Flipnic

Gamestyle Archive Intro: an overlooked title and the GS review that arrived in January 2004 from Daniel. I might have to keep an eye out for this game.

flipnic

“Flipnic is an enjoyable simple-action amazing pinball game for you!” You’ve got to love how well ‘Engrish’ manages to put across the feel of a game far better than any western blurb could ever hope to. Sony Computer Entertainment Japan have tried many times to bring over their in-house projects to the rest of the globe, and Flipnic is the latest.

Pinball is an odd choice for a conversion from the real world to the digital one. It’s happened before though, with varying levels of success, but never has it been portrayed in quite the way it has in Flipnic. Gamestyle can only describe the attempt as ‘Pinball Evolved’ – whilst retaining the basic ethos, Flipnic introduces new elements to the mix of bumpers and silver balls. And, coming from the makers of the PS2 launch title, Fantavision, this bizarre hybrid is likely to pull in similar, like-minded fans…

Each level (or table) has a certain number of objectives that must be cleared in order to progress. These objectives are split across several sections of the table, each with their own flippers, and usually connected to the maze-like entirety of the table via metal runners (the kind you’d normally see on a real pinball table). Objectives might require hitting a certain number of bumpers within a certain time limit, or collecting some coins, or travelling though a ramp a prescribed number of times. Certain areas of the tables open up once objectives have been met, and allow you to continue to explore. And what sights lay awaiting!

Flipnic is a ‘flippingly’ beautiful treat for the eyeballs. The graphics are vibrant and colourful, and the animation and framerate as smart as you could hope for – considered how much is happening on screen at any one time. The style of each level varies considerably too; from the Biology level (a jungle environment replete with trees, flamingoes, chameleons and a stunningly-rendered waterfall), the Metallurgy level (made from metal components and frequented by UFOs), and the Optics level (a virtual reality table with semi-transparent neon features). Throughout each of the levels are similar metal rails – presumably to showcase how SCEJ have really gone to town with the rendering of metallic surfaces – and the reflections on the ball and rails look superb!

Unfortunately, after the overwhelming first level, there does seem to be a degree of laziness apparent with the designs of the tables. The organic visual details are dropped and the structure becomes less forgiving. Luckily, there are plenty of extra ‘missions’ per table – so replaying the first table over and over is often desirable, even if it just to enjoy whizzing around the jungles of the Biology world. Very relaxing. Until, that is, Flipnic begins to drive you slowly insane…

There is a fundamental flaw with the game of pinball itself which, despite Flipnic’s best efforts to counteract, remains in place here. Control is the problem – or rather, the lack of it. Your only interaction with the ball comes when it is in contact with the flippers at the bottom, therefore the vast majority of the time you have very little control over where the ball goes. Losing lives (by losing the ball through any of the gaps) is not always the fault of the player. Sometimes it will simply be beyond your physical capabilities to prevent it, and this causes frustration. Flipnic tries to address this by positioning extra bumpers in key locations – such as the gaps either side of the table – thus blocking the ball for one bounce and allowing it to return into play. These extra (blue) bumpers can be ‘recharged’ by hitting the blue power-ups that usually appear nearby, but they can also be swapped from their in/out position by using the ‘left flipper’ button when available. Unfortunately, this also means that simply using the left flipper can leave you totally defenceless (through losing your ball down the side of the table in a moment of brief panic). The left flipper button will also toggle other bumpers along the table – which begs the question: how did SCEJ manage to get a two-button control scheme so very wrong?

The left D-pad pulls the left flipper, and the Circle button fires the right one; simple enough, but this leaves all other buttons open for use – and yet two (essential) commands actually share a button! It’s totally unnecessary, and a rare example of how a simplified control system can overcomplicate the gameplay. Bewildering, to say the least. And, not content to let that gameplay rest upon the outcome of fate, there is also the ability to ’tilt’ the table (nudge left or right) by using the shoulder buttons. It can prove mildly useful – as long as it isn’t overused – if your ball is heading directly into a hole and you have a second or two of warning. However, as thoughtful a gesture this is, there is often too much action occurring too close to the bottom flippers for the ‘nudge’ action to have any sort of effect.

With UFOs flying around ground level in one example, Gamestyle’s spherical silver warrior was flipped up into one of them – only to be ricocheted back through the resulting gap faster than it took for the flipper to return to its relaxed position. Quite irritating. However, that’s not to say this is a skill-less game – far from it, in fact. The Help mode talks the player through various techniques that can be used on the tables. Pinball enthusiasts will probably already be fairly proficient with techniques such as ‘holding’, ‘transferring’ and ‘half pushing’ – and the demonstrations really do show you how it is done. Taking these techniques back onto the tables will gradually see improvements, but newcomers must be aware that Flipnic is an unfairly challenging (and often frustrating) game to play without first knowing how to handle the ball.

In addition, each new table can only be unlocked once the required missions have been cleared from the previous table; so the five-minute trial run available for new tables – before they are fully unlocked – is a nice taster, but there isn’t enough time to properly explore every avenue. So this means that each table must be mastered in turn before the next one can be tackled – meaning if you happen to get stuck, there’s not much you can do about it (other than practice)! The tables are a joy to explore, however since many routes can be taken accidentally, you might end up going around in circles. If you happen to miss a route or flip up into the wrong one, it can take an age to find your way back again – and this adds to the irritation when you miss a key mission item by a few millimetres through no fault of your own.

Certainly Flipnic is not a game to be rushed through; the small number of tables (with huge amounts of extra missions per table) and aimless bouncing to-and-fro make that perfectly clear. A different frame of mind is required to really ‘get into’ it – and a relaxed attitude is essential. Thankfully, Flipnic has its own relaxed attitude; there are zany mission introductions (“Watch out, a big UFO is coming!”), some bright and breezy tunes, and the comical voice-overs will no doubt bring a smile to your face. Indeed, the production values in general are very high, and for a budget title (Flipnic retails at less than half the normal RRP) it is quite surprising to see such lovingly-crafted detail and effort brought forth. The fourth table is an interesting change – as it converts to a two-dimensional ‘Breakout’ style game, where you control sliding paddles instead of the usual flippers (but you still have to complete similar objectives). The geometry and sense of gravity is strong – despite the simplistic visuals of the stage – which again makes for a compellingly-playable experience.

But what else can Flipnic offer besides ‘Pinball Evolved’ (i.e. the main mode, which itself is strewn with mini-games and sub-missions)? Well, there’s the two-player mode, and although it too suffers from the tragic fate of unlocking newer tables, each one features a different and unique type of gameplay based loosely upon sports. Football, basketball and tennis have been morphed into ‘Pong-like’ competitive games, where the winner is the one that scores the most. A nice addition, if somewhat limited.

Flipnic almost manages to attach itself to the amalgam of classically-obscure, quality PS2 titles – such as Rez, Frequency, Fantavision, Gitaroo Man et al – however, due to one or two structural flaws and frustrating play mechanics, falls slightly short of such nobility. But it cannot be accused of being anything other than a unique and refreshing experience that mostly pushes all of the right buttons. And at a budget price, it deserves to picked up by anyone suffering from over-familiarity with the usual ‘blood ‘n’ guts’ paradigm.

Gamestyle Score: 7/10

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