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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Obscusion B-Side: KAZe/Pinball: The Super Digital Legacy

While not technically a "video game", especially since it predates them by decades (if not over a century, if you want to count the earliest predecessors), pinball is probably most associated with them in modern knowledge, due to the two of them cohabiting arcades ever since the 70s. Today, though, while pinball is still around in some form via companies like Stern & Jersey Jack, most people likely experience the classic game in the form of digital experiences, either via 100% original means like Zen Pinball, or through outright recreations of actual tables via The Pinball Arcade. The latter is especially poignant now, as Farsight Studios' product will be suffering a major loss at the end of this month, when its licensing agreement that gave players the ability to purchase & download classic Williams & Bally tables will come to an end. In that regard, it's Zen Studios' original experiences that might win out in the long run, but before that company, there was another company that became a cult legend for its dedication to bringing players the most accurate feeling pinball experience one could find on a video game console.

That company was Tokyo's KAZe.

Founded back on February 2, 1987 as Live Planning, KAZe Net Co., Ltd. made its debut with Abarenbou Tengu, a 1990 Famicom shooter that was heavily modified into the (now expensive) NES game (Samurai) Zombie Nation, with the giant tengu face that you controlled being changed into a giant, decapitated head of a dead samurai... It was really weird, to put it lightly. Following that, KAZe stuck with publisher Meldac & developed Game Boy games like Heiankyo Alien & Tenjin Kaisen (known internationally as Mercenary Force), as well as numerous pachinko video games, but in 1994 Zombie Nation director Norio Nakagata teamed with a new designer named Takashi Kobayashi to do something that had never really been done before on a console: Recreate the pinball experience in as accurate of a form as possible, and on a Super Famicom, no less!

While there had been plenty of pinball games for consoles by this point, even the Atari 2600 had some, almost none of them really felt like the real thing. Some would get remarkably similar for the hardware, even as far back as Glenn Axworthy's Midnight Magic on the 2600 (& computers tended to be more accurate), but even then it still didn't feel like what you were playing could believably be an actual table, and the ball physics still tended to feel somewhat floaty; even while being held with a flipper, a ball would uncontrollably rattle. That's where Super Pinball: Behind the Mask differed from the competition, though, as what KAZe's Nakagata & Kobayashi focused on was essentially creating pinball tables that could theoretically be made in real life, and delivering ball physics that truly felt like you were playing actual pinball.

In terms of content, Super Pinball is simplistic in concept, offering three different tables: Jolly Joker, based around a central clown character; Blackbeard and Ironmen, which used a pirate theme; & Wizard, based around a generic fantasy theme. Now, to be completely fair, if there is one central "problem" to be found with Super Pinball, it's that all three tables feel way too similar to each other. Rather than try to imitate the more complex tables that had become the standard in the 80s & 90s, which likely would have been impossible for the hardware, KAZe instead kept it very simple here, with absolutely no ramps, multiple levels, or special trick shots to be found. Rather, the primary focus in these three tables is to get the ball into specific lanes that lead to bonus points, or light up letters that lead to an eventual two-ball multiball round. With that in mind, all three tables are nearly identical to each other. Even with the lanes, bumpers, & holes in different locations (minus one, which is literally in the same location in all three), you get the feeling that you've quickly played all three tables after only playing one of them. Outside of Competition Mode's single table play, which gives you three balls & can be played with up to 4 players via alternating turns, the only other game mode is Conquest Mode, where you play all three tables sequentially, with the goal of reaching a specific score on each table; Jolly Joker requires you to reach 60,000,000 points, for example.

