As we remember from the late 80s post, Bally’s pinball division was acquired by Williams Electronics. However, they kept the Bally branding for certain reasons. In a way, the ‘90s were Bally/Williams’ years on top of the pinball world. Gottlieb would fold in ‘96. Stern (then Data East Pinball and soon enough after, Sega Pinball) would do a few branded tables at the beginning of the era but then get embroiled in one of the worst ideas of video gaming history - Tattoo Assassins (please note that modern day Stern has nothing to do with this, but rather they are now the people who own the rights to those bygone tables... I hope).
They had unopposed reign of the declining pinball arena, and it showed. Bally starts off the era with Dr. Dude and His Excellent Ray, probably a top contender for number 1 pinball table that did not age well. You play as a patient in “Dr. Dude’s Kin-e-tic clinic” who is in desperate need of help to become “cool”. Yes, that’s right, it’s a male makeover table that combines the worst parts of 1990s cliché. You get to learn “the gift of gab”, learn how to play the electric gee-tar, complete an “I”-Test (which is just a bonus based off a ranking that goes from “I am a Geek” to “I am Way Cool”, and all sorts of things on your quest to become cool. The main feature of the table is the Excellent Ray itself. Activating it causes your temperature to rise up, from Plain Dude to Super Dude.
The table itself plays well, it’s an extremely standard table with a short enough playfield to not cause extreme speed drains. The center targets are arranged in such a way that it can be extremely difficult to not drain immediately with a fast shot, so learning how to anticipate those and shake the table enough to prevent that is almost crucial. If you’ve played 70's tables, you should be familiar with the concept. The outer lanes leading to guaranteed drains are almost impossible to land a shot in, making for a table that’s easy and fun to play, regardless of its subject matter.
We cannot say the same of its sequel, The Party Zone. The start of Bally-branded tables using Dot Matrix display and fancy programmed graphics, it’s a shame that it’s such a boring table in and of itself. The playfield is wide open, there’s some shots that are questionable in their difficulty (as in it feels more a lucky break than skill when landing those), the outlanes are much more easily accessible, leading to much shorter playthroughs. I’m sure arcade owners and others who bought the machine loved that, but it sure as hell is irritating to play. Although you do get low-quality muzak requests including, of course, a licensed trashy rendition of The Who’s Pinball Wizard. It’s a delight for the ears.
Bally, much like their parent company Williams Electronics also flirted with licensed tables. One of the problems in this era is that, well, video games had evolved far beyond the measly platformers of the 80's. Hell, we had proper lightgun shooters back then as well - grabbing the interest of the regular arcade goer with an original concept pinball table was even harder than before. As games started to adopt Dot Matrix displays, most of them started to include a new feature to pinball - Video mode. Extremely simplistic video games that would allow the player to rack up points often based on left/right selections using the flipper buttons.
Another way to attract customers? Licensing. Tables featuring The Addams Family (which, interestingly enough, Farsight Studios had to do a Kickstarter for), extremely hot property Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Twilight Zone, Judge Dredd, Doctor Who, the Indy 500 and even the ‘94 World Cup (rebranded as World Champion Soccer in Pinball Arcade, due to the FIFA license expiring).
Of these, my favorite is Creature From the Black Lagoon - As opposed to just making a table based on the movie, they made a table based on watching said movie. All of the table is based on watching the movie in a Drive-in theater - with a backlit creature appearing from time to time in the center of the table. Playing it isn’t bad, but I’m of the opinion that they made some of the features a bit too hard to reach. Activating K-I-S-S isn’t hard, it just takes a while, and hiding a feature behind activating it 4 times? I’m not a fan.
I’m not saying that the other tables aren’t good - all of them have their good gimmicks, especially World Champion Soccer (which somehow included Canada in their list of countries, even though Canada only participated in the World Cup twice... methinks Farsight screwed up on that one) with the goalie, just that conceptually, Creature From the Black Lagoon is my favorite. The Addams Family table, in my opinion, loses appeal after a few playthroughs because of the magnets hidden under the table that activate once “The Power” is unleashed, which send the ball flying off in unpredictable ways, though I’ve rarely seen it outright hinder the player. It’s just unfun to actually deal with. I wasn’t a fan of it on Fireball in the 70's either.
The last ones I want to bring up is Indianapolis 500 and World Champion Soccer. While conceptually, they’re not exactly great tables (you run in the Indy 500, you’re in the World Cup), they are extremely fun tables to play, with constant goals to strive for.
Williams didn’t stop using the Bally name for non-branded tables either, but a lot of them had gimmicks that work againt them. Things like Safecracker, where you play as a thief trying to rob a bank, and you are timed. If you don’t succeed in the alloted time, the next drain kills your game and the alloted time is very, very short. Just accessing the bank can take that long. It’s a very interesting game otherwise, just that the idea that you can die in one ball is very frustrating. Contrasting that to something like Champion’s Pub, a 1998 table that featured ol’ timey fisticuffs in an olde englishe pubbe (I butchered that like I butchered Octopath Traveler’s name in yesterday’s article), where the mechanical devices that allow you to train in order to buff up your life as you take on boxer after boxer work... okay but aren’t emulated correctly enough that you’ll see some visual fidelity problems like the ball auto-correcting to a success after missing a jump rope. That’s not counting the actual boxer/punching bag in the top-center that can send your ball careening into the drain fairly easily off a bad bounce, making it very frustrating to play.
It’s hard to accurately describe these tables as most of them play very similarly - outside of their features and wizard modes, there’s just not much to describe. Theatre of Magic, regardless of its fairly good theme and gameplay, is still very pinball like. Attack from Mars, though very cheesy, is also a pretty fun one that, if I recall correctly actually predates the movie Mars Attacks! by a year. Still, if you want to find original gameplay, you won’t be finding it in those tables - They all play very well, don’t get me wrong, but there’s just not a lot of originality there. Plus, the “unofficial sequel to this table would actually transcend branding as many consider the cult classic Medieval Madness the actual sequel to this game. Where you want to look is in WHO Dunnit. A murder mystery pinball table complete with the deepest lore - The arcade flyer sent out to machine operators explained the whole timeline and why exactly everyone wanted to kill each other. As far as concepts are concerned, I’m on board. The table also plays very well, though fast drains are a problem. Where I take umbrage with the table is with the roulette feature. It’s extremely easy, if you’re playing for score, to just rack up the features, then gamble all of it onto a red/black scenario and then double your score right out of the gate, with no real skill attached.
The Bally branding, at least with the tables we have in Pinball Arcade, seem to be a sign of what many people believe to be good ol’ pinball action just with varied themes. Other than Champion’s Pub which features the boxing gimmick and the mechanical jumpers and punches for the speedbag, there’s just not a lot of really out there complicated features. Those were, interestingly enough, reserved for Williams tables as we shall see in a few days from now.
And just to give you an idea how many tables I have to cover, I completely forgot to talk about Black Rose, with its cannon firing mechanic! Whoops. Other than that, the table just isn’t really noteworthy unfortunately. But it is fun to score a broadside bonus when successfully loading the cannon, so... there’s that? Music’s pretty cool too, huh.
Writer’s note: We’re reaching the end of the SixTAY days of Writing challenge. I’m 9 articles away from the 60, and I have 3 more manufacturers to cover plus the modern era of pinball so expect this to be pinball week from me. I want to make sure that nothing I started in this challenge goes unfinished so at least 4 of these are going to be lengthy as fuck pinball articles. Sorry in advance.