Pinball's days have definitely come and gone. It's dropped from being a safe investment for arcade owners (and Arnold from Happy Days), to where it's more or less extinct. Not too many people seem to care about this fact, and that indifference has probably contributed to why pinball machines have almost completely disappeared. You could argue that its due to its simplicity, but successful arcade games have always been very simplistic, even the few that make any money these days (DDR for example). In fact, the extremely basic nature of pinball has generally always been what pinball fans like about it. By allowing players access to everything at all times and never changing the field, players never have to "wait to get to the good part" - something that not everybody considers ideal about more linear games. Perhaps this attitude is in part due to pinball being perceived by certain people as being "old-fashioned", but that doesn't do anything to reduce interest in foosball, billiards, darts, poker, or other forms of gambling. More likely, this attitude is due to pinball's virtual disappearance from arcades - it's difficult to maintain interest in something if it doesn't even have any real visibility anymore - and that fact is due to its obscene cost for arcade owners. Pinball machines these days reach into quadruple digits and they have to be constantly repaired and maintained - something most arcade owners lack the ability or finances to do.
Luckily, pinball has been able to continue in video game form. It might be impossible to recreate perfect physics, but some games do it very well. The two kinds of games have a great deal of cross-over interest among both their fan-bases and designers, which generally isn't true when it comes to other kinds of games. This is because pinball and video games are actually very similar in their nature - both operate in real time, both control without players ever directly manipulating game pieces, and both have designs that allow the machine to "officiate" itself - so selling video game fans on pinball seems to be much easier than it might be with certain other "real world" games. As a result, the genre has been able to maintain a cult audience among video game fans and receive fairly steady releases for consoles and computer operating systems long after they've disappeared from arcades.
However, it took awhile before the genre began to see regular quality releases. Most games released during the 1980s are for western computer operating systems and are absolutely horrible. After about 1989, there were several games released for NES, but only a few are really noteworthy and most have rather poor physics. After the 16-bit era began the quality of game physics and overall table designs skyrocketed, with games like the Crush Pinball series, Kirby's Pinball Land, and other great games. While these remain masterpieces of the genre, the best physics were mostly for PC and Mac games (though generally it's the opposite for table designs). Also, few developers had been able to make convincing 3D pinball games where the entire table was visible at all times. Instead, the view in these early games is generally from directly above the table, and the view generally either moves with the ball or changes screens when the ball moves to a higher or lower level. Among the earliest convincing "3D" games, and perhaps the very first for consoles, is a seemingly completely forgotten series of two games for SNES/SFC called Super Pinball.
Super Pinball was created by a very obscure developer called KAZe and published by Meldac. Both games are console exclusives with excellent and identical ball physics. Both have identical graphical styles, stylized digitized audio, and alternating multi player modes. Both have three tables - each displayed at an aerial perspective angle via some pretty decent scaling effects for the balls. Both tables also have an autoplunger, where you launch each ball by pushing a button rather than pulling a plunger back. Not any good at pinball? Little Wing's Pinball Tutorial is a site with advanced techniques from those awesome people at Little Wing (an independent pinball game developer for PC and Mac.) The fact that even the most advanced of those techniques are actually reliable in each Super Pinball instalment is testament to how good the physics are in both games. Just try the technique called "Deflection Post Transfer" to see what I mean.
Super Pinball: Behind the Mask is most immediately set apart from most other original pinball video games by the sense of flow that each table possesses. All three tables achieve this via designs that crowd the upper middle of the table while still allowing the ball to easily move around, above, and below where most of the action is concentrated - so the ball remains in constant rapid motion. The individual tables themselves are each flawlessly designed, and remain among the best original tables in a pinball sim to this day. However, more complex elements, like multi-level tables or ramps, are completely absent. This is obviously intended to maximize the sense of flow in each table, but pinball table designer Steve Ritchie has been able to make both elements work together flawlessly for decades, so it would have been interesting to see here. Also, while there is a similar flow to each table, they each have their own design and feel.
