Tuesday, October 18, 2016

'The Pinball of the Dead' on the Game Boy Advance!

A look back at an awesome handheld oddity from the George W. years that merged Sega's zombie-filled franchise with good old silverball-shootin' fun.

By: Jimbo X

When Sega’s first House of the Dead game hit arcades, most people’s gut reaction was that it was nothing more than a cheap Resident Evil clone. Of course, once they actually got their hands on the bright red and blue chunks of firearm-shaped plastic and started blasting hillbilly zombies in their undead beer bellies, we all came to accept and appreciate it on its own merits.

Although ostensibly just another light gun rail shooter a’la Virtua Cop and Time Crisis, the House of the Dead trilogy nonetheless went on to become a quarter munching favorite in arcades across America, with many bowling alleys and movie theaters still proudly sporting ancient House of the Dead 2 and 3 cabinets.

Of course, the House of the Dead isn't necessarily an all light gun affair. Proving once and for all that the suits at Sega in the early 2000s were mad geniuses, they developed a HOTD game tailored to the Dreamcast's snazzy keyboard peripheral called - what else - The Typing of the Dead, in which you gunned down the living dead and hulking, chainsaw wielding bosses by spelling phrases like "moisture," "imitation milk" and "paging three girls." In pretty much any other franchise, that would easily be the weirdest offshoot the series could possibly produce. But like I was saying earlier, House of the Dead ain't your run of the mill cash cow.

So jump ahead to the year of our lord 2002. Sega had just discontinued the Dreamcast and officially gone third party, supplying Microsoft, Sony and yes, even arch rival Nintendo with all sorts of software that probably would've landed on the ill-fated DC had the platform not gone belly-up earlier that year. Xbox owners got Shenmue II, Panzer Dragoon Orta and Jet Set Radio Future, PS2 owners got Virtua Fighter 4 and Rez and Gamecube owners got Ikuraga and a really, really ganked version of Phantasy Star Online. Overlooked in the deluge of third party Sega offerings, however, was the glut of Game Boy Advance releases that started pouring in that year. Before long, the handheld was getting all sorts of weird-ass Sega originals, including an isometric version of Jet Grind Radio, a full-fledged (albeit 13-year-late) sequel to Altered Beast and even a couple of really solid Shining Force spin-offs. But in terms of the absolute weirdest Sega GBA forays, nothing - absolutely nothing - comes anywhere close to outdoing The Pinball of The Dead.

Yep, they made a The House of the Dead pinball game, and it was every bit as awesome as it sounds. Indeed, this was one of the games that really got me off the fence and convinced me to go out and buy a damn GBA, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I sunk way too many hours in this game than anyone probably should.

By now, you should know at least three things about me. One, I love pinball. Two, I love all things horror. Three, I fucking love Sega. Thus, to combine all three of my passions into a singularity, of course I was going to adore the offering. Granted, if for some stupid ass reason you don't like pinball or watching morbidly obese zombies explode, I suppose you can go your whole life without ever playing it and feel perfectly fulfilled, but if you're my kind of person, you really, REALLY have to add conquering The Pinball of The Dead to your bucket list.

You know what other traditionally non-violent genre should incorporate bloody explosions? Falling block puzzlers. 

Structurally, the game bares a pretty strong resemblance to Naxat Soft's Crush pinball games on the TurboGrafx-16. The Pinball of the Dead is especially influenced by Devil's Crush, the much more Satanic-feeling sequel that was eventually ported over to the Genesis as Dragon's Fury (which, as it turns out, wound up with a stellar sequel of its own on the Genny, Dragon's Revenge.) Of course, technology growing by leaps and bounds since the early 1990s, The Pinball of the Dead manages to give you a whole lot more game for your money, all the while exuding that unmistakable, inimitable House of the Dead flair, atmosphere and Grand Guignol panache.

Now, as far as the general gameplay, you've got three different tables to work with. You have the option of just going in there "free play" style or you can tackle the "mission" mode, which - for all intents and purposes - follows the plotline of The House of the Dead 2 to a "t," albeit, with all of the light-gun zombie tomfoolery replaced by silver ball zombie tomfoolery. You can also monkey around with some basic settings like controls and sound effects, but probably the most interesting "turn on/turn off" selector involves the color of blood. Not into seeing the crimson stuff splattered all over the bumpers? You're in luck, pal, because with one click of the button, you can turn that nasty red juice blue, green - or white. Yes, the game does give you the option to view your enemies go kaboom in glorious geysers of mysterious milky fluid, a design choice that in no way, shape or form could ever be construed as questionable in hindsight.

