than it can be.. nay.. SHOULD be. As if the developer was given an option for every aspect: the fun way and the not fun way. And then chose the not fun way because that would be bold and dark. See though, I’ve always felt the graphics and character design should be the primary thing that sets the mood. If you need to make the gameplay less fun to make things feel bleak, you’re doing it wrong.

I’m curious if they mistook “bleak” for “slow”. Upgrades take so long to unlock that by time you get them, it’s no longer an exciting development. It feels like it’s overdue. I didn’t get the ability to wall-jump until over ten hours into the game, and I didn’t get my first upgrade to my standard weapon until eleven hours in. In that time I also added only one single hit point to the initial five you start with, and one “notch” (giving me four total) to apply “badges” which provide things like showing where the fuck you are on the map. Oh, and you can only switch between the badges at the save points. Why? How is that in keeping true to the atmosphere? What about applying a badge to your armor requires the specific act of sitting on a park bench? Maybe I’m spoiled by games that thrive on making the player feel like they’re getting stronger as the adventure unfolds, but I just felt like Hollow Knight deliberately kept me in purgatory.

Fans built this up acquiring this to me so much. I was like “what is this super magical item they keep hyping that will completely change how I feel about this pretentious piece of shit?” A wall jump? A FUCKING WALL JUMP!? You mean that thing that’s been in games for thirty fucking years?

Every aspect of the design is focused on maintaining the slow pace. The map is sprawling, but you don’t get it all at once. You have to locate this person in each different section of the game who will sell it to you and then separately buy from his wife the ability to see the things on the map that you’ve already passed by. In theory that means the guy making the map is better at adventuring than the hero is, since he’s ahead of you and apparently making progress without a hitch. That stuff always breaks my immersion. It’d be like if Sean Bean was giving his “one doesn’t simply walk into Mordor” speech when suddenly a traveling salesman walks by and says “oh actually, you do. Here, I made a map of it. Let me offer you travel tips..”

Thankfully you only have to buy the map icons once for each type of thing, but like everything else in Hollow Knight, it grounds the proceedings into a monotonous slog that feels more like a series of busy-work for the sake of busy-work chores rather than some kind of epic quest. “Slog” really is the perfect word for Hollow Knight. Save-stations are kept to a minimum and spread really far apart, but you’re forced to constantly dash back and forth to them in order to change your badge loadout. Items are relatively expensive while enemies drop relatively few coins to shop with, forcing you to grind if you want to get the stuff that should be for free anyway. Most of the other items offer no descriptions as to what exactly they do and players were reporting to me they were actually finishing Hollow Knight without ever using them or figuring out what exactly they did. There’s really not a lot of games where you can play for an hour and feel like you’ve accomplished nothing in them. Hollow Knight is uniquely like that. It’s the anti-exhilaration Metroidvania.

On the positive side of things, combat was kind of nice. I’m big on swinging a sword feeling like there’s a weight behind it and combat being more than just an animation of a stick moving out and an enemy blinking to indicate damage or vanishing to indicate death. It’s really cool that the dead husks of your vanquished foes remain (until you walk far enough away at least). But there’s not a whole lot of variety to the action. There’s only one weapon, a “nail” that is functionally a sword. When you upgrade it, you don’t get new moves or anything, at least at the point where I was too bored to press-on. There’s no secondary weapons for you to equip, and all the upgrade does is add one extra point of damage. When you’re playing a long game that feels even longer and you only get one real weapon to use with the only moves being swing it horizontally or swing it vertically if you’re attacking upward, it gets redundant no matter how meaty the hits feel. I did get a Ryu and Ken style fireball, but that takes magic points to use and can’t be aimed upward, making it less useful in general than the starting weapon. Variety is the spice of life. For Hollow Knight, all I was left with was lots and lots of salt.

All credit to Hollow Knight: it’s pretty. But it’s 2018. These days it’s more notable if a game is ugly.

