Judge Ian Visser made it through this entire review without using the word "wizard."
It was the game that saved the pinball industry…and then killed it.
Believe it or not, the early 1990s were the heyday of the pinball industry. Riding a crest of technical and design innovations pinball companies released their most popular games ever and banked profits for the first time in years. Games such as "The Addams Family" (the all-time most successful game) re-energized the industry and marked a new age for the game. Old players returned to the flippers, and new players marveled at the advanced games based on popular television shows and movies.
Within a handful of years, however, the boom was over. By the late 1990s, technical innovations had slowed and games that were popular stayed that way, limiting the market for new entries. As sales slumped the Williams Company, at the time one of only two major pinball makers in the world, believed that they needed a new leap forward to spur sales. They gave their designers an ultimatum: come up with something new or we all go under. The result was Pinball 2000, a concept that combined a video display with the traditional elements of table-top gaming.
It worked. The first Pinball 2000 game, "Revenge From Mars" was a smash hit, and game sales skyrocketed. Williams showed a profit for the first time since the '90s bubble burst, and the next game based on the platform was rushed into production. It was based on the highly anticipated Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and with interest in the movie at a fever pitch, everyone knew the next big hit was only a few months away.
Within a year, however, the company was gone.
Through interviews with designers, engineers, and artists who worked on the project, Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball recounts the development of Pinball 2000 and its early successes. Using archival footage, photographs, animation, and company promos, we follow along while the designers sculpt a new form of entertainment almost from scratch. From the initial rough sketches to the grand unveiling of the final product, we get to see the entire game design process laid out before our eyes.
Director Greg Maletic does a fantastic job staying on focus and providing the information the viewer needs to get behind the scenes. After recounting the history of the pinball machine and the industry, we move directly into the Pinball 2000 development process and the meat of the story. Maletic keeps a firm hand on the reins, moving the story forward at a brisk pace, touching on key moments of importance and providing a layman's perspective on technical and design issues. The presentation is helped considerably by a peppy, almost nostalgic score by Skip Heller that matches the visual elements of the film perfectly.
Throughout its running time, Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball makes one point very clear: Pinball 2000 worked. Asked by the Williams management to make an industry-impacting breakthrough, the design teams delivered a product that retailers liked, fans played, and which was delivered on-time and on budget. The designers who built the new system seem particularly heart-broken by this truth, as most of them look back on Pinball 2000 as one of the crowning achievements in their careers. Worse, many in the pinball community blamed the concept of Pinball 2000 itself for the company's collapse, rather than pointing fingers at how the project was managed by the higher-ups in the company.
Plenty of blame gets thrown at George Lucas and his Lucas Arts, too. Ridiculous demands on secrecy surrounding anything Episode I related meant that design teams at Williams couldn't interact with each other, a virtual death sentence for any creative process. Interference from Lucas was constant, and the design teams were forced to make correction after correction on small, middling issues like character color that distracted from more serious technical issues. It didn't help that the film was ultimately underwhelming to audiences, or that the unpopular character of Jar Jar Binks featured prominently in the game. In addition, the high cost of acquiring the rights to the film meant that per-unit costs were greater than average, leading many retailers to balk at purchasing the game.
Although it makes for good headlines, the film does admit that one game alone didn't kill Williams or the industry. Pinball was a shrinking market for years in the face of video games and home consoles, and the success of the early 1990s led to an excess of middle-quality product that did little to innovate. Rather, the slumping sales of Pinball 2000 games merely indicated that any significant renaissance of pinball was still years away, and Williams, a public company with shareholders, couldn't remain in the business of making something that wasn't profitable.
If there is a shortcoming to the documentary it's how it is such a one-sided affair. We hear from designers, software developers, and engineers, but nothing from the management that was in place at the time of Pinball 2000's development. Considering that the documentary paints these corporate leaders as those responsible for both the game's demise and the death of the entire company, it is almost inconceivable that their opinions or version of events are not included in some manner. Maletic does explain this exclusion in the director's commentary, but it would have been nice to see it addressed in the feature, however briefly.
On the technical side, Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball is top-notch. The full-frame image is nearly flawless, and even with a myriad of colors and lights constantly flashing and sparkling, there are no issues with color balance or flaring. The audio is crisp and clear, and the film's music and plethora of game sounds are presented in a solid mix that echoes from the surround speakers to great effect.
For fans of pinball, the extras included on this two-disk set are like the greatest multi-ball frenzy ever encountered. The bonus content for this film is a well-organized collection that includes so much material that I can't imagine any die-hard pinball fan feeling deprived. Most of the scenes in the bonus features appear to be interviews and segments cut from the feature, but there is so much information compiled that it never feels like any content is being repeated. These features include:
Director Commentary—Director Greg Maletic details concepts and ideas behind the film's creation and reflects on the finished product. This is a busy commentary with lots of background detail and very little dead space.
Industry Graphs and Statistics—Viewers can chart the demise of the industry's fortunes in a series of graphs and charts.
Cast Discussion—An audio roundtable with three designers of the game and chaired by directed Maletic, nicely divided into chapters by topic.
Expo Speech—A speech by Pinball 2000 designer George Gomez at a 1999 industry convention.
Tributes—Williams' designers and insiders wax poetic on Pinball 2000's charms and glories.
About Tilt—A behind-the-scenes look at the film's special effects and graphics with the director.
Highlights—If you don't feel like wading through six hours of features, this is a collection of a dozen or so pieces from the extras providing an overview of the bonus material.
Inside Pinball—A pair of segments featuring cast members laying out the history of Pinball 2000 and how a game is designed from scra
Inside Pinball 2000—A large collection of related information, from repair and marketing videos to design and creation histories.
Inside Williams—Three short segments detailing the Williams factory, its products, and its eventual shuttering.
Inside the Industry—A series of segments detailing issues within the pinball industry and the challenges it faces in a changing world. This is a great inside look at issues often hidden from consumers, such as the debate over what pinball should actually cost to play.
Lost Machines—A quick look at the remaining prototypes for three unreleased Williams games, including Bally's Pinball Circus, Playboy, and Wizard Blocks. Wizard Blocks and Playboy were both meant to be Pinball 2000 games, but the real stand-out here is Pinball Circus, with an amazing multi-level playing field that never made it into production.
And finally, a trailer for the film.
Fans of pinball will find Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball to be more than just a documentary: it stands as a love letter to both the game and its creators. The sheer weight of the extras included make this DVD release a sure recommendation for anyone with even a passing interest in the hobby.
Not guilty. Gimme another quarter, mom!
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