I've always been a huge fan of video pinball, and consider games like Crush Pinball, Battle Pinball, Kirby's Pinball Land, Super Pinball, and nearly anything by Little Wing to rank among my all-time favorites. But the one thing that I've never really dug about the genre is that it was originally created to be for just one player at a time. Yeah, you can always alternate with other people, but who likes to just sit there and wait for their turn to play? Well, someone at KID, the developer, must have intended to solve this very dilemma, because their forgotten 1989 NES / Famicom game Rock 'n' Ball was the first pinball game to ever have two player head-to-head play. They must have been the only ones that had the idea, though, because it's still the only two-player-at-a-time video pinball game out there.
While its focus is primarily on two player competitive play, Rock 'n' Ball's overall theme is sort of like an "Evolution of Pinball" deal. Of its four very different modes of play, two are based on real kinds of pinball tables, while the other two are hybrids with other kinds of table games based around similar concepts - one of which is directly related to the origins of pinball. Two of the four modes are played head-to-head against either a second player or the CPU - as these are the focus of the game, you get a grand total of five tables between the two modes, but only one of each of the other two.
Luckily, the controls work the same for each mode. Down on the D-pad works the plunger, while Left and A control the left and right flippers, respectively, and Right and B activate nudging. Like other pinball games for NES, its ball physics are far from perfect, but they're still accurate enough that they won't cause any problems, and are only exceeded on the console by High Speed and Pin*Bot. Still, advanced techniques aren't going to be as effective as a pinball veteran might prefer. This isn't so much of a problem on the two-player competitive modes, but is slightly more noticeable on the other two modes.
Pinball Pinball / Pac-man Pinball
Pinball Pinball is a straight forward one player table similar to many other NES pinball games. It plays fairly well, but the upper part of the table is kind of angular, with oddly placed bumpers and an awkward shaped upper wall in the form of three arches. Another area that could have been improved is that the ball drain a bit too easily. Otherwise, there's still some relatively cool stuff, like a ramp and a second set of flippers. The real focus of the table is on the television monitor in the upper right. You need to shoot the three pegs just below it to get it to freeze on one of the images that it's cycling through. At this point you can shoot the television itself, which will grant various items depending on what was displayed. The key will make a ladder appear out of nowhere in the upper left, and getting the ball to the ladder will take it to another table. This hidden area just consists of two flippers below an otherwise empty board, and has you trying to hit groups of enemies that are running around the screen.
9 Ball is a gambling game that combines pinball with bagatelle, the game that both pinball and pachinko evolved from. It actually plays more like bagatelle than it does like anything else, but with pinball flippers and nudging. You start out each game by placing a bet from your initial total of $1000. You then get nine chances to launch to a ball up onto the playing field and hope that it comes to rest in any of the indentations spaced between the many pegs on the board. How much money you make back is determined by what kind of formations that you can make on the board (like three in a row non-diagonally). However, the pegs make this perpetually challenging, no matter how much nudging and flipping you do. All in all, 9 Ball makes for a pretty cool novelty, even if it doesn't really stand up to the other modes.
Battle Flipper consists of three different two player head-to-head tables. How this works is that each table is two sided, with the table slanting upward toward the middle on both sides and each player controlling one set of flippers. Each time that the ball drains on the other guy's side you earn a point - first to three wins. Should you find firing a ball down the screen to be awkward then you won't have to worry about it too much as players switch sides after each goal is scored. Although they're extremely rare, there actually are a small few real head-to-head pinball tables that have been built over the years. One of the coolest things about the head-to-head tables in Battle Flipper is how they mix in more video game-y elements, which are detailed below for each table.
Bomber is the most balanced overall of the three tables. There's a good amount of space on the table and you can move one of you flippers over to the other side and back, so its easy to stay aggressive. At the same time, there's still a fair amount of activity on the table, with five bumpers in the middle and holes that transfer the ball directly to the other side. You've also got three stoppers to provide you with a solid defense. If you shoot either of the two targets that look like buttons it'll change the image beside them - matching the two up will cause any of several effects. Two exits makes a hole appear on the table that will drain the ball. Two skulls will make your opponent's flippers invisible, which obviously has no effect on a CPU controlled opponent. Two bombs will make the ball into a time bomb that will explode after a short period and reward the player opposite to the side it exploded on with a point. Lastly, two lightning bolts will temporarily freeze your opponent's flippers.
