The High Score: A journey to the top of Portal Pinball (Part II)

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    Part II: The Silver Ball

    From a modern perspective, pinball likely appears to be a dusty pastime that your weird uncle likes. Just by mentioning pinball here, I feel like I've shown up to a party with severe body odor and a faded Alf T-shirt. (I'm so sorry.) Rest assured, I'm not creepy, smelly nor a fan of Alf. However, I am a fan of pinball who is painfully aware that it isn't as cool as it once was.

    Before video games took hold, pinball filled a substantial vein in pop culture large enough for The Who to pierce it into classic rock history. Like classic rock itself, pinball has retained what makes it special and continues to appeal to modern audiences. Certainly pinball has less fans than classic rock but most people might be surprised to know that it's appreciated by a niche market in the same way as vinyl records. The interest has become large enough that new manufacturers are beginning to compete for business against what at one time, was the only remaining pinball company on earth. Stern Pinball. Fantastic games are being made in what some are calling the dawn of a new golden age for the silver ball.

    While this is great for people who already love the game, the fact remains that ultimately, pinball suffers an uphill battle with accessibility to be anywhere close to the height of its previous popularity. I imagine there are a few assumptions and barriers to new potential fans:

    • Pinball used to be cool in the same way as disco or the PT Cruiser.

    • The thought of where to find a machine is likely in some unpleasant dive bar next to an overly friendly trucker.

    • The $1 per play compared to the app store makes pinball a tough sell, even to the most addicted pay-to-win mobile app lovers.
      (Plus a beginners first few games could be over in minutes - depending on overly friendly trucker interference of course.)

    • When a newcomer steps up to a machine, they're met with an overwhelming kaleidoscope of lights and art. Nothing says fun like trying to read while a strobe light melts your retina.

    • The general idea is to keep the ball in play for as long as possible but it doesn't appear deeper than that. The ball flies around - stuff happens. Big deal.

    It wasn't until I discovered Pinball FX 2 on steam that all of those barriers melted away to give pinball a try. It was the free to play exterior that tempted me on a whim and I was met with a depth I didn't expect. The limitless flexibility of video game design added dynamic twists that supersede the mechanical limitations of a real life pinball counterpart. The confusing lights and sounds are casually explained in video tutorials and understood in minutes. I could play in my pajamas on a Saturday morning and be as far away from a dive bar as possible! All of these things made pinball more accessible than ever, but it was the discovery of how pinball gameplay actually worked, was what hooked me. It turns out that it all forms together to tell a story.

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    I know. That sounds ridiculous. Here's how it works.

    As you may already know, in pinball you're given 3 balls to achieve the highest score possible. In most machines, there are specific challenges known as Modes you can activate. Essentially, these modes are like video game levels. The idea being, activate level 1 and fulfill all the objectives by shooting specific targets, ramps etc. Complete every mode the game has to offer and it will unlock the infamous Wizard Mode where unbeatable high scores reside.

    The story a pinball machine can tell lives in the sequential or overall completion of each mode, like chapters in a book. On a pre-1990's pinball machine, the story elements are often limited to the imagination but the more modern machines can play animations on the Dot Matrix Display. What makes Pinball FX 2 so special, is that the story plays out in fully animated cutscenes or sequences on the table itself. Characters fight, speak and even alter the play field as your game moves forward. It all depends on how accurate you can shoot that silver ball.

    Only having 3 lives to complete a story put a roguelike spin on a game that I thought was only score based. Being a huge fan of roguelike video games myself, the key ingredients to newfound obsession was there. I only needed a story to become invested. That story quickly showed itself in the form of one of the greatest video game series of all time:


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    Read Part III here!