Pinball HD for the iPad: It doesn't get much better than this

Gameprom has taken their three popular iPhone/iPod touch pinball games, The Deep, Jungle Style Pinball and Wild West Pinball (US$.99 each), and rolled them into one amazing iPad app: Pinball HD selling at $2.99. The iPad app is much more than just a simple port with better graphics, it adds so many features and so much additional value over the iPhone apps that I consider the price to be a huge bargain. I haven't played every pinball game out for the iPad at this point, but with some minor technical quibbles, I really can't see pinball on the iPad getting much better than this. At least not for now.

Each of the three tables in the game has an individual personality and differing levels of complexity and difficulty, but let's start with the features they all have in common.

  • Landscape mode shows a full table view. The games can be played in either landscape orientation with the button to the left or right of the screen.

  • Portrait mode gives you a flying-table view with the camera panning and zooming over the action. This can only be played when holding the iPad with the button on the bottom. If you activate the screen orientation switch, the game only plays in portrait mode.

  • A wonderful 3D engine that does true justice to the graphic capabilities of the iPad.

  • Realistic physics.

  • Built in help for each board. Tap the circled "I" at the bottom left of each board to get a display detailing instructions and descriptions of the features of each table. Make sure to swipe left and right when viewing since the instructions don't fit on one screen.

  • Local and global high scores. Swiping right brings up a table of local high scores and further tapping brings up high scores from copies sold throughout the world. At the end of each game you are prompted to enter your name and have your score included.

  • Unique soundtracks using music, sound effects and voices.

There are also user-selectable options found by scrolling through the Settings app and choosing Pinball HD. These let you choose between playing the game music or using output from the iPod app, and enabling or disabling voices, camera tilt and stereoscopic imaging. These are not well documented on the either the Gameprom site or in the app, unfortuately. Camera tilt brings dimensionality to the games offering a simulated 3D effect where the image changes depending upon how you tilt the iPad. Camera tilt only works in landscape mode. I'm sure displaying this required some heavy-duty processing to pull off, but I found that playing with it enabled didn't slow the game down one bit.

The stereoscopic imaging option requires anaglyph eyeglasses. Any glasses you have around the house will work since you can choose between red-cyan, green-magenta or yellow-blue lenses. Allowing this variety of choices is something that I've never before seen in an app. In practice, however I found the 3D less than satisfying. The images had a great deal of depth and the effect was quite impressive, but there were many ghost images which, in a fast game, can get confusing. This is less a limitation of the game than the one imposed by using any anaglyph system. It's as good, or as bad as any other app that requires colored glasses.

Regardless of the game, the graphics are wonderfully detailed and the animation is very smooth. Gizmodo, in reviewing this app, complained of choppy frame rates, but I didn't find that to be the case at all. This was probably corrected in the most recent revision which is just a few days old. The physics seemed quite realistic and the flippers were very responsive. I can sum up the experience by saying that it "felt right."

When running the app, you are presented with a 3D simulated camera zoom, pan and fly-over of one of the games. Swipe either up or down to get to the other two games. Swiping right brings up Gameprom news and swiping left brings up the local score screen. Tapping on a game's fly-over screen starts game play.

Wild West Pinball is the simplest and most uncluttered game. In it you'll find an Indian village, a bank and railway robbery, a bad guy to knock off, a gold mine to plunder and a lot more, while country music plays. The design doesn't hide the ball behind objects and although it appears simple, there are a handful of tasks to accomplish as you play along.

Jungle Style Pinball adds bit of a nonsense story line involving getting a gold ball out of a maze, hidden treasures, a downed helicopter, a huge ape named Big Kong. (I guess they were worried about copyright infringement.) This table is more complex than Wild West Pinball and by design, your ball can be temporarily hidden behind some eye candy. I didn't find that to be much of a problem since when the ball appears, you have a bit of time to react to it instead of having it quickly shoot toward the flippers. Two additional flippers are added in the upper third of the table. The play felt great, but I wasn't as happy with the graphics that didn't seem to hang together. Some things looked fairly real and others looked very cartoonish. Other things just didn't seem to belong, like slot machine reels. The jungle drum-oriented music was appropriate and added to the atmosphere.

The Deep is the most complex of the three both in story, structure, and tasks that must be performed. When starting, a female computer voice gives you an overview of the game, what you need to accomplish and in what order. You are in an advanced submarine and need to get access codes for four missions. Each mission has three stages. When completing a mission you attain a higher rank starting with Seaman and ending with Admiral. The structure of the whole game is more linear than the others. For example, to get to the sunken boat you need to turn off the whirlpool by lighting up five stars. Sure, lighting up underwater stars doesn't make a lot of sense, but the graphics are gorgeous, far surpassing the other two games, and the game play was wonderful. You are given spoken hints and directions by the sub's computer throughout, along with appropriate music. The only thing I didn't like about the game play -- and this is just a matter of preference -- is that the missions you complete are lost when you lose a ball. There is no continuity of story from ball to ball outside of the score not resetting.

Looking at it as a whole it's easy to see the progression of talent, expertise and creativity of the developers, starting fairly simply with Wild West Pinball and going fill tilt with The Deep. I would welcome a few minor problems being addressed; like being able to lock orientation in either portrait or landscape modes, and being able to play the game regardless of which way you turn your iPad. But none of that really detracts from the excellence of the game. If you have even a passing interest in pinball and are lucky enough to have an iPad, go get this game right now. I can't imagine anyone not having a good time with it, and with all the features and options, it's quite a deal for three bucks.

The same game is offered as a Macintosh program called The Pinball with less features. The program is free and includes the Wild West Pinball table. The other two tables can be bought for $2.99 each. To control it, you need an iPhone/iPod touch app called Pinball Remote. One without the other won't work since there is no way to control the Mac program without the iPhone app that connects to the computer over Wi-Fi. I do not recommend this program since there is a definite time lag from tapping a flipper on the iPhone and having it register on the Mac, making the game nearly unplayable.

Take a look at this video courtesy of iPadAppReviewTV which gives a great demo of The Deep and a short introduction to the other two tables.

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