Review: Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection (3DS)

Top of the high score table or tilt?

When was the last time you played a really great pinball table? Not a digital approximation but an actual whiz-bangin', light-flashin', chaos table? Sadly, the agonising death of the arcade has put a damper on the availability of pinball tables, and unless you're one of the lucky few who live nearby a well-stocked arcade or frequent a bar bold enough to keep one in the corner it's probably safe to say that "too long ago" is the answer.

Even though the glory days of finicky plungers and paddles have passed, pinball lives on in video games. Whereas developers like Zen Studios work to create new tables that would be impossible in real life through titles like Zen Pinball 3D, FarSight Studios and Crave Entertainment are more concerned with preserving the past in Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection and its seven seasoned tables from Williams' history. This compilation has already seen release on numerous platforms and with more tables since it first hit in 2008, but portability and neat stereoscopic 3D keep the 3DS adaptation from tilting.

The classic tables on offer are Black Knight, Funhouse, Gorgar, Pin*Bot, Space Shuttle, Taxi and Whirlwind. Each table is a very faithful recreation in both visuals and audio and all have their own challenge: Black Knight's multiple flippers require a different approach than Whirlwind's rotating platters or Taxi's numerous ramps. No two tables play quite the same, which lends a good sense of diversity to the package despite the relatively small table count. Instructions accompany each as well to show you how to get the most out of the table — as well as your score — and prove a great help when tackling the assorted individual challenges for each. Granted, many challenges can be accomplished by simply keeping the ball in play for a long enough period to hit enough bumpers or shoot up ramps, but knowing how to prep and trigger a multi-ball is better than leaving it up to guesswork. Physics behave the same as other versions of the collection, which is to say good, with the occasional float.

Tables come in two types: "locked" and free play. "Locked" tables can still be played but require tokens, which you're given a healthy handful of off the bat. Tokens can be earned by accomplishing table goals, and once you clear all five standard goals at a table you're able to unlock any one table for free play. Conversely, you can buy a table for 100 tokens. Unless you splurge on tables, you'll never be short on tokens as long as you do somewhat OK, and you start off with such a generous amount that even if you couldn't replenish them you'd have unlocked all the tables by accomplishing goals around the time they depleted anyway. It's a system meant to provide incentive and reward, but feels trivial in the long run.

While the 3DS version is technically the most feature-sparse yet on account of missing a handful of tables from its console cousins, those are the only things cut. Still sorely missing are mid-game saves, which puts a downer on extended play modes like Challenge. Hotseat multiplayer and tournaments as well as other unlockables are still present, in addition to a handful of 3DS-tailored features. Quickly moving the 3DS acts as slamming a real pinball table would and lets you give the ball's direction a little nudge, but the real novelty is holding the handheld upside down to put the playing field on the bottom and the backboard on top akin to how an actual pinball table is constructed. Ultimately it's a gimmick, albeit a pretty cute one, and makes things a bit more awkward to play as you have to press the shoulder buttons up instead of down while holding the flimsier part of the handheld. Stereoscopic 3D holds steady in this flipped orientation.

The difference between playing in 2D and 3D is quite startling. The added depth lends a great sense of place and really makes the smaller details like lighting pop. In 2D it's very easy to overlook how much care went into the original design of the tables and see them more as cluttered playing fields than crafted arenas, but the 3D carves out and clarifies the methods to the madness. Pinball in stereoscopic 3D is among the best uses of the tech that the handheld has seen so far: subtle but enhancing.

Conclusion

Pinball Hall of Fame: Williams Collection is an attractive proposition for portable pinball: the tables are fun and the stereoscopic 3D is impressive enough to leave other pinball games feeling flat. There is little incentive to double-dip if you already have another version of the compilation and missteps like a lack of mid-game saving are quite annoying, but Williams Collection proves that Nintendo's handheld can be a very exciting new home for the genre now that arcades have all but kicked the bucket.