Pinball Challenge Deluxe – A Retrospective Review

Several years before DICE started to make their wildly popular Battlefield series, they made pinball games. Starting out as an offshoot of a Swedish Amiga demoscene group, The Silents, the company then known as Digital Illusions released three of the stable of pinball games published by the British company, 21st Century Entertainment Ltd. First released for the Amiga and then ported to several other platforms, including MS-DOS, the SNES and the Atari Jaguar, Pinball Dreams, Pinball Fantasies and Pinball Illusions were well regarded by the contemporary video game press.

In 2002, the same year as DICE released the first of the games in the Battlefield series, DICE’s pinball games found their way onto the Game Boy Advance. Developed by another British company, Binary9 Studios and published by Ubisoft, Pinball Challenge Deluxe incorporates all of the elements of the first two games in the series, Pinball Dreams and Pinball Fantasies. With eight tables available covering a range of themes from horror to space travel, Pinball Challenge Deluxe has plenty to offer for a pinball fan.

DICE’s pinball games tended towards the simulationist bent, with realistic ball physics and tables that looked and felt like they could easily make the transition to the physical domain. Binary9 did an expert job of replicating that on the Game Boy Advance, with the physics and table layouts fully intact. The developers did have to compensate for the lower resolution and smaller screen size of the Game Boy Advance compared to the Amiga, with the game requiring considerably more in the way of scrolling on the playfield, but aside from requiring more in the way of prediction to figure out where the ball is going to fall onto the flippers, their efforts do not diminish from the fun of the game. On the other hand, Binary9 have included some extra details on some of the tables that were not present in the original Amiga versions for the Original Chip Set and the game retains its colourful and stylistic presentation, which does a good job of capturing the essence of each table.

The music has been ported over properly as well. Originally composed by Olof Gustafsson and representing some of the best tracker music on the Amiga, the music is one of the highlights not only of the original DICE versions but of the Game Boy Advance port. The music does retain the Amiga version’s tendency to cut out and restart from a certain point after certain sound effects, probably a consequence of the Amiga’s limited number of sound channels, but this is authentic and doesn’t detract from the quality of the music in the first place.

I find the controls to be a mixed bag. While successfully putting all of the controls from the Amiga version onto the handheld platform, including flippers, spring control and a button to tilt the table vertically – and a tilt sensor to regulate use of that feature – the flipper controls are mapped to the shoulder buttons. Most pinball games I have played on Nintendo’s handheld systems have instead or also allowed the use of the left arrow key and the A button and while the use of the shoulder buttons works out acceptably on the original model of Game Boy Advance and the Game Boy Micro, it is a bit uncomfortable on the Game Boy Advance SP models or the Nintendo DS in either of its GBA-compatible forms. Nevertheless, the controls are responsive and the mapping isn’t a deal-breaker.

Pinball Challenge Deluxe doesn’t add many elements that weren’t already present in the original games. The load times are substantially better than they were on the Amiga original by virtue of the cartridge storage medium and the options menu does give you the option to decrease the volume of the sound effects and music, while also giving the option of how many balls you get per playthrough, from the original three up to five. However, I’m not particularly fond of the latter option, as I think it plays havoc with the authenticity of the original gameplay. On the other hand, the Pinball Fantasies tables retain the original feature whereby one can randomly receive an extra ball after losing their last one based on the first digit of their score and the game also saves three high scores per table.

Generally though, despite the lack of extra features over the original games, Pinball Challenge Deluxe is a good conversion of the original games. Retaining the same challenging, yet rewarding simulation of real-world pinball, the colourful and stylish graphics and the outstanding music, it’s a solid package and while the diminished resolution and extra scrolling of the Game Boy Advance versions mean that the Amiga versions are still what I would consider to be the definitive versions, the portability and quicker loading times make this a port worthy of praise.

Bottom Line: Pinball Challenge Deluxe does a good job of replicating what made the original Amiga games so much fun and maintains the strong simulation of pinball on a portable game system.

Recommendation: If you’re a pinball fan looking for fun on the go, take a look at it. It’s also a decent title for dipping your toes into the world of pinball, but don’t pay too much for it.

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SimCity 2000 – A Retrospective Review

While EA scrambles to try to sort out the controversial debacle surrounding the latest entry in the SimCity series, my mind has been cast back to the one previous entry in the series that I’ve played. SimCity 2000 came at a time when Maxis were an independent company, free of influence from EA, and followed a series of relatively unsuccessful titles also bearing the Sim branding. First released in 1994 on DOS, Mac OS and the Commodore Amiga, it spread eventually to a number of other computer and console platforms, including Windows 95, the SNES and the PlayStation.

The premise of the SimCity games has always been simple – keeping within your budget, attempt to build a successful city with a satisfied population, maintaining services and entertainment while trying to avoid disasters such as fires, riots or hurricanes. That is, unless you possess a certain sadistic streak, in which case you can build up a city just to watch it burn to the ground.

In order to build up the city, you must appropriately place zones of residential, industrial and commercial land in line with population demand. Low-population cities will desire industrial property, while higher populations desire more commercial property. There are two grades of each zone, light and dense: Light zones grow more quickly, but cannot hold as much population per tile; dense zones grow less quickly and tend to have a greater amount of crime and pollution per tile, but can support a greater population per tile.