There are two very slightly different modes of play in Super Pinball. First is Competition, where up to four people can play, taking turns after each ball if there are multiple players. The second mode is called Conquest, where you play each table in order and only progress to the next after you score 100 million points. Gameplay-wise, both of these mode are totally identical. For each table, the left flipper is controlled by pushing Left on the directional pad or L on the control pad, and the right flipper is controlled by pushing A or R on the control pad. Any other face button will activate nudging.
"Jolly Joker" is a jester themed pinball table and the most basic, straightforward, and easiest table in the game. It also flows the best. On the lower left, there is a pocket below where it says "Jack in the Box" that will bring up a roulette game displayed on a dot matrix display. To the right of that, there's a lane that leads to the other side of the table, and if you make ten complete laps through this lane (entering from either end) you will be rewarded ten million points. To the upper middle of the table, there are three bumpers that can be reached easily via a lane to their left. To the far right of the table is a lane that will give you one letter of the word "JOKER" each time it is shot. Spelling JOKER will activate a two ball multi-ball mode. After activating multi-ball, shoot the lane to the right of the bumpers and then shoot JOKER again. If this is accomplished within thirty seconds you are rewarded a jackpot worth twenty million points. Shooting JOKER while the third ball is in play will automatically activate multi-ball.
Blackbeard and Ironmen
"Blackbeard and Ironmen" is a pirate themed pinball table. It's more simplistic than Joker, but it's also more challenging. To the lower left, there is a pocket below where is says "CAVE" that will activate a roulette. To the upper middle, there are two bumpers above a skull. A horseshoe shaped path moves through the skull, and you cab get nine million points by lapping it nine times. Shooting the lane to the right of the bumpers near an image of a pirate's face will give you a letter in "GOLD", and spelling the entire word will activate a two ball multi-ball mode where you can get earn a jackpot worth huge points.
"Wizard" is a wizard themed pinball table. It's design is more angular (in a good way) than the other two tables, and it's probably easier than Blackbeard and Ironmen (though I have heard people say that it's the other way around). To the lower left, there is a pocket below where it says "ENIGMA" that will activate a roulette. Two lanes over to the right of that, there is a lane leading to three bumpers, which can also be reached via a lane to the far right. To the right of the bumpers is a horseshoe shaped path that will grant nine million points if it's lapped nine times. Between the horseshoe shaped path is a pocket that will give you a letter in "WIZARD" each time it is shot. If the entire word is spelled it will activate a two ball multi-ball mode. After activating multi-ball, you should try to shoot the lane to the left of the bumpers. After that, you have thirty seconds to shoot WIZARD for a massive jackpot.
Super Pinball's immense level of quality shows that KAZe's designers were obviously pinball enthusiasts, and its presentation further cements this fact. Each table looks as authentic as you could hope a 16-bit pinball game would, but it goes much further than authenticity. As is the case with just about any pinball table in video games or otherwise, there are corresponding visual motifs to go with the each table's theme. All three tables have awesome looking sprite art back glass designs that are shown before launching the first ball and after any ball is lost. Lighting effects are recreated by rapidly switching between two different shades for each lit sprite, which works amazingly well and even gives them a great flicker effect. A dot matrix display will be show your score after each ball is lost and will appear on screen at appropriate moments, like when multi-ball is activated or if you get a jackpot. This display has different designs for each table that correspond with their theme, and a few of them look really fantastic. They even designed an awesome looking title screen with an image of two masks.
For Super Pinball II: The Amazing Odyssey, those guys at KAZe had the smarts to avoid releasing a rehashing the same tables. Instead, they released a game that feels like a genuine sequel with tables that are distinct from those of the original game. What really sets the tables here apart from those in the original is that they are based around less conventional elements. The great sense of flow that defines the tables of the original is mostly gone, but it has been replaced with designs that are a bit busier and have really significant differences from the original tables and from each other, rather than, say, slightly different bumper placement or themes.