Before we get into the meat and potatoes of the gameplay, a few things about the audiovisuals - they rule. Granted, the zombies - some are just torsos, some are your standard shambling green guys that wouldn't look out of place on an Iron Maiden album cover and others are morbidly obese country bumpkins who explode like well-fed ticks - do look a little lo-res, but the tables are vibrant, with a whole bunch of stuff going on in the background at all times. Furthermore, the evil techno X-Files soundtrack is just an aural delight, and for those of you wondering about the control scheme? It's super simplistic - one face button controls the left flipper and the d-pad controls the right one (but yeah, even if you don't like the default setting, for some reason, you can always switch up on the start menu.)

Even without the awesome techno-disco soundtrack, The Pinball of the Dead already has the makings of one hell of a rave.

At heart, The Pinball of the Dead is indeed a remarkably solid little video facsimile of that other arcade staple (no, not the claw game, you wiseacre.) The controls are super smooth and the playing fields, while littered with both moving and stationary obstacles, isn't too cluttered to impede your ramp shots. The M.O. here is the same as in any other pinball game - you hit trick shots, spell out certain words and send the ball colliding into a specific object at this exact point in time and you'll get a million bajillion points. What separates TPOTD from other genre games, however, is its inclusion of boss battles. Yes, pretty much all of the primary big bads from the second The House of the Dead game show up in this one, and each baddie can only be dispatched via a certain technique (not going to lie, the "tilt" feature is a big help in some of them.) Regardless, each encounter requires a lot of strategy and deftness with the flippers - although, in some circumstances, the inclusion of multi-level stages makes it very difficult to pinpoint when, and where, the ball is about to drop. 

OK, the stages themselves: like I said earlier, you get three to mess around with, and each table has at least two separate screens (meaning, you have three sets of flippers to control per backdrop, in case you weren't following me.) Each table is inundated with a never-ending stream of the bumbling dead, who have a nasty habit of getting in front of your shots (which, while redirecting your ball, at least results in a dandy arterial explosion for your troubles.) The in-game physics are pretty good, so very, very rarely will you find yourself struggling to line up your flipper in just the right spot so you can smack the ball into that 10 million point jackpot hole. While you can adjust the speed of the ball, anything below fast is just ludicrously sluggish; this is a House of the Dead game, after all, and its meant to be played fast and loud

As an homage to its arcade roots, each level begins with a mini-game where the cursor is darting around the screen like an epileptic mosquito. Time it just right, and you blow away a zombie, demon or FBI agent on a facsimile of a dot matrix screen. Oh, and the plunger itself is a facsimile of a handgun, because firearm violence sells.

Pictured: Sega in the early 2000s, clearly not giving any fucks about copyright law. 

And for the tables?  Here's my quick rundown of the playing fields you'll encounter in The Pinball of The Dead:

Wondering - After gunning down a shambling reanimated corpse who bears an uncanny resemblance to long-time WWE stalwart Mark Henry, you find yourself at the topmost screen - a metal-looking slab dotted with (unintentional?) tri-forces with a half dozen zombies on it. There are two slots with areas, clear giveaways you're supposed to smack your balls in there (that's what she said.) There's also a couple of skeletal looking ramps connected to the lower tiers, and this flashing blue disco ball that takes up most of the upper left hand corner of the screen. The second tier is the smallest ... it's essentially a piss yellow backdrop with a giant drain int he middle, with a gaggle of emerald-hued zombies doing a conga line to keep you from moving your way back up. The bottom of the screen features a giant clock (which, unless I'm really unobservant, doesn't move in real-time) with a mausoleum bumper. And, of course, near the ball drain, it's just swarming with monsters. It's probably the least interesting of the tables, but on the plus side, it's also probably the easiest and smoothest to play. 

Movement - After blowing away a very human looking federal agent (strangely, even if it's a direct head shot, he doesn't explode in a shower of gunk and gore), your ball lands in a very small playing field where your flippers are "shadowed" by a mirror image behind them on the table (yes, this does get confusing, especially during hectic ball-blasting activities.) Up top, you have two very large ramps and a couple of ball slots. The idea here is to get your ball all the way to the top-most corners of the table so it can go into a huge, spiraling ramp that makes either a zombie fetus or a gigantic grey brain grow. Beneath that, you've got a mostly blue, lab-themed playing field glutted with bats and fat-ass hillbilly zombies. This is probably the most frustrating table, because as soon as your ball plummets to the bottom tier, a bumper pops up preventing you from launching the ball straight up back into the top-most playing field and to unlock it, you have to nail a tough trick shot that is often made impossible because of the constantly respawning zombies. Although it's my least favorite of the tables to play, it does feature the game's most awesome music - this really jazzy, Italo disco number that's practically a long-lost Goblin track in midi format. 

