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Thursday, June 28, 2018

Obscusion B-Side: Power Rangers Zeo: Full Tilt Battle Pinball: Wait... Isn't Getting "TILT" a Bad Thing?

So while going over the legacy of game developer KAZe's double duology legacy of Super Pinball & Digital Pinball, I mentioned that Super Pinball II: The Amazing Odyssey was done by a second team, while the first game's team was working on what would become Digital Pinball: Last Gladiators. Lead by Naruaki Sasaki, some of the people on this team would assist on the Digital Pinball games, usually in bug finding, artwork, or more general "Special Thanks" positions, but while Norio Nakagata & Takashi Kobayashi were making the first of two of the best video pinball games of all time, Sasaki was put in charge of another pinball game at KAZe, this time based on a licensed property: Saban's Power Rangers.

Debuting back in 1993, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers is a franchise that I don't think needs any introduction. At this point, everyone at least knows that Haim Saban & Shuki Levy took a Japanese TV show, in this case Toei's Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger from 1992, removed (more or less) every single bit of footage featuring the original Japanese cast, leaving only the footage of the Rangers in their suits, the monsters, & the giant robot fights, and mixed in original footage featuring an American cast, telling its own story. Needless to say, it was massively successful, but eventually Saban had to move on to actually acknowledging the fact that each new Super Sentai show utilized (at the very least) a new outfit for the team. The first entry to do this was 1996's Power Rangers Zeo, which utilized footage from 1995's Choriki Sentai/Super-Powered Squadron Ohranger, but while the "Mighty Morphin" series received numerous video game adaptations, Zeo only received three, all in 1996. The PC & (intensely forgotten) Bandai Apple Pippin received platformer/beat-em-up Power Rangers Zeo vs. The Machine Empire, the Super Nintendo received racing game Power Rangers Zeo: Battle Racers, & the PlayStation received Power Rangers Zeo: Full Tilt Battle Pinball; in fact, this was the last season to even get video games, until Lightspeed Rescue. While the first two are not considered all that good, I want to focus on the third game, which is the only one to see release outside of North America. Japan received the game around the same time as America, two months before Digital Pinball: Necronomicon's release & under the simpler name of Power Rangers Pinball, while Europe wouldn't receive it until roughly a half year later in mid-1997.

So, does this pinball game manage to keep up with the legacy of KAZe's output, or did Sasaki & crew fail at forming the Zeo Megazord?

King Mondo & his Machine Empire have started a full-scale assault on Earth! It's up to the Zeorangers to fight back & save New York, Asia, Africa, Europe, & the North Pole... By navigating various pinball tables. Go Go Pinball Rangers!?

Seriously, who thought that giant ship was a good idea?

Before anything else gets said, I must stress that Full Tilt Battle Pinball is NOT a standard pinball game, like the ones KAZe had made up to this point. Instead, it operates more like your "standard" video game, one with levels that have to be beaten in order to advance to the next one; you can play for points, but the focus is more on advancing to the next stage/table. Each of the five areas of the world are made up of multiple tables, 12 in total (New York & North Pole get three, while the others all have two), and they come in one of three variants. The first requires you to open up a pathway in order to exit the table, sometimes requiring you to destroy a monster that's blocking the way. The second requires you to activate a Zeo Megazord icon that you have to hit five times, i.e. one for each Ranger, which will then result in a CG cutscene where the Megazord destroys the giant monster & open up a path to exit through. Finally, the third is the simplest of all, as it's a generally open field inhabited by a giant monster boss; hit it 10 times with your ball to destroy it, and sometimes shoot the ball in the hole left over to leave. Every table you play also gives you five balls, (again,) one for each Ranger, and if you fail to complete a table by then you have the option to continue infinitely.