Producing electrical power for the city is another imperative. Electrical demands start at a low level, capable of being satisfied by a single coal or oil power plant, but grow as the city grows and as time progresses further on. The options for power plants start with pollution-producing coal and oil power plants, along with expensive hydroelectric plants with a limited ability for placement, but expand with time to encompass natural gas stations, nuclear power plants and wind turbines, among others. Population zones are connected to power plants using power lines, and while it might be tempting to place a pollution-spewing coal plant far out of the way of your burgeoning city, every additional tile of power lines reduces the output at the business end of the power grid in an attempt to simulate power loss through thermal radiation through the power lines.

All of the population zones must then be connected with an appropriate transport system. Your options begin with basic roads and railways, but later expand to include subways and highways. Zone placement plays a large part in whether a transport system will be considered successful; the closer that a target zone is to the source zone of a denizen of the city, also known as a Sim, the less time and more satisfactory the journey will be for the Sim. However, roads can soon become clogged with too much traffic, making for logjams which make for dissatisfaction and an ultimate decrease in population.

As your city grows beyond a certain population, your Sims will begin to demand other facilities. Some of these are intended to lower the instances of potentially ravaging disasters, such as the police and fire stations, while others are designed to increase various components of your Sims’ satisfaction, including the health-improving hospital, the education-improving schools, colleges, museums and libraries and the recreational parks, zoos and stadiums.

A couple of other building zones exist beyond the residential, industrial and commercial zones, which become more available as your population grows. The seaport and airport both act to improve your city’s fortunes, creating new potential for industry and commerce when they are built. However, seaports can only be placed on bodies of water defined as rivers or coasts, while airport placement requires a certain amount of space devoid of dense buildings in order to prevent crashes which can cause devastating fires. However, the limitations don’t really get too much in the way of what are largely beneficial additions to your city.

The growth in population of your city comes with its own satisfaction, but a number of incentives become available once you reach various population milestones. The first of these, the Mayor’s House, becomes available at a population of 2,000, while other buildings become available at populations of 10,000, 30,000 and so on. One of these incentives, which comes at a population of 60,000, is optional. The military base available at this point can further increase your city’s population and gives you a small number of military units that can be used during disasters to both conquer fires and population uprisings, but leads to an increase in crime around the area that the military base is placed.

One of the major difficulties in building a large city is the limitation which is provided by your budget. You get a certain amount of money to begin with, at most $20,000, and if you pick the hard budgetary option, you end up with a $10,000 bond which accrues interest every year. With this money, you must produce a city that is self-sustainable enough to generate money so that city improvements can continue in the years going by. A property tax takes money from your populated zones, while various services including the police and fire forces, along with education, hospitals and transit cost money. It can be a difficult balance between maintaining satisfaction among your population and keeping within budgetary lines, and that’s before you get to various city ordinances, most of which have minor effects on how the city develops, but which generally cost extra money. If you get stuck, a small bond can be issued to give you a small period of solvency, but at the cost of interest.

A few evolutionary changes distinctively marked SimCity 2000 from its predecessor, including the isometric perspective replacing the top-down graphics of SimCity, and a greater granularity in terms of zone placement which allowed a single tile to be filled with a residential, commercial or industrial zone. Other changes added extra features, such as the inclusion of new transit and power plant options.

SimCity 2000 might seem like a somewhat arcane game with all of the options available to the player, but the beauty of the game is that the game is still easy to pick up while also maintaining its long-term potential. Indeed, SimCity 2000 was one of the first games that I played which I really felt compelled to continue playing. OK, there were some uninspired design decisions on the Windows 95 version that I first played; it took me a couple of weeks when I was playing the demo to realise that you had to hold down the toolbar buttons to get extra options, while the lack of ability to use the mouse wheel to scroll or zoom makes the game feel a little more clunky today than I’d like it to. That doesn’t spoil the core of the game, though – it still feels fun and challenging.

The graphics, as mentioned above, are isometric, so the game is going to look inherently dated compared to modern graphics. That said, there’s a difference between dated graphics and bad graphics and the sprites in SimCity 2000 are still reasonable today. All in all, the graphics suffice for their purpose, although they’re not exactly dazzling.

Similarly, the sound effects in the game serve their purpose, but aren’t going to blow your mind. The “electro-zap” effect of power plant and line placement does get somewhat repetitive, though. The music, on the other hand, is a funky collection of jazz-inspired MIDI tracks. Probably the best thing that can be said about the tracks is that they’re definitely distinctive and, to me at least, memorable; even sixteen years after I first played the game, a few bars of any of the tunes in the game evokes memories of the hours I’ve spent playing the game.

Despite the age of SimCity 2000, there’s very little that I can fault with it, at least on the platforms that could handle it with ease – specifically, the personal computer platforms such as Windows 95 and Mac OS Classic. The interface may feel a bit clunky at times on the DOS and Windows 95 platforms which I have played the most hours on, but this is a small price to pay for a game with such depth. There is, however, a more serious technical issue with the Windows version that betrays the game’s age: The game binary is 16-bit, completely preventing it from being played on a 64-bit version of Windows. Unless you have an older computer lying around with Windows XP or an earlier version, or unless you have a virtual machine on your computer with an earlier version of Windows, you’ll have to resort to using DOSBox in order to run the game, which isn’t as friendly an option.

Bottom Line: SimCity 2000‘s gameplay is still solid, even a couple of decades after its first release. Personal computer versions are preferable – the SNES version, in particular, feels distinctly limited – but beware the 16-bit binary on Windows versions.

Recommendation: It’s going to be difficult to find a working copy of SimCity 2000 for the personal computer platforms; even in 1997, when I bought it, it was in the bargain bin. I’d expect greater difficulty getting it today, especially considering that its sequel, SimCity 3000, has very much displaced it in the bargain bin section. If you can track it down, though, it’s well worth a bash.