Review: Pokémon Pinball (Gameboy)

By Merman (@merman1974)

Console: Game Boy Color (playable on DMG Game Boys, and Super Game Boy for Super NES)
Developers: HAL Laboratory & Jupiter
Publisher: Nintendo
Release dates: Japan – April 14th 1999, North America – 28th June 1999, PAL – Australia July 13th 1999 and Europe October 6th 2000

pp_box_art_hires

– US box art.

pp_japan_box_art

 Japanese box art –

 

 

 

 

A Pokémon pinball spin-off makes a lot of sense, not least because the Pokéball is round like a pinball. Let us look back at some of the unique features of the first Pokémon Pinball game.

pp_main_title

– Title screen.

 

 

 

 

 

The Pokémon you are catching are of course from the original Generation One game, Blue and Red (as they are known to Western audiences). The game has two separate tables, called Blue and Red, featuring the Pokémon from the relevant game. Unlike other Pokémon titles, you do not need to trade to unlock all 151 in the battery-backed Pokédex – but it is possible to trade high-scores via the Game Boy Color’s infrared port, as well as print out high scores if you attach a Game Boy Printer. There is a unique screen surround when playing on the Super Game Boy attachment for Super NES. Although the cartridge can be played on earlier DMG models of Game Boy, certain features are disabled (including the animated Pokémon in the Pokédex) and the graphics are of course textured monochrome rather than full color.

ppblue_supergameboy

– Super Game Boy surround with the Blue table.

 

 

 

 

 

ppred_DMG_capture – Playing the Red table on a DMG Game Boy.

 

 

 

 

 

The game was a joint development between HAL Laboratory and Jupiter, under license from Game Freak. HAL is of course known for their work on the Kirby games, with former employees and then President Satoru Iwata moving on to become Nintendo’s president. And in 2020 HAL moved part of its staff into Nintendo’s Tokyo Building, meaning it now shares offices with Pokémon creators Game Freak, 1Up Studios, and Nintendo EPD Tokyo. Jupiter is based in Kyoto, with a Tokyo sub-office. The company’s motto translates as “Let’s Play! Let’s Smile!” and it has a long history of releasing games for Nintendo’s handheld consoles – from Game Boy to Switch. Jupiter also worked on the -Game Boy Camera’s built-in software and created an unreleased Pokémon Picross game for Game Boy Color (which was uncovered in the recent large leak of Nintendo data, after only being known about through a few magazine articles of the time).

pp_us_cartridge

– The Pokémon Pinball cartridge with its distinctive shape.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At first glance, the Game Boy Color cartridge for Pokémon Pinball is much larger than normal. At the top is the cover for a AAA battery. This powers the rumble motors inside the cartridge, much like the force feedback found in more recent controllers. This feature is disabled when playing on the Super Game Boy. The Japanese and American versions allow you to switch the Rumble, so it is either on or off. The European cart offers a choice of strengths – Off, Mild or Strong. It is one of a few unique Game Boy cartridge designs with extra hardware inside, alongside the likes of Kirby Tilt ‘n’ Tumble, Wario Ware Twisted, and Yoshi’s Universal Gravitation.

 

ppblue_field_complete

– The complete Blue table.

The complete Red table – ppred_field_complete

How do you go about catching ‘em all in this pinball spin-off? There are common modes to both tables, so it is best to look at the first and then explain the differences. The player can enter Catch ‘Em Mode by flipping the Pokéball over the GET light two or three times. A different type of Pokémon will be available to catch if you light it three times. Then the mode is activated by hitting a particular target – Bellsprout on Red and Cloyster on Blue. A silhouette of a Pokémon will then appear at the bottom of the table and must be filled in by hitting the pop bumpers (at the top of the table – Voltorbs on the Red table and Shellders on Blue). This will fill in the silhouette and make the Pokémon itself appear in the middle, so it must be hit three times to light up the word CATCH! (This is shown as GET in the Japanese version). Each Pokémon caught is recorded in the Pokédex, and awards one of three Pokéballs needed to reach the Bonus Stage (lighting up in the middle of the table). If you encounter a Pokémon but do not capture it, its image appears as a shadow in the Pokédex until you capture it another time.

ppred_abra_reveal

– Abra is being revealed for capture.

 

 

 

 

 

ppblue_zubat_reveal2

– Zubat is almost revealed.

