The truth of the matter is, 1981's Video Pinball is a very strong title on par with such fine games as Dodge 'Em or Othello. I doubt it motivated anyone to purchase a 2600, but it's certainly a nice game to pull out and play every now and then. Yeah, the graphics aren't exactly pretty and the sound borders on obnoxious, but the game is terribly addictive.
Video Pinball, as the name implies, is a simulation of a pinball machine. Why programmers have been obsessed through the years with simulating a mechanical game which home consoles and arcade machines were supposed to replace is beyond me. However, most consoles - past and present - have had at least one pinball title available. Video Pinball is one of the better simulations out there.
The thing which makes this title so enjoyable is the fact players can do much more than passively watch the ball bounce around and hit the flippers on occasion when the time is right. Instead, this game effectively uses the joystick button to allow the player to "nudge" the machine in one direction or another. Of course, using such "body English" (as the Video Pinball manual describes it) was common on pinball machines. If the ball was about to go out of play (for example), it wasn't unusual to see a player pound the heck out of a pinball machine or lean on it in an attempt to keep the game alive. Using too much force, however, would tilt the machine, causing the thing to pretty much shut down until the ball went out of play.
Indeed, Video Pinball allows one to hit the action button, move the joystick around and influence the way the ball moves. However, one has to be wary of the hated tilt which will occur if too much force is applied. Learning to nudge the ball effectively is the secret to winning this game - a nudge at the right time will keep the ball in play or steer it into a desired bonus. Simply bumping the flippers is a very minor part of Video Pinball, in fact.
The ability to nudge the ball, while a great feature, can be viewed as too much of a good thing. Once who learns how to nudge the ball can keep the ball in play for a very long time. Luckily, the difficulty switches help remedy that particular problem. The "a" (expert) setting will open a couple of ball traps on the bottom of the screen, thus increasing the complexity of the game considerably.
Now, a pinball game isn't worth a thing if it doesn't offer some opportunities to earn bonuses. Video Pinball has plenty of those. There's a chute with the Atari Fuji in it which grants a free ball if it's hit four times. There's also a chute with a rollover in it which provides bonus points after the ball falls out of play. And, you've got three diamond-shaped "drop targets." When all of them are hit, the points yielded every time a bumper is hit is increased. There are three bumpers and two spinners which influence the movement of the ball. Also, a target worth 1,000 points will light up in the middle of the screen from time to time.
So, there are plenty of opportunities for bonuses, and one can really pile on the points and get plenty of free balls by learning how to use the nudge feature well. The extra ball and bonus rollover chutes are located directly above the bumpers, so nudging the ball so it flies through the chutes becomes very easy after a time.
The graphics in this game can best be described as "square." It's been said that no computer can make a perfect circle, but the Atari 2600 could sure as heck make a perfect square. In Video Pinball, the player controls a square ball which runs into square bumpers. Fortunately, the playfield is very clean, so the simple graphics probably won't get on your nerves. There's no screen flicker problem to speak of in the title, either. The graphics aren't exactly stellar, but they do effectively render a good pinball simulation.
The sound is very basic, but it borders on aggravating. The ball "clinks" when it hits the edges of the machine, "clunks" when it hits a bumper or is launched into play and "bloops" when it's hitting one of the bonus chutes. Go ahead and turn the sound off and crank your favorite music if you want to - you won't miss a thing.
As for control, the wonderful 2600 controller is utilized very well. It takes some precision to nudge the ball well, and the joystick provides it. No complaints there.
Overall, this common, four-kilobyte cartridge is quite enjoyable. It will never be held in such high regard as great arcade ports like Missile Command, cult classics like Adventure or technical marvels such as Pitfall, but it's still fun to pull out and play from time to time.