Review: Here's some real old-school gaming fo' ya.
Like the arcade gaming scene itself, pinball tables have become an endangered species. This ancient ancestor of modern gaming, once the staple of arcades, bars, restaurants, and shopping malls is a rare sight indeed, unless you find a random collection of tables in video game form or in some dusty old establishment clinging to the old days. The former is the case in this instance, as Capcom USA has released a wholly original take on the old genre, with Flipnic: Ultimate Pinball. Originally a concept from Sony Computer Entertainment, Inc., Flipnic is not your daddy's pinball game, but instead designed and fixed up for the modern era. It manages to maintain the traditional conventions of the game, but blended with concepts and ideas foreign to such a simply designed form of gaming. However, Flipnic falls short in many areas, most notably table designs; there's a couple dandies but otherwise the spot-on physics and mostly authentic pinball action are hampered by terrible designs and boring challenges and an ultimate feeling of repetition because of all this. At $20 it's not a hurt on the wallet, but unless you're desperate for pinball gaming, Flipnic won't appeal to the majority of gamers out there. It's a niche game in a world where niche games are becoming almost mainstream, but don't expect a revolution on the level of a Katamari Damacy.
Flipnic is split into five distinct table varieties; Biology, Metallurgy, Optics, Geometry, and Theology, each of which contains more than one take on that theme. When you play the basic single player mode, you can only choose from one Biology board; the rest you have to unlock by completing challenges. You can play any of the other themes except for Theology, but you can only fiddle with them for a little while before the 'trial' time limit runs out. However, you can play the base form of any theme in the 'free' mode for either 1 or 2 players, with the rest unlocking as you open them in the base single player setup. 2 player is not the usual 'take turns' format of arcade pinball, but instead done in the form of 'mini-games' ? for instance, Metallurgy features a 2 player basketball shoot out-esque game, and Geometry has a pong-style getup. And as you'd expect, there's no online play for these games; typical of a budget title. However I could see myself playing these mini-games with some of my old-school gamer friends years down the line due to how much fun they are.
Flipnic has managed to maintain the basic physics and gameplay of traditional pinball very well. The default controls are a bit weird at first, since the left flipper was mapped to the left directional button, and the right flipper is controlled with the circle button. This can be changed, as the game offers a fully customizable control scheme, not a real surprise for something with simplistic controls. The button used for the left flipper also functions as the trigger for turning on and off some bumpers around each table, which sometimes gets really agitating, and it's the one thing you can't actually map to a different button. You can even 'tilt' the screen like you'd tilt a table, and it functions the same way, giving your ball a little oomph to the desired direction. However, just like real pinball, you can get caught tilting too much and lose a credit because of it. You have to be really subtle about it, because Flipnic has it running quite sensitive. Otherwise the physics are pretty much dead-on, and most people who've experienced numerous pinball tables will find the sweet spot, and the pressure-sensitive PS2 controller works well to mimic the variety of a ball coming off a flipper. This isn't applicable if you use the default controls since the d-pad is not pressure sensitive, but if you map it to an analog button it works well. It feels pretty much like real pinball.
In many ways, that's where the traditional aspects of Flipnic end, and the wacky, modern-day weirdness begins. Where most pinball tables consist of one area, this game makes each area one massive board, with different tiers to fiddle around on, which you travel to and from by knocking the ball into a chute that transports you around. Each little area consists of challenges to take on, though only a few are required to actually clear it and advance to the next table. Due to its bizarre Japanese nature, most of the challenges range from common to absurd, like knocking balls out of a tree to chase off a UFO before it captures your ball, hitting bumpers to knock bananas out of them to feed a hungry monkey, or collecting flamingos on a completely separate board. Just really wacky stuff, and the goofy cutscenes that setup these games only adds to it. Of course, after you've seen these cutscenes a few times, they get really old but you can't skip them, which can break up momentum. In many ways, the challenges don't even feel like a pinball-related thing, and skew more towards being a platformer of sorts, even a puzzler in certain situations. Certain challenges involve hitting a set amount/kind of bumpers, and this is done by knowing when to raise and lower the ones you can. Others demand you to hit the flippers in perfect unison to reach the top of a mountain or a hard-to-reach bumper.
The biggest surprise is the Geometry levels; while all other tables are fairly traditional, Geometry is far from it ? it goes into the old-school like you might not expect. Instead of an actual table, you're thrust into a PS2 version of Super Breakout (or for those more modern, Alleyway for Game Boy), complete with the goofy sound effects of the Atari 2600 era, and you must maneuver the ball around by hitting it on a 'line' and knock out colored bars and collect keys littered around. It's just insane, and probably my favorite level. It's not just one little screen either, instead there's a handful of little areas full of blocks to wipe off the screen. It's a crying shame there's no sort of 'paddle' controller for this like Breakout had, it would be just perfect. It comes right towards the end of the game though, which is really disappointing because you have to suffer through some awfully boring tables on your way to true old-school bliss. Who would have ever expected a relative newcomer like SCEI to pull a rabbit out of their hat like this, with their own take on a game that's almost 30 years old now. Amazing.
While the Geometry level gets all the praise, the opening tables, Biology, are also pretty nice, though smallish and not really challenging in parts. It's far superior than the other tables up to Geometry though, as the middle stages are drab and boring, with mediocre challenges and flat-out crappy generic designs. It's just not a lot of fun, and there's few 'whoa, awesome!' moments, which you can get in the initial Biology level. It's almost like they should have put the Geometry stage in the middle somewhere to break up the monotony, just to keep someone playing. Because of this, Flipnic can get really repetitive after a while, since a lot of challenges are completed on pure luck, so having to redo a particularly boring table isn't much fun. On the whole the game is not really difficult per se, but somewhat mindless at times. As well as the game actually plays, it just doesn't have enough to make for a long-lasting single player mode, but it does excel in the multiplayer department due to the simplicity of the mini-games. Flipnic is actually an ambitious game considering this is a real attempt at revitalizing a lost genre of gaming, but it just doesn't work all the time. It's fun in spurts, but at the same time, the game is designed for long-term play, not a quick fix.
Flipnic looks pretty sharp graphically, not a real surprise since there's not a lot going on here, when a little silver ball is the star of the show. Most levels match their themes; the Biology level is forested and has a lot of wildlife scattered around, the Optics stages look like your expected futuristic society, and of course, the Geometry tables are old-school basic yet old-school purdy. SCEI managed to put in some cool visual effects when you complete challenges; some parts of the table change permanently because of your actions. Because there's not really a lot of action, it's expected that Flipnic maintains a solid framerate, a necessary thing if you're going to emulate a pinball game on a console. The scattered cutscenes are goofy and fun, though as mentioned, repetitive. The audio consists of your typical silly voices explaining a situation, along with a standard stage theme that wears thin really fast if you're stuck on a table or trying hard to complete every single objective. Neither the graphics or audio are all that offensive though, and since you'll be spending most of your time bouncing off bumpers and feeding monkeys, it's not something you will spend a lot of time paying attention to.