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Review by: David Laprad
Published: April 13, 1999
The wrapping for Fox Interactive’s Sci-Fi Pinball is pure promotional genius. It has the grab-it-off-the-shelves appeal needed to attract consumers sifting through crammed retail stores for something simple and fun. At the top left is a picture of Buffy, a teen-age vampire slayer from either Beverly Hills or Melrose Place, an Alien definitely not from Melrose Place, a Predator and a nude Jeff Goldblum, who is about to transmute into a fly. Although the designers definitely overestimated the appeal of an unclothed Goldblum, the box is geared to appeal to fans of 20th Century Fox’s most popular science fiction and horror franchises.
And it succeeds wonderfully on the initial eye-catching. That is something Fox Interactive is getting good at with its new-found focus on branded products and franchise development. Titles such as Aliens vs. Predator and this one appeal to current game audiences as well as entice newcomers as it taps into our collective pop culture sensibilities. A familiar face, no matter how hideous and alien, is an invitation to extend our enjoyment of a film or television show. If it was amusing watching Sigourney Weaver shred Aliens, does it not stand to reason that slapping some silver balls around a table as one of the creatures grins menacingly at the proceedings will be all the more fun and shiver-inducing?
Of course not. For a title to succeed, it needs to do more than capitalize on the thin veneer of a faddish license, it needs to recreate the spirit of the movie and creatively mold it into the gameplay. The brilliant Duke Nukem table from the fabulous Balls of Steel is an outstanding example of the use of theme. The themes in Sci-Fi Pinball do not run as deep, though the designers did a good job creating tables brimming with pictures and sounds from the movies and television show, as well as fashioning progressive goals that recall the plots.
For example, the table based on The Fly ushers gamers into a realm of science gone terribly wrong and challenges them to return an increasingly putrescent Goldblum to human form. The tables are not static, but change in appearance throughout the game, so those who have seen David Cronenberg’s superb movie will anticipate the graphics’ repulsive morphing. A bonus table that gives nod to the original 1958 film is unlatched with the easily obtainable score of five million. In pinball, just launching the ball can ring in a tally double that. The bonus table is a little more special because its nostalgic design recalls older pinball machines.
For pure camp appeal, it is hard to top the table based on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There’s not much to do except ring up a high score and listen to audio quips from the show, though the bonus games are something to shoot for. Most of the tables feature hidden levels and mini arcade games that can be reached by accomplishing objectives; for instance, on this table, spelling the word S-L-A-Y-E-R launches Vampire Punch-out on a small dot matrix screen crimped into the upper right of the screen. Hard-to-see movie- and television-based video clips that reward or admonish gamers abound in this small partition as well. The table based on the Predator movies charges players with chasing the fierce hunter to its lair, and the Aliens table, the most elaborate in the group due to its numerous, progressive levels, has them attempting to destroy the Alien queen and reach an escape pod.
With movie-based goals and eleven mini-games to discover, Sci-Fi Pinball has potential. There are ability shots, target combinations and all the other bells and whistles pinball titles should have. Unfortunately, three critical problems neutralize the entertainment value: poor ball mechanics; simple table design; and crude, two-dimensional graphics. There is no telling where the ball will end up as it stutters across the screen; the target and ramp placement is simplistic at best; and the actual tables occupy very little screen real estate. Still, some people will no doubt find the casual gaming approach and licensing sufficient. After all, who can turn down a moment in the sun with a gorgeous vampire slayer?
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