The Pinball of the Dead Review

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Publisher: THQ/Sega
Developer: Sega/Wow Entertainment


Platform: Game Boy Advance
Reviewed on Game Boy Advance

It's pinball for the Game Boy Advance – but with zombies.

Rating:
Kyle Ackerman


You've certainly seen folks huddled over a Game Boy Advance (GBA) in an airport, train station, or just on the sidewalk somewhere. Some are entirely engrossed, gazing deeply into the tiny screen, while others will disinterestedly go from cartridge to cartridge, eventually tossing the portable console aside. If you've ever seen anyone staring incredulously, mouth agape and deeply confused, that person was probably playing The Pinball of the Dead.

This game is exactly what the title suggests – a pinball game, but with wandering zombies and miscellaneous denizens of the underworld. Really. They moan and stagger around with their arms out, interfering with the ball. If hit hard enough, they explode in a shower of blood (in a color of your choosing). The game even includes boss battles, based on enemies from the light-gun shooter The House of the Dead 2.

If, for a moment, you can ignore the "...of the Dead" theme, this is a pinball game at heart. There are three different tables (Wondering, Movement and Cemetery) filled with ramps, targets and holes. All are light on bumpers or obstacles, because those roles are fulfilled by wandering, slavering creatures. Because of the small size and resolution of the GBA screen, each table is divided into two or three segments which scroll up and down based on the position of the ball. While seeing the entire table is preferable, it's also impossible to do with any graphical depth on the GBA. The designers have placed a set of flippers at the bottom of nearly every screen segment, breaking each table into three mini-tables. This works reasonably well, but losing view of the totality of the table makes the game seem smaller and shallower than it could. Spaces seem empty because there is not a lot in any individual segment. Also, if a ball is moving quickly between segments it can be difficult to follow or react. The third table (Cemetery) seems to have a lot more going on than the prior two stages, making it a bit more engaging.

Unless you get trapped with the ball in the lowermost segment of a given table, actually at risk of losing the ball, there is very little tension, which lends a feeling of pointlessness to play. You know that should the ball slip between the flippers, you'll just hit it back up to a higher segment of the table. By hitting the ball in certain areas you can spell words to increase score modifiers or activate a few events, but the true goal is to activate boss monsters (who will let you know they are ready by shouting "I've been waiting for this time to come!" Since many bonuses and activation sequences are near the top of the table, there is little reason to keep the ball in the high-risk sections of the table close to the drain (by which the ball is lost). Once the boss is activated you can send the ball into an arena to do battle with a powerful creature. The arena is the size of the GBA screen, and has two flippers with a drain – a sort of mini-table for each boss.

Boss battles are the least successful and least comprehensible portion of The Pinball of the Dead. Some bosses have minions and others have multiple vulnerable points that must all be destroyed, but it always comes down to hitting the creature over and over with the ball until it splatters in a pool of blood. Sure, they move around, and some hurl bolts of fire that deflect the ball, but there is no threat or urgency to this portion of play. With bosses in ordinary games, you must wear the creature down while it attacks you with overwhelming force, usually as part of an exploitable pattern. Here, you can't die. The worst that happens is that the ball escapes back to the main table, requiring you to restart the boss battle. Boss sequences are usually difficult to pull off successfully, and without a real penalty for failure, there's no satisfaction in success.

The graphics are certainly interesting, with elements such as the rotting head that occasionally pops up to fill your lower table with squishy thuds every time it is struck by the pinball. The design conveys a lot of detail on grotesque creatures with very few pixels, but (in keeping with the dark take on pinball) is itself very dark. The dearth of bright colors makes it difficult to see unless your GBA has been modified with an internal light. As a result, the casual gamer will only be able to play under nearly perfect lighting conditions.

One nice facet of The Pinball of the Dead is that you can save a game in progress, resuming it at a later time. The GBA setup is also nicely given to a pinball game, with the left and right triggers serving as the flipper buttons, and the directional pad intuitively used for nudging the table. The soundtrack and random cries from the game feel more like a coin-op machine left on its "attract" mode, but are reasonably atmospheric, in a zombie-killing fashion.

The combination of pinball and the walking dead is intriguing, but this particular framework isn't compelling enough to make a good pinball game. The Pinball of the Dead can certainly help wile a few hours away, but for real entertainment another GBA cartridge will probably serve you better. The Pinball of the Dead's finest moment is when the game first loads and you can't help but ask, "What on earth is this?"

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on October 28, 2002 3:56 PM.

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