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In the early days of trying to make a video game version of a physical pinball game -- which can still
be difficult nowadays, trying to get the ball physics correct and all -- several of the early video pinball games consisted of paddles rather than flippers (like Pinball for the Microvision). However, this one ends up being more along the lines of a Breakout game combined with pinball, what with the Breakout blocks placed all over the screen, along with a few bumpers and other things thrown in, rather than just being another "pinball with paddles" game from the early days.
There's also a lot of historical significances to this game which really makes it different than anything else. For one thing, it was one of a series of three games that was released, along with [the even more nauseatingly named ones of] Cutie Q and Gee Bee (which, if a fourth game would've been released, should've been called Gag Mee). Personally I don't know how Namco allowed this to happen, since, at first glance, all of the games seem pretty much identical -- until you get to playing them for a while, which you should notice some subtle differences then -- but then again, this was the 70s when they were released.
Also, the guy who created these games made another little obscure video game afterwards that you probably never heard of either...called Pac-Man. Ha ha! Had you going there, didn't I? Yep, these were the first games he delivered before that fateful little one would come out a year later that would turn into a worldwide phenomenon, but lets get onto this one in particular now, shall we?
The pinball (sorta) playfield is set up with bumpers in the corners, side gutters (protected by drop targets...until they're hit by the ball), a spinner in the middle, and drop targets in several places (my favorite part of a pinball game). The ball will launch from the bottom, rather than the side of the screen, and you have two paddles stacked on top of each other (a couple of inches apart) on the playfield to deflect the ball.
Of course, you must try to keep the ball in play for as long as possible, but that isn't any fun unless you've got bonuses in the game, right? Hence, NAMCO is spelled out at the bottom; if you're able to light up the word, that will advance the bonus multiplier. This is actually more difficult than it sounds, since if the ball rolls over every letter except for, say, the 'M', if it rolls over another letter before hitting the 'M', then that letter will dim, which it must be rolled over (/lit up again) before you can aim the ball at the 'M' to get the bonus up to 2x (or more).
Also, hitting all the drop targets at the side of a screen will increase the accompanying side bumper score up to 100 for each hit (the default is 10 points, which, as you can guess, the scoring's pretty slow on this game; good luck trying to get 20,000 or more points on this one, unless you have a paddle or dial controller with this ROM on your computer [which I'll get to later]!). Clearing out the two rows of drop targets in the upper center part of the screen (so the ball can get through to the top area of the playfield) will increase the bonus multiplier by 1000 points (the default is 1000), and hitting all of the drop targets at the very top center will cause a third bumper to appear in place of the targets...which is worth 1000 points PER HIT. It makes some cool sounds when you hit it too.
Reminds me, the sounds weren't bad for back then (especially with that 1000 point bumper upon activation), although they're probably a yawn to most players nowadays, the ball physics work fine for a Breakout-type game -- but for a pinball game? Naaaah -- and I would say the graphics are nice and colorful, but I think the "colors" were done by overlays, since, coming out in 1978, a lot of games back then still didn't have color (plus, with a ROM, you don't always know what you're getting anyway, if it was an official version of the game or not).
However, the game does have a few problems, most notably due to it's difficulty level, which the ball can start bouncing around pretty quickly in no time flat; at other times, it can bounce bounce bounce around without speeding up. I'm not absolutely certain what it is that causes this, but it seems to me that if it hits your paddles about four times, then that speeds it up; at other times when the ball kept on bouncing around without hitting my paddles, it kept with it's (initial) slow pace. This is a bit unfair, especially if you don't have a MAME machine without a spinner controller (although I heard those are expensive), since you can't quickly whisk the paddles over by pressing a keyboard key to try to prevent the ball from going down the drain when it takes off at a crazy angle (and a high rate of speed). At least there's a chance you can earn an extra ball though (the side drop targets at the bottom of the screen have to be cleared, with the ball entering the chamber below them).
This may have been what prevented these games from being major arcade hits, since I heard that they didn't do real well. I really don't see why the hell not, as they had to have been a bit revolutionary back then, and here, nearly 30 years later (at the time of this writing, hard to believe), the simplicity of combining Breakout and pinball are still fun as anything to me. However, this came out a year after Space Invaders did, so that might have been a factor: like in the Toy Story 2 movie, it was lamented of the time that kids stopped playing with "cowboy and indian"-themed toys to go for all the space ones instead, once the Sputnik satellite was launched, which may have been the same case here, as people frequenting the new arcade explosion wanted to see what existed in this new game genre of "space shoot 'em ups". (And then Pac-Man came out a year later.)
To summarize, out of the three games in this series, this one is the best, in my opinion, whereas Cutie Q is the most interesting (you get a chance to hit a monster that would suspiciously look like the ones in Pac-Man a year later [heh, guess the programmer had a few *certain* designs in mind all along, eh?]), and Gee Bee is the most difficult (bumpers are placed lower in the playfield, allowing a better chance for the ball to be shot down the drain quicker, the drop targets are reset with each new ball [they're not in Bomb Bee], not allowing you much of a chance to clear them out for bonuses, and the side drains aren't protected by drop targets initially, allowing the ball to go down them fairly often as well).
I have to thank my friend Greg for sending this along with a bunch of other ROMs a while back, although it also irks me that I wouldn't mind owning one of these machines, which, since they didn't do well in the arcades, are probably very difficult to find nowadays. So I don't know whether to hug or hit him because of that. 8/10
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