Visual Pinball is, as the website describes it, "Pinball Construction Set advanced 20 years" - and as it points out, Pinball Construction Set was released only seventeen years ago - "Visual Pinball is that good."

First of all, Visual Pinball has a full-fledged editor in it, with more freedom than any previous editor. The size of the table can be specified - with the height, width, and glass height specified seperately and numerically - allowing long, skinny tables, square tables, short and wide tables, etc. Walls can be made either curved or straight, allowing a lot of flexibility in the shapes.

All the standard pinball machine parts are available, and customizable. Pop bumpers, of any radius - and they pop can be turned off to emulate simple metal pins. Flippers, put in any location, with any length, at any angle, and seperate radii for each end - so they can be used for gates that open and close, or other effects. Kicker holes, visible and invisible. Ramps, that can be 2-wire or 4-wire habitrails, or plastic rails. Spinners, gates, plungers, all wherever you want them to be. Lights that can be any shape you feel like making.

All of the pieces can have decals and images applied to them, to decorate up the table any way you want. Transparency on the images is also supported.

It's not only the targets and pieces on the playfield that make a pinball machine. It's the workings - how the targets work together. Visual Pinball uses VBScript (yes, I know... but it's better than nothing) to set up the rules and points. And it uses it a lot - very few items work properly without any scripting, and no scoring is done without using the script. Fortunately, basic scripting isn't very hard to accomplish, as the items have a few events and values predefined, meaning minimal work to get the basics going.

However, as a computer simulation can only do so much, not every little device you can find in a pinball machine in the arcades is yet covered. Examples would be the spinning disks in Whirlwind. Others can only be partially represented, such as the crude imitation of Thing for The Addams Family. And there's the occasional feature that can never be emulated, such as the shaking of the machine for Earthshaker.

But because so much can be done, this program can faithfully copy almost every arcade pinball out there - which says a lot for the flexibility of the editor. I've even seen an old shooting gallery game copied in Visual Pinball - which I found very impressive.

It's not just an editor - you also get to play your tables. Not in some cheesy overhead mode, but 3-D rendered, as if you're standing over the table. Basic lighting effects and shadows add a little depth to the playfield, and the background can be decorated, with lights, text, and scoring all recorded there. (As the backglass isn't shown, so that the table fills up as much of the screen as possible.)

Visual Pinball can also interface with PinMAME (with the custom version VPinMAME), allowing the table, with the right VBScript, to interface appropriately with actual pinball machine ROMs. In fact, a large number of actual arcade machines are available at this point, from old classics like Eight Ball, to big newer games like The Twilight Zone and Demolition Man. It's quite fun to have those games without them taking a lot of money and space to get.

The play seems very faithful to real, physical machines, for the most part. It does seem that the tables are somewhat easier on Visual Pinball, as I'm doing much better than I did back when I played the things for real, but I can't be certain without an actual machine to compare it to. Also, there are occasional bugs, such as the ball passing through flippers (that's very annoying). It doesn't happen often enough to really get upset about.

I've tried using the editor, and I can say that while it's easy to start putting items on the playfield and do some simple scripting, it's not necessarily easy to actually design a decent pinball game. It can be difficult putting pieces in just the right spot so they're easy to hit, but not too easy. I suspect making a fun pinball is going to be hard to learn how to do.

Visual Pinball is freeware, for download, at the web site http://www.randydavis.com/vp/.

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