Both modes of play are back, but the limit of players for Competition Mode has been changed to two people. The controls have been slightly altered from the original game. After you choose your table you are given the option of two control setups. For the first control setup the left and right flippers are controlled by pushing Left on the directional pad and A on the control pad, respectively, and nudging is executed by pushing L or R on the controler. For the second control setup, the left and right flippers are controlled by pushing L and R on the control pad, respectively, and nudging is activated by pushing Left on the directional pad or A on the control pad.
Space Sister has an image of a woman on the backglass and a table that heavily resembles Samus Aran from Metroid, down to her arm cannon and color pallette, except without most of her space suit. Space Sister is the most simplistic table of the three, but it's also the only multi level table in the entire series, and might be the most memorable as a result. After launching a ball it will enter into play on the second level, where there are two bumpers, two pockets, and two flippers. A ramp to the far left, a ramp to the far right, and a ramp between the flippers all lead back down to the first level. The lower level doesn't stand out as much as the higher level does, but it still factors prominently into play. To the lower left there is a pocket that will activate a roulette, and to the immediate right of the leftmost ramp is a pocket that is blocked by a target. Shoot the target and then the pocket to light up the rightmost pocket on the second level. If that pocket is shot while lit it will activate multi-ball. After multi-ball is activated, shoot the same pocket that activated it again for a huge jackpot.
The Spy Eyes
The Spy Eyes has a James Bond inspired theme, and even shows an image of a man that looks exactly like Bond-era Sean Connery on the table. The Spy Eyes is more complex than Space Sister, but it's also slightly easier and is probably the most original table in the entire series. There are three bumpers on the table, with two to the upper far left and the remaining to the upper far right. All three bumpers are blocking a path that leads to the other side of the table, and it's possible for the ball to move to the other side after bouncing off any of the three bumpers. If the ball makes ten laps across this path, then you'll be rewarded with ten million points. In between the bumpers are two ramps. The left ramp leads to the left flipper, and the right ramp can either lead to the left flipper or to a roulette and then the right flipper. In between the ramps are three targets that each have three spaces directly below them. Each time that any of these targets is shot, it will light up a space, and if all every space is lit up ,the three targets will be removed and two empty spaces will be revealed behind them. Shooting the ball into both of these empty spaces will activate multi-ball. After multi-ball is activated, shoot the lane to the far right for a jackpot worth huge points. The Spy Eyes is also the only table in the series that has a stopper between the flippers.
Showtime is the busiest and most crowded table in the game and in the entire series. It's also the only table with a mini-game, and it might be the most interesting table overall. To the lower left, there is a pocket below the clown that will activate a roullette. Among the things that you can get from it is something call PIE ATTACK. This is a mini-game played on a dot matrix display where you move a pie to the left and right with the flipper buttons and throw the pie at oncoming clowns by pushing B on the control pad. Moving to the right of that, past a lane, are two bumpers. To the far right there is a lane that leads to the other side of the table. If moves through this path ten times, then you'll be rewarded with ten million points. It's also possible to make a lap from the other side above the bumpers by having a bumper bounce the ball through this path, but that is not going to happen often. To the left of the rightmost lane, there is a ramp that leads to the left flipper. To the left of the ramp, directly below the circus tent, is a empty space that for activating multi-ball and gaining a jackpot worth big points. Also amusing is the face of Audrey Hepburn showing up in the dot matrix display.
If you're looking for pinball games for consoles, PC, or Mac, try Pinball Hall of Fame for PlayStation 2 and GameCube, or Gottlieb Pinball Classics for PS2, Xbox, Wii, and PSP, or any of Little Wing's masterful pinball tables for PC and Mac. As far as pinball games with less simulation elements, I would recommend Naxat Soft's "Crush Pinball" series for TG-16, Genesis, and SFC, or Kirby's Pinball Land for Game Boy, or Battle Pinball (my favorite) for SFC.