Ruiner Pinball Review(Atari Jaguar)

Atari Corp’s feast-or-famine approach to the Jaguar certainly left its lopsided mark on the legacy of Jag sports and leisure gaming. Long-suffering fans are still waiting for bootleg copies of Brett Hull Hockey and Relief Pitcher to emerge, for instance, but they do now have no less than three basketball titles available with which they can amuse themselves. Another prime example of this dubious policy was the almost simultaneous release of two titles of video pinball for the system in 1994 and 1995, Pinball Fantasies (PF) and Ruiner Pinball (RP) where one good game would almost certainly have sufficed. Neither title is great, or even good, but face it: you’re not going to pay more than $5 for each, and at that price, we can all lower our standards and enjoy the titles for the pleasures that they do offer.Both pinball titles were savaged by, well, nearly everyone upon their initial release, although much of this criticism was both unfounded and unfair. Both RP and PF are examples of video pinball, not "arcade" pinball; it’s important to remember that neither title is supposed to realistically transport a classic Bally pinball machine to your Jaguar. Physical rules are typically relaxed and in none of the games does the ball respond as it would in an arcade counterpart. This is at first marginally annoying, but most gamers should quickly adapt to each game’s unique physical environment.

Instructions and Packaging
Both of the games’ manuals are brief, but they do offer basic information. Neither offers much of an introduction, although RP does briefly and half-heartedly attempt to set up a gaming environment. You probably didn’t want to know how tortured development was in each game, or how little the programmers were paid, in any case.PF does offer the most amusing gaming tip that I’ve seen for a Jaguar cart: the manual offers the helpful suggestion that players " take an occasional recess during extended play to rest yourself and the Jaguar cartridge". Hey, great idea! I’m on my way to an all-time high score, so let me just hit pause and take out the cartridge to give it a rest...oops!

PF has the dubious honour of possessing one of the longest opening sequences of any Jaguar title. I counted no less than four developers’ logos in the game’s opening credits, and, when I first booted it up, it left me with the unpleasant image of a project being handed from software house to software house...getting more tangled with each transaction... and losing its thematic coherence along the way. It’s not as bad as that, of course, but PF still plays a pretty strange game of pinball.PF optimistically presents gamers with "four scorchingly addictive tables" that, according to the game’s synopsis, create "the greatest pinball simulator ever". I’m not sure that all gamers will agree with that particular boast, but the four tables that are available (Partyland, Bones ‘N’ Stones, Speed Devils, and my favourite, Billion Dollar Gameshow) are self-explanatory and do provide a nice array of thematic variety -- even if they’re not my particular idea of gaming paradise.All of PF’s tables conform to a standard one-table arrangement and have a simplistic layout: they don’t have a lot of hidden or bonus areas to liven up play. Most bonuses are triggered by "spelling" each table’s bonus words; this is accomplished, as with arcade pinball, by hitting individual letters of the table’s bonus word. Bizarrely, the bonus word in "Partyland" is "puke". I’m fairly certain at this point that this was not an ironic comment on the game by its coders. I’m also relieved that a successful "spell" does not result in a graphic demonstration of the word by the table’s trademark clown.Controls are generally good and the game offers players a number of possible pad configurations which should satisfy most tastes. The most annoying feature of the PF screens is the "score box" which is located at the top of the screen during gameplay and, in effect, letterboxes it. There’s really no need for this, and it is unduly distracting during play.RP fares better here. In contrast to PF, it’s a true example of video pinball where creativity and surrealism are emphasized more than historical generic accuracy. Only two boards -- "Ruiner" and "Tower" -- are available, but they’re both large and equal to the total gaming area of the four PF tables. The Ruiner table is a disturbingly topical "impending nuclear war"-themed table; Tower tries to raise the devil with a fiendish table, but I personally wished they would’ve canned its ugly purple "evil sorceress" and replaced her with "Elvira and the Party Monsters."Gameplay is essentially similar to PF, but in RP powerups, bonuses, and hidden areas abound. The "Tower" table has a double-tall playing area that has a nice amount of variety; "Ruiner" is a double-wide table that is connected by a ramp. Transition between the two separate boards is quite smooth and does not typically disrupt gameplay. It’s also nice to see that the entire screen area is used by the various tables, as it should be.

It’s doubtful that even the most rabid fan would consider either PF or RP to be visual showcases for the Jag. All tables are presented, as is typical in ‘80s era pinball computer games, in a direct-overhead perspective, and this is acceptable for those familiar with David’s Midnight Magic or Night Mission Pinball.PF uses its extended colour palette well, and the tables have an acceptably high graphics resolution. The Partyland table is, in particular, nicely varied. Most of the other tables are, however, graphically bland.The graphics quality of the tables in RP is, in comparison, poor. The Tower table in particular suffers from ragged pixellation, and the table is poorly detailed. Tower also suffers from heavy (and strange) reliance on blacks and purples; it disappointingly uses less than 16 colours in total. Was this a direct port from the NES?Ruiner, in comparison, has a much better presentation, and the many graphical details are actually quite delightful in a ghastly sort of way. One of the double table’s areas features a nuclear family (visual pun!) anxiously looking at the sky for missile contrails; B-52s circle another portion of the main table, and extra points are to be had by hitting them. In addition, the flippers are shaped like ICBMs, and the ball is "launched" out of a missile silo. Finally, a picture of what appears to be a detail of NORAD headquarters in action dominates the centre portion of the main table. My favourite graphic bonus, however, has to be the tiny paratroopers who fall out of the top of the table when a bonus area is hit. Ruiner, unlike all of the other tables, actually invites exploration with its graphic bonuses, and this encourages repeated gameplay. It’s too bad that this thoughtfulness wasn’t incorporated into the other tables.

Music and Sound Effects
Each PF table features a fairly prominent soundtrack that quickly becomes annoying with repeated listening. These tunes can, fortunately, be turned off, but there’s not a lot to replace them. Game sounds are really too quiet for a good game of pinball, and only a few of the bonuses reward the player with any sort of musical variety.RP’s Tower table also suffers from this musical mediocrity. Sound effects are generally blah, and there’s a mysterious absence of digitized speech. You’d think that a supposed vision of Hell would be a wonderful source of aural inspiration (as it is in Shadow of the Beast on the Lynx), but here there’s not a cackling demon or bone-chilling scream to be heard. The game’s soundtrack is similarly uninspired; it’s more insipid than infernal.Ruiner’s sound effects are much superior, from the "prepare to launch!" opening sequence down to the defence worker who announces "current level...Defcon 5" at the beginning of each game. Digitized samples are actually sprinkled nicely through the game and are awarded for point bonuses or special moves. Sounds such as launching rockets, falling paratroopers, exploding aircraft, gunfire, and the occasional scream are all used to excellent effect and add to the general excitement of the game.It is, all in all, the best use of sound in any of the video pinball tables.


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