Microsoft has done a fairly good job recently of reviving games for their nostalgia value. The Revenge of Arcade and Return of Arcade collections brought back classic '80s arcade games from an different era when video games first began to reveal the possibilities of electronic gaming. Before that, relatively low-tech pinball tables ruled the arcade floors, and now, Microsoft has turned the clock back even further to explore the unsought realm of historical pinball simulation. Because of Microsoft's decision to limit itself to one pinball company, Microsoft Pinball Arcade comes off as more of an interactive history lesson than a collection of good games.
Microsoft Pinball Arcade attempts to simulate seven pinball games from manufacturer Gottlieb, the first being from 1931 when David Gottlieb designed the "first" pinball game called Baffle Ball. The rest of the tables are from the succeeding decades, showcasing innovations in design and play. Included in this collection are Baffle Ball (1931), Humpty Dumpty (1947), Knock Out (1950), Slick Chick (1963), Spirit of 76 (1976), Haunted House (1982), and Cue Ball Wizard (1992).
The available variations in design guarantee that each table plays remarkably different from any other. In pinball, you're basically playing "against" the design of the table so that the goal is to overcome the obstacles with a limited number of control factors (flippers, nudging, and plunger). The layout of the varied tables requires a good bit of thinking while playing to make sure you nudge or flip at exactly the right moment. To help you through all this, Microsoft's in-game documentation is an excellent reference source for understanding how pinball strategy works (how to flip and "catch" the ball) as well as giving complete layouts of the tables with descriptions of all the scoring elements within the games themselves. This resource is a godsend for novices who usually just pound the flippers in hopes of getting big points.
However, what the variations in table design don't provide is an assortment of the "best of the best" that pinball has to offer. Sure the tables are old and give you a great sense of how far pinball has come, but with all the money Microsoft has, couldn't it spare a few more bucks to include great tables from manufacturers Williams and Bally? The result is a collection of tables that range from confusing designs such as Humpty Dumpty (with no bottom flippers, only outward-angled side flippers) to a classic such as Spirit of 76, which is almost a picturesque version of pinball from its golden years.
The one game element that really draws you in is the faithful reproduction of the sounds from all the tables. Anything from a ball hitting a steel pin to the distinct sound of a bumper will make you sit up and notice this game amongst the myriad pinball titles out there. Even when the table design is frustrating, you're going to find yourself aching to get the next bonus table feature just so you can hear some classic bell sounds you haven't experienced yet.
What also elevates this game's style to above average is the faithful rendering of the back-glass scoring system from each table. The newer tables such as Haunted House and Cue Ball Wizard use electronic font displays to show your score, while the older tables use lighted signs such as "2 million" in combination with rolling dials akin to automobile odometers. The producers of the game even went so far as to make you wait for the dials to roll/reset to zero before you could play another game.
If you're eager to learn pinball, Microsoft Pinball Arcade is a great history lesson, as well as a good way to learn table navigation and scoring techniques. If you're just looking for a solid pinball game to pass the time, there are other games out there with more graphically entrancing features and more modern sounds. But, if you're an elite pinball player looking for the only game that will let you go back in time for a gem such as Slick Chick, this is the only game for you. Microsoft has done a good job recreating the past, but when it comes down to gameplay, you might wonder if other tables from the past would have been more worthy of recreation.