Okay, let’s address the elephant in the room first. Is Farsight Studio’s Pinball Arcade better than Zen Studio’s Pinball FX 2? No. Is it as good as Pinball FX 2? Not quite. Is it a must-have for pinball junkies? Absolutely.

After the jump, why would you want another pinball game?

You won’t find a single comic book theme among these four tables. This is a definite selling point over Pinball FX 2, where it seems like every other table has some sort of dippy licensed superhero standing astride it. This pinball arcade is 100% less Marvellous and all the better for it.

Instead, these tables are from the real world and the olden days, such as the 2003 Ripley’s Believe It or Not, which is the tackiest thing I have seen on my Xbox 360 this side of a pink and purple Ms. Splosion Man table. It throbs with kitsch and noise. It’s a love-it or hate-it table, often during the same ball. Who needs a superhero when you have bigfoot?

The point of these four tables, which is beautifully realized by Farsight’s reverent adaptation and documentation, is that they’re each from a different pinball company. Each is distinct, with nary a dud among them. For instance, Gottlieb’s Black Hole is the sort of deceptively simple and focused table that only a devotee would adapt to videogame pinball. It’s full of empty space where ramps and lanes would normally go. It rests heavily on a single gimmick: shooting the ball into a reversed lower table, but only after you’ve set up an escape contingency. With so many wrong shots, careful aiming requirements, and very specific ways to make points, it’s old school, elegant, and demanding.

It’s also the only table that isn’t a busy mix of primary colors. The other three look as if they were splattered with a crayola smoothie. I don’t really blame the tables themselves. I blame the industry. Pinball machines have to stand out in from a row, like tropical birds in search of a mate. This also accounts for the cheesy voices and busy dotmatrix displays. You’ll come to realize these things are all matters of historical accuracy and should therefore be exactly as godawful as they are. The colors even have a washed out look that might be wonky gamma settings or artistic choice, but that I prefer to put down to historical veracity. These tables look like they’ve been sitting for months in that relentlessly sunny patch at the front of a 7-11.

As for the pinball itself, I wouldn’t know pinball physics from quantum physics, but I appreciate how Farsight’s physics feel much heavier than Zen Studio’s. There’s a better sense of heft, particularly as the ball gets going faster. I can particularly feel this when I attempt tricks from Pinball FX. For instance, in Pinball FX 2, when the ball is rolling down a flipper, I can nudge the table forward to handily bounce the ball to the other flipper. When I try that trick in Pinball Arcade, it just handily bounces the ball right into the drain. Of course, it seems like these drains have much wider mouths, so that’s probably part of it. These tables love to swallow your balls.

In fact, I’d say that’s part of the unique draw for Pinball Arcade. These are more difficult tables because they were made to eat quarters rather than entertain videogamers. And it’s easy to figure out exactly how they work because Farsight — unlike Zen Studios — believes in documenting their tables, which they’ve been doing for as long as they’ve been making pinball games (their first collection was a set of Gottlieb tables for the Playstation 2 back in 2004). Each table is explained in full and even given some historical context. Sure, they’re difficult and sometimes downright punishing. But at least you won’t have to play blind, resort to trial and error, or look up an online walk-through.

Pinball Arcade fails one crucial part of videogame pinball. It has no sense for the social elements that make Pinball FX 2 so effective, and that are therefore an integral part of videogame pinball. There are leaderboards, but you might never know. They should drive the game rather than sit quietly two layers too deep. Pinball FX 2 is also a much better multiplayer game for the simultaneous multiplayer mode where each player races to hit a predesignated score. Of course, this isn’t a historically accurate way to play, so I can understand why it’s not part of Farlight Studio’s reverent presentation. But it means Pinball FX 2 is the clear choice for multiplayer couch pinball.

Still, you can’t very well resist the unique charms of Black Hole, the throbbing kitsch of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, the exotic trill and magnets in Tales of Arabian Nights, and that rotating box at the center of Theatre of Magic. Once Farsight Studios releases more of the DLC tables on its ambitious schedule — so far entirely free of anyone in tights and a cape — the choice between Pinball FX 2 and Pinball Arcade is just going to get harder. You might as well go ahead and get used to having separate pinball games.

4 stars
Xbox 360