Tuesday, January 19, 2016
Flight Simulator: Williams Star Trek: The Next Generation Pinball
If you have time to kill, you could make an entertaining diversion over debating whether or not pinball tables can be considered video games or not. Traditionally, they've always existed on the margins of the industry: You won't see any big video game publications talking about them, but you will likely see fans of a certain kind of video game, namely retro hobbyists, displaying a passion for pinball tables very similar to the one they have for their favourite video games.
From my point of view, this is extremely easy to explain. Pinball tables may not be video games per se, but they're definitely close relatives-Fellow travellers at the very least. There's a lineage shared by both pinball and a certain strand of the video game industry, which just so happens to be the one that most interests me personally. In fact, I would argue that video games, at their purest, are far closer to pinball than they are to computers and computer games. To put my point in the crudest and most basic terms, although they're both technically speaking interactive electronic entertainment, computer games were historically always programming exercises intended both to allow coders to flex their logic muscles and test the limits of computer hardware. Video games, by contrast, I feel have always been more of an attempt to design a kind of action-oriented sensory experience. As an illustration, contrast two of the most prototypical computer and video games: Zork and Asteroids: Both came out within a few years of each other, both were called “games” of some kind, but each is profoundly different from the other. One consists of nothing but plain text, is deeply narrative-driven and is meant to be puzzled over in long, marathon sessions, the other consists of vector graphics, has no story whatsoever and is meant to be played in short bursts.
Another difference is the setting these two titles were conceived of as being played in. Zork is surely for the home computer user, and in 1977 “home computer user” signifies a very specific sort of person. Asteroids, on the other hand, was meant to be played in bars and arcades: Extremely public places. Asteroids was also a coin-op cabinet. In other words, it's a game that can be played by literally anyone who has some loose change in their pocket. This is what brings us back to pinball, because it's pinball tables, not computer games like Zork, that are the true ancestor for video games as we know them today (or at least as *I* know them). Like Asteroids, pinball is a stand-up, coin-op cabinet game that has no story and relies on visual and auditory sensory feedback to cultivate an experience between the player and the game, and like Asteroids, pinball games used to be found in bars and arcades everywhere and could be played by anyone with a few quarters to spare. And both pinball tables and video games exist in the liminal space between digital electronics and analog mechanics inhabited only by a chosen few.
This ironically means that pinball tables, by their very nature, are almost a purer form of what I consider a video game than a lot of video games. The fundamental goal is a constructed sensory experience that evokes a resonance and response through images, sound and player agency alone, not a logic puzzle to be solved or an Aristotelean narrative with a bell-curve plot and character development. Done well, both pinball tables and the best video games can transport you into a Zen-like state of focus and clarity where it's just you, the game and the experience of the sensory confluence. That said, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the tacit capitalist undertones implicit in arcade gaming: Namely, being a coin-op cabinet sort of requires the machine to make money off of players, and the way many of them do this is by employing the same trick as gambling casinos: Manipulating addiction cycles to get people hooked so they'll keep pumping money into the slot until they get a new high score or advance past that tricky level that's been stumping them so they can finally “beat” the game.
(This is, incidentally, in all likelihood where the concept of video game difficulty comes from. Yet another reason to immediately disregard the opinion of anyone who says difficulty is the most important part of a video game.)
Which is why it's perhaps always been destined that the arcade would be saved by the video games they gave birth to. The earliest driving force behind the home video game industry was providing people with arcade games they could play at home: The Atari 2600 tried to sell itself on its home conversion of Pac-Man, and even though it was far from accurate it was enough to ensure the system's longevity. Later, it was Nintendo's painstaking translation of their own Donkey Kong that cemented the early success of the Nintendo Entertainment System. Although it's been a desire that's existed since the dawn of the industry, It wouldn't be until years later that consoles would be able to get truly accurate arcade reproductions. Nowadays however, you can get wonderfully lavish packages collecting all of the great arcade classics in immaculate condition, like the two-volume Atari's Greatest Hits for the Nintendo DS, Midway Arcade Origins for the XBOX 360 and the multiplatform The Pinball Arcade, and the best part is you only have to pay one flat rate these days. It's in that third compilation that you can find a perfect representation of the Star Trek: The Next Generation pinball table designed by Steve Ritchie for Williams Electronics in 1993.
To my pleasant surprise, it seems that Star Trek: The Next Generation is considered by aficionados to be one of the greatest pinball tables ever made. I'm not actually a pinball expert myself, but if I were to hazard a guess, I would say it's probably due to the wide variety of different modes and target combinations that add up to a complex gameplay experience that's both frenetic and tactical. It has three different high score tables, which is a feature entirely unique to this table, and the production quality is amazing. The entire cast of the TV show provided voice clips for the game, and it's this pinball game that really brings to light the utterly endearing, tongue-in-cheek, puckish charm and sense of humour these people have better than just about anywhere else they've ever worked together. The table itself is adorned with beautiful pieces of retro futuristic 80 science fiction pop art that to me are of a kind with the Playmates toys. There's a video display with some great pixel art, including one of the best representation of the Starship Enterprise I've ever seen, and a fantastic downmix of the music from the TV show. It all comes together to capture what to me is and always has been the definitive, truest look-and-feel for Star Trek: The Next Generation.
