Those of us who were quite obsessive in our pursuit of all things Pokemon probably have a favourite “unusual” game stashed away in our collections. I almost had the crowning jewel of oddball Pokemon games; I remember going on holiday with my grandma and aunt to a typically Anglicised tourist village in Mallorca (also slightly Germanic – the sun lounger struggle was real). I recall going into a teeny-tiny souvenir shop that smelt of middle-aged mansweat mixed with St Tropez, with just a hint of bubblegum ice-cream. The shelves were lined with creepy children’s toys, pool inflatables and the odd beach towel with some equally inflated glamour model front and centre. However, among this detritus and smut was buried a twinkling gem in the musty sunset: Pokemon Jade Edition.
Nope, see nothing wrong with this at all…
The packaging looked dodgy even through the eyes of a highly gullible 10 year old, so I never bought it, but I wondered for years afterwards what I’d passed up. Once my internetual capabilities blossomed through the advent of Broadband (and no more nagging from my mum to get off the bleedin’ line so she could ring my grandma), I eventually confirmed I hadn’t foregone a masterpiece, but rather dodged a bootleg-shaped bullet. Initially I was quite glad, but because I’ve since become fascinated by ROM hacks and knock-offs (partly thanks to JonTron), I’m quite salty I can’t have a tinker around with it. Telefangs but no telefangs, past self! (OK, sorry, that was awful.)
Anyway, for most of us, “unusual” Pokemon game instead reads as “casual” Pokemon game. I’m guessing that a lot of people will point to Pokemon Snap or Pokemon Stadium as firm favourites; sadly, I never owned an N64. This is actually something that can be traced back to my parents; I eventually ground them down over getting a games console of my own while my mum was pregnant with my younger sister. I wanted an N64 quite a bit more than I wanted a PS1, but my parents persuaded me the disc format was more stable and I’d be less likely to break the games/the console itself – I am notoriously Hulk-like in my manhandling of everything. And thus, my alliance with Sony when it comes to static consoles was forged in the hot coals of no longer being a spoilt only child.
My parents clearly didn’t know how much hammer N64 cartridges could take – “cartridge tilting” being a good example (though I wouldn’t suggest overdoing it!)
When it came to handhelds, though, Nintendo was still the only real contender; I remember the Gizmondo and Nokia N-Gage (pffft). Further tantrum-throwing and sucking up to my ‘rents scored me a Gameboy Color. Along with it came my first taster of casual Pokemon: Pokemon Pinball. I later got a copy of Pokemon Trading Card Game, which I will write a (partial) defence of sometime in the future. However, Pokemon Pinball was the one game I owned out of pretty much my entire childhood collection which got me hooked on climbing up leaderboards and made me grouchy and irritable if I was torn away; the second contender to that title is SSX3 for the PS2 (also on my review list – keep your eyes peeled!).
Pokemon Pinball is exactly what a casual game based on a beloved franchise should look like (accounting for the fact that you can expect more material nowadays, since your average 3DS cart can hold a LOT more sophisticated data than a GBC/GBA cart). It is referential with regard to its source material, closely picking large amounts of detail from Pokemon Red and Blue, while being an enchanting pinball game; I can confidently say that both pinball fans and Pokemon fans will find that this nicely passes the time. Since my first experiences of PC gaming on an actual PC (as opposed to an Apple Macintosh, which was the family computer when I was a wee lassie) were of that bog-standard pinball game shovelware for Windows 98, the combination just worked fantastically for me and I could spend hours bent over my poorly-lit Gameboy screen, pleading for the pinball (read: Pokeball) not to slam straight between the flippers.
Shovelware pinball – I’m pleasantly surprised how many walkthroughs/Let’s Plays/cheat guides for this decrepit thing exist
Let’s start with the cart itself, for there is something important to note if you ever pick up a copy of this game. It’s a Rumble Pack game, meaning for all you newcomers that much like with DualShock, the console will shake as you slam into parts of the course (notably the Pikachu buffers just to the side of the flippers) or land straight in the gutter. As I booted up and played a few rounds of Pinball to refresh my memory, I set the rumble to “strong”, but didn’t feel any vibrations whatsoever. I then realised that the “Rumble Pack” part means that there is an AAA battery in the actual cartridge, and of course the battery in my cartridge was dead 12-13 years after purchase.
I know that’s a stupid thing to realise this late into the game – you at the back, stop laughing. However, it’s worth a mention for those less acquainted with Nintendo who wish to collect, as it’s quite possible any cart you stumble upon may have old batteries in. So BE CAREFUL (even wear gloves!) when opening the Rumble Pack to swap out the AAA battery. I discovered that a pair of not-that-old AA batteries had exploded in a Wii Remote this summer and it was down to pure luck that none of the powder got on my hands. Any damage may also lower the value of your cart or make it unplayable – I had to bin my Wiimote just to be on the safe side, since battery powder had coated the entire battery slot. So, be vigilant, cartridge collectors.
Mine looks pretty much like the cartridge above. To be totally honest, reviews on release heavily critical of (i.e. unimpressed by) the Rumble Pack aspect of the game, so if you’re concerned about shoving batteries directly into cartridges you want to preserve, it won’t ruin your game experience if you forego the batteries altogether.
