It takes a lot to get my attention. I’ve slain dragons. I’ve cast magical spells that would cross a wizard’s eyes. I’ve helped lesbians turn into a crystal pillar that holds up an entire world. There is very little in the world of gaming that gets my attention anymore. I have flown through the skies as the majestic hummingbird, danced with the deities, and one time I got a kangaroo to punch a monkey. And, through it all, it’s all been pretty much the same genres and “game styles” over and over again. Sure, I might be slaying the entire Greek Pantheon this week, but it’s still pretty much “just a beat ‘em up”. Is there nothing new under the sun?
And then there’s Pinball Quest. Pinball Quest is one of the most oddly original games I’ve ever played, and, what’s more, it was released over a quarter of a century ago.
Pinball Quest, as you might be able to guess, involves some pinball. If you’re just interested in pinball, here you go, three pinball boards of varying skill and complexity. Nothing that hasn’t been seen before or since, and, yeah, the boards are pretty alright. Nothing special, nothing El Dorado, but it’s a fun pinball time from the era that still held some affection for “pinball… on your TV!” That part is pretty basic.
Then there’s RPG mode. RPG mode is exactly what it says on the tin: pinball in a RPG setting. It’s bonkers.
In a way, RPGs and Pinball games should work well together. RPGs are all about how you suck. Wait, no, that came out wrong. What I mean to say is that the combat in RPGs, the basic meat and potatoes of the genre, is entirely based on the fact that you will take damage. This isn’t a Mario or Mega Man game where you could conceivably never take a hit; no, you’re getting smacked around by the first slime you see, and it’s your responsibility to make sure the party stays healed and healthy. In a way, this is an expression of the basic chaos of battle. You’re going to get a few scrapes and bruises, Gilbard is going to faint, but, in the end, (hopefully) you win. Pinball is very similar, in that you have the randomness of “where’s the ball going to go?” Sure, you try your best to hit those bumpers or whatever silly gimmick exists on the board, but, inevitably, that ball isn’t going to go exactly where you want it, and, sometimes, it’s going straight down the middle. Flick the flippers all you want, there’s nothing you can do, Gilball’s gotta die. Do your damndest, hope for the best, and plan for the worst. The pinball and RPG motto.
Pinball Quest’s RPG mode, meanwhile… well… in some ways, it’s much more an Adventure-style game, like Zelda. Each level is a different board arranged something like your typical double-decker pinball machine. Usually there’s some obstacle or gimmick on the lower portion that will grant access to the upper portion (like breaking the right gravestone [bumper] in the graveyard area, or pestering an ogre that will usher your ball into a minecart in the mine area), and then the second portion features a boss and flunkies of some kind. Ram the boss with the ball enough times, and you’ll be granted access to the next level. Repeat six times or so, and you will have defeated the evil king and rescued the princess. Actually, yeah, this is a lot like the original Legend of Zelda. There are even angry skeletons!
And, really, this would be a “Zelda type” if you had absolutely perfect pinball skills (or save states). After all, the gameplay isn’t Fight/Magic/Flipper, it’s much more of an overhead “dodge and stab” affair, with bosses that attack your flippers and a constant need to pelt the monster du jour with your weapon (which just happens to be “you”). This is much more “includes RPG-like elements” than “RPG”.
You’re gonna lose.
Actually, technically, you kind of can’t lose this game. It’s only possible to get a “game over” on the first (and, technically, “lowest” board), and, even then, you’re given an immediate chance to continue with very few repercussions. You lost, you suck, but the save point is right here, get back in there, soldier! On every other board, you’ll simply be returned to the next previous board, and, if you can nail the “exit” location on your first flip, you’ll be right back in the battle again. Even if your skills aren’t that great, though, you can re-defeat the boss du jour, and move on in that style. Sure, it’ll waste some time, but you’ll make it back… eventually.
But let’s say you’re a human being that actually doesn’t like having his or her time wasted. Well then, we’ve got some items for you! Between each stage is a shop, and, since you (naturally) accrue gold from every defeated monster, you can spend that cash on one of two types of items. You may purchase more powerful flippers, which will kill bosses faster, or you may purchase extra balls, which will cause you to immediately “return” to your highest level when you’d otherwise tumble down the gutter. Pick your poison! Are you the confident type that blows it all on a stronger sword, or do you stock up on phoenix downs in anticipation of a costly blood bath? Play the role of the ball, and plan for your game.
And, after a fashion, Pinball Quest proves to be a “real” RPG. The gameplay might be bopping around the adventure board all afternoon, and fighting wizards, demons, and succubae might show up in a few other genres; but what’s important here is that you, player, are planning ahead and determining how resources are spent… in a pinball environment. You’re going to need that potion, and it doesn’t matter if you’re using the fight command or flicking a ball at a perfect angle, it all winds up being an RPG in the end.
And we haven’t seen anything like it in 25 years. More’s the pity.
FGC #172 Pinball Quest
- System: Nintendo Entertainment System, though, admittedly, kind of late in its lifespan (that would be defined as “anything after Castlevania 3”).
- Number of players: Thanks to controller passing, the “standard” pinball boards all allow for up to four players. RPG mode is, as ever, a solitary affair.
- Favorite Standard Board: Viva Golf is pretty fun, as it includes more moles than Caddyshack, and the anime figures seem to fit into the course rather well. What? I have a peculiar fondness for the late 80’s Japanese aesthetic.
- Favorite RPG Mode Boss: The boss of the fifth stage initially appears to be your kidnapped princess, but transforms into a deadly succubus after a few (maybe accidental) hits. I realize that this has become something of a standard trope in recent years (decades), but it seemed fairly original in 1990.
- Speaking of Princesses: Ya know, there’s nothing that codifies the heroic Ball as male or female. Feel free to claim this is one of the few gender progressive NES games… even if you are rescuing a princess (yet again).
- An End: Oh, and the finale sees the hero and princess trounce a gigantic (compared to a pinball), apparently sentient magnet.
And here I thought gravity was the ultimate enemy.
- Did you know? The box art for Pinball Quest shows a reflected skeleton warrior. Given the skeletons only exist for the first level, I’m going to assume the box artist did not get very far in this game.
- Would I play again? Hey, sure. If I’m in the mood for pinball, I may as well knock over some turtles while doing it.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Super Scope 6 for the Super Nintendo! Oh boy! Bazooka action? Wow! Please look forward to it! Not at all sarcastically!