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

  • Re: The High Score: A journey to the top of Portal Pinball: Part II

    Part III: The High Score

    "Hello, and - again, welcome to the Aperture Science Computer Aided Enrichment Center..."

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    Portal is one of the most wildly cunning and memorable titles in recent memory. For those who have guided Chel through her journey to freedom, we know it's deeper than its description may sugguest: Complete every test chamber and defeat Glados, all in the name of science.

    Portal is known for its excellent level design, characters and lemons. A creative game designer could easily run with these things in their own direction. I never would have guessed that direction would be pinball... but then again, I didn't expect a talking potato, either.

    In May of 2015, Zen Studios announced that Portal Pinball was the next table coming to Pinball FX 2 ( Zen Pinball 2 ). The announcement coincieded with my freshly piqued interest in pinball that stemmed from a haphazard download of the FX2 demo a few weeks prior. With Portal being the first video game theme in the Zen Collection, I bought it on launch day without knowing the trials and tribulations ahead.

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    • "Waddle over to the elevator and we'll continue the testing..."

    Booting up the table, a fan of Portal is welcomed with familiar aesthetics but in a pinball format. A new game begins with Chel waking from her sleep but this time from atop a pinball table as it whirs to life. Its colours and design inspired by the ramshackle engineering distopia of Aperture Science.

    As soon as the ball is plunged, ears ring with recognition as every ball bounce or shot is met with familiar jokes, sounds, and quips from both Glados and Wheatley. Throughout play, Glados stares ominously from the top left corner of the table, goading every success and failure with the passive aggression we know and love.

    All of the aforementioned style is enough to keep a player distracted but like any game, a player needs a goal to keep them invested. Such an encouragement is introduced with a specific shot. If a pocket in the center of the table is struck, the recognizable Portal test chamber elevator rises from the floor. Firing the ball into the elevator again, will engulf the ball into the table and your attention is brought to the flippers where six unlit icons reside. Each icon is numbered 1 through 6, in test chamber font. #1 blinks with anticipation of your choice, as you're asked to choose which test to endure.


    Each test requires a certain number of shots to be completed in the time limit and return the ball to the testing elevator. Test chamber 1 has the fewest requirements, while 5 & 6 are a much deeper challenge. If a test is completed, its corresponding icon will light and the game continues. Light all 6 tests and the infamous 'wizard mode' begins... The final battle with Glados.

    That, in the nuttiest of nutshells, is the main framework of portal pinball. Two flippers, a nudge ability and 3 balls to see it through to the end. It's strait forward enough but the more you play, the more of the nooks and crannies are illuminated.

    There are ways to activate a ball save (so you wont lose your ball if it drains). Increase the score multiplier (up to x10) which drastically improves your ball bonus when you lose a ball. There are 5 extra balls available to unlock past your starting 3 and even a way to even the odds of survival in wizard mode. Most notably, three ways to start a the best feature in pinball...The Multiball. All of these things, including the test chambers themselves, give the player a variety of approaches to achieve their best score possible. How one chooses to combine everything to do so, is up to taste and timing, exploring the table in whichever way you see fit for the cercumstance...

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    "Sucking at something is the first step towards being sorta good at something:"

    The thing about pinball is that it you're given a small slice of control in a closed system where there almost is none. Only having 3 balls to work with doesn't seem like enough. Batting the flippers around doesn't feel like it attributes to much either, as you're often left with a ball drain from a sheer twist of physics. Asking a player to beat a multitude of levels with that feeling is a big mountain to climb. Especially when the core design of pinball is a substantial 'haha fuck you!' to every dollar spent.

    Any uphill battle is difficult, but just like other things, Pinball is never truly impossible. There is a surprising amount of control in two simple flippers. It takes patience to discover it. Each game over screen is a total bummer, but also leaves you with a sense of what could have gone better if shot timing was stronger, if a different approach was taken or if you just had better luck. It turns out that most of the time, a game over screen is player error.

