The Pinball Chick: Williams Pinball (Pinball FX 3 Set Reviews & Table Rankings)

This is the first Indie Pinball Chick review where I have to cover multiple DLC packs. Well, unless you consider that Star Wars Pinball for Switch is on Pinball FX 3 for PC/PS4/XB1 as multiple smaller DLC sets. But, we’re talking about Williams Pinball sets for Pinball FX 3 today. Each of them costs $9.99, unless you buy the Williams Season 1 pack for Xbox One/Steam/PS4, in which case you’re paying $31.99 for all twelve tables it includes. These rankings also include the two tables in the Universal Monsters Pack that I’ve already covered and the free-to-download Fish Tales.

All four of the original Williams sets are Indie Gamer Chick approved. If you’re curious which order I recommend them, volumes one, two, three, and the Universal Monsters Pack each contain a masterpiece-caliber table. Volume 4 stands alone as the only set that doesn’t feature a “must own” table. But, keeping it real, one of the tables I have ranked as “bad” in that set is currently ranked as the ninth best solid state table ever at the Internet Pinball Database. So, your mileage may vary. Volume 1 is the only of the Williams sets with three tables that I gave a positive ranking to every table it has. Meanwhile, Volume 3 has only a single table I ranked positively, making it the highest price-per-quality-table Williams set. But, the one table I liked is good enough on its own merit that I’d still recommend purchasing that pack (especially if you can get it discounted). Finally, the Universal Monster Pack only has two tables, but one of those I have ranked as one of the best Williams recreations, which takes the sting out of getting fewer tables. After strong consideration, I’ve ranked the Pinball FX3 sets in the following order:

#1: Williams Pinball Volume 1

1 Masterpiece
2 Good
Price per Quality Table: $3.33

The only set that runs the table (pinball puns, gotta love them). If you can only buy one Williams Pinball FX 3 collection, this is the most sure-fire, can’t miss one. Medieval Madness is the dream table many silver ball enthusiasts wish they could own the real version of. Let’s keep it real here: Medieval Madness is a $10,000+ table. Buying this set nets you a very, very accurate version of it at a 99.9% discount. And, when you inevitably grow bored with it (like the vast majority of first-time real table buyers do), you don’t have a $10,000 gigantic reminder of how poor your spending habits are hogging up space in your rec room.

Plus, you won’t have to repair the trolls when they break. Which they will. Personal experience talking here.

Medieval Madness is worth the price of Volume 1 by itself. But it doesn’t come alone. You also get Getaway: High Speed II (which my Dad wants to note was HIS favorite table in the entire Williams collection) and Junk Yard. Getaway is more of a traditional table and feels the “oldest” of any of the Williams tables, with simple targets and a short upper-orbit. Junk Yard is a novelty table based around a wrecking-ball gimmick (and one of only two tables Williams ever did that lacked bumpers). Neither table is great, but they’re nice to have and far from boring. The icing on the Medieval Madness cake.

#2: Universal Monsters Pack

1 Masterpiece
1 Good
Price per Quality Table: $4.99

I’ve wrote already about the Universal Monsters Pack. Having it ranked #2 despite being one table smaller than the other four sets really should speak to how much I cherish Monster Bash. Creature from the Black Lagoon has its merits and is certainly a good table, but I think it’s historically over-rated. It’s all about Monster Bash.

#3: Williams Pinball Volume 2

1 Masterpiece
1 Good
1 The Pits
Price per Quality Table: $4.99

Party Zone is a horrible table and Black Rose is among the most frustrating good tables out there. But, these two deeply flawed tables are counter-balanced by being packed with Attack from Mars. That’s kind of a big deal because I literally can’t think of a single negative thing to say about it. If not for Party Zone, there’s a strong chance this set could have taken the top spot. Really, the top three positions were close and Vol 1 won by virtue of having no bad tables. Any of the top three are no-brainers.

