I really love arcades. My family and I used to go on a yearly vacation to the beach. Beautiful oceans, hot weather, a cool breeze in the air, all the usual stuff. None of that meant squat to me. I liked going to the boardwalk and finding arcades.
I had my normal rounds I took every year. I’d walk up and down it in a particular way to hit up my three main arcades with as little walking as possible. I became an expert at it. And I got decent at arcade games too. Mostly crane games. The one’s that aren’t rigged, that is.
I have a ton of good memories relating to these arcades. I’m living proof that the stacker game – the one with the blocks – can actually be won. The Uncharted edition PS4 I use daily came from it.
Carrying that beautiful, blue machine back in a not-so-discrete, black contractor bag, hoping I wouldn’t get mugged on the bus ride back to my place, is one of my best and most confusing memories.
I say all this because arcades are something I really enjoy. Videogames are something else I really enjoy. Naturally, I thought we should talk about something that combines both.
So, why a pinball game? Am I secretly some pinball prodigy? Have I been hiding my pinball prowess all this time? How many times can I show off my alliteration with the letter P?
The truth is, I’ve never used a pinball machine before. Not once. I never had an interest in it when I was younger, and as I got older, I just never bothered. One day I will, but as of now, I’ll have to stick with videogames.
There are a lot of pinball games out there. Some are just carbon copies of physical machines, as in they take a movie, TV series, or something else and create a playfield in its likeness. Make a pretty 3D model of that physical machine, and you have a decent pinball videogame.
Some, however, go above and beyond. They take the core mechanics of pinball and change up the formula in fun and unique ways. Kirby’s Pinball Land and Sonic Spinball are two examples of this I’ve experienced.
However, there is one series of pinball games that, while I don’t think it innovates the formula so much, manages to alter that same formula just enough to become something special.
We’re going to be discussing two games today, both Pokémon Pinball for the Game Boy Color (released 1999) and its sequel Pokémon Pinball: Ruby & Sapphire for the Game Boy Advance (released in 2003.) Both these titles make up the entirety of the Pokémon Pinball series.
If you’re like me, you probably have two questions in your mind. Why anyone thought that Pokémon and pinball needed some strange love child, and why they thought it needed to happen more than once.
The only thing the two series have in common is a big emphasis on balls, I suppose. In one, you enslave creatures in them, and in the other, you bash it around different objects to get a high score. They both involve throwing balls around too.
Maybe someone at Nintendo was going through a pinball phase, then saw a Pokéball, and rushed over to their boss with some crazy pitch. I couldn’t imagine any other reason.
As for why they decided to do it again; It’s Pokémon, so it’s almost always going to do well, even back then. Pokémon had already made a name for itself. Like today, but probably not quite as much, Pokémon can do more or less whatever they want and be successful.
The original Pokémon Pinball game is also an interesting part of Game Boy Color history, as it’s part of a tiny list of games to utilize a rumble pak.
It was basically this add-on built into the cartridge, making it lanky as you see above but provided a bit of a rumble feature like we’re used to now. How much people liked this seems to vary.
I can see why you would want rumble for pinball, but like Nintendo tends to be at times, it’s gimmicky.
The sequel didn’t try anything like that. It just built upon the previous entry.
Both games are important for different reasons, and they’re both worth talking about.
To begin with, we need to discuss the elephant in the room. This is a pinball game. What is the most important aspect of pinball? Well, that would be the playfields. Without it, you’ve just got some bells, balls, and flippers.
We’ll start with the first game in the series. Pokémon Pinball has two different playfields, one for Red version and one for Blue version. Each has its own mechanics but play more or less the same way.
There’s quite a bit going on here already. Some of it will be familiar, and some won’t. Like normal pinball, you have the essentials, a ball, flippers, a drain that the ball seems to be magnetized to.
Like normal pinball, the overall goal is to get as high of a score as possible. This is done by smacking the ball around the playfield, bashing into bumpers and other objects, and trying to avoid losing your balls.
Pokémon Pinball adds one way of helping you do this. A cute little Pikachu sits in the sides of the outlines, ready to launch the ball back up with an eardrum-busting yell. Only when they’re all charged up, though. Most of the time, it will just give them a bonk.
As you can see, the only real difference between Red and Blue, besides minor things in the layout, is the Pokémon that appear. Shellder acts like the bumpers in Blue, and Voltorb acts like the bumpers in Red.
What do the other Pokémon do? Well, they aren’t for decoration, except that Ditto, I suppose. They involve one aspect of the gameplay I’ve left out until now. The biggest thing that makes this series unique from other pinball games.
Gotta Catch ‘Em All!
These are spin-offs of Pokémon games. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few decades, I assume you know what the Pokémon series is all about. The thing that made it popular. That’s right; you get to capture monsters.
What would a Pokémon game, spin-off or otherwise, be without a similar feature? Pokémon Dash, I guess. Uh, anyway, Pokémon Pinball does incorporate this feature, pretty well, if I may say.
After shooting the pokéball to the orbit – which is the path that wraps around the edge of the playfield, as I have learned – from the right lane a certain number of times, it will charge up catch mode. To activate it, you need to launch your pokéball into either Cloyster or Bellsprout, depending on the playfield.
Doing so pops up a blacked-out image of a certain pokémon. To snag it, you need to first hit the bumpers 6 times, revealing it, before chucking the ball a few times. This whole sequence is timed. You only have 2 minutes to catch the pokémon starting from when you reveal the image. Still, this is generally always enough time.
You can also evolve the pokémon you’ve gotten that game by going to orbit from the left entrance and shooting yourself into another pokémon once charged. This starts the evolution mode.
You have 2 minutes for this as well, but it is much more difficult overall.
