Friday, June 10, 2011

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Pinball (Or How I Enjoyed A Lousy Weekend In Towson, MD!)

The Good: Fun, Interesting games within the game, Cool technology, Easy to learn and fun to play
The Bad: Sections are hard to see with effects
The Basics: The "Episode I" pinball machine is a decent blend of video game and pinball machine which will intrigue pinball players and keep them busy for quite some time!

Three years ago around Valentine's Day, I found myself stuck in Towson, Maryland at a Star Trek convention. It wasn't actually much of a Star Trek convention as the main guest was the hilarious and wonderful Alan Tudyk from Firefly. In fact, the biggest Star Trek-related guest was the return of Harve Bennett, perhaps best known for executive producing Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (reviewed here!). Given that I sell mostly Star Trek merchandise at these shows, it is not much of a surprise that I was having a lousy weekend.

Or, rather, I would have had a lousy weekend if it had not been for the fact that the annual convention had been moved to a new hotel, in this case one that had an arcade. And in that arcade was a Star Wars Episode I pinball machine! My love of pinball, my mother's excess of quarters, and a lot of time on my hands led me to play a lot of this machine over the course of the weekend. Well, hot damn, pinball wizards! I was psyched that I could objectively review it.


Star Wars Episode I pinball is a machine manufactured by Betson Enterprises and it is worth noting that it has been on the market since 1999 and was part of the early hype for the film. As a result, Betson was working on the project before the title for the movie had been finalized. Thus, all of the physical components on the machine have the simple name “Star Wars Episode I" as opposed to The Phantom Menace. The "Episode I" pinball machine appears at first glance like any of a million pinball machines: it has the standard glass-topped table which is angled so balls will end up at a central chute, buttons on the sides for players to activate flippers on that side, and a pull launcher which fires a ball up one of several ramps. There are targets to be hit with the balls and there are many bright lights. The back of the machine has a lit backing that runs perpendicular to the table and includes images of most of the main characters from The Phantom Menace.

However, that is where the similarities between this and other pinball machines end. The Phantom Menace pinball machine is an intriguing blend of video game technology and pinball machine technology. The back portion of the pinball machine - under the glass, where the back tubes are! - acts as a screen for graphics projected there. As such, throughout the play experience, players face challenges not in the base of the game using the pinball attributes of the game, but rather using the pinballs to strike virtual targets in a video game projected onto the last fifth of the playing surface! It is impressive and has the look and feel of holographic video technology that is quite cutting edge, even today.

One suspects that more people play pinball than buy the machines, but for those looking to own one, the "Episode I" machine carries a pretty standard price tag over $4000, but given the sophistication of the game, it is hard to feel cheated by the expense! For those of us simply playing the game, it is $.50 per credit, at least on the unit I was playing on.


As a pinball machine, there are not so much accessories as there are features. The Phantom Menace pinball machine features the holographic projector which casts video images over the back portion of the pinball machine. Still, players may easily see the launch ramp, which is more like a tube, which kicks the ball out into the back field for initial play.

There are three ramps that hitting the ball with the flippers can project the ball up. The leftmost is one which initiates a C-3P0 extra ball option, the next one to the left and the one to the right are pretty standard circular ramps with which bring the balls back over the playing field to deposit the ball right next to the flippers.

Along the ramps, there are mounted action figures of Jar Jar Binks and Watto for the amusement of players, one supposes. There are two ball locks, one near the Jar Jar, one near the Watto, which initiate bonus games like multiball or point multipliers.


Most of The Phantom Menace pinball plays like a pretty standard pinball machine; players launch a ball, it goes up a ramp and when it comes toward a central chute closest to them, they attempt to deflect the metal ball back into the playing field to hit targets and earn points. Points accrue pretty fast on "Episode I" pinball and after three days of play, my record was 28,860,650 (the record on the machine was only ten times that, so I did not feel unaccomplished at all).

Between the two main ramps at the far end of the playing field, there is an open area that is sealed off by a bar which lowers and raises. Hitting that bar with the ball initiates a viewscreen which projects an image of something like a battle droid, R2-D2, a Naboo starfighter or a Gungan submarine (among others). When the bar is hit once, it raises and the player must shoot the ball back to the same area (now open) in order to initiate the game corresponding to the picture. The video becomes more active and dynamic and offers targets that the player must try to hit using the pinballs.

So, for example, when Jar Jar comes up, initiating his game puts a video image of Jar Jar Binks up and launching the ball into the backfield causes Binks to jump, drop items he is carrying (and earning the player points) and ultimately, the player must aim the ball to hit where Jar Jar's feet land to knock him over. The games tend to be like that, though many of them, like the Naboo Ground Assault game - where the player must destroy Battle Droids and ultimately an MTT - have targets that appear, must be hit specifically, then hit multiple points of a larger target. In this way, the player is tested for skill in the video game portion by aiming the balls instead of randomly projecting them up the field.

One of the neatest games is the Sith Droid game which has a Sith probe droid moving around the backfield and the player must aim the ball at the moving target and hit it twice to end the game! Once one has won two of the first level games, the games become more complicated, like Jedi Musical chairs and an Amidala spinning wheel game that I only encountered once in my weekend odyssey.

One assumes there are many levels I was not able to achieve, but the concept of "hours of fun" certainly applies to this pinball machine!


I've no idea how many of The Phantom Menace machines were made, but given how many places I have been around the country and that the one in Towson was the first one I ever saw, I imagine these were not overproduced in any way.


Star Wars Episode I pinball offers pinball players a real intriguing diversion and the games are exciting and play progresses at a reasonable pace. The relative difficulty of hitting some of the targets, which then forces the ball right back down the center of the chute can be frustrating, but largely, this is an amazing blending of video game and pinball technologies that will entertain players for hours . . . especially if they would otherwise be terribly bored.

This pinball machine utilizes graphics and scenarios from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, reviewed here.

For other pinball machines and game reviews, please check out:
Lord Of The Rings pinball
Hoth Star Wars CCG set
Star Trek 25th Anniversary for GameBoy


For other toy reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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