Still, even with the feeling of repetition between tables, what makes Super Pinball interesting to play, even today, is the fact that the ball physics feel intensely similar to real life. You can catch the ball with your flippers, transition it from one flipper to the other (mostly) consistently, and timing your shots as you would in real life to hit specific spots works like a charm; it's no wonder why Conquest Mode asks players to reach such high scores. It's simply astonishing that Nakagata & Kobayashi's team at KAZe were able to deliver this kind of pinball accuracy on a Super Famicom. In fact, Nintendo itself must have been summarily impressed, because Nintendo of America felt it was worth releasing Super Pinball to the North Americam Super NES in late 1994; I see some word of a European release, but I can't verify if it actually happened. As for the visuals, the tables themselves are pre-rendered static images, with the flippers, targets, & ball all being moving sprites, and the dot-matrix-esque displays that would normally be on a backboard appear on-screen, & over the table, in mostly non-intrusive ways. As for the music by Yusuke Takahama, it's decent enough, if maybe a bit too subdued; one could also argue that the SNES's sample-based sound capabilities may not necessarily work as well in this genre. Overall, Super Pinball: Behind the Mask is an impressive first effort by KAZe's team, but it definitely has the hallmarks of only being the beginning of something that would only become more impressive with time.

Since this is an overview of an entire line of pinball games, it's more than likely that Super Pinball was at least enough of a success in Japan to spur KAZe into making more. In fact, it must have done extremely well, because 1995 would see the release of not one, but two games! While Nakagata, Kobayashi, & even Takahama got to work on a game that would see release on the next generation of consoles, a second team headed up by Chief Designer Naruaki Sasaki would make a direct sequel to Super Pinball, right down to also being developed for the Super Famicom. Released on March 17, 1995, Super Pinball II: The Amazing Odyssey featured three new tables: Space Sister, which utilized a sci-fi aesthetic; The Spy Eyes; a blatant imitation of British creations like James Bond & The Avengers; & Showtime, a carnival-themed table. Right away, the biggest difference between the original & the sequel is that Sasaki & his team rectified the biggest issue with the original by making all three tables here fairly distinct & different from each other. While there are still similar goals between them (& those are simply carry overs from the original), each table here has a specific style, making it easier to enjoy one over the others.

Space Sister features a second, elevated play field, and while it doesn't exactly offer much (just a second pair of flippers, a couple of bumpers, & two holes to shoot the ball into), it still gives you something to aim for, if only so that you're as far away from the drain as possible. The Spy Eyes has a central set of switches to hit, which lit up a grid that, when completely filled, opens up two holes to lock your balls into for multiball, similar to that of the iconic Pin-Bot. In comparison to those two, Showtime is definitely the most simple, and hearkens back to the original game's general style, but even there it's still a very different layout than what was found in Super Pinball, and it's still overall a fun table that now matches up well with the other two, rather than feel like a tired repeat. Scoring is also much more lenient, resulting in higher scoring games, but at the same time that means that Conquest Mode requires a much larger score to advance; Space Sister alone needs 100,000,000! Combine all of that with a much better soundtrack, this time done by Satoru Wono, that makes much better use of the Super Famicom's sound chip, though it does maybe sound more "video game-y" as a result, and it sounds like Super Pinball II is easily the better of the two games, right? Well, unfortunately, while the design & overall aesthetic is obviously better, the ball physics aren't quite the same. While it's not a major difference, and in the long run is still leaps & bounds better than the competition on the same console, the physics here seem to have been tweaked in ways that make it a little harder to consistently line up shots, and there is the occasional moment where the ball's movement feels a little weird. Finally, the sequel now only offers up to two players to compete, rather than the original's four. Still, Super Pinball II: The Amazing Odyssey is more or less as good as the original, and if the ball physics don't bother you, it's likely going to be the better game. Unfortunately, this game remained exclusive to Japan, but everything's in English already, so it's no trouble playing an imported copy.

