No matter how advanced video games have become over the years, pinball has never really been forgotten about in its entirety. In fact, there have been countless digital recreations of the arcade classic. Making a stand-out, memorable pinball title is no easy feat. Some are tied in with franchises like Pokemon or Marvel, while others offer a single table and not a lot of other reasons to keep playing. What Wildfire Studios decided to do with their late-1997 pinball-title Balls of Steel was to pump it full of content, and polish it to perfection.
The usual rules of pinball apply: hit the ball around with the paddles, tilt the table left and right, and rack up some major points. Four difficulty modes are available, which offer more or less leeway. For instance, anyone after a fun time will likely want to play on Regular mode with five-ball play and a chance to earn an extra ball at the end. On the other end of the spectrum, Tournament mode is there for anyone after a no-frills pinball experience with only three balls. Feels a bit pointless, having an option that limits content, but regardless, casual players or veterans will be in for a treat.
The whole thing looks nice and detailed. Each table is bright and colourful, and the animations that play on the dot-matrix display at the bottom look lovely, too. Playing full-screen is an option, but since it zooms out and glues the table to only half of the screen, it doesn’t look quite as impressive, visually. Alternatively, you can let the camera follow the ball, meaning you’ll usually have more than enough reaction time to swat it away if it reaches too close to the bottom, unless it’s travelling at terminal velocity.
Balls of Steel offers five different pinball tables to play on. One table has you battling alien invaders, while another focuses on the police trying to stop a diabolical, stereotypical British villain. The most eye-catching addition has to be the Duke Nukem table, based off 3D Realms’ classic first-person shooter Duke Nukem 3D. Duke’s table features brand new one-liners from the alien ass-kicker himself, too. The music is a bit generic, save for the awesome remixes of Duke’s soundtrack, but that’s hardly a deal-breaker.
But the variety does not stop there. Each table has unique features that really set them apart from one another. For example, Duke Nukem’s table has special items to collect that unlock secret areas, or offer neat twists like destroyable blockades that block the bonuses. Meanwhile, the Mutation table will let lucky players coat their ball with slime for extra-speed, or even create duplicates for some truly hectic gameplay.
What sweetens the experience are the aforementioned minigames. You might have to squish some butt-ugly aliens crawling across the stage, or try and defuse bombs inside the bonuses, in order to earn some big rewards. A few mini-games are played exclusively on the dot-matrix display where the score is usually shown, and merely require pressing the paddle buttons and the launch key in order to play. Very few pinball titles go so far as to include more invigorating ways to earn a mighty jackpot, meaning Balls of Steel truly is a stand-out title in its field.
It’s no wonder why Wildfire Studios smugly described their own product as “pinball on steroids”. Put simply, it ticks so many boxes. Colourful visuals? Check. Addicting gameplay? Mh-hm. Variety? Hoo, yes. Sounds good? Yep… well, aside from its mostly-forgettable soundtrack. It might not keep you hooked for hours upon hours per sitting, but it’s packed with so much content and polish that it makes it a top-priority choice for any PC gamer on the hunt for a pumped-up version of the unforgettable coin-op arcade game we all know. This is easily one of the finest titles to come out of 3D Realms’ repertoire of classic nineties titles.