#4: Williams Pinball Volume 4

1 Great
1 Good
1 Bad
Price per Quality Table: $4.99

The only set that lacks a masterpiece-level table, Volume 4 is hardly a wash. While I’m sure my opinion on White Water’s value (or lack thereof) will be controversial, there’s no question that Red & Ted’s Road Show is a lot of fun. Also included is Hurricane, a problematic table that still manages to entertain. Part of me wishes they’d saved Hurricane for a future triple-pack that contained the complete Barry Oursler trilogy of roller-coaster/theme park machines and put the legendary FunHouse in Volume 4 instead. But, at this time, Zen Studios isn’t recreating any tables with numeric or alpha-numeric displays, and Hurricane is the only of those tables to have a dot matrix display. Whatever the case, Red & Ted is the only SuperPin (a series of ambitious, wide-body tables from Bally/Williams) on Pinball FX 3 and the spiritual successor to FunHouse. And hey, the purchase price allows you to play White Water and ask yourself how anyone in their right mind could consider it to be one of the ten best tables of the Solid State Era.

#5 Williams Pinball Volume 3

1 Masterpiece
1 Bad
1 The Pits
Price per Quality Table: $9.99

The only set that I had to think about, Williams Pinball Volume 3 led to an actual screaming match in my house regarding how I rate these sets. Because, while I have Volume 3 ranked last among the five available sets, I felt Theatre of Magic was good enough on its own to justify giving it the Indie Gamer Chick Seal of Approval. Originally, I came up with the following formula: every set should contain at least one table ranked masterpiece OR two tables ranked great or better OR three tables ranked good or better. Then, as my Dad pointed out, Volume 4 didn’t fit that. D’oh. Theatre of Magic is so fun, despite being deeply flawed in terms of scoring balance, that I gave it a masterpiece ranking. Why they have to pack it with two novelty tables is beyond me. Safe Cracker’s main appeal as a real machine is completely lost in digital form, while Champion Pub is simply a horrendous game of pinball. This is the ultimate “your mileage may vary” DLC pack. If Safe Cracker’s merits as a straight table appeal to you, this becomes a little easier to recommend. If you want to try a broken table that never really was good to begin with, Champion Pub will wet your weird appetite. For everyone else, Volume 3 is all about Theatre of Magic. I liked it a lot. If you don’t, this is the one volume I have no problem telling you to skip.

Really, we all win out with Pinball FX 3’s Williams collection. Each set can make a claim to stand on its own merits without the need to own any other set. You almost never see that with any game’s DLC. These are wonderful recreations of legendary tables from a bygone era. The physics can irritate sometimes, but I prefer them to the glidey, weightless feel that Pinball Arcade often feels like. And having a new generation of pinball enthusiasts get low-cost access to them is delightful. Further proof that we’ve entered the golden age of digital silver ball.

Pinball FX 3 Williams Pinball Season 1 (Vol 1 – 4) was developed by Zen Studios
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Steam

$9.99 each (I spent $4.99 on Volume 3 and 4 on XB1) likes the sound of “season one” in the making of this review.
All Pinball FX 3 Williams Pinball sets are Chick-Approved

 

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

Table Rating Index

Pinball FX 3: Williams Pinball Season One + Universal Monsters Pack
Total Tables: 15
Masterpieces: 4
Great: 2
Good: 5
Bad: 2
The Pits: 2

The Pits

#15: The Champion Pub
Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 3
Based on a concept by Pete Piotrowski, 1998
Speed: Below Average
Difficulty: Above Average
Modes: Below Average
Link to Guide

In your heart, you want this to be Punch-Out!! In reality, it’s more like Power Punch II.

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.

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 bullshit. 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.

#14: The Party Zone
Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 2
Designed by Dennis Nordman, 1991
Speed: Above Average
Difficulty: Above Average
Modes: Below Average
Link to Guide

Party foul.

