In video games, pinball is a genre that has never had quite as much variation from one game to another. You can be certain what to expect, and what not to expect, before you even play the games. Its simplistic premise is what makes it such a brilliant a game, but it also means that every game is pretty much the same basic thing. You launch a ball onto the playing field, gravity brings it down the slanted table, and you hit it back up with the flippers and try to keep it from going past them for as long as possible. What you are generally not going to get is flashy graphics, characters, boss fights, areas to explore, and the many other elements of the "bigger and better" game design philosophy that innumerable games are designed with these days. It's not exactly for everybody, so developers have on occasion tried to expand its appeal or at least make it more eye catching with hopes that when it gets people's attention, there will be a higher chance of it attracting people to the core game play.
The first series to successfully do this is a quadrilogy of games that go back as far as 1989 and are informally referred to as "Crush Pinball", which were developed by Compile. Crush Pinball began on the tragically ill-fated TurboGrafx-16. It began with Alien Crush and spawned two sequels on three platforms, as well as a modified port of the second game and a bastard child offshot. It has accomplished something over the years since that virtually no other pinball video games have accomplished - it has developed a significant cult following. Very rarely do pinball video games ever obtain "classic" status, but Crush Pinball has been able to do just that. The first two are frequently cited on internet forums as forgotten gems for their respective consoles. That's exactly what the Crush Pinball series is: absolute masterpieces and great introductions to video pinball. They are pinball games enjoyable even by people who don't like pinball.
So what makes these pinball games so great? After all they have the same structure that every other game in the genre has. So why the dedicated following? Chiefly, it's because they have the flash that other pinball video games lack in their production. There are fantasy themes, huge monsters that roam around the table, secret areas to access and play separately from the primary table, boss fights against giant monsters - and your only weapon against all of this chaos is a pinball. From a pinball fan's perspective this is worth trying just for the sake of novelty, and for everybody else it's an effective means of catching their attention by mixing more familiar elements with the pinball experience. After the games have your attention you'll not only find four of the best pinball video games ever made, but pinball games that transcend their genre.
When the Crush Pinball series began, most pinball games had mediocre ball physics that have aged poorly over time. Crush Pinball's ball physics still stand up. The first game has physics that were without peer in 1989 and they still provide for an extremely playable and fun experience today. They are not flawless recreations of the real thing, but no pinball video game is even to this day.
While not an official licensed game, the "Alien" in "Alien Crush" obviously refers to the Hollywood movie of the same name. Alien Crush wears its Geiger influence on its sleeve, and no attempt whatsoever is made to hide this fact. The pinball table that most of the game takes place on is made up of Geiger-esque designs. The background of the lower portion of the table has an intricately detailed creature with many eyes, which resembles some of Geigers' works. The walls of the table are made up of what looks like vertebrae, and create an effect very similar to Geiger's laboriously detailed biomechanical landscapes. A few of the targets even look like the elongated jaws and skulls of the aliens from the Alien movies.
Alien Crush is just a great, great looking game, and its graphical details go far beyond its Alien/Geiger influenced aesthetics. Stationary targets will fidget around during play and twitch when they get hit. Hitting the targets that look like eyes will make them open, and hitting the bumpers will make them "blink". Activating stoppers will make bones elongate to protect the exit lanes or a skull will appear between the flippers to act as a stopper. After the ball is shot into the "mouth" of a target it will be chewed on before being spit back out onto the table. The color palette consists primarily of earth tones with bits of cold metallics and splashes of neons - all working together well for the Geiger-esque aesthetic. Contrasting the look of the primary table, each of the hidden tables has a more machine-like look to it. The presentation is definitely focused on graphics, but Alien Crush's designers didn't neglect its music either. There are two pieces of music composed for the game, and you choose which of the two is played in the background from the startup screen before beginning each game. This awesome presentation doesn't mean much of anything if the game isn't up to par, but luckily Alien Crush plays even better than it looks.
Each game of Alien Crush begins by choosing the ball's speed (fast or slow) from the startup screen. Of course, "fast" is more challenging, and "slow" is better for beginners, but the ball never moves too fast or too slow, regardless of speed setting. Both speed settings are completely playable, regardless of your skill level. The directional pad controls the left flipper, button I controls the right flipper, and button II nudges the table. The game's primary table is split into two screen sized areas that the screen will instantly switch between when the ball moves from one to the other. This allows a multi-level table to be displayed with large sprites while keeping everything still and the flippers visible at all times. This method of switching screens to simulate the full length of a classic pinball table on your TV screen would later show up in other games like Kirby's Pinball Land and Battle Pinball. Each level of the table has two flippers at the bottom below a myriad of targets. The upper portion has multiple targets along the left and right walls, three bumpers that are well placed enough to leave a perfect amount of space between them and on the table, and, to the upper left, the biggest brain outside of Metroid, which the ball can be hit around for points. The lower portion has three targets to the left, three to the right, and three at the upper middle of the screen. There is a giant creature in the middle of the background that can't be hit, but if it's activated than shooting the ball into its mouth will get you varying amounts of points. Occasionally three creatures will crawl across the screen here and they can be shot for points.