Honestly, that was my whole problem with Hollow Knight: it’s boring. There’s just not enough stuff to do in it. It feels like it has all the ingredients to not bore, but then those were spread so thin for the sake of padding the length that all the fun was pushed out. It doesn’t help that the level design is overly basic, like something out of a first-generation Metroidvania. “Wait a second, didn’t you just like Chasm?” Yes I did. What’s the difference? In the time it took me to upgrade my weapon for the first time, add a single point of health, and a single notch for my badges, I had beaten Chasm. Plus, you know, it had a variety of weapons and items and stuff. It wasn’t just the same shit over and over again. It’s not just what a game is, but how that game plays out. Hollow Knight forces a ton of backtracking and grinding, but doesn’t make those things fun or easier. You mostly have the same stuff you started the game with. It gets old. And sorry if I keep harping on this, but it genuinely feels like the developers were more concerned with being emo or dark than they were with making a fun game. Would it really have ruined the bleakness if they gave the protagonist a slingshot or boomerang or something to make it so you’re not just doing the same sword strikes against the same enemies for 30 to 60 fucking hours? Or given more special moves that required less magic. Or let you get more magic. In 12 hours I got one piece of the “vase” or whatever that gives you more magic. That meant I still had to find two more before I got more magic. I got one-third of that upgrade in twelve hours. And the one I did get I bought in the shop. Part of the fun in Metroidvanias is finding stuff. The world of Hollow Knight feels like I did after 12 hours with it: empty inside.

I didn’t finish Hollow Knight. I probably didn’t come close. I did put twenty-hours combined into it with the best hopes and intentions. The first time was back in 2017 on Steam. I bought a copy for Will too, and with my best friend playing alongside me, we set out to see what the hype was all about. We were both excited to get on the Hollow Knight bandwagon. After a few hours, I felt weird. Because I wasn’t having fun at all. When I found out Will wasn’t either, I just found something else to play. I occasionally booted it up again thinking “maybe I was just having an off-day”, before finding myself quickly bored again by the same sword and same enemies and the same dull levels, eventually putting eight hours into the thing. Clearly it wasn’t an off-day thing. I figured maybe it was because a computer isn’t a good home for a Metroidvania, so when I saw Hollow Knight: Voidheart Edition discounted on Xbox One, I thought “okay, maybe I’ll finally see what all the fans see in it.”

Maybe the oh-so-subtle symbolism is why this game has so many people blown away who can’t exactly articulate what it is that has them sucked in to the experience. I’m just saying, there’s a LOT of it in Swallow Knight.. I mean Hollow Knight.

Nope, I didn’t. I still don’t. I tweeted basically the entire time, showing my progress. For the first hour or two, it was fine. It was almost fun in a tutorial type of way. But then I started to wonder out loud when the game would start to, you know, wow me. The entire time, fans of Hollow Knight were assuring me “you’re about to get to the good stuff” or “you’re about to open up the game.” And then it didn’t happen. They kept promising, I’d get to the spot they were talking about or get the upgrade that they swore would change how I felt about the game, and then it didn’t, and then they promised me the really good stuff was “still coming.” Finally I caught on that I’d never get to the “good stuff” because there is no good stuff. Hollow Knight is a very basic Metroidvania with its only remarkable hook being that if you die you lose all your money, but if you go back to where you died you can get the money back. You know, that thing other games have been doing all decade.

Otherwise, Hollow Knight is stuck in early 90s 2D adventure mentality, but people will give it a pass because it’s “deep”. And you know it’s “deep” because it has a pretty art-house decor. Who cares? The first time a stage made me sit up in my chair, I was ten hours in. And even that didn’t last. Maybe I quit right before I got to “the good stuff.” I don’t know. I don’t really care. It shouldn’t take that long to get to the part that’s entertaining in the entertainment product. And if someone still thinks I sought out to find things to dislike about Hollow Knight for the sake of being different, do you really think I needed over $30 and twenty-combined hours to do that? Because I didn’t.

I wanted to have fun at the party. It turns out the party kind of sucked. Like one of those ones where you find out it’s not really a party and they’re going to try to get you to buy a timeshare. They already fed you, so it seems rude to get up and walk out right away. You start checking your watch to make like you have something better to do later. But really, you’re trying to figure out if you should leave before he hands out the brochures or wait until afterwards so you can show it to your family and laugh with them. That’s what the Hollow Knight experience was for me: being trapped at a timeshare party. Hell, come to think of it, I think I’d like that party more anyway. At least I’d get fed.

Hollow Knight: Voidheart Edition was developed by Team Cherry
Point of Sale: Steam, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4

$9.89 (Steam) and $11.99 (Xbox One) (Normally $14.99) thinks Voidheart sounds like a Care Bears villain in the making of this review.

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