I might be showing my age a little bit, but I can remember going into the pizza places and arcades of my youth and seeing the row of pinball machines. They filled me with delight. But even then, they had lost a bit of their original charm for many. My generation was more likely to play an animated pinball machine on a computer screen than an old school cabinet. This is continuing to be true, and it makes me wonder, will pinball ever be relevant again?
My brain folds started moving around when I saw the news that Bethesda was releasing their franchised virtual pinball tables on the Nintendo Switch. Pinball FX3 was the first in the Pinball FX series to launch for every system, including the Switch. So it makes sense that Bethesda would want to get in on the action. They're bringing their Fallout, DOOM, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim pinball tables via Pinball FX3. They're highly interactive and take all the best parts of pinball machines, both physical and digital, into a new era. Plus, it's just plain cool to see any number of different Skyrim character models fighting a dragon on a pinball table.
It's clear that pinball, as a digital game medium, has a safe home in titles like Pinball FX3. Whether these will see the same fad-level popularity of original pinball machines remains to be seen. I'm leaning towards no, seeing as how these digital versions have been around longer than I've even been alive. In all that time, I've never seen people line up outside for a midnight release of a pinball game. I've never heard about a pinball game winning an award. And I've certainly never talked to any friends about the high score they got in Pinball FX the night before. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that digital pinball games should go away, or that they're not worth the development time. They're really fun when you're in the mood for some pinball and don't have gas money to visit a local arcade, or a young niece/nephew to take with as a cover for really wanting to play the games yourself.
While the virtual pinball genre is never going to go away, I still strain to imagine it being as popular as the real thing was back in the day. But that's where the modern arcade comes in. If you've gone to a Dave & Busters or Boomers! in recent years, you'll notice a trend. Many “old school” arcade games have been replaced. I can't say they've necessarily been replaced with more advanced versions, because something like pinball has a ton of moving parts and complexities. Modern pinball cabinets have the same control scheme, but rather than a cabinet of curiosities that you can peer down into, they have a screen.
My knee-jerk reaction is that a lot of magic and wonder has been lost with these modern versions. Seeing all the pieces working together in a pinball machine was always one of the best parts. And there was something very satisfying about feeling the balls slap against the flippers, and rattle around the cabinet. Unless modern cabinets include some kind of advanced haptic feedback, that nostalgic feeling will be dust in the wind. Knee-jerks aside, I do see the relevance for these new types of pinball machines. It combines what everyone loved about playing pinball at an arcade, with the benefits of digital effects that are possible in the video games. I would imagine these cabinets with screens are much cheaper to make, and maintain as well. Thus, more of them can be put out in the world, allowing even more people to enjoy pinball.
What do you think everyone? Is digital the only way that pinball will be able to survive? Do we just have to accept its new digital appearance? I'd love to hear your thoughts!