While there are some bumpers & ramps to be found on the tables themselves, the game's levels are admittedly mostly bare & heavily simplistic when it comes to actual pinball tech. To help compensate, all but the boss stages feature both a trio of Cogs (the grunts of the Machine Empire) that can be destroyed by a single hit with the ball, plus one or two larger monsters that require two or three hits. These enemies also act as temporary bumpers, as hitting them usually results in the ball's trajectory being altered in sometimes unpredictable ways; the bosses also act like this, for the most part. All but the boss stages also feature a 3-ball multiball that can be activated, as well as other standard pinball features, like extra ball (which technically spawns an icon that must be touched with the ball before actually earning it), bonus points, activating kickback for the outlanes, etc. So, after taking all of this into consideration, the main question remains: How is the actual pinball itself?

Unfortunately, the pinball played here doesn't match up all that well when compared to KAZe's general output, up to this point. It's not that it's necessarily bad pinball, but it's definitely no Digital Pinball, by any stretch of the imagination. The tables are much too simplistic on the whole, rivalring even what was featured in either Super Pinball game, and the use of the Machine Empire as on-field hinderances can sometimes enter completely intrusive territory. Cogs & larger monsters respawn much too quickly, and since they tend to purposefully block off areas that you have to aim for, you wind up feeling rushed at times, which can easily ruin your timing for specific shots. The worst, though, is easily the Machine Empire dropship that appears in Africa. The ship hovers over a part of the table, as there's technically an escape hole where it's located, but due to its size it obscures a large part of the central playfield, making actually playing the table it's used in much, much harder than it should be. Imagine if someone covered up a section of a real table so that you couldn't tell when the ball will reach the flippers, and you get a good idea of the stupidity of this concept. It also doesn't help that the table specifically feels a tad broken, like activating a bonus when I go through the "wrong way", even though the ball has to go that way.

Of course, some of this can be alleviated if the ball physics are at least as good as what KAZe had done previously... Right? Unfortunately, yet again, that isn't the case here, as the ball physics are not like what they were in Super & Digital Pinball. While the ball isn't suddenly bouncy like crazy, though it does oddly shake when caught by the left flipper, it is harder to properly line up up shots in general, there isn't a lot of consistency in terms of how far the ball will go when hit with a flipper (i.e. some shots will go fast & far, while others will be slow & just come back the way they came), and ball speed can sometimes be all over the place. This is only compounded when you activate the temporary Alpha 5 plug, which is supposed to keep the ball from going out the center drain, but the plug itself brings up two problems. One is when you try to take advantage of it by letting the ball(s) stay on it, which can sometimes result in it draining out when you don't want it to, while another is when the ball flies at the bottom as a ridiculous speed, and even if you try to catch it with a flipper, the end result looks more like it phases through the flipper & the plug, resulting in another lost ball. I understand that Sasaki & his team likely didn't want to stick with the more realistic ball physics of the KAZe games that came before this, in an effort to make it appeal more to general audiences (read: Power Rangers fans), but at the same time the ball physics still maintain some sense of the realistic movement & heft that other pinball games at the time lacked, so we're stuck with a really weird half-realistic/half-"video game-y" result. It doesn't break the game by any means, but it definitely is a trip to go from the focused realism of Super & Digital Pinball to something like this.

And then I decide to try out Easy difficulty... And it seemed to completely change some of my feelings. Aside from on-field monsters now all taking only 1 hit to destroy, though bosses still take 10 hits, & the Alpha 5 plug being given to you right away, I swear that the ball physics are much closer to KAZe's standard. Sure, they're not perfect, but I felt like I could time shots well, and the ball moved much more reliably. I could be wrong here, & it could simply be a placebo effect, but I think playing on higher difficulties messes with the ball physics, so as to make the game harder, which feels absurd.

