Hey, I get it. I used to make fun of video pinball, too. It seemed pointless, a misguided attempt to recreate that which could not be recreated. For pinball to be pinball you need an elaborately designed box fitted out with literal bells and whistles, and you probably need to be in a bowling alley or backroad gas station, or something. As technology advances, though, video pinball increasingly becomes a fine alternative to the increasingly impossible to find original. Video pinball will never truly stand in for the real deal, but it’s developed into its own valuable field with its own particular design philosophies. You can boil video pinball down to two approaches: Either a video pinball table can recreate the original experience as closely as possible, since pinball machines are too expensive and cumbersome to easily bring into the home; or it can branch out beyond what is possible within the physical confines of a real table. Neither technique is more valid than the other, and it takes a solid understanding of both to truly appreciate this type of game.
This list actually calls out the specific best tables and not overall games, because each table is a game in itself. Pinball diehards will notice that I include both original video pinball tables and digital recreations of real world classics. That might seem weird or unfair, but hey, this is my list. And of course that means this is highly subjective and open to change.
Pinball FX / Zen Pinball (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PS Vita, PC, iOS and Android)
Boba Fett boasts all the best hallmarks of a Pinball FX table: it mixes rock-solid traditional table design with interactive showmanship impossible with a real table. When the Empire offers Boba Fett a bounty, you don’t just see a Darth Vader made up of orange dots on a tiny strip of screen on the backglass. You see a fully animated sequence before Vader himself marches out onto the periphery of the playfield. The bounty system, with Fett trying to earn respect by completing jobs for both the Empire and Jabba, eliminates any doubt over how to trigger and complete missions. Boba Fett is a straight-forward and high-scoring table that benefits from room to maneuver within the source material, unlike the other Star Wars tables, which are tied closely into movie and cartoon scenes.
Odama is a deeply flawed game. It’s too hard, too repetitive, maybe even too ugly. It’s not really a pinball “table,” at least in the traditional sense, but it is a singular pinball experience, a bizarre amalgam of pinball, military tactics and talking. Yeah, you can control your soldiers with a microphone that attaches to the GameCube. Yeah, you have soldiers in a pinball game. I said it’s bizarre, right? Odama is incredibly weird in a deeply charming and admirable way, and rewards those with the patience to truly dig into it.
Nintendo loves shoehorning its characters into video pinball games. There’s a Metroid pinball, a Pokemon pinball, and even Mario pops up in the original NES Pinball. Kirby’s Pinball Land is the best of these games, and the “Poppy Bros” level is the best of its three tables. It preserves the feel of a platformer within the body of a pinball game, reformatting Kirby’s traditional genre into something that’s both tense and kind of relaxing at the same time.
Pinball FX / Zen Pinball (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PS Vita, 3DS, PC, Mac, iOS, Android)
Star Wars isn’t the first major media property to get the pinball treatment in Pinball FX. Zen’s been cranking out tables based on Marvel Comics for a few years now, and my personal favorite is the table based on the Fantastic Four. Like most Pinball FX tables Fantastic Four fully exploits the opportunities afforded by the videogame setting. From trips to the Negative Zone to battles with Doombots to the Human Torch’s trails of flame, Fantastic Four fits in more comic fan service than expected in ways that are immersive, interactive and impossible in a real pinball table. The early Marvel tables can feel a bit restricted, both in theme and table design (see the Blade table), but Fantastic Four feels like a fully featured table that adequately calls upon the license’s 50-year history. It’s also extremely fast-paced and a bit more challenging than a lot of the Marvel tables.
The TurboGrafx-16 is best remembered (if at all) for its topflight collection of shoot-’em-ups and its ahead-of-the-times CD-Rom attachment. It was also home to some of the best video pinball games ever made. Time Cruise isn’t as well-known as the peerless Crush series, but its novel spin on pinball convention is worth seeking out. Time Cruise is less of a pinball table than a series of conjoined single-screen tables with a common aesthetic. Like the original Zelda game your ball can travel to new screens in all four directions, each with its own pair of flippers at the bottom. Bonus levels are complex balancing puzzles that resemble Marble Madness more than pinball. It’s a pleasantly rambling (but no less stressful) take on classic pinball.
