9 November 2008





Part 7: Deaf, Dumb, Blind And Stupid

The modern gaming PC is an amazing piece of hardware. With much more raw power than any console, capable of far superior graphics and glorious surround sound, equipped with near-infinite versatility of control and able to access data with lightning speed from massive hard drives, the PC is the greatest games machine in the world. Or at least, it would be if it wasn’t for YOU.

I love pinball. A well-designed real-world pinball table can captivate a player for hours on end and still not have shown even a glimpse of all its features, despite operating at a “resolution” (if you wanted, just for fun, to measure the dimensions of the playfield in ball-widths) that would shame a ZX Spectrum. Indeed, I love pinball so much that when Randy Davis invented the fantastic pinball constructor/emulator Visual Pinball, I spent literally thousands of hours helping to recreate scores of real-life pintables, and even building an original one of my own from scratch, learning Visual Basic for the gameplay scripting - see, I can PC-nerd it up with the best of them when I want to.

Computers and consoles, of course, offer an opportunity to take pinball into whole new worlds. As well as being able to simulate ordinary arcade tables with incredible precision, they can make pinball games do things that wouldn’t be mechanically possible in real life, most famously seen in console titles like Devil Crash and The Pinball Of The Dead. But it was the PC that, for a while at least, was the beating heart of videogame pinball.

Whether it was the likes of Balls Of Steel carrying on the 2D overhead-view torch from legendary Amiga hits Pinball Dreams and Pinball Fantasies, Microsoft’s impressive “Pinball Arcade” recreations of real machines stretching all the way back to the 1930s, the superb and successful Pro Pinball series, Littlewing’s beautiful, ornate Japanese effort Jinni Zeala or the best of them all, Team 17’s creative pinnacle Addiction Pinball, PC owners were absurdly spoilt for choice by literally dozens of brilliant games covering both the realistic and fantasy sides of the genre, all depicted in crisp, clear graphics that consoles couldn’t match.

It couldn’t last, of course. PC pinball games are now so obsessed with reflective textures and bloom and glass effects and whooshy cameras that follow the ball around in three dimensions from a distance of half an inch that the games (a) look stupid, with such absurdly deep tables to allow for all the ramp scaffolding that in reality the playfield would be somewhere around your ankles, and (b) are almost impossible to play without throwing up. Pure Pinball was the game that started the rot, a title released in 2003 which my entirely respectable 2007 PC still can’t run at a decent framerate at 1024x768 (only its third-highest resolution setting) with most of the effects switched off, and which has 10 fancy camera angles but doesn’t even have an option for a simple fixed view. Subsequent games, of course, had to keep up the graphical arms race or be derided for looking primitive, so now ALL new pinball games on the PC are unplayable tech-whore crap. (This means you, Dream Pinball 3D.)

The reason for this disaster is something which isn’t restricted to pinball, but rather stretches across the entire PC gaming universe, and it’s YOUR fault. Because of PC gamers’ incessant demands for pointless show-off aesthetics to justify their latest stupidly-overpowered graphics card purchase, almost every PC game ever made is designed to need about 150% of the processing power available to even the higher-end machines owned by the average gamer. Where developers for other platforms are forced to write efficient, optimised code, PC devs know that they can release a game that looks amazing in screenshots but runs at 5 fps on a typical machine, because you’ll obediently trot out and buy a new UltroVideo9900-XXZ to play it. (And mock anyone who objects to the ludicrous spec requirements for a pinball game, because YOUR machine runs it fine.) As more and more people are priced out in such a way, it’s no wonder the PC is slowly dying as a games format. Only you, the self-styled hardcore, can stop the rot, by opting out of the willy-waving spec war. But you haven’t got the balls.

“Stuart Campbell” is a pseudonym used by numerous videogame journalists over the years when they want to post controversial, gratuitously abusive or plain offensive copy without getting into any trouble. He doesn’t really exist.

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