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It's not a secret Stern are dominating the pinball business of the last 20 years, so giving them their own treatment just like Farsight did with Gottlieb and Williams wouldn't seem weird, if Pinball Arcade wasn't in-between. That framework for plenty of awesome pinball table DLCs did the job and tied a brilliant arcade together, well, until they started losing their licenses, which now makes Stern Pinball Arcade a great opportunity, so hear me out.
I've mentioned in my Zaccaria Pinball review that I'm again late to the party, so I've missed Pinball Arcade's golden era and though Zen did something right at sometime, I'm not entirely convinced by the recent Pinball FX plus they're missing out on Stern so far, even doing their own licensed versions of the same franchises and it might be a matter of taste if you prefer Zen's fantasy tables. I rather like simulations of existing pincabs with fundamental physics.
Anyway, noticing some previously released Stern tables missing from the eShop versions of either Pinball Arcade and Stern Pinball Arcade of which I at least wanted the missing AC/DC pincab, I understood why the retail version of Stern Pinball Arcade was actually a good idea to conserve those contents beyond the DLC availability. This also causes the Nintendo Switch cartridge to be offered between 45 and 110€ though, so I was willing to experiment if an Italian code in box version would work for me as well.
Good news is it does, so for 16€ shipped I got all the 11 tables of Stern Pinball Arcade unlocked as the retail version, which I think is a splendid deal considering Zen asks 15€ for the Indiana Jones table separately. The question though is, if it's something you'd be happy with as there are many gaps ranging from Lord of the Rings to Metallica or more recent Deadpool, Stranger Things and Godzilla that will probably never be available. I for sure would trade these against the Harley Davidson or Mustang licenses from this package and even Star Trek in a way is just a poor man's Attack From Mars, though all of them are entertaining for at least a while.
The highlight of this collection undeniably is the still available Ghostbusters Premium pincab, which is as challenging but fun as found in the wild when still running the unrevised 2016 code. It's a perfect representation of how Stern at best teaches you how to pinball these days, because it's easy to lose the ball without ever touching a flipper if you've got no idea how to play, but if you do, you'll hit over 100 million in bonus on one ball alone. It's a journey to activate the stages, toys and wizard mode, so don't be discouraged as an inexperienced player. Pinball is a game of skill after all and Stern learned to embrace that for the enthusiasts, making the games increasingly rewarding rather than just producing unfair moneymakers.
Best advertisement is probably Farsight giving away Frankenstein with the free download version, so you can already try one of the top titles. The remaining tables are Phantom of the Opera, Ripley's Believe It Or Not, Starship Troopers, Last Action Hero and High Roller Casino. The latter is a bit odd, incorporating the gambling aspect pinball was criticized for, but despite the chance element the real table is a joy with its toys and the representation gives a good impression.
Being based on the aging Pinball Arcade engine, Stern Pinball Arcade does the job quite nicely, though for vertical play on the Switch screen I'm missing my favorite angle from Pinball FX3. It's also unfortunate the B button is used for the angle and as well to exit the score screen, so don't press too early in an impatient rush or your settings change between plays.
You could of course argue if the ball physics are really 100% accurate or if there should be more precise hd rumble, but Stern Pinball Arcade on the other hand is far away from detailed settings available in Zaccaria Pinball anyway though it's also not as keen on challenges or upgrade systems as Pinball FX3 is, that I've learned to love as my sole key to play Bally/Williams classics on my Switch. There's a rudimentary challenge mode nonetheless and table achievements as well, but I'm not yet very interested.
In the end it's a substitute until I will be able to revisit some of the original Pincabs on my next arcade trip in a few weeks and for that it does the job perfectly. I'm not a kid that's got to be lured into playing pinball by things I wouldn't find on the cabinets. Gee, I'm old enough to have enjoyed Space Cadet on Windows as a welcome throwback to my past, when despite not thinking of myself as a pinball wizard I still frequently found sponsors paying credits to watch me play.
These days I really want to play, but it's gotten even harder to find any pinball machine in the wild, so either Pinball Arcade, Pinball FX3 or Zaccaria Pinball are the closest I can get and all of them offer me basically the same satisfying use of the Pro Controller I'd like to add. So much at least, that I'm thinking of how to padhack the rumble into my planned pinball controller, something I hadn't considered when randomly buying leaf switches to add to an arcade stick project before even finding out all these games are available on the Switch.