I wouldn't be able to describe the gameplay and do it justice here-I find pinball to be by necessity a deeply complex game that's difficult to adequately summarise in a manner that's not the tone of a dry technical manual (The Pinball Arcade version alone has something like a 637-page instruction manual, and that's just for this one table). But basically, like any pinball game, Star Trek: The Next Generation involves activating a series of different modes which have you targeting specific parts of the table to score points. Triggering events in a specific order is important, as are hitting the right targets at the right time. The good thing is, unlike some other pinball tables I've played, Star Trek: The Next Generation does a good job lighting up different parts of the playfield for you so this, alongside vocal cues from the cast, makes it very easy to intuit what the game wants you to do at any given moment without spending a month studying the intricacies of the table's mechanical design (not that people don't, of course: Pinball fans are notoriously hardcore about this stuff).
There's a variety of modes, called “Missions” here, with names like “Search the Galaxy”, “Wormhole”, “Neutral Zone Encounter”, “Rescue” and “Holodeck simulation”, and you have to complete all the missions to unlock the “Final Frontier” mission, which is the true endgame scenario (and of course, you get a higher payout if you score well on all of the different modes beforehand). One thing I really like about this table is how much thought has clearly gone into to making the actual gameplay fit the Star Trek: The Next Generation framing device: “Search the Galaxy”, for example, has you shooting the “Alpha Quadrant”. “Beta Quadrant” and “Delta Quadrant” ramps in order, than shooting a specific target to activate “Gamma Quadrant” mode. And, for an added bit of fun, the target you hit for “Gamma Quadrant” mode is right next to a picture of the Bajoran Wormhole, which also plays a part in the “Wormhole” mission! The first time I noticed that it brought a huge smile to my face: Not only is a piece of contemporary Star Trek: The Next Generation spinoff media finally acknowledging the existence of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it's also reaffirming my belief that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine truly belongs in the universe of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
(I really appreciate, by the way, how there's a mode called “Search the Galaxy” here at all. There's also a secondary objective where you collect certain “Artifacts” by scoring exceptionally well on certain missions: It really makes you feel like an adventurer out exploring the wodners of outer space, which I've always though the Enterprise ought to be.)
Although the Pinball Arcade version of Star Trek: The Next Generation is probably one of my most-played video games, I've only actually seen the real thing in person twice. Once was...I'm not confidant it was contemporary, but it was certainly closer to Star Trek: The Next Generation than to now. I was at a restaurant with my cousin's family, and they happened to have this game near the entrance. I'd never seen it before, nor was I aware that a Star Trek: The Next Generation pinball table even existed. I was really excited, because I was fascinated by pinball tables and of course loved Star Trek: The Next Generation, so I had to give it a go. Now bear in mind, “fascinated by pinball and the arcade” does not mean “good at pinball”-I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, got completely overwhelmed by the scope of the thing and sank all my balls pretty much immediately. But it was the sensory experience of the whole thing, playing Star Trek: The Next Generation pinball in a dark, smoky bar with all the lights flashing and sounds swirling around, that was the most important thing to me.
The second time I got to play it was just last year as of this writing, at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. The Strong has an utterly peerless collection of arcade pinball and video game cabinets, and has a significant portion of its space dedicated to the history of the industry. Among their pinball tables they had a copy of Star Trek: The Next Generation, so I naturally had to have a go at it. I was *significantly* better at it this time around due to me being older and having a ton of experience with the game on my own time. And I can report firsthand that The Pinball Arcade's digital recreation of this table is as perfect as they could possibly have made it: Playing the game on my computer and playing it in real life felt effectively identical, and I think I even prefer playing it with an XBOX One controller instead of with flipper buttons on the side of the cabinet! I didn't play my best that day (at home I've actually made it to the top of the third high score table), but I had to stop myself from spending all my money on arcade tokens.
Pinball tables, by the nature of what they are, can only operate on the level of aesthetics and imagery. It's a loose collection of sounds and images, and its up to your imagination to fill in the rest. When playing a pinball table based on a licensed property, like Star Trek: The Next Generation, the game can only capture the iconography and pop culture memory of the thing itself. And yet in doing so, I would argue pinball actually captures the work's true essence. I have a hard time putting into words what Star Trek: The Next Generation means to me and what I feel when I'm reminded of the sensory imprint it's left on me, but, like pornography, I know it when I see it. And this pinball game is it.
The Pinball Arcade is free-to-play on Steam here, and downloading Star Trek: The Next Generation is only $5. You can check the game itself in action here.