CNN logo
Message Boards 

CNN Networks 

Quick News 
Video Vault 
News Quiz 

Pathfinder/Warner Bros

Barnes and Noble

Barnes and Noble


PC pinball games go full tilt

by Marc Saltzman

March 10, 1998
Web posted at: 1:12 PM EST (1312 GMT)

In this story:

"Ever since I was a young boy, I've played the silver ball..." - The Who, 1969.

Does this opening line of the classic song "Pinball Wizard" apply to you? My bet is there's a good number of us who recall the days of lining up to play "Twilight Zone", "8-Ball Deluxe", "Royal Flush", or "Playboy" with a pocket full of quarters stuffed into our bell-bottom jeans (and a comb in the back pocket, of course).

To capture some of those magical sights and sounds and port it over to the computer, a larger number of computer game developers are striving to create the ultimate PC pinball simulation. There has been a recent bout of contenders attempting to topple Empire Interactive's "Pro Pinball: Timeshock!" - the reigning champ of all 60+ computer pinball sims. So let's take a brief look at the latest releases to see which ones are worthy of a "high score" honor and which ones are just "tilt" material.

To continue, please deposit 25 cents...

Ultra Pinball: The Lost Continent

Sierra On-Line recently released the third pinball simulation in its successful "3D Ultra" series, selling more than half a million units combined. This time around, "3D Ultra Pinball: The Lost Continent" pits the player against a slew of hungry dinosaurs, a barbaric prehistoric tribe, treacherous terrain, deadly traps, and a malevolent scientist named Docktor Hekla. The ultimate goal is to get your hero, Rex Hunter, and the rest of the gang from the crashed plane, off the lost continent...alive.

As you can probably predict, "The Lost Continent" (TLC) is a fairly unconventional title, combining elements of adventure and action with fully rendered animated cut-scenes throughout the game. Unlike most computer pinball sims, the game relies heavily on the continuation of the story.

In total, there are three main boards to play on and twelve auxiliary tables, many of them interlinked with each other. Controlling the silver ball is fairly intuitive when using the keyboard or mouse, including access to all flippers, plus various ways to "nudge" the table at different angles. There is also built-in support for the Thrustmaster Wizard pinball controller, the multiplayer Grip system from Gravis, Microsoft's Sidewinder gamepad, and other peripherals.

Sierra's intentions were to make TLC a good balance for novice players and true pinball wizards, but the final result tends to lean more to the newcomer to the genre - in terms of both storyline and gameplay. Some of the true realism veteran players expect from pinball sims like authentic gravity modeling and adjustable force in the release of the plunger may be lacking here. Nonetheless, TLC is great for beginners and this product, coupled with a video rental of Jurassic Park or The Lost World, would make for an enjoyable Sunday afternoon activity with the kids.

To try before you buy, there is a free 9MB download available on Sierra's Web page for 3D Ultra Pinball: The Lost Continent. Go to

If you'd rather look to the future instead of the past, Interplay's new pinball sim endeavors to be the right sci-fi title to "boldly go" where no simulated pinball has been before.

Star Trek Pinball

"Star Trek Pinball" is the only computer pinball license based on Paramount's cash cow space opera, and it features the crew from the original 1960's Star Trek series.

There are three different table designs to choose from, each with its own architecture, artwork, music, sound effects, and voices from the TV cast. "To Boldly Go" lets you sit in Jim Kirk's captain's chair and it features a cast of recognizable female characters from his serialized love life. "Qapla"' (translation for "success") is a table dedicated to the dreaded Klingons and "Nemesis" is a multiplayer table where players can battle it out as members of the Federation or Klingon Empire. This last table is playable head-to-head at the same PC, over a modem, or via a local area network, and should settle the score as to who rules the pinball universe.

Although the Star Trek Pinball contains some impressive table layout and an orchestrated soundtrack, it is written in DOS which inherently carries its share of problems. Yes, it does run in Windows 95 but even on a fast Pentium II 300MHz, the ball's movement can be quite choppy - a downfall that is hard to forgive in a pinball simulation. Sound setup is also a pain, especially for those unaware of their sound card type.

All in all, fans of the Star Trek series and trekkie merchandise collectors may enjoy this pinball game, but don't travel at warp speed to your favorite retailer to purchase it.

Balls of Steel

If my red and dry eyes are any indication, the final pinball game of this round-up is clearly the best of the bunch.

Balls of Steel (ahem) was developed by Australia's Wildfire Studios and Pinball Wizards (a division of Apogee Software), and was published by GT Interactive this past December.

There are five tables to choose from (Mutation, Barbarian, Firestorm, Darkside and Duke Nukem) with many customizable gameplay options and fairly realistic table physics. Unlike other pinball games, the default setting has "scrolling" enabled, meaning the player only sees about a third of the entire table at one time as it scrolls up or down as needed. Although many players prefer this view, this can be switched to a full screen mode if so desired. Alternatively, an auto-switching feature allows the game itself to change to single-screen for multi-ball and back to scrolling for normal play.

Duke Nukem fans will certainly enjoy the related table here, complete with aliens and objectives from the game, Duke's classic one-liners, and stunning artwork (especially at 1024 x 768 resolution). All tables have unique special effects and table designs with diversified rails, bumpers, targets, ramps, and sinkholes.

Other key features include multiple skill levels, 24-bit color, 16-bit stereo sound and music, five ball multi-ball mayhem, four-player support, animated dot-matrix panel video game sequences, a parental lock for those familiar with Duke's comments and animated gore, and the ability to submit your high scores and compete for top rank on the Web site.

There are a few small quibbles with the game but nothing major. The only one worth mentioning is there's no way to control the plunger power in the ball launch so the ball always enters through the same gate at the top, unless you shake the table a bit. This is a small problem for what is otherwise great game. But don't take my word for it, download a free table from Balls of Steel at

The overall verdict? None of the three games outshine Pro Pinball: Timeshock! but Balls of Steel comes close - not for its level of realism - but for the sheer fun factor. And that's why we're still chasing the silver ball after all these years, right?


Related stories:

Related sites:

Note: Pages will open in a new browser window

External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.

Infoseek search  


Watch Science & Technology Week on CNN for more sci-tech stories.

Message Boards Sound off on our
message boards & chat

Back to the top

© 1998 Cable News Network, Inc.
A Time Warner Company
All Rights Reserved.

Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.