Whilst I love building those controllers, it's not an ideal world for being a pinball aficionado due to those licensing issues that make the standalone Stern Pinball Arcade relevant at all, because the tables should just be available to one of the engines, not even dreaming of having a single framework to feature all pincabs ever produced. Right now it doesn't look like the virtual situation for Stern is getting better, so to purchase this set is the only chance to still get them.
You maybe want to at least have Attack from Mars and Medieval Madness before expanding into the cabs featured in this selection, but with AC/DC as a representation of a decent rock license and Ghostbusters as one of the best recent Pincabs plus a nice selection of other fun tables Stern Pinball Arcade is a must have package for any good pinball collection.
It's always been a niche with the best sales for a real table more than often produced in Chicago being hardly over 20k units, more commonly 3-6k, usually at a price of a couple of thousands bucks and even if I wish, I'm not amongst the collectors having space and money for a manager man cave, so I'd sure love to add Metallica as my favorite music pinball or look forward to a coming Godzilla adaptation to Stern Pinball Arcade, but this is as good as it gets until maybe things sort out - possibly for a newer platform to come.
Why must there always be a tragic hero in the third row? Ok, I know I'm late to this party again, having played my old pinball simulations for ages, totally ignoring what's happening more recently. I also have to admit, that I'm not investing enough into PC hardware to keep track with the state of the art in general and I actually don't have to, because most games I'm interested in are old enough or not very performance hungry. I did know of the Pinball FX family though and have heard of other projects, but Zaccaria Pinball wasn't amongst them.
Could be because it still seems to be early access on Steam, which makes me wonder why I found Zaccaria Pinball on Nintendo Switch recently, but having not seen Pinball FX/FX3 or Pinball Arcade pop up on the e-store as well when I was looking for the genre, I'm wondering about the quality of my searches in general anyway. With any of the three platforms coming with at least one free table I was having a blast nonetheless and having fun with the HD rumble on my pro controller and the OLED screen in vertical, I was also beginning to buy DLCs.
And here's where the tragic journey begins, the reason I'm picking Zaccaria Pinball as my review subject at this very moment, but let's please emphasize first that it's actually me spending dough on a free platform to buy everything extra for. Yeah, that's not me, except for deals on Capcom Arcade Stadium for instance, because I did find some sales for Pinball FX3 and though I don't see me buying individual tables for bloody 15€ to use on the recent Pinball FX, I just had to spend another tenner on the FX3 Williams three-pack containing Attack from Mars, the machine I was doing two hour train rides to play back in the nineties.
Given that favorite pinball tables can be very autobiographical, I actually appreciate at least a split to affordable bundles, but on the other hand I would maybe be interested in more tables, would I have the option for a demo that the Switch versions of both Pinball FX and Pinball Arcade don't offer. It's another huge problem Pinball Arcade lost a part of their licenses, so my only chance to access the AC/DC table for instance was ordering the Stern Pinball Arcade package sold individually. I still hope the code in box version will work when it finally arrives.
However, Zaccaria Pinball did impress me instantly with next to the two free tables every other installment is playable as a demo. They have nothing to hide and that's for a good reason. Zaccaria Pinball is a simulation dream. You've got everything essential from the competitor's systems,but you can go much deeper by setting ambient light or wear on the table next to physics and camera. It can take minutes to study the possibilities before even thinking of playing and the attention to detail is plainly awesome. Having played, you get statistics for each ball's points and the distance they rolled. You immediately recognize Magic Pixel Games love what they're doing.
I'm willing to believe simulations of their signature tables are authentic in design as much as they are in physics, but here starts that issue because of which I'm not dumping all my money into Zaccaria Pinball right now. What they do have is fifties to sixties style retro tables I'm not sure existed. Then you've got the original electromagnetic and solid state Zaccaria tables from the seventies and eighties I can't remember having played, though it's possible long ago at a bar or something. I just don't have a relation to those tables with typical themes from sports to space etc. and as much as I love pragmatic old school designs, none of them catches my attention enough.
Whilst you can set the gap in the middle to a more modern narrow spacing on the old tables, Zaccaria Pinball actually offers remakes of their popular themes not like fantasy tables by Zen, but more like an authentic built as if the company had released them at the beginning of the nineties when their production had ceased. Those tables use elements that could just work as well as a real table and they're really fun to play. Same goes for deluxe versions that are comparable to Pinball FX interpretations of cabinets like Fish Tales, where you have digitally animated figures enhancing the design.
