The Ultimate Pinball Quest logo

Pinball plays an important role in the lives of the AF team. When the going gets tough around deadline week, a goggle of writers, techies and artists are often to be found grabbing a half-hour break croded around a Terminator, Twilight Zone or Creature From the Black Lagoon Table.

And when the deadline has passed and another excellent edition of AF is rolling off the presses, you'll find us in celebratory mood, crowded around an Indiana Jones, Lethal Weapon or Jurassic Park machine. Playing the silver ball is relaxing, invigorating and alluring and most of us are hooked.

So, when a new pinball game arrives, there's always a buzz of excitement at the office. But the reaction provoked by The Ultimate Pinball Quest was not so much of excitement as curiosity bordering on bemusement.

Quirky, that's the word. Or is it bonkers? Or maybe dire? No, Pinball Quest is a decidedly quirky game. In Arcade Mode you have a choice of three tables - Wasteland, Heavy Metal and Antarctica. The last two are extremely average, but Wasteland is fun because you have to work your way up the table through a series of flippers, which can become a frustrating and fiendishly addictive exercise.

You can also select the bonus tables, so you can play these levels without having to go through the rigmarole of shooting the bonus holes.

But it's the Adventure Mode that suggests that Pinball Quest was created by somebody with a healthy disregard for the normal conventions of games and, for that matter, pinball. In Adventure Mode you're back on the Wasteland table, but there's an animated intro sequence featuring some old greybeard, and three scantily-clad women in crystal balls.

Apparently the sun of Calypso has entered its third zenith. The three daughters of the river, who were mistresses of all destinies, have stolen the six elements of life that ensured temporal and ecological balance and you've go to find them.

The Adventure Mode is a splendid idea. Unfortunately, it's not entirely clear what you're supposed to do, but it's good fun pining from the ball around trying to find out. In this respect Pinball Quest is close to reality because nobody can understand the little game cards tucked under the glass on real tables - least of all, I suspect, the people who wrote them.

Including puzzle, adventure or shoot-em-up themes in a pinball game is the way to go - it's much more interesting than bland pinball-sims such as Pinball Dreams and Pinball Fantasies, but the Ultimate Pinball Quest makes it too complicated.

There are other downsides: two of the tables are poor, and the third becomes tedious when you realise you're working your way up through the same three playing areas.

The graphics are naff, the music is drab - the Wasteland table has a peculiar accordion influence - and you only get one score displayed on screen at once, so it's never clear who's winning a multi-player game, there's far too much disk-swapping and at £30 it's much too expensive.

But hey, it's got flippers and a nice silver ball, so it can't be all bad.

The Ultimate Pinball Quest logo

Those ladies down there look like they have got better things to think than pinball. Wagnerian harmony, for example.

Hmm. I dunno about this one. To me it just seems hopelessly dull and ill-conceived, but Steve Faragher has proclaimed it his favourite game of the month, and has been playing it almost continuously in conjunction with Richard Jones from off Amiga Format.

I have watched them doing it, too, bouncing a ball around a series of largely empty screens as if life could not possibly get any more exciting.

"Ooh!" goes Steve, making use of the 'quirk he has discovered whereby if you hold down the left flipper and fire off the ball, it goes straight up onto screen two. "Terrific stuff! I am on screen three! Oh no - screen two again. Screen three! Screen four!" (which is identical to screen one). "Screen five!" (The same as screen 2 - there are actually just three screens on table one, each one repeated twenty times. The other two tables are rather more conventional).

"You have just scored another 1,000,000" chips in Richard.

"Table six and - yes! - through the warp onto table ten!" cries Steve, rising from his chair enthusiastically.

The accordion-based background music grinds on relentlessly.

"Table eleven" points out Richard.

"Oh - table ten again. Table nine. Table eight". (The ball plunges downwards, unchecked by bumpers, ramps or any of the other things you would expect in a proper pinball game).

"Table seven. Table six. Table fice. Ooh - table six! Table five again. Table four. Three. Two. One. Oh".

"My go" Richard fares similarly, although he does manage to make it as far as a bonus table in which a small skeleton caterpillar appears and crawls about on the screen for a bit. And then it is Steve's go again.

I do not understand. I like pinball games normally, but this one just seems crap - empty, repetitive and unexciting. Completely without virtue, in fact. So what do Steve and Richard find so riveting about it? (They are playing again now, in fact).

Perhaps it is the fantasy/adventure/quest element that so fascinates them. Play the game in Adventure Mode and a story supposedly unfolds as you go. It mainly seems to consist of pictures of almost-naked ladies standing on the screen with their chests puffed out, but the manual explain it thus:

Table seven. Table six. Table five.

"Relentlessly time trickles between our fingers and nothing, it seems, can ever stop it. But things were not always like this. As the sun Calypso entered its third Zenith, the three daughters of the river, who were mistresses of all destinies, decided to steal the 6 elements of life ensuring the temporal and ecological balance of the planet. Immediately the galaxy underwent major upheavals... fear and its hideous face gripped the souls... die rather than surrender... six symbols of life..." etc.

