I've been playing pinball sims again a lot lately, and I've noticed that recent software understandably leans toward emulating the complex and flashy tables of the 1990s and later (and fantasy elaborations of same). But sometimes I want something simple and quick, like an old electromechanical table. There are some modern emulations of those, but another way to dial it back is to play some of the earliest home pinball sims, the pinball games made for the Atari VCS/2600. I know of three, which I can illustrate with other people's YouTube videos...Video Pinball
, Atari, 1980
Atari made three completely distinct videogames called "Video Pinball", unrelated except for being pinball sims. The first was a slick and pretty fun coin-op arcade game that superimposed a 1-bit B/W video display on a physical, disco-themed playfield model that was reflected in a half-silvered mirror. The second was a visually primitive stand-alone home console in the late 1970s, and the third was an Atari 2600 cartridge. This is the only one of the games here that I actually played back in the heyday of the 2600, and I played it a lot. Here's espaciodejuegos playing it:
This game looks OK, if blocky, and it takes care to make use of the whole screen, but partly for that reason it's easily the least like real pinball of these cartridges. The playfield is kind of weird. The bottom is a vast horizontal expanse that the tiny ball can just bounce around to its heart's content; you spend a lot of time waiting, and with some skill a ball can last for a very long time. (The harder difficulty switch setting opens a couple of small extra drain holes in the bottom.) On the other hand, it's the only one of these games that actually allows nudging, with a fairly generous tilt setting, by holding the fire button down and moving the joystick.
There are 1- and 2-player games. Aside from the per-player difficulty switches that open the drain holes, the only other game variation controls whether accumulated bumper values are held between balls.Midnight Magic
, Atari, 1984/86
This was one of those games released after the 1983 videogame crash that few people saw in its cartridge heyday, though it's gained some notoriety since then as a remarkably good pinball sim considering the platform. It seems to have been intended as a port of the popular personal-computer game David's Midnight Magic
, but that game had a layout shamelessly ripped off from the classic real pinball Black Knight
, and this 2600 game definitely doesn't. As played by highretrogamelord:
It's symmetrical, probably because the 2600 hardware made symmetrical playfields much easier to produce. (They cheat graphically a little by not actually showing a full plunger lane.) It has some aesthetic similarities to David's Midnight Magic,
though, and you can kind of see that they were trying to get some aspects of the Black Knight
layout in there.
This game is really good, and much, much more pinball-like than Video Pinball,
despite having no nudge. The playfield takes up much less of the screen, but it's the right shape and the bottom is like a real pinball machine, with inlanes and outlanes. With the default difficulty setting, the outlanes have always-active kickbacks in them and there's a pretty wide post in the center drain, which makes the game considerably easier; setting the difficulty to hard takes away the kickbacks and the center post, making it much more arcade-realistic. Like an old multi-player electromechanical, nothing about the table state is held between balls; that makes it a fairly challenging game in any event, and there's no shame in playing on the easier setting.
If I have a complaint about it, it's that the crucial drop targets at the top of the layout (which advance a multiplier if you get them all) are above the pop bumpers, so you can't really shoot for them from the bottom flippers, only from the side ones, which give you almost no ability to aim. It'd also be cool if, instead of the kickbacks being always on or off, you had to activate them by making some shot, like on many real pinballs. But trying to nail that spinner in the middle, or make the rollovers up in the corners, is a lot of fun.Bumper Bash
, Spectravideo, 1983
This one is really obscure, apparently very hard to find in actual cartridge form. I mostly remember Spectravideo for trying to introduce an MSX-based home computer in North America, but apparently they also made Atari cartridges. Theshadowsnose apparently has one, and has some entertaining commentary on it:
This isn't as pretty as Midnight Magic, but it might actually be my favorite of the three. If you play it in an emulator, you may have to mess with the control mappings a bit, because it was apparently intended to be used with an eccentric control scheme that reminds me a bit of what Farsight would do with Pinball Hall of Fame on the Wii decades later. It used the Atari 2600's paddle controllers, rotating dials usually used for ball-and-paddle games like Pong and Breakout. These had a red button on the side that was usually used to serve the ball, and they came in pairs that plugged into a single controller port with a Y-shaped connector. The idea was that you'd hold one of these in each hand and operate the flippers with the buttons, approximating the widely separated layout of the flipper buttons on a pinball machine. You could use one of the paddles to dial back the plunger.
This game has the most interesting layout of the three to me, because it's actually asymmetrical and has two sets of drop targets positioned where you can meaningfully shoot for them. Again, the bottom is pretty realistic. The lit rollovers at the top are held between balls, but the drop targets aren't. The ball physics is a little weird and janky compared to Midnight Magic, but I give the game major respect for its flipper physics: you can actually trap the ball and hold it on the flipper in this game, and I think it's the only 2600 pinball sim where that basic real-world pinball technique is really feasible. It makes the target shooting particularly fun.
Again, there's no nudge--the copy on the box tried to paint that as a feature by joking about it being "cheating". But the game has enough to interest pinball fans anyway.