Friday, 15 May 2020

Pinball Power (Mastertronic, 1989)

Written by Stephen Walters for the Commodore 64.

Converted for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum by Magdic Davor for Active Magic.

Converted for the Amstrad CPC by Bernardin Katic for Active Magic.

Published by Mastertronic through their Mastertronic Plus label in 1989.



This month seems to have leaned towards Mastertronic games rather unexpectedly, even though the idea was just to write about two or three genres that haven't had much exposure at FRGCB. This time, I managed to dig up a suitable pinball game I hadn't really had much of experience with: Pinball Power, also known as 3-D Pinball, due to its title in the cover art.

Although the game wasn't particularly well received at the time of release, with only 41% rating in Zzap!64, time has been kinder to the game than many of its peer. At Lemon64, the game currently has a score of 7.4 out of 38 votes; and at World of Spectrum, the score is 7.89 out of 21 votes. The single review for the Amstrad version at CPC Game Reviews has an 8 out of 10, so I've got high expectations for this one.



For once, I shall recycle my own text from January 2015 and start with this: If you still have no idea of what a pinball game is, then I suggest you take a look at this Wikipedia page, for one, and then try to get some hands-on experience. For the rest of you, here's a quick description of what 3-D Pinball: Pinball Power is basically about.

What we have here is one of the best pinball games ever made for our usual threesome of 8-bit computers, although that's not saying much, since all virtual pinball games from the first ten years of computer gaming were more or less useless. Probably because of that, and the fact that it was published by Mastertronic - a well-known cheap game publisher - it's also one of the least talked-of pinball games for the 8-bits, not helped by the initial bad reception from the gaming press. Sure, it looks a bit outdated for 1989, and the physics still aren't nearly what they would be a few years later in Digital Illusions' Pinball Dreams and Fantasies games, but there's a certain clunkiness in Pinball Power that feels almost realistic, and its simple no-frills approach is a puff of fresh air in the world of otherwise increasingly pompous-but-unplayable world of 8-bit pinball games. In that sense, Pinball Power is a hindsight game, and deserves another look now.



For better or worse, the loading section might actually have some value this time, because of the game's relative simplicity making it better material for a cartridge. Of course, it wasn't a popular format on these three computers for being expensive to produce and expensive to buy, so the need for loading speed to get to play a two-minute game was pivotal for marketing, even if it was only spoken about by the consumers.

C64: 1 minute 14 seconds
CPC: 5 minutes 1 second
SPE: 6 minutes 5 seconds

Loading screens, left to right:
Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC x2
Although the C64 version is clearly the quickest of the lot, it's also the only one without a loading screen. There is a version with "Invade-a-Load", the Space Invaders-like loader game, which sort of adds more value to the tape, if you don't already have the loader game on dozen other tapes. The AMSTRAD version has two loading screens: first, a very text-heavy copyright screen, which is an unusual sight on these machines, and then the actual loading picture, which will also act as the initial title screen once the game has loaded. The loader graphician's typo "Masteronic" is a bit hilarious, but otherwise it works just fine. The SPECTRUM loader is a bit generic, even though it tries to be epic, but the main point is, more is more.



Let's start with the controls and other keyboard commands. In the C64 original, F1 starts a new game, F7 launches the ball, and the C= key and CRSR L/R key act as the flippers; no nudging, no tilt. Obviously, joystick controls would be redundant here. The SPECTRUM version's starting button is Space Bar, Enter launches the ball, Q and P are the suggested flippers and Z and 0 tilt the table. For the AMSTRAD version, the start and launch buttons have reversed from the SPECTRUM, and Z and \ are the flippers, which can be rather awkward in an emulator due to the button replacement on a PC keyboard, which in my case means, that the \ key is at the top right corner of the keyboard, just below ESC. Also, the ] key end the current session and goes to the title credits scroller.

Which takes me neatly to this interlude: the AMSTRAD version is the only one that has a separate title screen, although even that one is displayed only once, and is the second loading screen. There are not one, but two text scrollers above the title picture itself, giving you all the necessary information. Once you have started to play, the pinball table stays in the picture until you shut down your Amstrad.