Dennis Nordman made some truly great tables (and some truly over-rated ones too). This isn’t one of the great ones. It’s also one of the few real tables I’ve never played before, but based on what I’ve seen here, The Party Zone has to be one of the worst tables I’ve ever played. This is a miserable pinball machine. It plays too fast for such a limited layout. In fact, the ball practically teleports across the board when you hit it. The key to faster-than-light travel could be contained within Party Zone. The drain is powered by a black hole. About one-third of my launches I never could play because the ball got hung up on the bumpers just long enough for the ball save to evaporate, then dropped straight down the middle.

You’d think a game with a party theme would at least be inviting and fun. But, the primary target has a kicker that can send the ball directly to an outlane. 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 shit 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. But the modes really aren’t complex or interesting. Really, the only thing Party Zone does is set the baseline for a bad table being recreated as well as possible.

The Bad

#13: White Water
Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 4
Designed by Dennis Nordman, 1993
Speed: Above Average
Difficulty: Above Average
Modes: Average
Link to Guide

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

At least it’s based on rafting and not a real estate scandal.

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.

And the shit 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 a fucking all-star with arcade owners for as often as he cranked at 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 outlane? Sure. 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.

#12: Safe Cracker
Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 3
Designed by Pat Lawlor, 1996
Speed: Below Average
Difficulty: Average
Modes: Average
Link to Guide

“Let’s have a smaller table, but let’s pack as much shit 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.

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.

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.

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

#11: Hurricane
Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 4
Designed by Barry Oursler, 1991
Speed: Average
Difficulty: Average
Modes: Average
Link to Guide

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.

And, while we’re on the subject, as far as I can tell you can’t post any high scores online playing in multiplayer. And that’s a damn shame because, a while back, my father and I had an epic duel at Medieval Madness in Classic Mode where we both surpassed my own posted high score a few times over. 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.

#10: The Getaway: High Speed II
Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 1
Designed by Steve Ritchie, 1992
Speed: Above Average
Difficulty: Above Average
Modes: Average
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.

This is a hard, hard table. The margin-for-error on shooting is narrow, on a table designed to be (at the time) the fastest in the history of the medium. Getaway: High Speed II is a punishing table. It’s also fun. But very deceptively so. Every single shot is super tight, so if you want a table that’s not n00b-friendly and requires precision, this is really the best table in Pinball FX 3 for that. But, once you get the hang of it, you’ll find a rewarding experience based around lightning-fast timing. Getaway is also primarily built around shooting orbital combos, but the timing for shooting them is more difficult on a game controller than it is for a real table. Once you get the timing down, successfully shooting those combos and seeing the huge scores build up is insanely exhilarating.

Also, this is one of those tables where some of the fun elements from the real machine are lost in translation. Throughout a session with Getaway, you’re supposed to shift gears, which is done with the auto-launching plunger. On a real Getaway table, it’s an actual gear shift! Here, that’s a simple button. It’s an ever-present, problem with digital pinball: some of the charm is lost. Ultimately, Getaway is a strong table, but might be too frustrating for many. It’s also probably the simplest or most “old-school” of all the Williams tables released so far, maybe too much so for snobbish modern audiences. Ahem. Yea, this is the point where my Dad wants to point out that this is his favorite in the series. He’s a Ritchie fanboy. Moving on.

#9 Creature from the Black Lagoon
Featured in Williams Pinball Universal Monsters Pack
Designed by John Trudeau, 1992
Speed: Average
Difficulty: Above Average
Modes: Below Average

Maybe the prettiest table in Pinball FX 3’s Williams’ collection. So there’s that!

Combine one of the most clever themes with one of the most maddening layouts ever and you get Creature from the Black Lagoon. First thing’s first: John Trudeau should be fucking horsewhipped for covering the right flipper’s lane with a “transparent” whirlpool that absolutely does block your vision. 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.

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.

#8: Black Rose
Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 2
Designed by John Trudeau & Brian Eddy, 1992
Speed: Below Average
Difficulty: Above Average
Modes: Average
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. Developed alongside Creature from the Black Lagoon, Black Rose (part of his “black” trilogy which began with Bugs Bunny Birthday Ball, objectively the most dark and evil table ever made) 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.

