A basic but timeless interpretation of video gaming’s coin-op granddaddy, Pinball gave programming prodigy Satoru Iwata a foot in the door at NCL.
Japanese title: ピンボール • Pinball
U.S. release date: Oct. 1985 [NES-USA-PN]
Japanese release date: Feb. 1984 [HVC-PN]
European release date: 1986 [NES-PN]
Genre: Arcade (Pinball)
Alternate versions: Vs. Pinball [Arcade, 1984]; PlayChoice-10 [Arcade, 1986]; Famicom Disk System , Animal Crossing [GameCube, 2002]; eCard [Game Boy Advance/eReader, 2002]; Virtual Console [Wii/Wii U, 2006/2013]
When Nintendo president Satoru Iwata passed away in July 2015, Nintendo lost more than an executive. They lost a friend and mentor, a man whose ties to the company went back more than 30 years. All the way back, in fact, to a time before the dawn of the NES.
In the earliest days of the Family Computer, Nintendo began contemplating international ambitions for its console, looking beyond the bounds of Japan to the larger markets beyond. Nintendo executives eyed America with wariness. Although the company had a decent foothold in the U.S. arcade market, home consoles were a different matter altogether. Their relationships with vending distribution networks had no value whatsoever when it came to the world of toy and electronics retailers.
Realizing what an uphill battle they’d need to fight in order to go it alone in America, Nintendo initiated talks with Atari, the company that hadn’t simply fared best in the U.S. console market—it had created the category altogether. Had things worked out differently, we might have seen the NES released here under the Atari banner. It’s also possible we might never have seen the NES, period, if Atari had licensed it and sat on it to prevent a strong foreign competitor from muscling in on its business.
We’ll never know, though, because these talks transpired in 1983, after the bottom had begun to fall out from the U.S. console market. Atari was in no position to bring a new console to market. On the contrary, it was simultaneously developing a system similar in power to the NES (the 7800), which would sit dormant for several years before finally reaching shelves after the NES arrived under Nintendo’s own imprint. Tha Atari talks fell through, obviously, and most likely for the best.
Despite the many failings and questionable choices Nintendo made with the NES, they managed to steer console gaming around the pitfalls that had buried the 2600, its developers, and its competitors. For a moment, though, Nintendo made an earnest effort to ally itself with Atari. In fact, according to a Gamasutra interview with HAL’s Yash Terakura, Nintendo approached the American games giant with a demo reel of sorts: Four classic American arcade titles that had been ported to the Famicom hardware to demonstrate how well Nintendo’s machine could handle creations that would have been more familiar to Atari’s executives. When the Atari talks fell through, those games vanished into the vaults for several years until HAL decided to publish them on their own in the west. Three of the four made it to market: Defender II, Joust, and Millipede. (The fourth, which historian Frank Cifaldi speculates to have been a port of Kangaroo, never shipped.)
And what does this have to do with Iwata? Simple: He had been responsible for porting at least one of those Atari games, Joust.
A huge computer nerd in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Iwata essentially cold-called Nintendo after he heard about the Famicom, hoping to score some work. Rather than simply send him packing, the future gaming giant put him to work right away. Iwata, as it turned out, had something Nintendo desperately needed: Intimate knowledge of the Famicom’s CPU, which was a variant of the CMOS 6502 that powered Iwata’s PC of choice, the Commodore PET. While 6502-based computers were quite common in the U.S.—besides the PET, it also appeared in the Apple II—they were scarce in Japan. Zilog’s Z80 processor had much better traction over there, appearing in a number of popular computers including NEC’s PC-6001 and Sharp’s X1. The Z80 also powered Nintendo’s immediate competitors in 1983, the MSX computer standard and SEGA’s SG-1000.
The Famicom’s reliance on an unfamiliar foreign chip standard made qualified domestic programmers hard to come by. Meanwhile, in the days before third-party licensees, Nintendo had to come up with its own games to flesh out the Famicom library. Combine the scarcity of skilled talent with the need to assemble a library in rapid fashion and you can see why Nintendo would find Iwata’s expertise invaluable.