Thunder is the most basic and straight forward table of the three, but it's also the most aggressive and fast paced. The table's designed for a strong offense, with lots and lots of space and nothing to get in your way, save for two ramps. Furthermore, you can also move both of your flippers over to the other guy's side at any time, and into positions that easily facilitate scoring. The only thing protecting you are three one-time stoppers directly behind your flippers, so your best defense is going to have to be a strong offense. There's also a trick that you can do with the stoppers. They double as bumpers, so if you move your flippers up after the ball drains then they can bounce the ball back onto the playing field. While they only work one time each, you can replenish your stoppers by shooting the ball through a ramp.
Attack is the most crowded and complicated of the three tables, as well as being the least conventional. In fact, the ball doesn't even enter the playing field in a normal fashion. Instead, you launch it up a path will two holes, and which it goes in determines where exactly it enters the playing field. There's quite a bit of other things going, as well, namely the six pegs in the middle of the table, the two holes that transfer the ball from side to side, two groups of three targets, and a lane behind each group of targets. You can move both of your flippers to your opponent's side - pretty close to their goal, too - and into positions that both block their targets and make for an easy point if you can get a good shot in. You've also got a moderate defense consisting of three small stoppers, but they can be removed by shooting the lane behind the targets. The three targets work like this: ATTACK causes a bumper that looks like the paddle in Arkanoid to appear and move back and forth above your opponent's goal. Whereas, HELP makes the stopper between your flippers larger, and STOP restores your stoppers.
Sport is the second of the two player head-to-head modes, and the most original mode in the game. It gives you two different tables, both of them foosball/pinball hybrids. They follow the same basic head-to-head pinball table rules as the Battle Flipper tables, but with a couple very major differences. For starters, you don't have any flippers protecting your goal. In their place is a goalie that you can move back and forth. When the ball hits the goalie it'll bounce off, and you can make it bounce further by holding A. Your primary offense, though, is a lone flipper near the middle of the table on your opponent's side. You can move it back and forth, or make it spin around in either direction by pushing A or B. Both tables are extremely simplistic, lacking all of the crazy crap that you'd normally get from a pinball table.
Soccer, not surprisingly, has a soccer theme, complete with a field and goalies. While your goalie can move the length of the goal, he's kind of small and doesn't block much of the goal at once, forcing you to play strong defense to be successful. On either side of both goals are two holes. If the ball falls into either of them on your opponent's side then you can shoot it back out by pushing A or B on the controller. It's a good idea to get the flipper in a good position before doing so to set up for a shot.
As would be expected, Ice Hockey has an ice hockey theme, with nets, ice, and mask wearing goalies. This table is even more basic, lacking anything besides the goals, flippers, and goalies. The goal is actually placed away from the wall on this table, so that it's actually possible to hit the ball behind the net. However, if you do then the ball is automatically launched back by some kind of super bumper. The goalie this time is considerable larger, so playing defense is much easier. But with the goal situated away from the wall, you have less time to get into position. Meaning that a quick offense is absolutely essential to scoring. You can also move you goalie to the left and right of the net, but it's otherwise identical to Soccer.
Rock 'n' Ball was released in Japan by Namco as Family Pinball. These two version are mostly identical, but the characters that you choose from before starting a game (which doesn't affect gameplay at all) are different. In the American release the characters are all generic characters with equally generic names. Whereas, the Japanese version, being released by Namco and all, has Namco characters in their place. These include Pac-Man, Tarosuke from Yōkai Dōchūki, Kagekiyo from Genji and the Heiki Clans / Samurai Ghost, Momo from Wonder Momo, Valkyrie from The Legend of Valkyrie, and Ki from The Tower of Druaga. (Check here for more info on these characters.)
Pinball Pinball is the only table of the bunch to differ between the Japanese and American releases. First of all, the Japanese version is Pac-Man themed. Oddly, there are also slight differences between the layouts of the tables. In the Japanese release the bumpers are spaced out more widely and the arches at the top take up less space. The target to the left of the upper flippers is placed slightly higher and the lane leading to the left that joins to upper and lower parts of the tables begins slightly higher. Near the bottom flippers, the hole that actives the stopper on the right is placed a bit higher and is slightly more difficult to reach. I have NO idea why these changes were made, but they honestly don't make much of a difference. Still, the American version does have slightly less space and the Japanese version might be just a tad more challenging.
Rock 'n' Ball / Family Pinball isn't the most realistic pinball game for the platform, but it's become my favorite over time. Finding an authentic head-to-head pinball machine these days is basically impossible, so this game provides what is really the only substitute for the real thing. It's also nice to see this much originality in the genre, even from such an old game. So, if you're looking for something different in the genre, or especially if you have a second pinball enthusiast to play the thing with, then you NEED this game. For other interesting pinball games for NES, try the conversions of High Speed and Pin*Bot, or the pinball/RPG hybrid Pinball Quest.