There are also secret tables that can be reached by shooting certain targets when they are lit up. Other than a few color palette differences, each of these has the same basic design - two flippers at the bottom of a screen sized table with a hole at the bottom left and another at the upper right that will launch the ball back out if they are entered. What differentiates each hidden table from the rest is that each has a different set of enemies roaming the table, and each group of enemies has their own pattern of movement. The giant caterpillar-looking thing that breaks into pieces can be dealt with pretty easily by holding the ball with either of the flippers and letting each segment walk into the ball. If it doesn't quite walk directly into the ball than giving the flipper a quick flick while holding the ball will cause a short bounce that will easily hit any segment that is approaching the flipper. An extra ball and one million points can be acquired from a stage with squids and skulls by destroying everything except a lone skull, then waiting for a pterodactyl to appear and then shooting it. Yet another stage has squids and four monsters that look like Slimer from Ghostbusters. Overall the game's secret tables provide a nice variety of scoring options.
While Alien Crush has aged remarkably well, some feel two of its sequels surpass it in quality. However, while later Crush Pinball games have more secret areas and larger tables, Alien Crush remains the most balanced. It provides an equally fun experience to both newcomers as well as experts. Sadly, while it is well remembered by anyone who has played it, it received no ports to other consoles, causing it to languish in obscurity. Thankfully, for those who do not possess a TurboGrafx-16 the game has been made available for download on the Wii Virtual Console and then later on the PlayStation Network.
Devil's Crush / Devil Crash (デビルクラッシュ) / Dragon's Fury / Devil Crash MD (デビルクラッシュ MD) - TurboGrafx-16, Genesis, Wii Virtual Console, PSN (1990)
Devil's Crush (Devil Crash in Japan) was released in 1990, two years after Alien Crush. It retains the same premise as its predecessor - combining pinball with a medieval fantasy theme and moving targets. It also has very similar controls and game physics, and you can still choose between fast or slow speed for the ball from the startup screen before starting each game. Beyond that, several noticeable changes have been made.
From the startup screen, there is an option for an alternating two player mode. There's also a password option. After beginning a game you will notice that the primary table has three levels rather than two. Instead of the screen instantly switching from level to level when the ball moves to another level, the screen moves with the ball at all times. I prefer the original method myself, but it works just fine here and never causes any problems at all. You might worry that this would cause the flippers to constantly move in and out of view and kind of "sneak up on you" and make it difficult to judge where the ball is going to reach the flippers, but as each level is approximately screen sized the only time that the relevant flippers are not going to be visible is when the ball is moving from either of the two higher levels to a lower level. There are a grand total of six hidden tables this time out and each has its own design.
The soundtrack for Devil's Crush is simply fantastic, filled with some of the best synth rock on a 16-bit console. There are also several excellent sound effects, like the taunting laughter from the skull after losing a ball. Graphically, the presentation is absolutely awesome. The theme seems to be based on Western demon mythology, though there aren't really any specific references. There are skulls, dragons, fire-breathing behemoths, and a multitude of other monsters. Most of the walls look like they are made of stone, as if they were caves or castle walls, and there is a target that looks like a castle tower. On the second level of the table is a female face that progressively changes appearance after being hit - eventually becoming a dragon. If you score any more than 999999990 points it will max out the point counter and you will get treated to a very brief ending with a woman and a pinball that makes no sense whatsoever. My best guess is that you were supposed to be saving her from all those monsters or something.
Technosoft modified the game and brought it to the Sega Genesis as Dragon's Fury" (Devil Crash MD in Japan). The controls are identical, and while there have been no changes (other than minor cosmetic alterations) to the main table, a few other alterations have been made. The ball speed can be modified from an Options Mode, where you can also customize the controls almost any way you like. Since the Genesis can't display as many colors as the TurboGrafx-16, the visuals are a bit brighter and more washed out, although they still look decent. However, the Genesis' higher resolution allows for an addition status bar on the right side of the screen. The ending is almost identical, but it's been redrawn. The music uses the same compositions, but with completely different synth arranged internally by Technosoft/Red. Technosoft also included five songs from some of their previous games (accessible via specific passwords).
