Developer FarSight Studios has been creating digital replicas of real-life pinball tables for well over a decade, originally kicking off with Pinball Hall of Fame: The Gottlieb Collection on PS2 in 2004, and then producing Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection on PS3 in 2008.
The company currently publishes Pinball Arcade across a broad range of platforms; a free-to-download program that enables you to individually buy premium licensed tables from the likes of Williams, Bally, and Gottlieb.
Stern Pinball Arcade is basically a spin-off from this, and features a collection of relatively modern pintables from the eponymous manufacturer that can either be bought separately, or as two bundles that contain four and five machines respectively. Like Pinball Arcade, the basic game can be downloaded for free, and features one unlimited play demo table – Sega's 1995 Mary Shelly's Frankenstein. And no, I didn't make a mistake there. Stern owns the rights to pinball machines produced by Sega and Data East, several of which are included in this collection.
What's immediately apparent the moment you start playing Mary Shelly's Frankenstein is just how well Stern Pinball Arcade captures the feel of pinball. The ball's physics is absolutely spot-on; it cannons off bumpers, ricochets off targets, and tracks to the table's elevation in a remarkably realistic fashion. Having poured a lot of time into playing pinball tables over the years, I must say that I'm really impressed. Whether you're artfully trapping the ball with a flipper so that you can line up a carefully-considered shot, or are trying to juggle through a fast-moving multiball session, this simulation feels completely authentic. So much so, that almost as soon as you start playing, you forget that it's a simulation, and treat the game as you would a real pintable.
While the authenticity of the ball emulation is the most important aspect of this simulation, running it a close second is its choice of pinball tables – and to that end Stern Pinball Arcade is nicely appointed. As I've already said, all of the game's tables are available to buy separately, but they offer the best value when bought as a pair of bundles. The first pack features four machines: Ripley's Believe it or Not!, Star Trek: Vengeance Premium, Starship Troopers, and AC/DC, while the second pack sports five tables: Harley Davidson: Third Edition, High Roller Casino, Mustang: Premium Boss, Last Action Hero, and Phantom of the Opera.
Being a bit of a historical pinball fan, I was initially disappointed that this launch list of tables is all drawn from the (relatively) modern era. However, the more I've played them, the more I've enjoyed what they have to offer. Each one, apart from Data East's 1990 Phantom of the Opera, is a solid-state machine that features a dot-matrix display on its backboard. These LCD screens are mostly used to articulate bonuses and targets to the player, but some feature display skill shots and even unique mini-games that add a layer of sophistication to the gameplay. This helps give each table plenty of depth and replay value, ensuring they deliver a good level of challenge, while literally giving the player plenty to aim at.
All tables are very faithfully recreated: Artwork and backboards have been meticulously scanned, the fully-functioning, dynamically-lit playfields feature authentic mechanicals and accessories, and each game emulates its original ROM code, ensuring that it plays exactly the same way as the real McCoy. Combine that with the ultra-realistic ball physics, and you have a game that I think presents the best pinball simulation yet seen.
Of course, all this wouldn't be worth a damn if the pintables themselves weren't enjoyable to play, but fortunately Stern Pinball Arcade's selection of games is very nicely curated. As you might expect, the older machines are a little more simple and straightforward than the later models, but that doesn't make them any less entertaining to play. The gorgeous-looking Phantom of the Opera, for example, is 26 years old, but keeps its gameplay fresh and interesting with challenging ramp shots, a variety of tricky bonuses to build up, and an on-field organ to open for multiball. Last Action Hero hails from the same era, but is a little more of a novelty table: Its playfield packs a movable crane, a trio of magnets, and a maze of ramps that are all fairly easy to take advantage of as you try to activate the game's crazy six-ball multiball mode.
The other two tables from the 90s are Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, and Starship Troopers. I really enjoyed playing the former. Like Last Action Hero, Mary Shelly's Frankenstein is an excellent beginner's table, with plenty of easy-to-hit ramps and targets, and an entertaining multiball set-up process. Starship Troopers is a lot more challenging, though, and features fast-moving gameplay with several multiball modes, a progressive bonus structure, and an unusual third flipper that can be used to set up a particularly tricky skill shot.
From the 00s, there's Harley Davidson: Third Edition, Ripley's Believe it or Not!, and High Roller Casino. Harley Davidson: Third Edition is another table that's great for pinball newbies thanks to its straightforward, uncluttered playfield and easy-to-activate multiball, while Ripley's Believe it or Not! dials up the level of difficulty with a myriad of ramps and targets to hit, and a complex quest system. It can still be played and enjoyed by novices, but if you're an expert, Ripley's Believe it or Not! has some serious depth. High Roller Casino also features a detailed bonus system and some interesting playfield novelties like a mini spinning roulette table, but I didn't find its gambling theme particularly compelling. It's not a bad machine by any means, but it's my least favorite table of the bunch.
Finally, we have a trio of machines from this decade: Mustang: Premium Boss, Star Trek: Vengeance Premium, and AC/DC. All three represent the cutting edge of pinball tech, with brilliantly designed playfields, elaborate game modes, multiple ways to build bonuses, and a ton of bells and whistles to keep the proceedings exciting. In Mustang: Premium Boss, for example, there are eight different racing modes to compete in, and you can hit targets to earn racing parts that upgrade your car – all while shifting gears to set up a multiball session. AC/DC ups the ante with 12 different gameplay modes, each of which is matched to one of the game's dozen licensed songs, while Star Trek: Vengeance Premium has no less than 18 progressive missions to complete, as well as a main goal of destroying the USS Vengeance, a large model of which dominates the top of the playfield. If these tables sound somewhat bewildering, fear not. They’re actually all fairly easy to pick up and play on a superficial level, but if you do want to properly master them, you can always refer to the highly detailed tutorials that accompany every table in this collection, which explain exactly how they work.
Ultimately, Stern Pinball Arcade is a superb silverball simulation that offers an impressive array of varied, fun-to-play tables. Some may have qualms about the relatively high cost of buying all nine of them – the entire collection will run you a couple of cents short of $40 – but I think that for an avid pinball fan, it's a really solid offering: These are near-perfect digital replicas of pintables that are the next-best thing to owning the real deal. If you're in any way interested in pinball, at the very least download the free demo to check out Mary Shelly's Frankenstein and see for yourself just how realistically the game plays.
Nicely presented, with worldwide leaderboards, challenges, and very comprehensive table tutorials.
Very good emulation that helps make the tables sound exactly like the real thing.
The dynamically-lit playfields are a little dark, but look highly authentic.
Stern Pinball Arcade is a great-looking, authentic-sounding, highly realistic simulation that features an impressive roster of ten fun-to-play tables. If you're a pinball fan, you should definitely download the free one-table demo to see just how great an experience it delivers.