Thursday, 22 September 2011

Slam Tilt (1996/Amiga)

Liquid Dezign was a group that was born from the Digital Illusions group that made pinball games in the early 90s. That brand had punched out the first of 21st Century Entertainment’s series of pinball games. 1992’s Pinball Dreams was a great little number for the time, but looked dated, flat, gaudy and simplistic after only a few years, with one of the four tables featuring a music chart theme that beggars belief. Later in the same year came Pinball Fantasies, also with four tables, which played and looked about the same, unsurprisingly. Pinball Illusions came along in 1995 and brushed up the graphics a bit, but 21st Century decided to call on Spidersoft to produce Pinball Mania in the same, which was diabolical.

At this point, pinball madness had almost run its course. The same tables began appearing in multi-pack compilation after compilation and saw a lot of porting. 1996’s Slam Tilt stands out as the last memorable standalone pinball game of the time. The PC port a year later featured different menu screens but was very much the same game. Sure enough, its four tables would go on to be lumped in with compilations just like the rest of them. As a package, it really stands out. From the icy metal patterned box to the audio, graphics and gameplay, Slam Tilt puts the works of Digital Illusions to shame. Supposedly the last first-release to get a review published in an issue of the Amiga Power magazine that scored 90% or better, it was put out into an Amiga scene in its death throes, Commodore having declared bankruptcy years earlier. Nevertheless, it’s a polished effort that deserved to be ported to the PC.

The sound is very crisp and clear, with a lot of urgent twists to the music when you’re on specific tasks. There was no overhaul in the sound department on the port, and it’s not hard to see why. The game makes the audio of the Digital Illusions titles sound like cheap one armed bandit machine noises that you find in tacky arcades and Sonic The Hedgehog games. I half expected Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” to be playing faintly in the background with Pinball Dreams. Why is “Thriller” the same song that gets stuck on in a permanent loop in those places anyway? As a man perpetually stuck in the past, even I find these outdated tips uncomfortably obsolete.

The bold claim on the box that Slam
 is "The Pinball Game" is just a
description, and they like to remind
you of what you're about to play
The menu screen is a little bland,
but that's the biggest complaint
you'll have about the game, and it
was changed for the PC port
The graphics are something else. So it’s 2D, who cares? The 3D games don’t fare any better, and the camera panning and zooming here is spot on. Rather than focusing all their attention on creating the shiniest ball you’ve ever seen (I can almost see my reflection in the balls used in Pinball Illusions), they work on everything else. The rails and ramps look better, the backboards are painted in well, and the flashing lights have great shading. Then there’s the faux-LCD display at the top. Sure, it tells you your score and how many balls you’ve used, but there’s much more to it. Animations from the amusing to the creepy punctuate the game modes just as well as the sound does, and there’s even a minigame or two on each table where you go interactive with it.

The LCD screen plays host to fun
little side games like "throw knives
at silhouettes armed with cannons"
The gameplay is simple (it’s pinball, after all) but sickeningly addictive. The ball zips around at a good rate, never trapped for too long. The targets aren’t especially challenging to hit, so you always feel like you’re ready to amass a heavy score once you’ve either sussed the table out or read the manual. You’re more prone to losing the ball down the middle or down the side lanes than in other games, so you often find yourself thwarted and driven to have another go. It’s a frustrating way to get addicted to a game, but it really works. The lights are clear indicators of where to shoot, so picking up what you have to do is pretty easy. On the rare occasion that you get a minigame that enables the video, it’s either so self-explanatory that it requires no thought (shoot the thing with this moving reticle) or instructions flash up if more than one button is required (flippers to steer, launch to shoot, or flippers to button-mash). I wouldn’t say it adds a whole other dimension, but this is a good thing, and these games are fun little sideshows rather than making Slam Tilt something other than a pinball experience.

Mean Machines - a nice easy start
The four tables that are featured are largely excellent. “Mean Machines” will likely be the one that you play first. It’s first on the list and the easiest to put down a big score on. It’s a good table, but arguably the weakest. It looks overcrowded, has a weird “overheat” function which doesn’t do anything but annoy you, and is probably the most regurgitated theme in pinball computer game history. With the bad points out of the way, its numerous positives include its easiness as a beginner table, vast ramps, a third flipper with more than one option available, and the same benefits that every table here has: amusing twists on the theme (chicken races, stock car smash ups), lots of different modes to unlock, and fast and exciting gameplay.

The Pirate - a fine yarrrdstick for all
computer pinball games to compare to
The second table, “The Pirate” is the only table that really differs from the standard in terms of themes (cars, space and spookiness are all common tender), and offers something different to the other tables as well. Rather than losing a top corner to “fill the three flashing lights to get a bonus upgrade”, it has a funky “magna table” random bonus box thingy, and a much greater emphasis is placed on multiball games. Multiball is a function on every table, but it’s at its best here, and while the music on this table is particularly good, nothing beats the hilarious background music for the “Crocedile” [sic] multiball. The modes are fun, the table is a little more challenging, and it isn’t too crowded, so there’s plenty of room for a giant compass and a cave thingy. The table runs smooth as silk, and is my personal pick.

Ace Of Space - right up there
with the best of them
A close runner up is “Ace Of Space”, which runs a little slower, but makes up for it with some of the best game modes out there. From the predictable “Space Race” to the interactive “Death Planet” (the best video minigame on offer) to the ridiculous “Blam” (shooting ramps to destroy random targets such as a UFO, space station, a banana, the monkey from “The Pirate”, a space cow… wait, what?), there’s a full range of shenanigans for everyone. It’s well packed without being cluttered, and if it wasn’t for the slightly slower pace and the pointless zigzag in that left hand rail that shouldn’t exist, this would be a very serious challenger to “The Pirate”.

Night Of The Demon - this table
is horrifically hard to dominate
The final table is the much tougher “Night Of The Demon”. The ramps are harder to shoot, and it’s noticeably sparse. While it’s slightly less playable than the other tables, the twisted and silly humour prevalent in the other tables comes into full bloom beneath the creepy veneer of this morbid theme. The relative lack of modes and options (the only table without a third flipper is the one that could really have used one along with a couple of extra ramps) do make this table suffer compared to the last two, but its difficulty does appeal to the more hardened pinball veteran.

The multiball feature can get a
bit overwhelming at these speeds
The camera pans well, so you
always know what's going on
It’s not big and it’s not clever, but Slam Tilt hits the sweet spot. Not overambitious on the number of tables, the Liquid Dezign crew from Sweden put a lot of work into the industry standard of four tables, and the results are great. Decades on, the game doesn’t look remotely dated, and if you can play it, it’s as good as any modern pinball game out there. Colourful and intense, you don’t find yourself sitting around for too long waiting for your balls to drop. Even the high scores present good, challenging strata. Without setting yourself harsh restrictions, Slam Tilt will decimate your free time.

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