The biggest change is that the hidden areas have been completely remade. A few are merely redrawn version of the same stages, but others are completely different from the TG-16 version. Beating the game is accomplished a bit differently as well. Rather than maxing out the point counter, a seventh hidden stage becomes available if you finish all six originally available hidden stages, and if you beat this final hidden stage than you beat the game.
There are odd bits of censorship in both versions regarding the stars. In the top part of the stage in the TG16 version, the five-pointed star was changed to add more points. For the Genesis version, the title was obviously changed to avoid having the word "Devil" in the title. Perhaps fearing that the little spinning red stars would encourage devil worship or something, they changed them to slightly different looking five-sided stars. This was particularly strange because the original stars weren't even pentagrams to begin with (they're actually six sided.)
Perhaps due to being released for a more accessible console, or more likely because of its immense scope, Devil's Crush tends to be the most popular, and most well known, game in the series. It's certainly up there with the others regardless, and its Genesis port is definitely the best pinball game for the console.
Additional Devil's Crush Screenshots
Censorship - TurboGrafx-16
Censorship - Genesis
Like Devil's Crush, Jaki Crush is a three level pinball table with six hidden stages, although this time it's for the Super Famicom (a "jaki" is a type of Japanese demon.) It offers alternating two-player play, and has an Options Mode where you can select from several possible control configurations and choose how fast the ball moves from two speed settings.
The third level has several moving and stationary targets, a lane along each side that leads back to the second level, and monsters along both sides that can lead to hidden tables when they are lit. If you shoot the stationary monster in the middle of the area that looks like an anthropomorphic cat enough it will change form. Shoot its second form a few times and it will briefly change into a randomly selected glowing dot that leads to any of the secret areas. The second level is by far the least crowded of the three. There are occasionally monsters roaming around, there is a lane that leads back down to the first level, and two monsters below the flippers for the third level that can lead to hidden stages when they are lit. The only other thing here is a pocket to the left of the left flipper that can be reached easily by holding the ball with the left flipper and then quickly tapping it. The first level has several moving and stationary targets, monsters along both sides that can lead to hidden tables by shooting them when they are lit, and a giant face that can be replaced by bumpers by shooting the ball into its mouth whenever it's open. After it's replaced by bumpers, it will move to the third level.
Jaki Crush's presentation easily equals, and maybe exceeds, any other game in the series. Its graphics - this time based on Japanese jaki/ogre mythology - are fantastic in every detail and animation. Everything from the mist in the third level of the table, to the ever-changing Japanese characters within the pinball itself, to the warping effects on the face on the first level, to the zooming out pinball effect when you make it to a hidden stage, to the way that the bones on the walls rattle, to the stone structure and lantern that serve as stoppers - it all looks awesome. The creatures that roam the table or are fixed targets are mostly various Japanese monsters. It also has an ending where a woman has ghosts behind her and an explosion of pinballs makes them all go away before Japanese text is displayed on screen. The audio is pretty awesome, too. The music for the main table is a fantastic and lengthy composition, and there are great audio effects like a creepy giggle after losing a ball.
For whatever reason Jaki Crush seems to be the forgotten entry in the series, and even most fans of the first two have never played it. This is probably because it never made it outside of Japan. Pretty sad, because it's just as good.
The Genesis version of Dragon's Fury was actually distributed in America by Tengen. It must have been a hit for them, because they decided to cash in on the game by releasing a sequel without any involvement from Naxat Soft or Compile, and called it Dragon's Revenge. It's actually a pretty good game, but it isn't up to the level of its predecessors.
The biggest problem comes from the table design itself. The entire table's design is fairly angular and the placement of objects on the table leads to less intuitive play than in the other three games in the series. There is a seemingly pointless area to the left of the main portion of the table where the ball can bounce into. It lacks flippers or anything else to keep you involved, it doesn't have any targets that are worth a large amount of points, and the ball takes way too long to get back to the main area of the playing field - so it really doesn't do anything other than slow down the pace of the game. The third level of the table is very sparse, and the entire table has way too few targets, so there isn't very much to do. The second level has three flippers, but their placement is poor and they often get in the way of trying to hit the ball up to the second level as a result. The first level of the table is busier than the other two, but it still loses points for it being a bit easier for the ball to drain than would be ideal. The hidden stages are actually probably better designed than the main table, but they are more difficult to reach than in the rest of the series.