Pinball FX (Xbox 360)
If you know anybody who discounts video pinball you should sit them down and make them play Zen Studios’ pinball games. It’s called Pinball FX on the Xbox 360 and Zen Pinball on the other consoles, but it’s basically the same thing. The best non-licensed Zen table is currently still an Xbox exclusive, though. Rome nails everything I look for in a pinball table. It has a unique theme, a Roman aesthetic that permeates every aspect of the art design (the shooter alley looks like an aqueduct, complete with running water). Its goals are easily understood but difficult to complete. It’s also stingy with points, but with the potential for extremely high scores once you understand the table’s flow. It’s a quality table all around.
Space Cadet isn’t just here because it was ubiquitous. I mean, that definitely helps, especially on such a subjective list on such a nostalgic topic. If you owned a computer in the late 1990s you’ve almost definitely played this game, as it came bundled with Windows alongside Minesweeper and Freecell. It’s not just familiarity that gets it on this list, though—it’s a simple but adroitly designed table that introduced countless people to the joys of fake pinball.
The Pinball Arcade / Pinball Hall of Fame: Gottlieb Edition (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, PlayStation 2, iOS, Android)
It’s hard to pick a favorite table from the Pinball Arcade series, but Genie is near the top of the list. It’s a great representation of early solid-state pinball design and a textbook example of a Gottlieb table, with a single level with a smaller inset playfield, multiple flippers and a single-minded focus on increasing the bonus value. It’s a basic but extremely hard table that offers a glimpse at late ‘70s pinball design, when the industry was transitioning from older electro-mechanical tables to the increasingly complex computerized gimcracks that defined the 80s and 90s. A great run on Genie feels more like a genuine accomplishment than with any other table on this list.
The Pinball Arcade (PlayStation 3, iOS, Android, Mac)
I’ll fess up: I wasn’t entirely sure if I should include individual tables from compilations, especially ones based on real pinball tables. It almost seemed like cheating. From a pure pinball perspective, the best tables from the Pinball Arcade / Pinball Hall of Fame series are simply the best tables you can find anywhere, and that’s because they’re timeless classics designed by the best and brightest pinball designers of all time. But then it’s kind of disrespectful to the greatest video-only pinball games to not compare them to the digital versions of the real McCoys. Devil’s Crush (uh, spoiler alert) stands up against any of the Williams or Gottlieb classics from these compilations, of which The Twilight Zone is a particular stand-out.
Twilight Zone unites the increasingly elaborate design of ‘90s pinball with the pinball industry’s incessant love for licensing. At least The Twilight Zone is a property worth licensing, and this table’s complex, gimmick-heavy play nicely references many unforgettable episodes of the legendary TV show. Its goals are easy to understand but not always easy to achieve, and unlike many real tables of this era you probably won’t ever freeze up with sensory overload (I love you, Medieval Madness, but after 17 years I still have no idea what’s going on half the time.) And like all the Pinball Arcade tables, The Twilight Zone is best experienced on a tablet, which best replicates the natural orientation of a pinball table while giving you the best view of the entire playfield.
TurboGrafx-16 (also available on Sega Genesis as
Devil’s Crush combines the two styles of video pinball better than any other game. It’s a single table spread across three screens, each with its own pair of flippers, and a variety of optional bonus screens that can be unlocked in various ways. Even if you stripped away the few elements that would be impossible in a real pinball machine, such as the circle of chanting monks in the top screen, or the swarm of demons that erupt out of a bumper after it’s hit enough times, Devil’s Crush would make for a fantastic old-school pinball table, with numerous opportunities per screen to score or raise your bonus. Those physically impossible moments are crucial to making this the best video pinball table ever, though, and the goofy Satanic heavy-metal aesthetic is the perfect capstone.