The table in Pinball Power is a fairly basic one in design. It consists of three revolver lanes, three bumpers, three targets (tombstones, apparently) on both sides of the table, the usual lightable lanes you need to light all up in order to gain a bonus doubler or something, two sidelanes for both sides of the flippers and a couple of special things - in this instance, a black hole, which adds up a few notches at a time to the bonus wheel at the center of the table, and a hairpin lane inside this huge bauble thing. Oh, and then there's a bonus trap at the top, which can be accessed by shooting the ball into the lane at the top-left corner, though you need to get it opened first somehow; and there's also another lane at the right edge of the table, where you need to smash three walls down to access something else. I know not what, since I have never managed to smash all three walls down from that lane in any version, which I grant you, isn't a very good thing when trying to be as particular with a comparison as I usually try.

You start the game with 5 balls. You can earn an extra ball if your ball goes into the bonus trap when the 'SPECIAL' is lit up while at it. Everything else just adds to your immediate score, and completing sequences adds to the round bonus counter in the middle of the table, which will be counted at the loss of a life.

As in every other pinball game, the physics and collision detection are the most important points to consider. The SPECTRUM version feels very awkward, since the flippers often launch the ball into the oddest angles, and the ball sometimes changes speeds and angles at the oddest of times. Despite of that, it's a fairly playable version. The C64 version feels the clunkiest of the lot, since the flippers have a certain mechanical flow to them, but for some reason, I've experienced the most difficulty in accessing all the lanes on the C64. There's also a bit of that weird ball-launching angle syndrome on the C64, as in the SPECTRUM version, but slightly less notably so. The AMSTRAD version has the most natural flow to it overall, and feels the most constant in its behaviour, but it suffers the most from collision detection - I have lost some balls just because they dropped down through the flippers, and sometimes, hitting the Tombstone targets don't get registered.

Having said all that, it should be kept in mind, that none of the 8-bits here really excel in three-dimensional graphics and the managing of things happening in three-dimensional space. Perhaps the biggest problem with Pinball Power is, that it's not properly three-dimensional, which has necessitated an approximation of such within a two-dimensional map. Then again, if it were properly 3D, it wouldn't necessarily be nearly as fast as it is like this. Being an 8-bit game, it's still a pretty good one for what it attempts to simulate, and as an 8-bit pinball game, it's better than most other 8-bit pinball games despite its design flaws.




Since it's just one table, there isn't much of graphics here, and what there is, isn't particularly flashy. Unless you count the loading screens, the only graphics in the game consists of the pinball table itself. The AMSTRAD version is the only version, which utilises the second loading screen once as the title screen after the game has loaded; once you have started a game, you will never see it again unless you reset the computer and load it again. But since it is primarily a part of the loading segment, I will not use it in the Graphics comparison. Besides, it wouldn't be fair against the other two, which only have an additional text scroller on the table screen to act the role of a title screen.

Screenshots from the Commodore 64 version.

As you see, there isn't much of variety in this game's graphics. The C64 title screen is just a basic font text scroller at the top of the screen, while the texts within the table use a much larger font. The only visual effects in the game are some toggled lights for indicating targets that are being currently hit, or have been hit, and then there's the score multiplier ring in the middle of the table. Of course, the same can be said of all versions, but the choice of colours can affect the visibility, which in this case, is a major point to consider.

Stylistically, the C64 version feels like a game from 1984, or 1985 at the most, but the fluidity of animation and the fairly successful illusion of depth speaks of at least some experience and knowledge, that can only have come about with time. Most notably, there's a certain clunkiness to some of the animations - particularly the flippers - that gives an unusually mechanical feel to the game. And that's a good thing in this case.

