Pinball has a history that stretches back to France in the 1600s. Over the centuries, the game has certainly evolved, but at the end of the day, the mechanics and gameplay remain largely the same. You hit metal balls around the playfield, bouncing them off of scoring pins and launching them through chutes, in an attempt to reign supreme with the high score. However, leading pinball machine maker Stern is looking to take the game to a new level with its latest title, Marvel’s Venom.
The pinball machine, based on the Marvel comics foe, was announced at San Diego Comic-Con, and it plays quite a bit differently than what the average pinball fan expects. With Venom, which includes all the normal pinball bells and whistles, there’s more of a goal than landing on the high-score list or winning a free game. Instead, it’s a pinball machine with game progression, bosses to beat, a save mechanic, and even unlockable player characters to add more replayability.
The heavy lifting for these features is done by the Stern Pinball app. In it, users can sign up for an Insider Connected account, which can then be synced to modern Stern machines via a QR code scanner in the machine. This allows access to things like game progress saving and unlockable characters. It also tracks your high scores and will help you locate Stern machines nearby in commercial areas, if you don’t have any at home.
Speaking to GameSpot, Stern Pinball’s director of marketing, Zach Sharpe, noted that he believes technology like the Insider Connected feature on Venom is the future of pinball.
“The power of Insider Connected, and that being the future of pinball, it really helps push the envelope of what you can accomplish in a pinball machine,” he explained. “With our game-saving progress, it just makes it that much more accessible to everyone. Because, not to say that pinball can be a dejecting experience but, you know, you walk up, you play three balls, your game’s over. Then you start again.”
And while Sharpe was quick to note that even classic pinball remains fun, Stern hopes these new advancements will make repeat players out of anybody who crosses paths with a Venom machine.
“You’re saving progress. You’re leveling up,” he said. “You’re making it easier to attain those extra levels in the game and just making it more approachable and accessible for anyone.”
Making it more approachable, while also giving the ability to save game progression and work your way through the various obstacles presented–including defeating bosses like Carnage, who needs to be banished back to the Ravencroft Institute–is key because as times have changed, so have the way many people play pinball.
While the game was a staple in video game arcades in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s and has become a barcade favorite, there’s another major hurdle pinball has crossed in recent years.
“What’s really interesting, especially with this next generation, is people are growing up with pinball in the home,” Sharpe said. “There’s a lot more people buying pinball machines for their house. It’s not just finding it at a movie theater or an arcade.”
Keeping that in mind, it makes sense for Stern to find ways to make users want to play again and again as they slowly work their way through the game. After all, if you’re not at a local arcade pumping quarters into it, wouldn’t you like a deeper gaming experience that offers more challenges to keep you engaged? And if you do happen to play it somewhere that requires you to pay, perhaps the addition of the Insider Connected features will make it worth your time to come back.
After all, why play as regular ol’ Venom when you can be, say, a Venomized version of the Incredible Hulk? To start, players are given four character options, which are four different Spider-Man-centric characters (Peter Parker, Gwen Stacy, Flash Thompson, and Eddie Brock) that can host the alien symbiote. If you play enough to beat the game, though, you can work toward three additional characters–the aforementioned Hulk, a Venomized Captain America, and a Venomized Wolverine.
Each character has their own unique set of bonuses that changes how you play the game, sometimes in small ways, other times more significantly. For instance, in the Premium and Limited Edition versions of the Venom table, the actual physical makeup of the playfield can change. You’ll watch as certain ramps on the table change elevation and direction, unlocking new ways to play the game, depending on who you’re playing as. Sometimes, it can make the game harder to play, but with better bonuses in success.
In all, thus far Venom looks like a massive step forward for Stern, a company that has continued to pump out IP-based pinball machines like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, James Bond, and even Star Wars: The Mandalorian. With Venom, the company seems to have found a new way to play pinball. And thankfully, it doesn’t seem to be slowing down its goal to innovate, as Sharpe noted the company will “keep pushing the boundaries of what’s possible” in a pinball game. Here’s hoping hardcore pinball enthusiasts are willing to go along for the ride.
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