Pinball has been around much longer than video games, so it makes sense that developers and publishers who were looking to extend their market reach in the 90s and 2000s might build off of successful titles and characters by basing pinball games on them. Sometimes, this meant actually licensing out their properties to established pinball table manufacturers, as was the case for popular game franchises like Street Fighter II, Space Invaders, and RollerCoaster Tycoon. But sometimes these spin-offs were designed as video games themselves, allowing developers to play around with the familiar visual language and mechanics of pinball to create something new.
1993: Sonic Spinball
If you’ve got a character who turns into a ball and rolls around, it makes sense to stick him in a pinball game. That was the rationale behind the pinball segments in Casino Night Zone in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, which later went on to inspire Sonic Spinball. Developed by an American team at Sega to fill the gap when the company realized that Sonic the Hedgehog 3 wouldn’t be ready for the 1993 holiday season, The game is one of the few Sonic titles to be set in the world of the Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon (Sonic SatAm, as it’s known by fans). It’s an uneven experience, and features some surprisingly upsetting imagery (that Robotnik scorpion boss haunts my dreams) but Sega Technical Institute kicked something off with Sonic Spinball. It may not be the first pinball spin-off game, but it’s certainly the earliest one that I know of. In 2003, Sega released a sequel called Sonic Pinball Party for the Game Boy Advance.
1993: Kirby’s Pinball Land
Kirby’s Pinball Lnd came out just days after Sonic Spinball, proving that there was something in the air at the time.. The game case Kirby himself as the ball, kicking off an entire subgenre of games where the character is reduced to an orb state and the player must guide him around levels (e.g. Kirby’s Dream Course, Kirby: Canvas Course). Kirby’s Pinball Land was actually the second pinball game Nintendo ever published, after the black box NES game Pinball. The engine HAL developed for the game would later be used in another — much more successful — pinball title for the Game Boy.
1998: Worms Pinball
Pinball spin-offs seemed to lie dormant for a while in the 90s, as developers were more concerned with bringing their franchises into 3D than turning them into pinball tables. In 1998, however, Team17 released a game called Addiction Pinball for Windows. One of the two tables in the game was based on their Worms franchise, and when it came time to port the game to PlayStation, they changed the title to Worms Pinball and dropped the non-Worms table. For a franchise as weird and wacky as Worms, this is a pretty buttoned-down pinball experience. The worms depicted are in the style of the original game, and they look… kind of scary.
1999: Pokemon Pinball
When Nintendo realized what they had on their hands with Pokemon, they immediately set out to milk the franchise for all it was worth. Hence, Pokemon Pinball, a Game Boy game using the same engine as Kirby’s Pinball Land. The game came with a novel rumble pack that provided force feedback to the player, and it was more than just a Pokemon-themed pinball game — it actually let you catch Pokemon as if you were playing the original game. Since Pokemon is all about throwing balls at monsters to collect them, this spinoff made a lot of intuitive sense. So much sense, in fact, that Nintendo also released a sequel after the release of Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire for the Game Boy Advance in 2003.
2002: The Pinball of the Dead
This is kind of a weird one that I had no idea about — Sega put out a House of the Dead pinball spin-off for the Game Boy Advance in 2002 and it’s… pretty good? I’m not sure who came up with the idea of adapting a light gun zombie shooter as a pinball game, but Greg Kasavin called it “the best idea since sliced bread. Or at least since 2001’s absurdly fun The Typing of the Dead.” Sega also managed to rope in composer Hitoshi Sakimoto (Final Fantasy Tactics, Final Fantasy XII) to help with the soundtrack, which is pretty neat.
2004: Mario Pinball Land
While the sixth generation of consoles was wowing gamers with huge, detailed worlds, pinball spin-off games were experiencing something of a renaissance on the Game Boy Advance. The now-defunct British developer Fuse Games Limited created a Mario pinball title for Nintendo similar to the company’s past adaptations of its franchises, though the game wasn’t as well received as Kirby’s Pinball Land or Pokemon Pinball. Employing a rough 3D look rather than 2D sprites, Mario Pinball Land sees Mario turned into a ball by something called a “Spherasizer.” While the game didn’t do well, Fuse would get another chance with Nintendo soon after.
2005: Pac-Man Pinball Advance
Developed by Hungarian studio Human Soft, Pac-Man Pinball Advance didn’t make much of an impact. The spherical character had already had a number of physical pinball tables based on him by Bally, and this digital adaptation failed to wow critics and fans. Lackluster physics, no high scores tracking, and only two included tables consigned Pac-Man Pinball Advance to the dustbin of pinball spin-off games history. Zen Studios (then known as Rubik Interactive) was apparently working on a sequel for the DS, but it was shelved for unknown reasons.
2005: Metroid Prime Pinball
After Fuse’s disappointing showing with Mario Pinball Land, they adapted another Nintendo property in pinball form — Metroid. Specifically, they used Retro’s Metroid Prime aesthetic and characters in a pinball game for the then-new Nintendo DS handheld. The game had a number of unique features, including a rumble pack that slotted into the GBA port on the DS, a playing field that spanned across both screens, and boss battles lifted from the GameCube game. Conceived by Kensuke Tanabe during his work on Metroid Prime Hunters, Prime Pinball just made sense in the same way that Sonic Spinball did — Samus Aran already turns into a ball, so why not? As a terrible pinball player I remember having a hard time with it, but it was a good idea executed pretty well, and a great demonstration of some of the DS’s capabilities.
2006: Shin Megami Tensei Pinball: Judgment
A Japan-only mobile game, Shin Megami Tensei Pinball; Judgment is a pinball title that takes place in the Devil Summoner setting of the sprawling RPG series. It includes 70 demons from the games, and allows players to summon them, fuse them together, and even choose between the alignments of Law, Neutral, and Chaos like in the mainline titles.
2012: Plants vs. Zombies Pinball
With arcades dying out and pinball fans still hungry for their favorite style of game came the rise of digital pinball simulations. Zen Studios and its Zen Pinball series have become synonymous with licensed pinball adaptations, some of which are tables that could exist in reality while others, like Plants vs. Zombies Pinball, are more whimsical. Adapting PopCap’s runaway hit as a pinball table might not make immediate sense, but it worked well enough, and Zen Studios would later adapt other zombie-themed titles, including Telltale’s The Walking Dead series, in which you have make the difficult choices those games are known for while keeping the ball in the air. Wild.
Pinball spin-offs aren’t as popular as they once were. Nowadays, companies are much more likely to license out the rights to their properties to a dedicated studio like Zen to adapt as a virtual table, rather than develop their own pinball titles. That’s probably for the best, since the quality of these games as a whole was pretty uneven. If I missed any, let me know in the comments — I’m going to go check out The Pinball of the Dead.