Iwata’s spec Joust conversion for Atari may have gone nowhere, but his next project for Nintendo fared far better: Pinball for NES. Pinball, as it turned out, was one of roughly half a dozen games that Iwata and his company HAL completed for Nintendo as contractors.
Nintendo would spec out the visual and gameplay design of these titles, and Iwata would convert those concepts into working game code. The most famous of these is Balloon Fight (see the forthcoming NES Works 1986). Pinball, however, was Iwata’s first published Famicom project, and it seemingly served as his transition from “random programmer who converted an arcade game for Nintendo on spec” to “reliable go-to guy.”
By Iwata’s own account, he wasn’t a member of the original Pinball team. Instead, he was called in to help “fix” the program. According to the Cutting Room Floor wiki, two programmers’ names appear hidden in Pinball’s code: Satoshi Matsuoka and Satoru Iwata. From this, we can infer that Matsuoka ran into trouble working with the Famicom’s unfamiliar architecture, and Nintendo called in Iwata to get the project back on track. In any case, Pinball doesn’t seem to have suffered too badly despite these presumed bumps in the road; it launched right around the same time as Tennis as part of the first post-launch rollout of original Famicom content in February 1984.
As with most of Nintendo’s earliest first-party creations for Famicom, Pinball was based on an existing game concept. Where Baseball and Tennis had a handful of precedents to compare against, though, Pinball was already one of the most popular concepts for a video game by the time Nintendo entered the market. And small wonder: Video games emerged from the arcades, where pinball had ruled the roost for decades. The first modern pinball tables were created by Williams shortly after World War II, and simpler variants of the game date back to the 19th century. It was only natural for video games to imitate their predecessors, like kittens learning to hunt by copying their parents.
By 1984, pinball video games had evolved dramatically. The earliest games, including Videocart 17: Pinball Challenge for Fairchild Channel F and plain ol’ Pinball for Microvision, weren’t even pinball games—they were Breakout clones. The first “true” pinball console game was probably 1980’s Video Pinball for Atari 2600, which seems almost laughable in hindsight. It’s truer to the sport than those Breakout clones, but it lacks energy and dynamism. But by 1982, you had Night Mission Pinball for Atari computers and Apple II: A simple but detailed adaptation on the concept. And a year before that, Mattel had published its own simply-titled Pinball for Intellivision (an excellent game in its own right). Meanwhile, Electronic Arts trumped everyone in 1983 with Bill Budge’s Pinball Construction Set, a do-it-yourself kit that allowed players to build their own pinball tables from a collection of parts ranging from pegs to bumpers.
By comparison, Nintendo’s Pinball offered very little new to the genre. But, as with both Baseball and Tennis, its advantage came in its refinement. If Tennis was likely based on Data East’s Super Doubles Tennis, it’s not hard to imagine Pinball drew similar inspiration from Intellivision Pinball. Both games used a multi-screen setup unique among other video pinball simulations. In order to preserve the verticality of a true pinball table while still displaying graphics that took full advantage of a horizontal television screen, these virtual tables spanned multiple screens, and the screen layout would change as the ball travelled to the next portion of the table. Both Intellivision and NES Pinball featured three screens total.
Of the two, NES Pinball featured the more impressive graphics, and it worked more like a legitimate pinball machine. Intellivision Pinball’s three screens all felt like separate, self-contained spaces; the game began with players launching the ball into the first screen, and you’d reach additional screens by hitting targets at the top. On NES, however, it worked differently. You launched the ball from the bottom of one screen, and it would arc up to a second screen above.