Let's face facts, though. If you ever see anyone talk or write about KAZe, it's not about the Super Pinball duology. No, it's always about its successor series, Digital Pinball. As mentioned, this was the true-blue follow up to the original game that Nakagata & Kobayashi had designed, and to this day, it's these two games that are generally thought of as some of the absolute best video game pinball titles of the 90s, and it all started with Digital Pinball: Last Gladaitors, which saw initial release in Japan on the Sega Saturn on June 23, 1995, just three months after Super Pinball II's release; during development, it initially had the series moniker of "Pinball Arena". Last Gladiators comes loaded with four tables to play from: Gladiators, based on the gladiator games of the Roman Empire; Knight of the Roses, featuring a semi-Arthurian motif; Dragon Showdown; inspired by both Japanese samurai & mythological creatures, like dragons; & Warlock, which utilizes a general mystical & darker motif, like that of undertakers, father time, etc. Technically, there's also a fifth table, Victor, hidden with a code, but that's simply a basic table featuring infinite six-ball multiball, as the dot-matrix display showcases the development staff; it's nothing more than a neat & hectic bonus. To match these definitively "manly"-themed tables is a redbook audio soundtrack featuring nothing but hard rock & metal.

Without a doubt, if Super Pinball II felt like nothing more than an improvement of the original game's concept (again, debatable ball physics aside), then Last Gladiators is a true evolution of what the original development team started with. While the tables themselves are back to being relatively simple & similar in conceptual design, much like the original Super Pinball, the Nakagata/Kobayashi crew obviously learned from their initial game. Each table, though relying solely on bumpers, ramps, rail lanes, etc., has its own feel & flow to it, and each has a specific central focal point, whether it's Gladiators' giant Colosseum, Dragon Showdown's giant ramps in the back, or Knight of the Roses' various rails. The pace has also been sped up immensely, resulting in extremely fast gameplay that prioritizes activating special gameplay rounds in rapid succession, lighting up "Extra Ball" to help make gameplay last longer, & multiball (that now goes as high as six balls) to earn giant scores by hitting Jackpots. Not just that, but the objective-based gameplay helps gives the tables here a real feeling of advancement, and each table even gives you the ability to instantly light up a new round upon launching a new ball. This also allows the player to reach a Wizard Mode upon beating every round on a table, which you couldn't do at all in either Super Pinball game. The ball physics are also improved even more so than before, to the point where it truly feels almost like a real pinball is bouncing around those digital tables. Finally, the music by Takahama & Naoto Shibata is hardcore rock at its finest; this soundtrack truly feels like something you'd want to hear on an actual pinball table.

All that being said, though, Last Gladiators isn't 100% perfect. Of the four main tables, only Gladiators truly feels properly balanced & fine-tuned, as every other table has a bad habit of being able to knock your ball into either the center drain or an outlane, with you having little to no ability to stop it from happening. Now, yes, you can bump the table to help mitigate that, but not everyone is used to bumping the table well (not to mention you can only bump left or right), and I don't think a table should require the player to bump in order to simply play it to any extent; it's a more advanced technique, but it should never feel mandatory. Also, while the ball physics are exquisite, it's not uncommon to get the ball stuck here & there; usually a bump will free it, but sometimes it gets really stuck for a while. While there were initial plans for the game to see international release under the name "Fantasy Pinball" by U.S. Gold, as indicated by this issue of EGM (page 196), it did see European release by Sega the same year as Japan, simply titled Digital Pinball, while Time Warner Interactive would handle North American duties in 1996 using the original full title. While the Super Pinball games are no doubt impressive for their time, Digital Pinball: Last Gladiators remains impressive to this very day, and still holds up extremely well, even against the likes of Zen Pinball & The Pinball Arcade... But to some, it's only second best when it comes to KAZe's pinball output.