 

 

 

 

 

ppblue_bellsprout_2hits

– Bellsprout has taken two hits.

 

 

 

 

 

ppblue_zubat_0hits

– Hit Zutbat three times with the ball.

 

 

 

 

 

ppred_abra_2hit

– One more hit to capture Abra.

 

 

 

 

 

Once you have caught a Pokémon, the EVO light must be passed over three times to light it up and enter Evolution Mode by hitting the target (Ditto on Red and Slowpoke on Blue). The player uses the flipper buttons to choose between any Pokémon already captured that can evolve. Arrows will guide the player to where the necessary EX (Experience), Evolution Stone, or Link Cable are hidden on the field. The player must collect three of these items; hitting the wrong location will mean the player must send the ball around the outer “loop” of the table or wait 10 seconds for a fresh item to appear and the Pokémon to recover from “fainting”. Both Evolution Mode and Catch’ Em Mode are played against a time limit that gradually counts down. Get the three items in Evolution Mode before time runs out and a hole appears in the middle of the table; flipping the ball into it will secure the Evolution for the selected Pokémon and fill in its new Pokédex entry.

ppblue_choose_evo

– Here on the Blue table, choosing a Pokémon to Evolve.

 

 

 

 

ppblue_evo_ex_token

– An Experience Token to be hit.

 

 

 

 

 

ppblue_evo_1ex

– One EX token down, two to go.

 

 

 

 

 

Once the player has three Pokéball icons lit from captures, the Bonus Stage can be activated by hitting the open center hole. Red has Bonus Stages based on Diglett and Gengar, while Blue has Meowth and Seel. Completing both Bonus Stages on either table will then open the special Mewtwo Bonus Stage. Diglett requires the player to knock down all the Digletts and then hit Dugtrio at the top three times; the player only gets one ball on this stage. Gengar is played against a 1:30 minute time limit in the graveyard. Hitting Gastly ten times will launch Haunted; hitting Haunted ten times will see the player facing a huge Gengar, which must be hit five times to complete the stage. Meowth throws coins around, and the player must collect them with the ball; hitting more than one pile in a row increases the multiplier (the first coin is worth 1, the second is worth 2, and so on). Dropping (draining, in pinball parlance) the ball resets the multiplier and costs four coins. Against a one-minute time limit, the player must collect 20 coins to complete the stage. Seels swim around underwater, with their heads “popping up” every so often. Hit ahead with the Pokéball and a point/icon is earned, with the chance to earn multipliers as in Meowth’s stage. The player has 1:30 to collect 20 icons but can continue to earn points after they reach 20 until time runs out.

Mewtwo’s Bonus Stage is more challenging, as the Legendary Pokémon is surrounded by six moving black circles. Hitting a circle earns a million points and hitting Mewtwo himself earns 50,000,000. With just 2:00 to play, the player must accumulate 25 hits on Mewtwo to capture it. Fortunately, each hit also removes a black circle. A clever player can fail and replay Mewtwo’s bonus stage to earn huge scores.

To simulate a Trainer moving around the region, Map Move is used. The starting location is chosen at random from a shortlist, with different areas for each table. Each area also has its own types of Pokémon available. Red requires you to hit Diglett twice to enter Map Move, while Blue requires three hits on Poliwag or Psyduck. Once these triggers on the table are hit, the player has 30 seconds to hit key targets and make a Map Move. This means a player will play three locations from the “Area 1” list, two from the “Area 2” list, and then the sixth and final area visited will be Indigo Plateau on both tables. Mew can be encountered on Indigo Plateau, but its strength means it would take 1024 hits to capture – and so its entry is added to the Pokédex on finding it rather than capture.

ppblue_mapmove_mtmoon

– The trainer has arrived at Mt. Moon.

 

 

 

 

 

At the top of each table, above the bumpers, are three channels. Dropping the ball through a channel lights one, and the position of lit channels can be cycled with the flippers. Passing over a lit light will turn it off again. Note that on the Red table, hitting Staryu toggles whether the player can upgrade the ball using the channels. Once all three channels are lit the Pokéball upgrades, giving a higher score multiplier. The basic Pokéball becomes a Great Ball (x2 multiplier), then an Ultra Ball (x3), and finally a Master Ball (x5). Combined with the basic table multiplier this can rapidly increase your score. However, each ball only lasts a short while and will change back to the previous strength – and draining the ball off the bottom of the screen reverts to the standard Pokéball.

ppblue_masterball

– A Master Ball with its x5 bonus multiplier.