Both the ball physics and presentation are not quite up to par either. The ball is still easy to control and make accurate shots with, but it often takes HUGE bounces off of objects and ricochets like crazy all over the immediate area. It's a VERY fast paced game, no question about that, but the way the ball bounces is a tad awkward. In a series with such superb graphics and music, the presentation of Dragon's Revenge is majorly disappointing. The theme seems to be a generic fantasy theme that lacks any real identity, and doesn't possess the strongly defined visual style that each of the other three games has. There are a few nice looking graphics, like the woman becoming a dragon (or whatever is going on) in the intro, or the more elaborate designs of the hidden stages, but the main table looks gaudy and forgettable. The music isn't bad, but it's a bit too generic to be memorable.
Dragon's Revenge is definitely the worst of the Crush Pinball games, and despite all these complaints, I actually do genuinely enjoy the game. Nothing about it is great, but nothing about its gameplay is bad either. Still, it just can't quite compete with the directness of Alien Crush, the scope of Devil's Crush, or the execution of Jaki Crush, and it doesn't begin to compare when it comes to presentation. So if you have the other three available, there really is very little reason to play it other than for variation.
In August 2008, Japan received a new entry in the Crush franchise as a WiiWare downloadable game, titled Alien Crush Returns. It was developed by Tamsoft of Simple 2000 fame and was published by Hudson Soft. It was released in North America on November third of that year, and on November seventh in Europe.
The concept behind Alien Crush Returns is the same as it's TurboGrafx-16 predecessor: play pinball on Giger-esque 'xenomorph' themed tables. There are three different tables included in the original game, and more will eventually be available for download as DLC. There are two 'boss' tables as well, but they're only available in 'story mode'. The controls utilize the wiimote and nunchuck, with the Z and B buttons controlling your flippers. A shake of the wiimote nudges the table. Also new to the series are 'action balls', balls you unlock that have different properties, such as temporarily splitting in two.
The game is fully rendered in 3D, and successfully carries the design of the Compile developed games through to current-gen systems. Alien 'bumpers' and obstacles spit purple fluids, destroying an alien with repeated hits causes it to explode in a green cloud of ichor, and the lighting and sound effects have a satisfying 'wetness' about them. The music has suffered from the jump to a new developer though: it's pretty standard techno.
The strangest thing about Alien Crush Returns is the addition of the 'story mode', in which you are told that a group of space marines has entered an alien vessel in orbit around one of Jupiters' moons, and must fight their way through it in order to survive. These unseen marines accomplish this by playing pinball(?) on each of the three tables, and on two boss tables. Instead of simply trying for a high score, the goal is to eliminate all the alien creatures that the table releases in timed intervals. The story exists only as a few lines of text that scroll across the screen before play begins on each table, and is ultimately irrelevant to the actual mechanics of the game.
The reason behind the existence of the story mode seems to be the extra tables available for play in that mode: the boss tables. There are two in total, bringing the number of tables up to five. Each boss table has a giant alien menace as a centerpiece, which you must destroy by repeatedly hitting it with your pinball. Interestingly, the two creatures aren't just scenery: each of them interacts with the table and you the player, trying to make you lose your ball... Which I guess must be full of space marines or something. The first boss, for example, will cover your flippers in purple goo, gluing them in place. You must mash the flipper buttons to free them before your ball comes rocketing down and needs to be relaunched. The second and final boss is a shameful clone of the Alien Queen from the film Aliens, and will stab at the table with her tail, either destroying your ball or sending it flying in a random direction. You begin story mode with three balls, but there are unlimited continues. Anyone can finish story mode in an hour or so.
In the more traditional 'Arcade Mode', you simply play for high score. All the traditional pinball trappings are present and accounted for, including 'bonus games' that you trigger by slotting your ball into a glowing portal. Whereas you would typically play the bonus game on the LCD screen of a real pinball machine, Alien Crush Returns warps you to a separate room full of alien bugs to squash. Tamsoft has also added online leader boards, allowing you to compare your high score on each table to other players.
While the overall game is a welcome gift to video pinball fans, the game isn't without a few problems. The camera over the table isn't static: if you hit the ball from the very bottom of the table to the upper level on table one, for example, the camera will follow it to give you a better view of the area you're in. This works well most of the time, but if you get a ball with a lot of momentum flying from top to bottom very quickly, the camera can't keep up and you'll lost sight of the ball. There are a few minor physics quirks too, most noticeably on the table featuring the strange alien snake thing. They don't ruin the game by any means, but a player should be aware of them.
Alien Crush Returns adds a few new elements to the traditional Crush Pinball mix, and is an excellent, and long overdue, addition to the franchise. Even better, since Alien Crush and Devil's Crush are also available on the Wii Virtual Console, a video pinball lover can have all three available to play anytime.
Thanks to Neo Rasa for the editing work.