Released on November 15, 1996, Digital Pinball: (The) Necronomicon (stylized as NECĐŻONOMICON) is considered by some to be one of the all-time greatest video game adaptations of pinball ever created, and going off of the fact that Takashi Kobayashi moved up from simple designer to "Creator of the Forbidden Lands", as well as simply the director, & Norio Nakagata simply took producer position gives a good impression of that; this is pinball lead by the man who obviously loves the game. In terms of content, Necronomicon is a little bit of a mix of what came before, as there are only three tables to be found here, but all follow a common thread of being based on the works of H.P Lovecraft: Arkham, named after the Massachusetts town heavily featured in the Lovecraft Country; Cult of the Bloody Tongue, based on the African cult that worships Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos; & Dreamlands, using the common setting of Lovecraft's Dream Cycle series of short stories. To make up for the lack of a fourth table, however, is Realms Mode, which is essentially the same thing as Conquest Mode from the two Super Pinball games, i.e. you play the tables in order & have to achieve a specific score to advance, or else it's Game Over. This Lovecraftian aesthetic is buoyed by live-action cutscenes featuring a robed man, played by John Nkwoji, as he thumbs his way through the Necronomicon itself; the prologue & epilogue cutscenes also feature music by John Petrucci, of prog-metal band Dream Theater. Also, while playing any table, you constantly hear a mysterious "Story Teller", voiced by Barry Gjerde (Barry Burton in Resident Evil, Vigo in NightCry), talk about the various themes of Lovecraft, and though it does repeat a lot, it never gets tiring to hear Gjerde's voice.

As for the actual pinball itself, the ball physics are pretty much perfection here. You can time shots with excellent consistency, the ball moves perfectly & never feels floaty (if anything, it feels heavy, which is realistic), and you can seriously act like you're playing a real pinball table in this game; not once did a ball get caught somewhere while I was playing. The tables themselves each have their own little unique touches, like Arkham's masoleum that can be opened up to activate 6-ball multiball, Bloody Tongue's addictive loop to activate the various rounds, or Dreamlands' upper level that also features an addictive loop of its own (though this is to activate a 4-ball multiball). Combined with the hard rock music lead again by Yusuke Takahama, Gjerde's semi-haunting voice constantly talking, and even little touches that match the overall aesthetic (stating that the games are "For Mortals Only" on the sides, or instead of simply launching a new ball if lost quickly, the ball floats back out of the drain), every single table here is an ideal mix of simplistic but excellent design, addictive flow, & an aesthetic that doesn't distract, but rather enhances what's already superb. It's also worth mentioning that the Digital Pinball titles are two of the small handful of Saturn games that output entirely in 480i, which is considered "High-Res" for the system; most Saturn games either only used 240p, or only used 480i for menus, title screens, & certain art assets. Because of this, both games' visuals are super crisp & look simply outstanding today, even on modern TVs, if you're using either RGB or something like HD Retrovision's component cables. Without a doubt, Digital Pinball: Necronomicon remains one of the absolute best video pinball games ever made, and it's saddening that it's not only a Sega Saturn exclusive, but it's also a Japan-only release that apparently didn't have a larger print run, as it does go for more than what I'd think most people would normally pay or video pinball; it's nowhere near one of the most expensive games, but it does regularly go for $30-$50 now.

Following Necronomicon, KAZe's pinball legacy more or less slowed to a crawl, followed by the company eventually leaving the gaming industry, for the most part. On September 11, 1997, KAZe released Digital Pinball: Last Gladiators Ver.9.7, which was essentially just an updated version of that game that fixed some bugs & glitches (hopefully the ball stopped getting stuck), and today it's one of the less common Japanese Saturn games, due to it apparently only being sold by KAZe directly via mail order. Today, though, people who use iOS devices can actually get a newer update by downloading Last Gladiators Ver.2010, with porting duties coming from mobile developer BeXide, though the pricing scheme isn't exactly ideal. It costs $4.99 to purchase, but doing so only gets you the Gladiators table; if you want the other three, you have to cough up another $4.99... each. Outside of those re-releases, and some non-pinball outings, the last pinball game to come from KAZe would be 2006's Shin Megami Tensei Pinball Judgment, which only saw release on various mobile phone services, like iAppli, S!Appli, & EZAppli, i.e. it's more or less impossible to play today. Currently, KAZe still exists, but only as a web development company, though it still owns the rights to its original game catalog, as shown with Last Gladiators Ver.2010.

So is that it for KAZe's pinball legacy? Not quite, as there are two more games I can cover, and I feel like giving them their own individual reviews. Up first isn't technically a part of either the Super or Digital Pinball series, but it is what Naruaki Sasaki & some of his Super Pinball II team did after finishing that game... It's Morphin' Time!


  1. Thank you for writing these posts over the years. :)