Pinball Construction Set
Become a virtual pinball wizard with Bill Budge's bumper-building masterpiece.
By William Cassidy | September 8, 2002

Before video games, pinball was king. People used to plunk tons of coins into elaborate mechanical tables, hoping to guide a silver ball toward a phenomenally high score. When the video games came, most pinball manufacturers considered them nothing more than a novelty, with an appeal that would be short-lived. It was those same manufacturers who would be opening up arcade divisions a few years later, when they saw video machines stealing all the quarters away from the pinball tables. It seemed that people hardly wanted to play pinball any more.

Nevertheless, pinball still had its share of fans, and unsurprisingly some companies tried to re-create the pinball experience on the video screen. For the most part, they failed. Games like Video Pinball played kind of like a real table and certainly were fun in their own right. However, they could hardly compare to the experience of flipping real flippers, knocking a solid ball along intricate paths, lighting bonuses and learning how to precisely nudge a table without triggering the "Tilt" penalty. Clearly, real pinball tables still had a place in the modern American amusement landscape, and video games couldn't take that completely away.

Then, Electronic Arts came along and created a pinball computer game that did things no real pinball machine could ever hope to do: allow people to make their own tables. Consider a real pinball machine -- a hulking mass of clever engineering and mechanics with inner workings far beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals. Building one of these contraptions requires knowledge of things like geometry and physics and torque and Rube-Goldberg-knows-what-else that regular folks have no business knowing. But Pinball Construction Set lets you build your own table with drag-and-drop ease. I think I can handle that.

Fill Tilt Design Power

Pinball Construction Set is exactly what it says it is -- a set of tools for building your own virtual pinball table. After firing up the software, you are presented with a blank table and an array of pinball accouterments for sprucing it up. Practically everything you could want on a real pinball machine is available, and more too. There are three colored rollovers, vertical and horizontal drop-down target rows, several sizes of bumpers (including slingshots), plungers, spinners, and other traditional pinball structures. More exotic parts include the "black hole" that sucks balls to oblivion, a magnet that pulls the ball off course, and a three-tiered tube that catches balls. Once it's filled, it releases three balls into simultaneous play and mayhem ensues.

All of the parts are placed on the playfield through an interface that would seem immediately familiar to any PC user today. Just point at an item with the hand-shaped cursor, drag it to the playfield, and let it go by pressing the appropriate keyboard key. Sure, it sounds like standard point-and-click stuff, but this was 1983! The Macintosh hadn't been released yet, and Microsoft wouldn't publish Windows until November of that year. Point-and-click, as such, was not invented by Pinball Constructon Set, but it was possibly the first game -- and one of the first consumer apps -- to use such an interface.

The hand pointer isn't the only tool at your disposal in the quest to build the ultimate table. The arrow tool allows you to resize and reshape physical features of the table, such as its outer dimensions, by dragging on "handle" points along the edges of the table or an object on its surface. Again, this feature is remarkably similar to something you might see in any standard Windows app. Don't like the way your object is stretching? "Nail" down a new pivot point with the hammer tool. Finessing a perfect table layout can make you feel more like you're using a paint program than a game. There's even a paintbrush tool for coloring certain objects.

The colors in Pinball Construction Set are limited, but used creatively. Remember, the game hails from a time when four-color displays were about all that most monitors could handle. However, 16-color displays weren't unheard of, so the game strikes a balance between these two levels of color depth. While any given table may be made up of only four colors, there are a number of different color combinations to select from. The default is the standard CGA black / white / magenta / cyan scheme. Other schemes include the patriotic red, white, blue and black; the earthy red, green, black and orange, or the nausea-inducing orange, green and blue with a gray background. Considering the limited resolution and color depth, the graphics are amazingly sharp and detailed. You can easily tell what all the components are supposed to be, and if you don't like the look of any particular piece, you can tweak it using the built-in graphics editor.

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