Getting to the ACTUAL GAMEPLAY (because Heaven knows we all come to Pinball for a gripping storyline), you have a choice between two separate course layouts, aptly Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue. I always favoured the Blue map; I can’t quite quantify why, but it may have to do with accessibility. For me, the layout of the various interactive elements on the Red map were a bit more askew, making it harder to chain up high scores and leading to more accidental gutter-balls. However, this may have been just due to me being more used to the Blue map. What makes it harder to explain is that, while I ended up getting Pokemon Yellow as a child, I favoured Red over Blue while collecting the trading cards and longing for a handheld version. Chalk it down to childhood irrationality, but the fact remains that I have the most experience and got the most fun out of the Blue map. However, both have their quirks and both are worth playing.
One of the things that will strike you first (or indeed, did with me) is the soundtrack. You’d probably expect them to skimp on the production values slightly with a sideshow like Pinball, but instead it is the playground for some of the most inventive and fitting scores of the earliest Pokemon games. The opening theme has such a great sense of what the mood is and makes you want to tuck right in to a big Pinball feast (contrast with the confusion and tonal discord of the Kuri Kuri Mix opener, which just makes you wonder what the Hell you’ve fed into your console). Not all of the tracks are superstars, but the main songs which will be looping in your lugholes again and again never get boring. Then again, many people play (and indeed need to play) Gameboy Color games with the sound turned off, so it doesn’t have to be as jarring as with something like Kuri Kuri Mix, where it’s a bit unusual to sit in silence while playing on a home console.
You have to give props to the score for being so creative around the limits of the GBC cartridge and its release date. It’s feats of imagination like this, alongside Mario Paint and other Pokemon/Mario scores, that give groups such as Anamanaguchi and the chiptune movement everlasting appeal.
Moving beyond sound and onto sights, as already discussed, the Blue and Red maps vary enough in layout to keep you intrigued and to encourage you to sample both. At the start of each game, you will spin to have the course “take place” in a specific town drawn from the Red/Blue series, which is a nice way to anchor the gameplay strongly in Pokemon lore. If your ball gets sucked in by a Cloyster (on the Blue course), you get the option to “catch” a Pokemon.
This “Pokemon catching” is another way to link the game firmly back to its source material. By hitting parts of the course demarcated with arrows, an image of a particular Pokemon becomes unobscured, square by square. Once fully visible, the Pokemon itself is visible in the centre of the course; hitting it enough times with your Pokeball will trigger a “catching” animation. Catching Pokemon will lead to various bonuses. The course also allows you to evolve your Pokemon, adding to your score.
This is not the only way (beyond whacking the Pokeball with undue care and attention left and right) to rack up the points. Passing your ball through the bumpers at the top several times will upgrade your Pokeball to a Great Ball and so on and so forth, resulting in the points scored from hitting various parts of the course being multiplied. Special bonus stages, featuring Meowth amongst others, break up the action with a short burst of intense gameplay, in which it’s relatively easy to score upwards of a million points in just a minute or two. The ability to chain massive combos in a multitude of ways makes this game exceedingly moreish.
On the other hand, it is quite easy to fall at the first hurdle and lose 3 Pokeballs in quick succession, resulting in a Game Over. There is a fair space between the two flippers, meaning unless you make strategic and reflex-reliant use of the bumper button (B), it can easy land square between the two. You will require somewhat lightning reflexes in playing this game; as with all good pinball games, the ball can rattle about the course at a dizzying pace. However, Game Overs never seem cheap, as Pinball (due to the inhuman demand on reflexes at times) are partly a matter of luck anyway. It can become nail-biting once you’ve gone through multiple bonus rounds and are well into the tens of millions or hundreds of millions of points, but you’ll simply want to pick up again afterwards and push forward.
This is further aided by the fact that you can save mid-game, which is a lifesaver when you have a good chain of multipliers going on but have a family dinner to attend or people are staring at you on the bus. However, I wouldn’t recommend setting a playthrough aside to swap to another game, or setting it aside for more than a few days, as it’s one of those games where your performance is enhanced by muscle memory and “getting into the zone”. Far out, man.
Serving suggestion for Pokemon Pinball: Jefferson Airplane and “special brownies”
There are other adorable nods to the Pokemon franchise, such as Pikachus being the special bumpers under the map which can rescue your ball. These special “savers” swap from left to right, though both left and right Pikachus can be activated simultaneously for a short period. Naturally, all the first-gen Pokemon are unlikely to pop out to say hello, even in an extended run. Furthermore, you may disagree with the role various Pokemon play in the layout of the course. It’s natural that Pikachus are used to “shock” the ball back on course. However, the use of Shellder as the triggers at the top of the screen (in my favoured Blue field) is seemingly arbitrary. The choice of Pokemon is largely satisfactory; I would be interested to see how the Ruby & Sapphire sequel handles the extended roster of Pokemon.
In conclusion, this is a great and addictive game. How should it be played, though? It’s best used as a nice distraction during a long road-trip, rather than an alternative to Angry Birds while sat on the loo. While it is possible to save the games and return later, you’ll probably not want to do that and racking up combos that extend for 60-90 minutes provides some of the best satisfaction to be derived from the game. Regarding the Rumble Pack (once you’ve changed that pesky AAA battery), you’re best switching it on but pegging it at Mild; while no rumble takes away a small amount of the fun of a real pinball machine, Strong can be a distraction too far and potentially push the game into frustration territory. Overall, the game is worth a small investment and is a shining example of how you branch off from a popular series of video games to provide something which is light-hearted yet more than mere fluff. Just remember the standard maintenance tips that count for appliances with removable batteries (i.e. don’t leave the battery sitting in the cartridge unused for too long), and you have a quality block of gaming history to store on your shelf, rather than the glitchy atrocity I dismissed in the backstreets of Cala Bona 13 years ago.
(Congratulations to Del for guessing my game of the week, 2nd time in a row! Check out his stuff here.)