    Portal Pinball held my interest to keep trying. It was cheerful and fun. It didn't feel cheap or unfair. By spending enough time, I understood what it took to keep a ball alive. In doing so, I learned how pinball works. I never knew pinball had an objective outside of a high score. My own score increased as I started to work through the simple story of the table. Just like Chel, you're asked to complete each test. Just like Chel, you're trying to escape. A striking similarity on why video games appeal to me.

    Video games have always been an escape, mixed with a sense of achievement. Both of these things continue to be the driving force of my love for games. The joy of them, the community and other appealing factors are there, too. But it's the sense of fulfillment that keeps me hooked. Admitably, I haven't been 'good' at many things in my life - to the point where I stand out above the crowd. Perhaps a common thread of North American culture swoons us into the belief that our sense of value is to be gained through accomplishments. There was absolutely a a time where I attributed my own value through my own success. Sometimes old habits die hard. This was one of those times and it came in the form of a leaderboard.

    • The Top Of The Mountain

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    I always thought leaderboards were for crazy people. Any high scores are usually gargantuan monoliths of dedication and skill, often requiring enormous amounts of time and a dash of obsession.

    Turns out all of this is true.

    A confident moment after a strong run made me peek at the Portal Leaderboards to see how well I stacked up against the best. No surprise, I didn't really stack up at all. The #1 score was 2.1 billion. My score didn't amount to more than a fart at a fashion show. If anybody noticed - they were disgusted.

    After my own score comparisons, I learned that the vast majority of players don't complete more than 2 test chambers. That's an alarming rate of decline. Extrapolating the numbers, suggests the top 1000 players (of 13,000) only beat 4 of 6 test chambers or so. I already surpassed the majority, just by not giving up!

    Through some sort of perseverance, I cracked the top 100 players. It was at that moment where the game took on a new life. The score between me and the best seemed within reach. For the first time it felt like I could put my name in the machine - just like the arcades. I could do it. As stupid as it sounds, I could achieve something that would make me feel like I was special.

    Once this idea set in, each a new game was a battle of determination, expectations and pressure. I was becoming better but each position on the leaderboard took longer and longer to surpass. Worst of all, it stopped being fun.

    I eventually placed 10th, with the score of 0.9 billion. This was a big moment to crack the top 10, but it also illuminated the monster of what is high end competition. The last hurdle of performance is astounding. The difference between 10th place and 1st place was double the score. My hunger to be in the billionaires club was there but the hope of ever getting close to the top spot seemed farther away than when I started. To even match my 10th place score, I needed to recreate 1 game out of hundreds of attempts. I would continue to play on and off for months. I would curse in childish frustration and almost returned to the controller tossing reactions of my youth. I was on the verge of quitting, but I couldn't. My own secret pride was on the line.

    • Mastery: I wanna be the very best...


    One thing I didn't expect with Pinball was the joy of mastery. There's a completeness and a sense of comfort in knowing something in and out. After 60 hours of playing Portal Pinball, I knew it in and out. Even though it wasn't as fun as it used to be, with the cloud of pressure that comes with high score hunting, I still enjoyed it.

    On a cold Monday in November at 10pm, I sat down for another go at Portal Pinball for the sake of fun. The ball wizzed and bounced in all the ways I expected. Shots lined up, extra balls were earned, multiballs initiated and test chambers were all under my control...A high score was within reach.

    When it comes to a high score, there's a rush when you beat your previous best. Pinball FX2 notifies you when you aquire a new high score in a calm but ominously distracting way. A grey box will pop up on the side of the screen, encouraging and counting down the remaining score needed to beat your previous best. When I closed in on my 0.9 billion score, it was terrifying to see that box pop up. My heart started to race, I started to sweat. I was on the 5th of 6 test chambers when I surpassed my score and deeper into the top 10.

    2 hours after I started playing on a whim, I completed all 6 test chambers for the first time. The entire session was well into an test of endurance. A new personal best was achieved and I was heading into uncharted territory.

