A bazillion years ago I used to abscond with my Dad to a local watering hole for waffle fries, pool, and pinball. The table, based on the ‘Addams Family’ movie was a real bear. Enviably I’d be on what my 11 year old brain considered a good run, only to see that silver ball drop straight down between the two flippers, ending my game. And I almost never got the match bonus either.
Flash forward to a family vacation in New Hampshire at the famed gaming Museum Fun Spot: Pinball as far as the eye could see. Star Trek, Playboy, Terminator, Addams Family…and the last Action Hero. Which was basically ‘silver ball goes down the hole’ the game.
10 or so years later I discover ‘Special When Lit: A Pinball Documentary’ and learned how to actually play pinball. How to shoot ramps, conserve shots, and manage the flow and pace of a given session to trigger multi-balls and various game modes. I immediately purchased Pinball FX and have since spent well over 100 hours playing that game’s RPG-themed table ‘Epic Quest’.
But Pinball FX never sat 100 percent well with me. It was too fanciful. It was ‘realistic’ in its physics, but the tables presented in-game were clearly and obviously impossible. As much as I loved that Epic Quest, it always felt weird this table had a weird little soldier guy, an anthropomorphic Venus-Fly trap, and a bunch of other physically impossible contraptions. Same goes for the Marvel, Star Wars, and Fox Animation tables – they were a lot of fun, but also totally impossible.
It bugged me because a real pinball table is a work of art. The design, the engineering of the mechanics, the lights, the moving parts and triggers and bumpers that are all combined into a perfect harmony of controlled, kinetic, mayhem. Not abiding by those standards made Pinball FX feel inexplicably less authentic – even if the tables were technically more fun for it.
Which brings us to Stern. Stern Pinball has a long and celebrated history of licensed pinball manufacturing, from Family Guy to Wrestlemania to Lord of The Rings. They are the proverbial Michelangelo of ‘irl’ pinball. The video game featuring their tables recently released on Nintendo Switch, with two download packs featuring recreations of beloved tables based on Star Trek, Frankenstein, Ghostbusters, Starship Troopers, my forever loathed Last Action Hero, and many more.
But being beloved in the physical space, doesn’t mean that affection will cross over to the digital realm. For the massive legacy and good will and giant-sized footprint Stern has cultivated, compared to Pinball FX3, the presentation is painfully underwhelming. Long loading times and a bit of a delay when making selections on the menu give off a poor impression as you flip from available table to available table. Loading a table up displays some interesting factoids, including a description of a table’s important lanes, and bonuses, but sadly the type is relatively small and hard to make out.
Pinball FX, on the other hand, makes the introductory process exciting! Mysterious, inviting, Portal-esque music plays as you flip between the dozens of available downloadable tables. Clicking into one gives you a bevy of play options, and you can be up and running and playing almost seamlessly.
Once you’re an actual game, Stern Pinball delivers a faithful re-creation of these tables, warts and all. So that means, yes, Last Action Hero is still a cheap jerk and should die in a fire. The Ghostbusters table has the licensed music. Star Trek has your favorite sound effects. Your Nostalgia sense will start tingling in the best way.
On a more technical level, the physics feel a bit more ‘heavy’ than Pinball FX, too. You feel the ‘weight’ of the ball in Stern Pinball Arcade in a way you don’t in Pinball FX. Which is good because it creates a more ‘realistic’ vibe, but it also means you’re less likely to fling it anywhere you want, requiring more precision and patience to accomplish a table’s given goals…and that your ball will find its way straight down the center of the table into as often as it would in real life, because these machines were designed to extract money from your pockets, whereas Pinball FX already *has* your money and is designed to provide rewarding challenge.
This is all a long way of saying Pinball FX is fundamentally a better game than Stern Pinball Arcade in the areas of game-play, presentation, and overall entertainment value, even though I want desperately to like Stern Pinball Arcade more because its potential is nearly infinite.
Imagine a polished and smooth ‘Stern’ title that’s quite a bit more than just a collection of tables. Adopting a presentation that shamelessly exploits the company’s decades long history with interviews, table strategies, archive footage, and a guided tours of Stern facilities – like the Rare Replay Collection. Like Rare Replay, Stern Pinball Arcade is ultimately selling you your own history. If you’re inclined to play and own this game, it’s because you have some fondness for this company, this game we call pinball, or these specific tables.
Which is to say the Stern Brand has generated childhood memories for millions of now-adults across the world, and they’re incredibly eager to part with their money in the name of nostalgic joy. But you have to make it appetizing. I never bought this game because I heard the presentation was bare bones. The studio was gracious enough to provide a Switch review code and I admit if I spent money on this game I’d be a little disappointed. The tables aren’t *enough*. If Pinball FX is is the Ferrari of digital pinball, Stern Arcade needs to be the Cadillac. Cushy, luxurious. Built for players who have true reverence for this game and its incredible history and massive skill ceiling – who want to learn the hows and whys and concepts behind it.
Give them a reason to tilt into it, and they will. Stern Pinball Arcade essentially functions as an interactive museum. To succeed and ultimately usurp Pinball FX, it needs to feel like one, too.