The idea of a pinball game that tells a story as you clock up the points is a neat one, but in practice it just seems to involve getting stuck on the first table for ages while occasionally looking at rude pictures.

So what you tend to end up doing is putting it in Arcade Mode, which is the same, only without the pictures, and you get to choose which of the three tables you play on, and other players can join in. But then Pinball Quest is slap bang up against Pinball Dreams/Fantasies, and it comes out of it with nasty split lip and a nose-bleed.

Admittedly there is nothing wrong with the way the ball bounces around. It is fast, and slick, and seems to go in all the right directions when it hits things. The flippers seem a bit short, though, so it is always going down between them. Another good thing is the way Pinball Quest takes advantage of the fact that it is running on a computer, giving you bonus screens and things flying about that simply would not be possible on an ordinary, real life pinball table, in a pub.

But at the same time, it seems to miss out so much. There is hardly anything to bash the ball into - points are generally scored by rolling the ball over special bits of the screen. That means you have to hack away relentlessly at the ball with the flippers, trying to get it to do something interesting. In proper pinball, on the other hand, the ball occasionally shoots off on its own, bouncing about all over the place and clocking up millions of points, while you stand there helplessly (but happily) waiting for it to return to your control.

And 'features' are noticeably thin on the ground. There are a few things you can hit the ball into and it pops out again a couple of seconds later. You can 'tilt'. And there are bits where you have got to light up a whole set of things to get some points. But that is really it. No multi-ball. No ramps that you can go up. No huge things that light up and make funny noises if you hit them hard enough.

Only three tables, too. And they are not even particularly big ones (bonus screens excepted). You would expect a game that comes on three disks, with the words 'Ultimate' and 'Quest' in its title, to be pretty enormous. But no.

What is really missing from Pinball Quest, though, is any sort of real pinball atmosphere. The hooters and sirens and thuds and clanks and flashing lights that should be there are not, and instead we are given a bit of fantasy nonsense and some accordion music. (There do not even seem to be any sound effects if you play it on an A600). Plus, when it is accessing the disk (which it does too often for comfort), the screen goes black and it writes 'LOADING' on the screen. And then, while it is decrunching whatever it has loaded, it gets rid of the 'LOADING' and writes 'PLEASE WAIT'. Gnuk.

So, er, sorry. This should have been good, but is merely average. Steve can write an On The Other Hand box if he wants (No thanks Jonathan, I am bored of it now - Steve).

The Ultimate Pinball Quest logo


Pinball wizards come and go, some are fast and some are slow. Of so I've heard. My favourite pinball conversion to date was Devil Crash on the PC-Engine (Dragon's Fury on Mega Drive) - and that goes back some time. Pinball Dreams and Pinball Fantasies have come close, they certainly made the grade, have high addiction levels and are the best on the Amiga, but favourites will be favourites. That's one thing about Pinball though: If you love it you'll play it again and again, if you don't you'll still play it but it wont stand the test of time.

The Ultimate Pinball Challenge is not only a pinball game - it's also an adventure of sorts. You can play it either as a standard arcade game. with a choice of three tables, or else take part in an adventure which sees you travelling through all three tables, from the easiest to the most difficult and via the bonus games to the bitter end, a conflict where you pit your balls against the most wicked witch this side of the Yellow Brick Road.

In fact, each table is under the protection of a witch: The desert table, Wasteland, has one called Wuhan (she's a fox), the ice table, Antartica, has one called Omdura (she's a babe) while the Heavy Metal table, the last level of the adventure, hides Friela (and she's neither).

What's in it for the average Pinball fan then? Well, a lot, and then again not much either. There's no doubting The Ultimate Pinball Challenge's size and complexity. The first level has 60 screens and all levels have bonus screens that boost your score impressively. It's also quite difficult. It's just that, in trying to give us so much, they seem to have missed the point.

An Amiga pinball game should be a computer version of what we see in the arcade, the pub or the chip shop. The conventional pinball table has only a very limited space to create its effect, and within that space, the more gimmicks, bells, whistles and gaping holes for your ball to disappear into the better. The key to a good game is how busy it is. Speed and distraction are your greatest enemies.

Boredom, however, is your greatest enemy in The Ultimate Pinball Challenge, that and the weird and not-so-wonderful soundtrack (sounds like a dodgy sci-fi movie). It's a difficult game to play - I just wish I had more incentive to keep going at it in arcade mode, which is prirnarily why I would have made the purchase.

The adventure aspect sounds good, if you're into that sort of thing then fire away and try to achieve the final goal - this may provide more incentive. But I just wanted to get a high score for the hell of it, and the lack of fun in trying to achieve this simple goal was amazing.

If you are really starved of new pinball action, and the adventure element sounds attractive, then this game could be for you. Otherwise maybe not.