Balls of Steel
Computer pinball games have evolved quite a bit over the last couple of years. It used to be several years ago that tons of these games were released, usually with crude 320x200 pixel-scrolling graphics, with poor physics in ball movement, and with uninspired copycat graphics on the tables. Now the very best computerized pinball efforts have generally clustered themselves into two categories: those that have frenzied action with tons of animations going on the screen at once, lacking the realism in ball movement and gameplay of actual pinball tables (Sierra's Pro Pinball series is the best example of this second type). Within both types of pinball games the standards have been set fairly high, discouraging new entrants to the field. Into this crowded arena Wildfire Studios, a small Australian software company, has dared to develop Balls of Steel (marketed by GT Interactive), and they have managed to blow the socks off the competition. While the game's clever title hinted at great promise, I had no idea when I opened the box about the incredible experience that was to follow.series is the best example of this type); and those that provide with extraordinary graphical detail an accurate pinball simulation, lacking any meaningful sense of fun and whimsy (Empire Interactive's
The gameplay in Balls of Steel is both realistic and fun in every respect. The ball physics are the best I have seen in a computer pinball game, with both rebound angle and speed changes following the laws of motion perfectly. The ball moves quite quickly and there is never any hesitation. Many other pinball games now have decent physics, but on occasion the ball will do impossible things or experience pauses or slowdowns due to processor overload when there is a lot going on at once; in Balls of Steel, even when you are playing multiball with lots of animations going on, there is no noticeable change in the fluidity of gameplay.
One of the nicest features of Balls of Steel is that the five tables included are quite different. Many other computer pinball games with multiple tables simply change the background graphics in each table, but leave the flippers and pins in roughly the same places. Here it really feels as if you are playing five extremely different pinball games, and you need to use a different ball strategy to succeed in each. The tables are titled Mutation, Barbarian, Firestorm, Darkside, and Duke Nukem, and my personal favorites are Mutation (because of the wonderful slime effects), Barbarian (because of amazing dragon and snake animations), and Darkside (because of the neat alien attackers). The range of pinball table features, including hit rails, flippers, pops, sinkholes, targets, magnetic flippers, ramps, and ball accelerators, is astounding.
There are four different modes of play in this game: Regular, Novice (the ball saver is active for quite a while), Arcade (extra balls are awarded based on score), and Tournament (scores can be posted on the WorldScores web site). You can play the game with 1 to 4 players, and you can control the play with the keyboard, a mouse, or the Microsoft Sidewinder gamepad (I vastly prefer the latter). This is truly a game for all ages, and to facilitate that, one of the options is a "parental lock" which eliminates some of the racier language in the game. You can choose to play the game with the table presented as a single static screen or as a scrolling screen, but unlike in other pinball games, there is a third option which I like best -- playing on a scrolling screen (which makes all the details of the table easier to see) and then having the view automatically switch to single-screen mode when playing a multiball sequence. Some recent pinball games have prided themselves on having no scrolling, but as long as the shape of computer screens is the reverse ratio of the shape of pinball tables, scrolling makes a lot of sense (even at incredibly high screen resolutions, the features of a pinball table displayed as a single screen during play are truly tiny).
The graphics in Balls of Steel are truly excellent, contributing a lot to the gameplay. While the game operates at 800x600 pixel resolution (lower than some current pinball games that go up to 1600x1200 resolution), 8-bit color depth (lower than some games that go up to 24-bit color depth), and no support for 3D video hardware acceleration, the tables are truly beautiful to look at and one never sees the slightest trace of blocky pixels or dithered colors. The 3D effects in the game are very well done, with appropriate shadowing helping out a lot. Some of the novel special visual effects, such as seeing the Duke Nukem table underwater when one acquires scuba gear, are extremely effective.
All the audio effects in this game are well done. The music is softer and more subdued than in many pinball games, making it much easier to focus on the sounds that really matter -- the colliding of the ball with objects on the pinball tables. The sound effects are super: I especially like the sound of a ball going in and out of the slime on the Mutation table and of a ball crunching the alien attackers on the Darkside table. The vocal effects are wonderful, displaying both audio clarity and humor without becoming an obnoxious irritant as they are in some pinball games.
This game contains an excellent CD jewel case manual -- it is longer than usual (30 pages), extremely well-written and detailed, and very nicely illustrated (including steel pinballs that appear on the bottom of every page). I especially appreciated the detailed discussion of the special features of each of the five pinball tables of the game, with pickups and targets clearly displayed and explained.
System Requirements and Comments
The minimum system requirements for this game are a Pentium 100 megahertz CPU, 16 MB RAM, 70 MB hard disk space, a double-speed CD-ROM drive, a 1 MB VESA-compatible SVGA video card, a DirectX-compatible sound card, and the Windows 95 operating system. These requirements are low by today's standards, especially when you consider that the entire game is installed on the hard disk (the CD still has to be in the CD-ROM drive to play the game simply as an anti-piracy measure).
After playing virtually every PC pinball game ever released, I can enthusiastically say that Balls of Steel is now my favorite. Its combination of smooth, realistic gameplay with creative animated challenges simply cannot be beaten. I am totally addicted to it -- I simply cannot stop playing it -- and would have given it an even higher numerical rating except that I reserve ratings in the 90s for games that are truly innovative compared to what has come before. What makes this game great is not a new game concept -- after all, pinball has been around for ages -- but rather the way Wildfire Studios has synthesized the very best ideas from what has come before and improved upon them. Any pinball lover should run out and buy this one, and those who have not yet gotten hooked on pinball might very well find this to present an irresistible seduction into the pastime.