 

 

 

 

 

Also on each table are the CAVE lights (HOLE in Japan) that can be lit up by the ball passing over them. Once all four are lit, the Slots feature becomes active (but only if the player is not in another mode – i.e., Catch ‘Em, Evolution, or Map Move). The slot machine is started by putting the ball into the center hole. The reel spins to offer an upgrade, with the reel slowing down once the player presses A. Among the upgrades are Small and Big Scores, a Pokéball upgrade, or an increase in score multiplier. The ball Saver protects the player for either 30, 60, or 90 seconds (or until the ball is drained twice), while the Pika power-up can be handy. Normally a Pikachu will sit in one of the two drain channels at the bottom of the table and can be moved between them with the flippers. If his power meter is fully charged – by hitting the spinner on the outer loop, filling the thunder icon – then he will fire his Thunder Strike to act as a kickback, saving the ball from draining. If you get the Pika bonus you have two Pikachus, protecting on both sides and able to charge. The Slots can also award an extra Ball (life) or automatically start a mode – Catch ‘Em, Evolution, or Map Move.

ppred_slot

– The Slot is open.

 

 

 

 

 

ppblue_slot_smallbonus

– The Small Bonus awards a miserly few points.

 

 

 

 

 

ppblue_pika_bonus

 – Gaining the Pika bonus

 

 

 

 

 

 

The player starts with three Pokéballs, but once all balls are lost it is Game Over. Helpfully the Ball Saver is activated for 30 seconds at the start of each life. There is a separate high score list for each table, and as mentioned you can transfer these scores to another Game Boy Color via infrared for your friend to beat. Stats are shown after each ball, awarding bonus points for the number of Pokémon caught or evolved with that ball (times the score multiplier in effect), as well extra for turning the spinner multiple times. As well as flipping the flippers, the player can tilt the table to shake a stuck ball loose – but it is not often needed.

ppred_ballsaved

– Ball Saved! Launch it again.

 

 

 

 

 

ppblue_slot_saved

– I was going for the Slot but missed the ball.

 

 

 

 

 

Positive reviews of Pokémon Pinball give it a GameRankings average of 81.73%. This included 32 out of a possible 40 from legendary Japanese magazine Famitsu. GameSpot’s 8.7 ratings praised the display and presentation but did feel the physics were poor – and the rumble was just a “nice novelty”. CNET was more positive, calling it one of the best pinball games for the Game Boy Color and “more than a shameless cash-in on the Pokémon phenomenon”.

Looking back, these reviews seem fair. The major problem with the game – as in several Game Boy pinball titles – is the way the viewpoint “flicks” between two halves of the table. Although other Game Boy Color pinball games managed to achieve scrolling tables, the 8-bit processor was slow for moving a large table around. The physics are mixed but for the most part, the ball moves realistically. The flippers take some getting used to as there are limited angles, so it is more about controlling the speed of the ball when you hit it to get the right target. And I found the fixed launch speed unusual; most pinball games simulate the spring-based “plunger” which gives the possibility of different launch speeds and skill shots. Graphics are pleasing with some cute, animated Pokémon – although they do not move around (except in the bonus rounds). It is of course the long-term challenge of catching ‘em all that will keep you playing. Personally, I prefer the Blue table, but both are great fun to play in short bursts.

ppred_hiscore

– Red table high scores, storing the top five scores.

 

 

 

 

 

ppblue_hiscore

– Blue table high scores, with the names of the companies involved.

 

 

 

 

There are some other interesting problems and changes between regions, beyond the obvious Language selection menu for Europe. Japanese and American versions allow the player to reconfigure all the controls, but European users are limited to a choice of three pre-set control schemes. The Pokédex entries are taken from Red and Blue with a full stop added at the end. But there are spelling mistakes and translation errors in there. The Japanese text in-game displays the Romanised Japanese names (Poppo for Pidgey, Pawou for Seel) but the Pokédex itself shows the names in kanji. The Cutting Room Floor website (https://tcrf.net/Pok%C3%A9mon_Pinball) reveals unused graphics that could have been a third table or layout, as well as an unused Japanese font. Entering the Game Genie code 000-21D-E6E unlocks a hidden Debug menu that allows you to switch between Game Boy Color and DMG mode for earlier Game Boys.

ppblue_keyconfig

– The Key Config screen from the US game.