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. 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 have been so much better if it’d been a 1996 – 98 table instead of a 1992, when they were just starting to get the hang of more high-concept layouts.

#7: Junk Yard
Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 1
Designed by Barry Oursler, 1996
Speed: Below Average
Difficulty: Average
Modes: Above Average
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.

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.

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. 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. Certainly worth a look.

The Great

#6: Fish Tales
Free to Download with the Pinball FX3 Launcher
Designed by Mark Ritchie, 1992
Speed: Average
Difficulty: Above Average
Modes: Average
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.

The horseshoe design leads into one of the most intense but simple combo-shooting experiences in PBFX3.

The result is a pretty dang good game. And, like all 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.

#5: Red & Ted’s Road Show
Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 4
Designed by Pat Lawlor, Dwight Sullivan, & Ted Estes, 1994
Speed: Average
Difficulty: Average
Modes: Above Average
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. Possibly something with a country-music theme since Red is voiced by Carlene Carter, daughter of June Carter Cash.

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.

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? Fuck it. 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 fucking 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 week 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. Also, I’m going to go ahead and say it: worst launcher/skill-shot ever.

The Masterpieces

#4: Theatre of Magic
Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 3
Designed by John Popadiuk, 1995
Speed: Average
Difficulty: Below Average (This will get me hate mail)
Modes: Average
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. Originally intended to be based around David Copperfield, 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.

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. 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?

#3 Attack from Mars
Featured in Williams Pinball Volume 2
Designed by Brian Eddy, 1995
Speed: Above Average
Difficulty: Average
Modes: Above Average
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.

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 three games I feel you can say that about, along with video games Tetris and Portal), 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
Designed by George Gomez, 1998
Speed: Average
Difficulty: Average
Modes: Above Average

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. Modes are super easy to trigger, and really, this is one of those wacky fun tables Midway (under the Williams label) was cranking out at the end of the 90s.

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. And that’s what really makes the difference. 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
Designed by Brian Eddy, 1997
Speed: Average
Difficulty: Average
Modes: Above Average
Link to Guide

The best of the best. At least until Zen ponies up to do Twilight Zone.

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 with a dungeons and 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 as Attack from Mars. It would have ruined the table.

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.

#Wargames

I hate FMV games.

Yea, I’ve said that before, but that really doesn’t apply here. You see, #Wargames isn’t a video game. And I don’t mean that in a sarcastic, dude-bro, “go back to Call of Duty you casual gamer” type of way. I mean literally it is not a video game. It’s an interactive movie by the guy behind Her Story. And it’s made in collaboration or under license or whatever from MGM under the guise that this interactive whatever is somehow based on the 1983 Matthew Broderick film. But let me make something clear: #Wargames is actually not a sequel, a spinoff, a remake, nor is it set in the same universe as that movie. It is about hackers, and that’s where the similarities end. The only connection is that the hackers use very brief clips from the 1983 movie in their hacking shenanigans. The marketplace page describes it as a “reimagining” but that still feels shady to me. “Loosely based on” would be more accurate and STILL not set right, because it doesn’t feel like the 1983 WarGames. I mean, they could have worked a Tic-Tac-Toe reference in there somewhere. But I suppose that’s a little too gamey for this not-a-game game that I bought from the game section on my game platform.

“She’s posting a review of THIS on National Video Games Day? HA!”

#Wargames is technically “season one” of a planned series. Well, I’m guessing that’s overly optimistic. The story centers around Kelly, a coffee barista by day who works with a group of misfit hackers at night. Her mother, a soldier, has been unfairly painted as a traitor by a Laura Ingraham caricature working for a Fox News type of outfit. It sounds on the surface overly-politicized, but actually it’s really just a basic “you fucked with my Mom so I’m going to fuck you” plot. It’s straight-forward, it’s lacking depth, it’s lacking character development and arcs, and the amount of interesting moments were far out-numbered by all the times I looked at my phone and asked myself how only five minutes had passed since I last checked.

