By Merman (@merman1974)
Console: Game Boy Color (playable on DMG Game Boys, and Super Game Boy for Super NES)
Developers: HAL Laboratory & Jupiter
Release dates: Japan – April 14th 1999, North America – 28th June 1999, PAL – Australia July 13th 1999 and Europe October 6th 2000
– US 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.
– 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.
– Super Game Boy surround with the Blue table.
– 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).
– 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.
– The complete Blue table.
The complete Red table –
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.
– Abra is being revealed for capture.
– Zubat is almost revealed.
– Bellsprout has taken two hits.
– Hit Zutbat three times with the ball.
– 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.
– Here on the Blue table, choosing a Pokémon to Evolve.
– An Experience Token to be hit.
– 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.
– 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.
– 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.
– The Slot is open.
– The Small Bonus awards a miserly few points.
– 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.
– Ball Saved! Launch it again.
– 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.
– Red table high scores, storing the top five scores.
– 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.
– The Key Config screen from the US game.
– Geodude animating in the Pokédex.
– I encountered a Meowth but failed to capture it.
– 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.
– 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.