It really seems like they're doing everything right, having something in store for any generation of classic pinball fans and though they might not have the captivating music and knocking on the remakes, they still manage to add more familiar elements without denying typical leveled structures for instance. I appreciate this a lot, but do they want to be a sleeper like that?
Licensing is a very big issue in this segment and on one hand Magic Pixel Games are my heroes for creating their own level of simulation, but on the other it was very brave to enter competition just with one catalog available. I'm sure there are ecstatic fans who are very satisfied, but in this niche of gaming, Zaccaria Pinball occurs to be a whole niche on its own, for that alone I'm willing to spend a few Euros.
They're not even asking too much, I think. The contents of the packs between 5 and 10€ still appear generous, even though single tables can be purchased for between 2 and 3€ each. So what Zaccaria Pinball at least is doing is showing how it's done to the other big players Pinball Arcade (who need to really be revived) and Pinball FX who are going in the wrong direction right now.
But of course right now I want to play tables I've once found in the wild or I'm still looking forward to. It so happens I have a huge history with cabs from the Williams sets on Pinball FX3 and I've just played the Ghostbusters table in the Stern pack a few weeks back at the Dutch Pinball Museum in Rotterdam. I'm still looking for Data East stuff as a simulation, especially the Batman 1989 license that I visited a local ice cream parlor for after school as a kid. But I doubt Zaccaria Pinball will ever go that direction.
So in conclusion this is probably the best game I'm not going to play very soon, which is sad, but Zaccaria Pinball seems like built on a limitation from the start being nothing but an impulse as a great example maybe, but I don't feel the table have enough charisma to carry the game on their own. It's great for fans and except for slight bugs of caught balls on at least one remake, which might actually rather add to realism, it looks finished enough to me to play it. On Switch that is, of course.
I don't know if we can encourage Magic Pixel Games to just use the same engine on a follow up simulator for other licensed tables, but we should at least honor them with a purchase or two. As soon as I'm back on budget I will start buying everything just to enlarge the collection and send my thanks for an operation that doesn't seem to make a lot of sense but that they mastered anyway. It's maybe only adding to the variety of my tables, but when I'll start Zaccaria Pinball, I'll sure enjoy it.
Unlike the vignette Swampstar by independent collective Geography of Robots, Norco is too much of a game to spare it from a rating in favor of an appreciation as a piece of art on its own and in that context, it might look like I disagree with a majority of critics, giving the interactive amalgam of an RPG and a Visual Novel raving reviews, but I will actually not be able to say much different about it. My astonishing conclusion though is, that I'm still not all that impressed.
In theory, alternate Louisiana in Norco could be a fictional alien world to me just like Neo Tokyo or a city on Mars. I was even joking if the title describes narcotics for Trollans until I found out it was actually a brand name for pain medication. Little did I know, however, that Norco is also an actual census-designated place in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana that derived its name from the New Orleans Refining Company and is home to a major Shell manufacturing complex. I'm learning every day.
You don't have to think much about why the company in the game Norco is called Shield and with the Shell facility having experienced catastrophic explosions twice the story sure appears less far fetched. I recommend reading the Honeysweat interview with GoR's Yutsi if you'd like to know more on his growing up in sight of that factory, comparing it to Midgar in the world of Final Fantasy.
Even without knowing Norco specifically, I was of course aware of the condition our world is in and I think it's hard to not see how close the narration stays with things happening in reality. It sure is condensed and emphasized, but we have everything from AI to ponzi schemes, messed up religious beliefs, unregulated capitalism or privately organized space travel. It's not like Orwell is predicting the future a couple of decades away, it's more like holding up a mirror, showing us the dystopia we're creating for tomorrow or a day after.
Born and raised in a small town bordered by the dilapidated ruins of an industry, having watched a company burning down to the foundations and knowing the history of a group buying out farmers to build a production plant in the area, I can nothing but relate to protagonist Kay returning to Norco. It's what you recognize best at a carnival. There are those who are too young to escape and those who never made it out, but then there are other people in their thirties or rather forties, returning to family business - taking care of parents or bringing up children of their own in an environment that appears at least more family friendly than the big city.
For Kay it's late. She has tried to cut loose and ignored her cancer infested mother trying to get in touch. Time doesn't stand still when you're away and as much things don't seem to change as long as you're there, everything is weirdly different once you turned your back and tried to start a life of your own independently.