 

 

 

 

 

ppblue_pokedex_geodude_anima

 

– Geodude animating in the Pokédex.

 

 

 

 

 

ppblue_pokedex_shadow_meowth

 – I encountered a Meowth but failed to capture it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ppred_abra_text2

 – The second page of text for Abra in the Pokédex.

 

 

 

 

 

The music by Go Ichinose is particularly good for the hardware, reusing familiar themes from the games and the anime. Interestingly the Blue Table’s background theme has a melody that appeared in Pokémon Gold and Silver when visiting Ecruteak City and Cianwood City – games that were released seven months after Pokémon Pinball. Red’s background melody meanwhile is from the Generation II games, when visiting Kanto province. Catch ‘Em Mode on the Blue table uses an instrumental version of “Aim To Be A Pokémon Master” – the original opening theme of the anime.

If you have never played Pokémon Pinball, I can recommend it. For pinball fans, there are some quirks to be endured, but Pokémon fans will get a real kick out of it.

OVERALL: 8/10

ppblue_gameover

 – Game Over!

Curious for more? Well, this article is part of a collaboration between various content creators where we took a look back together on the Pokémon franchise. Feel free to read all the other articles by following the links you can find in the hub article.

 

Review: Pokémon Pinball Mini (Pokémon Mini)

By Merman (@merman1974)

Console: Pokémon mini

Developer: Jupiter

Publisher: Nintendo

Release dates: Japan – December 14th 2001, North America – November 16th 2001, PAL – Europe March 15th 2002 and Australia October 11th 2001

The Pokémon mini console was an unusual move from Nintendo. Going back to an LCD screen seemed strange in 2001, but the success of Game Freaks’ franchise led to a huge number of licensed products. These included a Tamagotchi style virtual pet and an electronic Pokédex.

Pokemon_mini_logo – The Pokémon mini logo

There were three varieties of Pokémon mini, matching the colour of its shell with three Pokémon from the later generations – these colours were: Wooper Blue, Chikorita Green, and Smoochum Purple. The hardware is particularly intriguing, as the smallest Nintendo console with interchangeable cartridges. The monochrome screen has a resolution of just 96×64 pixels, and it is powered by a 4MHz 8-bit CPU from Seiko. Squeezed into the case are an internal real-time clock, an infrared port for multiplayer gaming, a reed switch that detects when the player shakes the console, and a motor for rumble/force feedback. Memory includes 4K of RAM and the 4K BIOS, while each cartridge holds 512 kibibytes (just over half a megabyte). The console also has six save slots, which are shared between games. Power comes from a single AAA battery that can last up to 60 hours of gameplay. Officially the word mini was always shown in lower case, although many sources use that interchangeably with Mini.

  Pokémon_mini_Chikorita_GreenChikorita Green

 

 

Smoochum Purple Pokémon_mini_Smoochum_Purple

 

Pokémon_mini_Wooper_BlueWooper Blue

 

 

 

Internationally there were four titles available at launch. Pokémon Party mini is a mixture of mini-games, Pokémon Puzzle mini requires you to assemble pictures of Pokémon and Pokémon Zany Cards has four card games played with Pokémon cards. We are here to talk about the fourth launch game, Pokémon Pinball mini, but it is worth discussing how the poor sales of the initial games meant no further titles were sold in North America. Pokémon Tetris saw a release in Japan and Europe, but the last five official titles – Pokémon Puzzle Collection vol. 2, Pokémon Race mini, Pichu Bros. mini, Togepi’s Great Adventure and Pokémon Breeder mini – were only sold in Japan. Developers Jupiter were responsible for six of the ten released mini games, including Pinball mini – following on from their work on the original Pokémon Pinball game for Game Boy Color.

Pinball_mini_EN_boxart – The English box art for Pokémon Pinball mini

Pinball_mini_JP_boxart – The Japanese box art for Pokémon Pinball mini

Emulated versions of some Mini games appeared in the later GameCube title Pokémon Channel, and that allowed the console to be reverse engineered by hackers. Pikachu has to find the Pokémon mini under the bed and extra games are then purchased from the Shop ‘n Squirtle. It initially comes with a special bonus mini game known as Snorlax’s Lunch Time. Pokémon Pinball Petit was included in Pokémon Channel, with just ten Quest Mode levels from the original game and no way to save high scores. An emulator and homebrew titles are now available online for those who are unable to track down the elusive mini hardware. There was even a demo (SHizZLE, by Team Pokéme) entered into the Breakpoint “wild” demo competition in 2005. Fans have since created English translations of all the Japanese exclusive titles, making them playable in an emulator or via the Ditto mini flash cartridge (containing Flash memory, and thus allowing homebrew or translated cartridge files to be run on the original hardware itself).

