Tables are going to start getting more uniform in design from now on. Gaps will be standardized, drains won’t be haphazard, wide tables are getting put out of circulation as Gottlieb shuttled its last wide table prototype. We’re also going to see some very interesting wizard features and scores start going into the billions.
Speaking of Gottlieb, they are now less than 10 years away from extinction, but their last table is not part of Pinball Arcade, and this event happens in the ‘90s so that’s all I’ll say about it now. Bally-Midway gets bought by Williams Electronics in 1988, but Williams decides to keep the Bally branding and keep releasing tables under that name as well as their own, with different designers that were typically associated with each company (Steve Ritchie for Williams, and a slew of others for Bally).
One thing you will notice is that this era is very, VERY light on non-Williams tables. Well, we got time to explore all of them.
Enough barely scraped through Wikipedia historical facts, on to the tables!
It’s interesting that Bally has next to no tables in this area - Why? Because this table is essentially a big collaboration in design from the Richie brothers who were mostly Williams dudes and Dennis Nordman, who was brought on from the Bally buyout. This is, unfortunately, not a happy tale of cooperation as the reason the Ritchie brothers were brought in was because Dennis Nordman got into a car accident at the time. Still, as it is the only Bally table, let’s explore it fully.
You can tell from the design that pinball tables have started to be somewhat standardized. Two flippers, two ramps and hidden bumpers. Bumpers themselves would still be found in a lot of machines later on, but they seem to always hide them, as though they were a relic from pinball’s past that no one seems to like.
The features themselves are somewhat easy to access. The skull is your Multiball lock, 3 balls in there and you get your Multiball and chance at jackpot. Jackpot itself is simply put one ride on each ramp. Granted, due to the open playfield it’s not as easy as it sounds - Balls will interfere with each other when trying to fit.
It’s a fun enough table, but for a table based on Elvira, it feels kind of bland.
Gottlieb are on a downwards swing here - While their wide tables were a hallmark of the 70's and early 80's, with the shuttering of Goin’ Nuts, their creative juices seem to have taken a bit of a slap to the face. Their first table this time around is Victory, and while many would just look at the race theme and think it’ll just be a revisit of Williams’ High Speed, released a year prior...
Nothing could be further from the truth. Victory requires hitting very specific spots in order, and does not feature Multiball. It simulates winning a race by crossing several checkpoints. This is something you’ll notice with Gottlieb in this part of the 80's. They rely on a lot of gimmicks. Victory has the Checkpoint system. TX-Sector relies on staged hidden balls to simulate balls teleporting. Bone Busters Inc. has the gimmick of being absolutely terrible (also, bonus round if unlocked after your last ball) and Lights Camera Action! has a poker theme as well as use of the backdrop to have some sort of duel in the movie you are currently playing pinball to film.
Victory is a very fun table, but the rest... they all have their problems. Bone Busters Inc. and Lights Camera Action specifically have very different lanes and bottom bumpers that are more dangerous than ever - They’re extremely hard to see as there’s some glass covering the bumper and the lane. The lane itself has a small L curve to it as opposed to being straight which tends to give the ball a bizarre bounce if it comes in fast. The bumpers themselves behave more like targets that bounce back than bumpers. Lights Camera Action attempted to remove some of the difficulty with straight outlanes for the drain as opposed to covering common angles, but you’ll still drain just as much.
They’ve got nothin’ this time around. Sorry. Catch ‘em in the 90's.
Williams has a lot of tables to cover for this era. They compose the majority of Pinball Arcade’s tables from 86 to 89, and the first one is an absolute gem - High Speed. It’s a fairly standard table, but you can tell from this that Williams wanted to start incorporating elements of video gaming at this point. The speed theme is very important as the playfield is extremely open, the bonus indicator is a RPM Gauge and the entire table is centered on escaping the cops for speeding. Thanks to Williams sticking to a specific layout for most of their tables of this era, it’s easy to pick up and play, definitely hard to adjust to the speed at which the ball can come back from some of the loops, but otherwise the table is definitely fun. If you want uncontrollable speed? You play F-14 Tomcat. The table is growing on me - It’s extremely fast, and the “Yagov Kicker” is insane - That thing’ll bounce the ball back at a really fast velocity. Fortunately, the player cannot actually trigger it by accident.
Here’s another classic from this era - Pinbot. A classic that was actually converted for home video game console by Rare, of all people. It’s not my favorite table of the series, but it’s certainly serviceable and keeps with its theme of constructing the Pinbot in order to explore space (If you must know, I prefer Bride of Pinbot to it). Still, you can see from the screenshot that the bottom playfield’s design is fairly simple. It’s a design you’ll see in all of Williams’ tables, which makes it quite comfortable to pick them up at first. Then you have to deal with some really ridiculous gimmicks that go from the questionable to entertaining. Sword of Fury’s tiny top-left playfield where you can light the jackpot by hitting certain targets with a right flipper is among the questionable. Cyclone’s attempts at mimicking carnivals is also quite questionable - tons of ramps to have rollercoaster simulations and a ferris wheel that just isn’t that impressive. The same goes for Taxi, which has the spinout area for the skillshot that just delays play and makes the game not very fun. Interestingly enough, you’ll find a little note that says “Software by: Ed Boon”, y’know, this guy.
That’s not what we’re going to see in the next few tables. First is Banzai Run, with a playfield that doesn’t look anything out of the ordinary until you look at the backboard.
That’s right, it’s another playfield. You need to light up racers in the bottom in order to get the ball up there, so you can beat these racers and win the Banzai Run race for a big amount of points. The top playfield being completely vertical means the ball goes very fast and actually defeating the racers is a feat of skill. While playing the table in real life would likely be a pain, I actually quite like this table. It’s a fun one.
Unlike Earthshaker. Hoo boy Earthshaker. There’s not a lot of love from me for this table. You know how a table can “tilt” if you shake it too much, right? Well, someone at Williams (namely Pat Lawlor) thought that if the table shook by itself, it would make for an awesome play experience!
It does not. It shakes if you lock a ball, it shakes during multiball, it makes putting together good shots completely impossible. And this is with an emulated table! I can’t imagine myself playing this on a real table without wanting to take a sledgehammer to it which would obviously be a bad idea. Never disrespect the table, no matter how much it sucks.
Arguably the most well known table featured in Pinball Arcade for this era is Black Knight 2000. A much improved version of Black Knight (which was featured in the last pinball post), complete with being a fully featured table that pays great homage to its predecessor with a sleek futuristic-fantasy design and, once again, this banger from Dan Forden, Brian Schmidt and Steve Richie (who also designed the table).
The table itself is quite fun, but it remains rooted in its predecessor’s trappings. The double-decker playfield makes it extremely difficult to not drain rapidly as you don’t have the full length of the table to send the ball flying unless you send it up via the left ramp. The U-turn itself can cause major headaches as you can see entering from the left will cause the ball to exit out to the right, which leads to the center gap directly.
Part of the fun of the game is to unlock the King’s Ransom, which is a big point payoff that can persist through multiple playthroughs! This, however, was not emulated right in Pinball Arcade. A shame, that.
That pretty much does it for the 80's. 28 tables that were available to us, and we’ve even had our first taste of merchandising with the Elvira table. I’m sure we’re not going to see a lot of... oh there’s a Terminator 2 table coming? Addams Family? Creature From The Black Lagoon? Bram Stoker’s Dracula? Last Action Hero!? Star Trek!? THE FRIGGIN’ WORLD CUP?
Wait, hold up, how many tables are there in the ‘90s?