Norco uses pixel art to illustrate this story and I don't really understand how this can be seen as innovation, because digitizing photographs for instance is something going back to the old Amiga days at least. It's not ugly at all, but, especially with the retro trend of recent years, something I'd rather call standard opposite to some of the reviews I've read. Recreating that off grid Amiga feeling especially with the first person solo adventure layout is another cup of Grog.
I've mentioned it before in my review for One Night Stand, when playing Our World Is Ended as one of my first actual visual novels, I was missing interaction with the screen other than clicking text. Despite being described as a point'n'click I was lucky to read up enough on Norco before to not expect it being the familiar third person story puzzle, so I was merely amazed at first that Norco was allowing me to dive into the scenery as much as I'd define the character by text choices.
One thing I also enjoyed was the use of a mindmap to elaborate a thought process and reflect on the information received via dialogue, even though it often rather bothered me as doubling what I already understood. That tracking though also led to me speeding up reading to pass the character's annoying mumble (doesn't have to be voiced, but please…) and therefore forgetting key information I would have needed to authenticate for additional lore via the follow up Shield Nights (available for free on itch.io) that seems to consist mostly from background information I dug out elsewhere or could make sense of on my own, so I'm not tempted to replay Norco just to read some more liner notes.
The reason I'm not keen on revisiting Norco, not even to check for different character developments rather than the endings I think I caught the best from anyway, is that despite its captivating atmosphere it wasn't that much of a revelation to me. The fictional elements are better seen as surreal than to be dissected for a consistent explanation and the mood isn't the most welcoming happy place, so that adding an awkward fight system (autofight available after patch), clumsy boat ride or text adventure staircase mechanics acts as a repellent on me.
From a standpoint of classic graphic adventure gameplay Norco isn't very good even after the added expert mode. Most of the time it's either just not challenging, which is fine as long the plot goes on, or it's nerve wrecking in execution, which is destroying the flow. What Geography of Robots don't understand is guiding the player through puzzles alongside with the narration to unfold information seamlessly.
Ironically the distributor Raw Fury also has Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine by Clifftop Games in their catalog and Norco would fit perfectly as the spiritual tie in I was wishing for between those two brilliant point'n'click adventures. It's almost frightening how precise Norco combines ethereal elements from the first and a probably more obvious futuristic technology from the latter to another mystery plot. It's possible that makes me biased, but I'm actually more dreaming of how exchange of expertise between those indie developers could be a benefit to all of us.
With a splendid post-industrial depressive black metal track scoring the rolling credits it was rather a relief to end this adventure. I couldn't stop playing but didn't really enjoy Norco in the true sense of the word. For that, it's too much a reminder how fucked up this world is, it's too close to the somber atmosphere of a rat's nest I tried to escape but always returned to somehow after traveling around no matter how long. It also causes awareness, not only for losses of the past, but also how my parents are becoming older, giving me a hard time deciding to move to the other end of the country for an actually awaiting future.
Told from both the perspectives of Kay and her mother with party members joining on and off Norco to me is a maelstrom that should at least offer satisfaction by putting some things in order, though it treats its puzzles rather as part of a minigame cocktail, so you won't just click text and look at some scenic pictures. I always appreciate media including toilet needs, but I would have required a little more than a few gags to possibly miss while exploring the environment.
It feels harsh to say after an otherwise enthralling story, but maybe that's what you get after spawning from a multimedia documentary by a pseudonym collective that might not yet have the experience to make a full grown game rather than a gaming part within the initial project. It's sad that Norco could have been the equivalent to calling Grave of the Fireflies the best anime you never want to watch again, but it wasn't meant to be. It's far from being comparable as a full emotional experience.
For that reason and hoping Geography of Robots can find a way to create a more wholesome product, I don't even think their demo End Millennium is a step in the wrong direction. Maybe writing is their strongest capability, so focusing on a text adventure would be a logical conclusion until they find support in puzzle design should they want to attempt the genre at all.
Sure, Norco can also function as an exercise for the collective to improve on, but then we should not hype for something that isn't present. I wouldn't mind supporting them with my purchase as much, had I been downloading the game from a niche indie platform, but I bought it from a major distributor for way above my average price.
My expectations weren't sky high and maybe I'm wrong when so many others seem to love it anyway, but I would rather have preferred the packaging to say "This is the best we can do at the moment, support us so we can improve on our promising art", because that's what it comes down to. And with that in mind it's something like an unpolished gem for an atmosphere of desolation and despair, justifying a generous playthrough.
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