The Japanese company LittleWing Pinball has been making pinball games for Macintosh and Windows since 1990, and two of their early classics are now available on iOS: Tristan and Crystal Caliburn II. Neither are cheap by iOS standards, and sadly there are no free demos either. However, they are far and away the best pinball games I’ve played on iOS, or indeed on any system, since the original Crystal Caliburn on Windows.
Both apps are professionally made, support all recent iOS devices and screen resolutions, offer both local and GameCenter high scores, do not show any advertising, and do not hide any features behind IAP barriers. The graphics have been updated compared to the original releases, of course. Although the tables still look simple in screenshots, the impression during gameplay is one of elegant clarity that looks realistic without distracting the player. Both games run smoothly on my iPad 3 and iPod Touch 4; an optional zoomed view renders them surprisingly playable even on the smaller screen.
The physics models are excellent, too, but what makes LittleWing exceptional among pinball games is something else: they are shockingly fair and straightforward. Most competitors follow the obsolete arcade model, with tables designed to minimize scores and play time – and thereby maximize revenue – for all but the most skilled players. LittleWing tables offer a far more leisurely pace, and an entertaining variety of scoring mechanics that don’t require impossible shots or memorizing obscure rules. They go out of their way to prevent players from losing a ball, and when one is lost many bonus counters carry over to the next ball instead of resetting. If you demand punishing challenges from your games, LittleWing is not for you. Everyone else should find them the most enjoyable pinball experiences around.
There are some notable alternatives in the iOS pinball space that I briefly wanted to mention. Pinball Arcade is a multi-platform endeavor to recreate historical arcade machines, and as such without competition. Pinball Arcade is quite popular but personally, I don’t care whether the pinball I’m playing ever existed in a physical arcade, and naturally all such machines are player-hostile with a vengeance. Whenever I try to play Pinball Arcade tables I find them incomprehensible and usually lose all balls within 30 seconds. The iOS app is somewhat unpolished as well, with clumsy navigation and strangely distorted graphics (the ball appears egg-shaped on my iPad).
My second favorite after LittleWing’s products is Gameprom’s Pinball HD, a collection of tables designed for mobile platforms. Technically, the app is remarkably advanced: I recommend you get the free Collection edition and try some demo tables with flying camera and camera tilt enabled. Tilting your iPad shifts your 3D perspective on the table, even as the zoomed camera follows the path of the ball! Pinball HD can also produce red/green stereoscopic images or output to an external display. Unfortunately, less care went into designing the tables. They are not as brutally hard as Pinball Arcade’s but they tend to be either simplistic or overcomplicated, and sometimes simply unfair. Still, the Da Vinci table is quite enjoyable for its sheer amount of virtual mechanical gadgetry.
2013-05-21: Zen Studios’ Zen Pinball & Pinball FX2 have replaced Pinball HD as my second favorite pinball series.