    "Stay casual when I tell you this: I think I smell neurotoxin."
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    Upon clearing 6 tests, the table erupts with new sounds. The music intensifies as green gas crawls into the table, Wheatley warning of neurotoxins, and Glados becoming very very displeased with your performance. The Battle with Glados has begun. There is a limited amount of time ( lessened if you beat a handful of turret mini games), to shut off the toxins with specific shots needed, among a confusing a 5 ball multiball. One of which being a bomb, that you need to shoot into Glados 3 times.

    In the newly discovered choas, I had no frame of reference as to what the hell to do. My heart was pounding. My ass hurt from my shitty computer chair and my neck pained from purprosely holding it in place for accuracy. To make things worse, it was a work night.

    Maybe it was luck, maybe it was preparation, or maybe it because I didn't give up, but for whatever reason, I defeated Glados. It happened to be in a hollywood style moment, where I had one shot to make it count on my very last ball. (Drain it and its game over). When I sent the bomb into Glados, the screen went white as Glados screamed in defeat. A medal spun into view, marking an achievement only 0.1% of portal pinball players won. I expected credits to roll but I learned when you beat a pinball table, it resets and you start all over again. (Score held to continue.) With nothing else to lose I played on in emotional exhaustion. 20 minutes later, sloppy play in a multiball spelled my demise.

    The Game Over screen appeared, and my score came up. I was 2nd place on the leaderboard.


    It was the most powerful excitement mixed with the most frustrating tease of my life. To be this close to something I thought was personally impossible was a strange feeling. If I held on for that multiball maybe a few minutes longer, I would have been 1st place. That feeling of having lost the lottery from one missing number, stuck with me for a very long time. It was oddly unsettling if I thought about it in a negative sense. The difference between 1st and second on the leaderboard felt like failure. On the other hand, I was failing to see how much effort it took to get there in the first place. The lessons and introspection the game provided in doing so was nothing I've received from a video game before or since.

    With my newfound shock and awe of the 2nd place high score, I climbed into bed, where my wife was half awake. I tiredly whispered "I did it. I beat it..." and fell asleep.

    I didn't play again for months.

    I achieved my proudest moment in video games. I'm one of those players on the high score table. I'm not first place but I think I can say I'm one of the best.

    Oddly enough, the small achievement bled into my life in a way I didn't expect. With a newfound understanding of pinball, I was able to dive into whole new world of games and enjoy a new passion of real world machines. Turns out there is a pinball league in my city where new friends and new highscores waited. A niche interest in a video game changed how I look at my own abilities. Breaking past personal barriers is only a matter of time and effort. That alone is worth much more than any high score I could imagine.

    Unless its the lottery. Then I could afford a real pinball machine. That'd be nice.

    Present Day:

    Excitingly enough, a second attempt at my highscore reared its head. Once again, a fun foray into portal pinball landed me a new high score, beating my personal best as well as the previous #1 spot. I had to run through the entire table twice to get it (6 tests complete and defeating Glados- x2). Unfortunately, others have performed better and my score entered on 4th place and currently sits 5th. A quick look suggests one would have to beat the table at least 3 times in one game to be first place.


    More frustratingly, I checked the Pinball FX2 scoreboards on ps4 and the first place score is over 10 billion. All of a sudden, my measly 2.6 billion feels smaller and smaller. It's a fun notion to think you're one of the best of something. My score isn't # 1, but when I remember how impossible my current score would seem to me when I first started... it puts a seed of thought that I've had before. I think those high scores are still within my reach.

    New Horizons:

    September 26th 2017 marks the release of PINBALL FX3! You can imagine my excitement, as it comes with new features, like multiplayer and player profiles as well as every table being graphically enhanced. The latest tables feature Back To The Future, Jaws and E.T. Exciting!

    If you're interested in pinball, give it a try. It's given me more than I ever thought possible.