Screenshots from the Amstrad CPC version.
The AMSTRAD version looks similar to the C64 version, only it has less colours on the table. Then again, the choice of colours makes the table much clearer than on the C64, which makes up for that other thing. Happily, the animations and visual effects are on the same level as on the C64, so it's on very strong ground here. It doesn't have the same mechanical feel to it, because the animations have been made a bit more fluent, but I suppose this is a matter of taste than technical achievement. Having a designated title screen, at least for the moment before you start your first game, is a nice bonus, which sets the AMSTRAD version just above the C64 version, although the second text scroller is a bit unnecessary, because it's too fast for normal people to read, and it only has the same text as the slower text scroller.

Screenshots from the Sinclair ZX Spectrum version.
The SPECTRUM version looks like you would a Spectrum version to look like: higher resolution makes it look prettier, and as the ball rolls over any area that's in a different colour, the ball catches that colour due to the attribute clash. Since the background has no unintrusive elements as such, the colour changes don't really matter. What does matter is the unevenness of the speed of animation, which makes the game more unpredictable to play than necessary. But that doesn't lose the fact that it is a nice-looking version. The title text scroller at the bottom is too slow to ever bother actually reading it, but it might as well be acknowledged that it's there.

As the screenshots do not tell the whole picture, a video comparison is obviously required. You can find such a thing between the Sounds and Overall sections of this article. But taking everything possible to account, even what you cannot see in the screenshots, I think each version has its own pros and cons. The SPECTRUM version has the most clarity due to the hi-res graphics, but the C64 and AMSTRAD versions feel more natural, and the latter from those two has more graphics to offer.




This part of the comparison was the most surprising one due to one simple thing: the complete absence of music in the C64 and AMSTRAD versions, and the inclusion of two theme tunes in the SPECTRUM version. I suppose the development team thought, "Hey, 48k is plenty enough to have some music, let's have that instead of focus on gameplay", because that's exactly how it feels happened to the version. The SPECTRUM theme tune that plays only when you have loaded the game, reminds me a lot of Russian disco-schlager songs and 80's epic Japanese anime series theme songs combined. The second tune plays at Game Over, and is a bit slower in tempo, but has a similarly slavish feel to it. The music alone makes the SPECTRUM version worth checking out.

But a simulated pinball is all about getting the feel right, which makes the sound effects more important than music, when there's none to be had during gameplay. The sound effects in the SPECTRUM version are the usual 48k beeper stuff, with all sorts of pips, ticks, splurts and other undescribable sounds that are essentially Spectrumish. It's all fairly effective, in a beeper kind of a way.

In the AMSTRAD and C64 versions, all bumpers, targets, roll-overs and lanes have their own specific sound effects. Even the three bumpers have a differently pitched bump-note to them. The C64 version's sound effects have a more mechanical feel to them, so that kind of immersion has definitely been pushed up to the hilt, whenever possible, but what really sets the C64 version apart from all the rest is the sound of the ball as it rolls around the table, particularly as its distance from the player has been taken into account. It's really surprisingly well-made, and certainly makes up for having no music at all. All in all, I'd say the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions are sort of on equal ground, whereas the C64 version is well above the two.




Pinball is an odd thing to try and simulate on a computer, particularly on an 8-bit computer, although perhaps not quite as odd as throwing darts. When you do find a game that actually makes the idea not so awkward after all, the occasion is worth celebrating. Pinball Power from Mastertronic is yet another excellent example of a high quality cheap game that did something right, which many full-price games have failed to do. And this is how the stupidly mathematical Overall FRGCB scoring system ranks them:

1. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 7
2. COMMODORE 64: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 6
3. SINCLAIR ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 3

Amstrad fans, rejoice: we have a rare occurrence of a game, which the CPC has "won" a retro game comparison on FRGCB. However, as usual, it's not really a matter of winning something, but rather what qualities each version has to offer. Even with the dismal score the SPECTRUM version seems to have here has its good qualities, which makes it well worth checking out.

As promised, the companion video for this comparison is on FRGCB's YouTube channel:

That's it for now, thanks for reading! See you next time with something less awkward, and perhaps a bit more epic... or perhaps something from yet another Mastertronic sub-label, who knows. Until then, stay safe and healthy by locking yourselves inside and playing lots of retrogames! Cheers!

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