This simple visual embellishment made NES Pinball feel like a single contiguous table, with the ball initially entering the top half and eventually dropping to the lower half if you let it slip past the bumpers. You could get the ball back up to the top section if you were very good, but there was a definite sense of progression to the action. Pinball’s third screen existed as a separate bonus screen, accessed much like the second and third screens of the Intellivision game: By hitting specific targets, the ball would “sink” and be whisked away to a bonus stage. Nintendo got a bit clever with its bonus table, bringing together the two schools of pinball video game design. Where Pinball’s two main screens resembled a proper pinball table, the bonus stage hearkened back to the pinball video games of the ’70s: It was less pinball and more Breakout. This sequence also brought together a lot of Nintendo’s own history as well—after all, the NES was made possible in large part through technical learnings and business relationships that resulted from Nintendo’s dedicated Breakout clones.
And then there was the cameo. The “paddle” for the Breakout-style game was a small girder held aloft by Mario, and your goal with the minigame was to use the pinball to break away bricks holding up Pauline. Once you cleared away the ground beneath her, Pauline would fall to the lower space. If you could catch Pauline and escort her safely to the edge of the screen without missing the ball, you’d rack up a tidy bonus.
It was a clever and amusing diversion, and not a trivial one to include—ROM space in the old Black Box games came at a premium, so dedicating an entire screen to a separate game mode with its own rules took some doing. It’s not at all unlikely that the complexity of incorporating this extra sequence had something to do with Nintendo’s need to recruit Iawata. At the same time, Iwata may have brought more to Pinball than merely 6502 programming chops. A year before the Famicom game debuted, HAL had published a game called Pinball Spectacular for Commodore 64. Given the tiny size of HAL in 1983 and the C64’s similarities to the PET’s architecture, it’s safe to assume Iwata had worked on Pinball Spectacular, meaning he would have had prior experience with the genre.
Pinball Spectacular hearkened back to the Fairchild Channel F take on the genre, which is to say it’s more like Breakout than true pinball—much like the bonus mode in the NES game. While there’s no concrete information about the development of Pinball online beyond general anecdotes about Iwata being called in to help out with programming duties, these connections are worth noting, as they likely helped shape the direction of one of Nintendo’s first original home console creations.
Even beyond the amusing bonus mode, Pinball holds up today. It’s simple, sure, especially compared to modern pinball games or even NAXAT’s fantasy-style TurboGrafx-16 pinball sims. But the physics are spot on, and the ball—which appears quite large compared to the balls in previous console pinball titles—moves smoothly. The two main tables are packed with all the little details and interactive objects you’d expect to see on a real table: Drop targets, bumpers, spinners, and more. The flippers have multiple levels of responsiveness depending on how long you hold the buttons—not a true analog control, but a reasonable facsimile. You can activate a gate to block off the gutter by winning the roulette on the upper screen or flipping the card icons on the bottom screen, and you can block off the side gutters by passing the ball over the egg icons to make three chicks appear. And there are dozens of different ways to earn points, some active, some passive. Mostly, you’re just trying to raise the score as high as possible while keeping the ball alive. Even if you can’t tilt the table like in real life, it’s still addictive and fun.
Although there had been plenty of respectable pinball video games by the time Nintendo’s Famicom adaptation made its debut, I’d argue that this was the first legitimately great take on the electromechanical classic for consoles. The smooth animation, responsive controls and physics, and great table and bonus design add up to an excellent package that holds up quite nicely more than 30 years later. Throw in the fact that it holds such an important place in Nintendo’s creative legacy thanks to Mr. Iwata’s involvement, and you have a legitimate classic. It also comes in a significant variant: The VS. System version of the game. Unlike Baseball and Tennis, the arcade port of Pinball featured quite a few differences from its console predecessor, including revamped sound and graphics, alternate scoring tallies, and more.
However you may choose to play it, Pinball remains a great pick-up-and-play time-waster. Its spiritual successors also merit a look as well; HAL built on Pinball several times over the years, including the very similar Revenge of the ’Gator for Game Boy and the excellent Kirby’s Pinball Land. This third NES game may have only a small legacy to its name, but it’s a good one.