Don’t mistake #Wargames for an FMV type of experience, because it ain’t. And the “interactive” aspect of the movie leaves a lot to be desired. “Interactive” suggests that you act into the movie. You don’t. You switch which of several webcam feeds is the primarily focused one. At one point, your boyfriend does a striptease while you take pictures. And by “take pictures” I mean the facade of a photo-taking app is shown on-screen and if you press a button the video feed does a still-image as if you took a photo. But those photos don’t factor into the story as far as I found, nor do you even get to review the pictures you took. But it does make a clicking sound. That counts I guess, especially if you want to unleash your inner-dolphin.

As cringey as the acting is, let’s be real here, anything is an upgrade over Matthew Broderick.

I’m not a movie critic, but #Wargames is sold on the Xbox marketplace under “games” and people are probably likely to mistake it for a Sega-CD-ish FMV title. Small aspects of the story can play out differently depending on what feed you focus on at what times, but you can literally just turn the game on and leave it running and score over 400 Achievement points. The one and only aspect of the entire concept I can give props to is that the game tells you approximately how long each chapter is. But, the story wasn’t interesting enough to warrant me going through multiple “playthroughs” to get the remaining 550 points I didn’t get. Especially since there’s no prompts or notifications that you have the ability to alter the story. At least as far as I can tell. The fact that you get achievements just for sitting through it.. I mean, the jokes just write themselves. #Wargames offers so little in the way of stimuli that it could be labeled as a homoeopathic sleep aid.

Hell, you can’t even appreciate it in the same, detached irony sort of way that you could FMV games of days gone by. The acting is bad, but not in a Sewer Shark “charming in failure” kind of way. In fact, lead actress Jess Nurse doesn’t embarrass herself at all. I mean, she often has a face about her that says “I need to fire my agent”, but otherwise, her performance single-handedly prevents it from being the worst gaming experience of my life. Oh, it CAN be bad. At times, even “cringe so hard you just added a permanent wrinkle to your face” bad. But it doesn’t seem like it’s on her. She’s too good during other scenes, so I have to chalk it up to the script and director. The other actors aren’t horrible either. Well, the boyfriend is. He’s probably the closest to a traditional FMV performance in #Wargames. He comes across like he knows this shit is schlock, but hey, the check cleared so he might as well chew scenery like he’s on an all particle-board diet.

But, what stood out to me is just how fucking bored all the actors look. And why wouldn’t they be? The majority of their screen-time is spent watching their monitors (which I’m guessing their scripts were on because if you look REALLY close, you can sometimes see their eyes moving left to right while they say their dialog). There’s a reason why film and TV uses shot/reverse-shot. Because watching people listen to people talk is dull. And hell, Nintendo already beat you guys to the market on “game where you watch people watch TV’ by 15 years. It’s called Pokemon Channel.

#Wargames, you’re more boring than this. Bravo.

I don’t have an issue with the concept of an interactive short film, or even one where all you do is switch your point of view. But #Wargames fails to entertain in every single way a film can. Dull acting, bad writing, boring characters, overly-simplistic storyline, and even film-school levels of pretentious cliffhanger bullshit. #Wargames is an “interactive movie” about hacking, but the REAL hackery took place behind the camera. It’s horrible. BUT, I think this format could work. No joke. Take 2014’s social media-themed horror film Unfriended. THAT would work under this system. And #Wargames could have worked as well. It just needed an editor. And a better script. And better directing. Probably a better supporting cast too. And more interactive elements. And a better ending. And a closer relationship to the original 1983 movie. You know what? Just change everything about it and it would have been fine.

#Wargames was developed by Eko
Point of Sale: Xbox One, Steam

$4.99 is very proud of itself for not using the obvious “the only way to win is to not play” joke in the making of this review. Which, as noted previously, wouldn’t be accurate, anyway.

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