This is a list of the best “direct-to-video game” pinball games, not video game versions of real tables.
#5 – Adventure Pinball: Forgotten Island (2001, XBX/PC)
Back before Unreal Engine was used to power pretty much any–and almost every–type of game, it spent its first few years of existence primarily for first-person shooters. Adventure Pinball was actually the first non-FPS ever built with the technology, and it was put to good use, making for the first pinball video game that really left the confines of “tables” and let the ball travel around large, flashy 3D worlds. In some ways, it was more of a Breakout-style game than pinball, but that would imply that Breakout wasn’t very clearly inspired by pinball to begin with which it most definitely was. Adventure Pinball was a bit difficult to keep up with sometimes, and the ways that the various areas were linked together and what was required of you to move between them was pretty convoluted. But it was a really fascinating attempt to truly combine pinball with an action/adventure game, and it’s a shame that nobody else has really tried anything like it since.
#4 – Sonic Spinball (1993, Genesis/Mega Drive)
It wasn’t exactly a huge stretch to drop Sonic the Hedgehog into a pinball game, especially since he had spent a lot of time in pinball-inspired set pieces in his platform games. Fortunately, Sega also had him retain some of his platform skills in Sonic Spinball, being able to run, jump, and perform his spin attack at various points in the game rather than just having a spiky blue pinball and calling it “Sonic.” Also taking a queue from his core game series, Sonic had to progress through a series of levels as well as fight bosses and collect Chaos Emeralds. Like some of the other games on this list, Spinball feels at times like it’s more of an action game with pinball elements rather than a pinball game with action elements, but in this case it’s six of one and half dozen of the other as so much of the traditional Sonic games have Sonic bouncing around levels like a pinball anyway. And in keeping with the “random trivia” element of the list so far, it’s interesting to note that Sonic Spinball was the first Sonic game developed without any help from Sonic Team and is still one of only a small few Sonic games ever made that doesn’t list Sonic Team as developer or co-developer. Also, yes, I know this game was also ported to Game Gear and the Master System, but the GG version has pretty atrocious motion blur that makes it really difficult to play and the SMS version’s ball physics feel a little off and is also notably inferior, so I don’t feel it does Spinball any favors to mention them.
#3 – Flipnic: Ultimate Pinball (2005, PS2)
No pinball video game in history did a better job of taking pinball and letting it do things that would only be possible in a video game, but while still keeping the actual pinball mechanics fairly traditional. Unlike Adventure and Spinball, instead of trying to turn pinball into some kind of action game, Flipnic is primarily only “video gamey” in its flash and visual presentation. This means that the ball travels through waterfalls, into mazes, and other types of areas that wouldn’t be possible on a real pinball table unless it was the size of a small city. One of the most brilliant aspects of Flipnic is progression of the levels: Rather than getting more intricate and visually impressive as you go on, the game follows a deliberate path of devolution, culminating in a final level that looks and sounds like an 8-bit game (and a bonus area that’s like a 3/4 view wireframe version of Pong). A lot of reviewers criticized this aspect of the game, saying that it made the game get progressively more boring as you went on, but I say they missed the point completely. The “Geometry” level was the best retro-throwback-within-a-game on PS2 this side of Parappa the Rapper 2‘s “Food Court” stage.
#2 – Revenge of the Gator (1989, Game Boy)
Most of this list is about games that exceed the realism confines of real-life pinball and/or are hybrids of video game genres. Revenge of the Gator does neither of those things–it’s just a simple, impeccably designed classic-style pinball game. It was among HAL Laboratory’s first games, and one of the Game Boy’s first titles, period. And it’s probably the only year-one GB game not called Tetris that’s still every bit as fun and playable today as it was in 1989. There have been a lot of pinball games on Nintendo systems over the years, most either made by HAL or based on a HAL property. But as good as the Kirby and Pokemon pinball games have typically been, they’ve just lacked the charm of Gator, especially because they are sometimes a little too reliant on the gimmicks demanded by their license. There are a lot of people who mostly only used their Game Boys as portable Tetris machines, and if you could only bring one game with you on a trip, Tetris was probably the best choice. But coming in at a very close second for that purpose would be Revenge of the Gator.
#1 – Devil’s Crush (1990, TurboGrafx-16)
If you didn’t have a TG-16, you were probably skeptical that its pair of Crush pinball games could possibly be as great as they were made out to be. Certainly they weren’t any better than any of the other pinball games available on any other system, right? Wrong. The hype couldn’t be more accurate, especially in regard to Devil’s Crush–it isn’t just the best pinball video game of all time, it’s worthy to be mentioned among the best overall games of its generation. It’s that good. It’s hard to sell anyone on what makes DC so special without playing it, other than to say that the control is flawless, the table is genius, and it has just enough “only possible in a video game” flourishes without resorting to gimmickry or distracting from the actual pinball action (which often hurt the other games on this list). Predecessor Alien Crush is good, and DC‘s altered Genesis port–Dragon’s Fury–and unofficial Genesis sequel–Dragon’s Revenge–are decent, but nothing can top the occult-themed pinball nirvana of Devil’s Crush.