In this, you need to first hit the various spots marked with arrows. If you get the right one, an EX symbol appears somewhere on the playfield. Grab three, and the evolution is completed.
These two simple features add so much to the overall game.
One of the things about pinball I’ve always found boring is that the only goal is to get a high score. Yes, I know, that’s the whole point, but it isn’t something I generally find fun. Call me spoiled from modern games.
Pokémon Pinball is all about keeping score, but it makes it interesting. The best way, by far, to get points is to catch pokémon. This means you now have another interesting objective, yet it doesn’t take away from the main goal of trying to increase your score.
It adds in a fun and more engaging way of doing it rather than just hitting a ball towards a few bumpers.
There’s also the collection aspect of it. Pokémon Pinball includes all 151 pokemon from the original games. You can catch every single one of them. That’s a huge goal and a surprising amount of content for what amounts to a pinball game.
Some pokémon you can only get by evolving, meaning if you end your game before evolving a pokémon, you would need to catch it again. The same is true if you didn’t evolve it to its final evolution out of three.
Some pokémon can also only be found in certain areas, represented by a little image of a landscape in the middle. This means you may need to go to multiple areas to find just the right pokémon you need.
All of this leads to a pinball game that would take anyone quite a long time to complete. And unlike proper pinball, you actually can complete this game. It has an actual goal. That goal of completing the pokédex is something that kept me coming back.
I’m not a big pinball fan, never have been. Yet that one simple feature of collecting pokémon manages to change up the formula just enough to keep somebody like me interested when I wouldn’t be otherwise. Pokémon blends so well with pinball, oddly enough.
And I guess Nintendo thought so as well because, as I mentioned, there was a sequel.
Now With More Features!
Pokémon Pinball: Ruby and Sapphire is the game of the two that I’ve played the most of. I downloaded it on my WiiU years ago and have come back every so often to play a round of it since.
The sequel is much of the same, if I’m honest. Very little is different. The overall formula is the same. What makes it stand out is the slight ways it improved the already solid concept brought on by its predecessor.
As you’ll see, both playfields are made similarly to those in the previous game, just with some new features.
The best change is making both Ruby and Sapphire more distinct from each other. They actually have different layouts and ways you tackle them, unlike in the first game where Blue and Red were almost identical.
The biggest additions are a Poké-Mart, and pokémon eggs.
The Mart lets you buy various items with coins you collect while playing. You can use it for different perks, like 60 seconds of ball saver, which means you can’t lose a ball to the drain, and other little buffs.
The egg is yet another way to catch pokémon. If you hit the egg multiple times, it hatches into a baby pokémon. If you manage to hit the little tyke two times before he runs away, you’ve kidnapped him.
Both evolution mode and catch mode have been altered slightly.
Catch mode only requires you to hit the bumpers three times now, and evolution mode skips discovering where the EX spots are located by hitting the arrows. Both of these additions are small but help make it better.
But by far, the biggest improvement is just how the game controls. The original Pokémon Pinball really tried. It really, really did, but that game controls abysmally.
I could never for the life of me hit any of my targets in that game. The physics were so wonky that aiming wasn’t even a possibility. You could hit the ball the same way three times, and each would fly to a different spot.
It had absolutely no consistency, and when I felt like I started to grasp it, it would go crazy again.
As I was replaying the game, the ball kept phasing through the flippers at different times. Sometimes it helped. It let the ball back from the drain. Other times it flew right through it.
Pinball is about your accuracy; the original Pokémon Pinball allowed for none of that. And that made collecting all the pokémon in the game sound like a chore.
It was a great idea for its time, but the controls make it not fun to play. It’s a shame, really. The wonky physics spoiled the experience.
That’s why I am so glad to say the sequel fixed everything.
Pokémon Pinball: Ruby and Sapphire is such a joy to play. It just controls wonderfully.
I can actually aim my shots to shoot the ball where I need it fairly consistently. If I mess up, which happens, I know it’s my fault. It’s not the game. If something doesn’t happen the way I want it, it was most likely my fault.
I don’t feel like I’m battling the game anymore. If I want to do better, I have one option; get better at the game.
Not one time did the pokéball ever pass through the flipper, and not once did the game react in any way I didn’t expect. It all works perfectly. It’s almost hard for me to believe that the same company made these two games; they just control so differently.
It may seem like I’m making a big deal out of controls. That’s because I am. It’s important. Controls in something like this is everything. They may not have got it right the first time, but they nailed it the second.
And that’s a great thing because the sequel has quite a bit more content. It features many Pokémon from Ruby and Sapphire, as you might expect, totaling 205 to catch. That’s over 50 more than its predecessor. The difference is, you may actually want to play long enough to do that now.
New High Score
The Pokémon Pinball series was an odd choice, to be sure. I don’t know who thought it was a good idea or why they thought that. I don’t know why anyone agreed with it. I don’t know why anyone thought it was worth spending money on.
I don’t really care; I’m just glad it happened. This is one of my favorite spin-off series Pokémon has, and Pokémon isn’t short on those, let me tell you.
The original Pokémon Pinball manages to take the tried and true pinball formula, alter it slightly, and make it more enjoyable for everyone. Its sequel masters everything it’s predecessor began, as well as adding even more content.
Would I recommend it? Definitely. I think the series does a great job pleasing both pinball fans and Pokémon fans. I think either would find a lot to love in these hidden gems.
However, I’d strongly recommend just playing Ruby and Sapphire. It’s better in literally every way. The only thing the original has over it is that it was the first. Besides that, just appreciate it and play the sequel.
It’s a game I, the guy who has never touched a pinball machine, continues to go back to for a good time.
Thank you very much for reading
What are some other fun pinball games you enjoy out there? It’s a very odd genre of game, that’s for sure.