Some of the best arcade games ever created have nothing to do with a video screen. Sure, there's the back display to show the score, but the amazing real-world physics on display are due to an actual ball bouncing against targets made of plastic and metal. Of course, the problem with the real world is it's tough to find a pinball game in a good state of repair, if you can find one at all. Seeing as the odds of running across an arcade stocked with some of the best pinball tables ever in pristine shape is just about zero, there's Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection to pick up the slack.
The Williams Collection is thirteen classic tables reproduced as accurately as possible with near-perfect physics. From the early days of Gorgar, to Eugene Jarvis's sound work on the excellent Firepower and Space Shuttle, to the incredibly popular Medieval Madness, it's a walk through the history of the greatest pinball developer ever. That's more than just hyperbole, too. Williams had a sense of design in their tables that no other company could match. The layout, sounds, lights, and overall feel tended to make their pinballs irresistably playable.
Take Firepower, for example. It's a pretty simple table from the early '80s, without all the gimmickry that became so prevalant later, but once that first multiball is earned it's hard to quit playing. There are six targets above an empty middle field, and hitting them all lights two out of three ball locks. Hitting them again lights the third lock, and once they're filled all hell breaks loose. The board, which had seemed open and maybe a little too sparse, is immediately transformed into a high-speed target range in a way that a more cluttered table couldn't manage. The simplicity of the design focuses the player on nailing a set of clear goals, making it far too easy to insta-load into a new game once the last ball has drained.
Which isn't to say the busier tables suffer in comparison. Whirlwind has chutes, holes, an extra flipper, and more packed into a space that seems too small to hold it while still keeping the goals relatively clear. Or at least, clear enough after reading the instructions. Every table has a full rundown of what each target does, complete with voiceover and arrows pointing out exactly what's being talked about. You could probably sort out what everything in Gorgar does pretty easily just by playing a few games, but something as involved as Tales of the Arabian Nights requires a bit of help.
After a few practice runs through the various tables you'll notice that one machine has remained locked. The menu to select a game isn't a list, but rather a set of games in an arcade, complete with upstairs and back room, and while it's a bit clunky to use it gets the job done. In the back room, however, there's a table that can only be unlocked by completing the Williams Challenge, which is a marathon run attempting to get a score goal on every pinball in the collection. The score goals aren't that bad once you know your way around each machine, but the reward, as it turns out, is a complete letdown. Jive Time is a crusty old relic of the 70s that has a certain charm, but is mercilessly unfair compared to the rest of the games. The gap between flippers is wide as a house, the sides seem to come equipped with gravity wells, and scores of 1000 points or less on a ball aren't unusual. This wouldn't be so bad except one of the Challenge Goals is to earn 100,000 points in a single game, and by that point the way Challenges and Achievements work together have created a desire to attain a good level of skill on each table. Making the prize for completing the epic quest of the Williams Challenge a game with such a high luck factor is one of the only sour notes in the whole package.
Achievements (or trophies on the PS3 version) are tied to table goals, and each machine has ten to chase after. They're divided into two categories, with the Wizard Goals only becoming available after the Basic Goals are cleared. Earning the goals not only rewards you with spiffy achievement points but also forces you to learn the table, becoming a better player. Becoming better makes the game more fun, leading to wanting to play more, in an endless recursive feedback loop. It's far too easy to lose a couple hours to “one more game”, only to notice that weird ball of fire in the sky seems to be lighting up the horizon. Again.
Williams Pinball Collection is the best kind of arcade retrospective. It presents a good number of machines that are difficult to experience nowadays, all in a highly polished package. The tables look great, with every detail including coin slot and instruction cards preserved, and they play incredibly well. The only complaint (aside from the letdown of Jive Time) is actually wishful thinking, in that there are literally dozens of great pinball machines from Williams's history that couldn't be included, even passing over the movie licensed games. Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection succeeds on all counts, in that it's not only a blast to knock a ball around the playing field but also leaves you wanting an even more generous selection of pinball history.