The word ‘unplayable’ is thrown around far too much with regard to games, but 1st Person Pinball, another DOS game of the late ’80s vintage, truly does border on this dubious accolade. A lot can be said about the limitations of technology, as well as the virtue of trying new approaches to long-established genres and traditional games, but such considerations never change facts around whether a given implementation of a game is workable or not. 1st Person Pinball definitely lies on the wrong side of this divide.
While it would be ridiculous to compare a game of this vintage to the likes of the superb Pinball FX2, there are some things in the very core of the more modern game that typify what’s wrong with 1st Person Pinball. Primary among these is the replication of accurate ball physics and the associated kinetic feedback. While I will forgive the lacklustre sound effects due to the game being made in the very early days of the SoundBlaster, the lack of visual feedback when the flippers hit the ball combined with the somewhat hit-and-miss nature of whether the flippers will hit the ball at all make for a very unsatisfying game of Pinball. The flakiness of the physics is something that I can’t ascribe to the age of the game either: basic Newtonian physics are not particularly difficult to model, even when an average CPU may be in the range of 10MHz.
The gimmick of the game, the over-the-shoulder view from the point of view of the ball that appears in the bottom right of the interface, is a neat trick and is visually pleasing. Early, early 3D in games like this always has somewhat of a blocky, flickery charm. While it’s not always accurate and while it doesn’t always refresh at an even rate, it’s a nicely dithered thing to look at. There lies the issue: it’s a nice thing to look at that takes attention away from the main board, undermining the core of the gameplay experience. Perhaps this is why the ball seems to spend so much time in the top right of the table: if you know it’s caught up in the loop of hitting the same three objects on the board, you can take your attention away from the board proper to admire the first-person view.
It feels cruel to be so critical of something that was more than likely at the time a great leap forward in terms of deviating from traditional implementations of non-digital games in digital formats. Sure, Speedball had already come and gone, but in terms of a non-dystopic take on an analogue game this may have broken new ground. Even if that is the case, there’s something to be said about the intersection of function and innovation: DOOM broke a lot of ‘firsts’ technically and was still a fantastic game that remains suberbly playable even today. At least this is an interesting curio.
Download link (69kB)