When games want to win

Pinball is like, totally unfair

Pinball machines. They don't want you to have fun. They just want your money.

I’ve been playing Williams Pinball Classics this week. It’s been a bit of nostalgic trip for me (as well as quite worrying) as I’m old enough remember playing many of these games back when they sitting in arcades. It’s also rekindled the fury I had when I was forced to watch a ball head straight down the centre of my flippers, while being powerless to do anything about it. 

Of course, back in those days all I could do was hurl expletives at the pinball machine in question. Now, being mature and older and the owner of my own house, I can hurl expletives AND the Xbox 360 controller across the room. Still, it’s been a while since I’ve played pinball with anything approaching the commitment I used to have in my late teens and early twenties. I dropped probably the same amount as my first three mortgage payments on one particular pinball machine; the Williams Last Action Hero model.

Last Action Hero Pinball

This machine took a lot of my money away from me. And it wasn't sorry at all.

Funny thing about pinball; it was the first type of game that made me begin to believe that video games, in some ways, were sentient beings. I don’t mean I thought them capable of complex activities outside the purpose they were originally designed for; they can’t hold their own in a coffee house conversation on film trivia and they won’t be able to help you put the undercoat of paint on your kitchen wall. What I mean is, I started to believe they had moods, and sometimes, when the mood took them, they decided they wanted to win for a change.

Of course this is rubbish, but it helped me make sense of pinball, which is one of the most unfair types of game ever created. After all, you’re at the mercy of chance, a fickle task-master at the best of times. Not only that, you have to have lightning quick reflexes, a working knowledge of the machine and what to shoot for and the deftness of touch to shake the machine without causing a tilt. With perhaps the exception of video game classics that were actively constructed to screw players over (like Battletoads or Ninja Gaiden II), there is no game in which the odds are more heavily stacked against the player than pinball. Seriously, you’re a mug for putting change into a machine.

With that in mind, it helped me to think of these machines like rather touchy sentient beasts. It was the only way I could make sense of my desire to play them. How else do you explain playing a game in which you, the consumer, deposit money and then are forced to watch as your ball heads straight down the centre of your flippers or down either side of them – straight after you’ve launched the sodding thing? How else do you make sense of the fact that the ball can continually rebound badly or too quickly and scupper you? Why aren’t you allowed to shake the machine to avoid this without it yelling TILT!!! and ending your game right there and then? Pinball machines were like untamed broncos to me. When they decided they wanted to win, they didn’t mask their intentions.

This is a belief that over the years has spilled over into how I view console and PC games. It doesn’t happen often but every now and then I get the impression that I’m being hoodwinked in some way by a game that seems to have taken on a life of its own.

I mean, I’m surely not losing to Bolton with Barcelona on Pro-level difficulty am I? I can’t be that rubbish. Clearly it’s a case of FIFA 11 cheating!

The Boston Celtics can’t have missed the last six attempts from the three-point line because of my ineptitude can they? Come one, Ray Allen is superb and this is a video game, so he can’t be having an off night! Oh, I see, NBA Live wants to win one, does it?

Oh! Ninja Gaiden! How about you…. er, bad example.

Oh snap! How is it I’ve just been shot by someone who I’ve just killed in the Favela in COD? I’ve played this bloody level six times and that’s never happened before! Go to hell COD, you cheating sod!

Okay shake it off.

Normally, after putting the controller down for a bit and having a nice cup of tea and a biscuit, I’m usually able to eschew the notion that games occasionally cheat. They’re not living creatures which need to be tamed or talked to in soothing tones. They’re bits and bytes and codes bundled together for my entertainment and I shouldn’t take the occasional loss as a personal insult. Games aren’t alive! What a preposterous idea!

At least, that’s how things used to be…

…before I got addicted to Drop 7, a game I play exclusively on hardcore level every single day of my life, and I know it cheats! I know it! How else do you explain the fact that when you manage to keep clearing away the board’s lines in the game, that it starts to drop nothing but 1’s 2’s 3’s and 4’s. I’m crying out for a 6! A 6 dammit and then I can clear the… what??? A 1!! YOU SWINE!!! DAMN YOU DROP 7!!! DAMN YOU TO HELL!!!

Drop 7


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