Cemetery - The hardest table, but it's definitely the most awesome. You begin the stage by popping or not popping a cap in an anorexic zombie's ass and then you're immediately thrust inside a chunky, red playing field that almost certainly is supposed to mimic a pile of disemboweled entrails. Like "Wondering," the idea is to eliminate all of the zombies here so you can gain access to one of two trap doors leading to boss fights. That's a lot easier said than done, because if your ball drops down to the second tier, you are going to have to fight like a motherfucker to get it back up there (pretty much the only way to do is to bump it with a solo flipper, and you have to time the movement of the upper flippers just right to allow the ball enough wiggle room to squeeze throw.) It can be a little daunting, bu the atmospherics more than make up for it. For starters, did I mention that you are basically playing inside the remnants of a flayed corpse? As gnarly as that is, the oblique nods to other horror titans totally puts this table over the top. You've got chainsaw bumpers on the bottom screen, severed hands for flippers, what appears to be either Linda Blair in The Exorcist OR that one raggedy, evil looking with from Raimi's The Evil Dead just hanging out in the corner (bop her in the mouth and the bald zombie from the Dawn of the Dead poster pops out of the table!) and hey ... is it just me, or do those little wormy guys up top look remarkably like the titular creatures from the 1980s cult classic Deadly Spawn?

Remember, kids: shooting zombies creates mass murderers, while simply pummeling them to death with a gigantic metal sphere makes you a whimsical hobbyist.

And then, there are the boss fights. If you're familiar with The House of the Dead in the arcades or on the Dreamcast, you know what to expect here. Practically all of the major bosses from that game are represented, in some manner or fashion, and considering the gameplay restrictions, the battles are actually shockingly nuanced. Of course, you can only do so much with a ball and two sets of flippers, but each enemy requires a different approach. Some bosses you can simply smack at random, while others can only be polished off via ball trap assisted knockout blows. It necessitates a lot more strategy then you'd imagine, and some of the battles become quite challenging - and heated. And hey, I wasn't bullshitting about using the tilt button either - a lot of times, you're going to absolutely need it to keep the ball from straying off-course en route to its anticipated target.

Yep. A game that came out after 9/11, that refused to employ a battery backup. 

From an objective standpoint, just one look at the game and you will know immediately rather this one is right for you. If you love pinball, crappy horror and Sega, you will absolutely adore this one, and if you're not especially gaga about any of the three things mentioned above, well, you'll probably get bored with The Pinball of The Dead very fast. 

There are some cons, of course. At times, there is some noticeable screen freezing, which is absolutely a backbreaker for video pinball games. Furthermore, the physics are a little iffy, with the ball sometimes taking up to ten seconds to work its way out of certain spots (and dear lord, even for the points bonanza, do we really need to watch our ball spin around in a labyrinth of chutes for twenty seconds at a time?) While the challenge mode adds some replay, there really isn't a whole lot to the core gameplay. Once you polish off all the bosses (which, really, isn't that tall of an order), that's pretty much it, except of course, for beating your own personal high score. And I know I said this before, but fuck, is it hard to time your flipper strikes just right so as to bounce your ball up from one tier to the next. 

All that said, though, The Pinball of the Dead is still an incredibly fun little game, which provides a ton of entertainment for genre purists. As far as video pinball offerings go, I'd definitely say it's on par with stuff like Alien Crush and Crue Ball, and I'm pretty sure it's the best pinball game you'll find on the GBA (and in case you weren't aware of it, there are a lot of fucking pinball games on the GBA.) 

So what are you waiting for? This is pretty much the perfect game for late night, Halloween-season playthroughs. The horror aesthetics are just kitschy excellence, and the pick up and play nature of the game means you don't have to worry about long-term commitments or having to learn deeper, more nuanced mechanics. Just fire up your GBA, turn the red blood feature on and whack your flippers until your thumbs are numb or your eyelids are too heavy to make out what's on the screen. Even if you aren't necessarily a pinball fan, if you have even the slightest inclination towards B-horror goodness, you owe it to yourself to try this one at least once - I mean, until somebody makes us a proper Phantasm pinball game, this thing is destined to be the zenith of undead-slaying pinball action for a looooong time to come...


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