Pokemon_Channel_US_boxart

US box artwork for Pokémon Channel (GameCube)

snorlaxs_lunch_time – Feed Snorlax to keep him awake in this Pokémon Channel mini-game.

So how does the Pinball mini game work? The game is split into three modes. Quest Mode has 70 levels that must be completed in order, Time Attack challenges you to complete one of ten selectable levels as fast as possible, and Score Attack has ten different levels to rack up as many points as possible. As with Time Attack, the player is free to play any of the ten Score Attack levels.

ppmini_title – The title screen initially just shows Diglett hitting the Pokéball.

ppmini_diglett_scoreattack – Diglett taking on a Score Attack level.

In each level, the player hits the Pokéball around with a Pokémon replacing the flipper usually found at the bottom of the table. The player starts off with Digglet, whose head pops up to hit the ball when A is pressed. Time it right and you get a faster-moving Power Shot. As you move through Quest Mode, there are three types of level. Fill Holes requires you to fill all the holes with Pokéballs as quickly as possible. These levels have a time limit, and this type of gameplay is the core of the ten Time Attack levels. High Score levels in Quest and Score Attack award one point for hitting the ball into a hole, and three points for a power shot. In Quest Mode these levels have a minimum score to complete them – also against the time limit. As well as holes, there are other features on the tables. Blocks can be broken by three hits (or one power shot), but hard blocks cannot be broken. Water will end the game, while the gravity changer (a black arrow) makes gravity act in that direction. Bumpers make the ball rebound, but the Out Hole will grab the ball and take time to release it. Ditto stops the ball bouncing and drops it slowly, while Pichu throws the ball in the direction it is facing (with the same strength it was hit).

ppmini_ditto – Ditto will affect the ball when hit.

ppmini_gravity – Hitting the Gravity arrow will make gravity start acting to the left.

ppmini_outhole – The Out Hole in the middle will hold onto the ball for a while.

ppmini_pichu – Naughty Pichu throws the ball around.

There are four Capture Levels in Quest Mode, allowing the player to unlock a different Pokémon. The Pokémon moves back and forth across the screen, starting with 3HP. Hitting the creature with the ball removes 1HP, while a power shot removes 3HP. Once the Pokémon is reduced to 0HP it faints, and needs one more hit with the ball to capture it. The player must then flip the Pokeball into the hole to complete the level, with its weight being heavier (making it slower to move) with the captured creature inside. If the player waits too long to hit a fainted creature, it revives with 1HP and must be hit again.

ppmini_pikachu – The player has unlocked Pikachu, who is a little unpredictable.

When a new Pokémon is unlocked, it can be used to replay any level – except its own capture level. Pikachu (#025) is unlocked by completing level 10, but the ball flies in a random direction when he hits it. Clefairy (#035) is the prize for passing level 20. Its psychic abilities allow you a small amount of control over the ball with the D-pad. The player must use Pikachu on level 11 and Clefairy on level 21 and is excluded from using Clefairy on some later levels. The slow-moving Wobbuffet (#202) is unlocked at level 30 but can send the ball flying further. The final Pokémon to be captured is Poliwag (#060) after level 40. Poliwag moves up faster than the others but is not as powerful (making power shots harder). One level filled with water requires the use of Poliwag, but only Diglett can be used on level 70. Completing the Quest Mode shows Poliwag and Clefairy alongside Diglett on the title screen.

ppmini_clefairy_blocks – Clefairy’s ability to influence the ball’s movement will help get rid of these Blocks.

As a pinball game the small size of the Pokémon mini screen is restrictive. But as a spin-off from the Pokémon games, it has a certain charm in the way it uses different creatures. It is a tough game to play through, thanks to the time and score limits. The cost of the console itself and the limited sales make tracking it down tough for collectors, so the recommendation would be to try the other two Pinball titles on Game Boy instead.

OVERALL: 6/10

This article is part of a big collaboration where various writers take a look at the Pokémon series in a retrospective way. Feel free to read more articles like these by visiting the hub article.