Visually, Full Tilt Battle Pinball actually looks just fine &, like the previous KAZe pinball games, the tables are all pre-rendered, with the ball, flippers, enemy monsters, & target lights all being sprite-based. Compared to all of the games before, though, this game is intensely more colorful, lively, & relatable. Obviously, this is because all of the stages/tables are meant to represent actual locations, complete with the CG cutscenes featuring the Zords having the giant robots actually fight on the field itself. Speaking of the CG, it's intensely simple, even by mid-90s standards, but at least the scenes are short & you can always skip them, if you want. As for the live-action FMV cutscenes, they look to be about the same quality as that of a VHS tape from the time (or maybe even VCD), but likewise are short & can be skipped at any time. I have no idea if the scenes featuring the Zeorangers in civilian form are in any way original or are simply taken from the show, but it's at least nice to see Jason David Frank, Johnny Young Bosch, Steve Cardenas, Catherine Sutherland, & Nakia Burrise in some way, even if Frank is the only actor to actually say much of anything; also, Jason the Gold Ranger is almost nowhere to be seen, either in the FMVs or the game itself. Finally, to end on a bit of backwards compatibility, if you play this game on a PS3, the final score screen when you beat each area glitches out pretty badly, though it doesn't impede your ability to continue playing.

As for the audio, outside of the theme song for Zeo, which is heard only during the title screen, none of Ron Wasserman's iconic music is anywhere to be found here. Instead, it's a soundtrack composed by established KAZe pinball maestro Yusuke Takahama, working alongside new-to-KAZe Satoshi Nagano (who would work with Takahama for Necronomicon) & someone known only as "Mr. Hamme", and it works. It's mostly fast-paced rock tracks, and the iconic Power Rangers jingle is utilized here & there, like whenever you beat a stage. Sound effects are effective & fit the pinball aesthetic, as well. As for the voice work, Zordon & the Machine Empire villains sound accurate, though their scenes could very well have just been ripped from the show, but Alpha 5 doesn't sound right. Normally, Richard Horvitz voiced the character, but Alpha's voice in this game sounds more like someone tyring to imitate Horvitz's iconically high-pitched performance, only to not quite reach it; the game doesn't credit anyone, so I can't be sure who voiced Alpha here. Checking the Japanese version online, none of the voice work is dubbed over, nor is the theme song changed, which matches the fact that Japan actually skipped over Power Rangers Zeo when those shows were dubbbed into Japanese for TV over there. Yes, Japan actually aired both Super Sentai & Japanese-dubbed Power Rangers for a number of years; some of the dubs even utilized the same cast as the original Sentai.

So, after all of that, how exactly do I feel about Power Rangers Zeo: Full Tilt Battle Pinball? To be quite honest, I'm a bit mixed on it. Taken on its own, and seemingly despite the problems I brought up earlier, I still think it's an okay game of video pinball. No matter how annoying it could get on certain stages (I'm looking at you, Stage 1 of Africa!), I still was willing to give it a few more goes before stopping for the time being, before going back to it again. The PlayStation certainly has much, much worse pinball games, like Austin Powers Pinball or Kiss Pinball, and this game is nowhere near as terrible as those; it's not great, mind you, but it's enjoyable enough in short bursts. When compared to KAZe's fellow video pinball output, though, it's easily the worst of the bunch, with tables/stages that are simultaneously too barren in design yet too hectic for their own good at times, ball physics that seemingly become worse as you play on higher difficulties, & overall feels somewhat constrained by the Power Rangers license; also, outside of small tabletop units for kids, this is the only "real" pinball game based on the franchise. Luckily, Full Tilt Battle Pinball goes for peanuts nowadays on the secondhand market, usually not more than $10, so it's not exactly any real investment to snag a copy today.

Still, I'd have to argue that lessons were learned from this game, as the last KAZe pinball title I'll be covering is not just (technically) the final entry in the Digital Pinball series, but is also based on a licensed property. Specifically, it's based on an iconic anime movie, which itself was based on an iconic manga, that will actually be celebrating it's 30th Anniversary in a couple of weeks, so join me then when I review Akira Psycho Ball!

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