PS2 Essentials: Flipnic

One of my favourite things about video games is the possibility to simulate things that have their roots in “reality”, but then extend that simulation to something that would be physically impossible or at least impractical to do.

Flipnic, a 2003 release for PS2 that was originally developed by Sony but, oddly, localised and brought West by Ubi Soft, of all people, takes this approach with pinball. While your average real-world pinball table is… well, roughly table-sized, Flipnic’s “tables”, if it’s even accurate to call them that, are absolutely enormous, frequently gravity-defying and full of contraptions that would make Heath Robinson proud.

It’s a bizarre game and no mistake… but well worth giving a bit of time to, particularly if you reckon yourself as a bit of a pinball wizard.

I, it must be said before going any further, emphatically do not reckon myself as a bit of a pinball wizard. My reactions, understanding of basic physics and general competence at anything that requires any sort of manual dexterity are all areas in which I’d politely describe myself as somewhat deficient. But this doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy pinball; on the contrary, if I see a pinball table out in the wild (which is not very often these days!) I’ll generally give it a credit or two just for the sheer tactile joy of the experience.

Flipnic appeals to me for many of the same reasons, albeit with the added “fantastic table” element that would be impossible in reality. Even if you’re not very good at it, it’s just such a fundamentally pleasing experience that it’s hard to be annoyed with yourself even if you never complete any of the missions on offer.

Yes, missions; Flipnic differs from your average pinball simulator (or indeed pinball table) by offering an explicit array of missions for you to complete on each stage, with certain ones being essential for progression and unlocking new levels, while others are purely there to allow you to take aim at a high score.

The missions vary in their exact execution, but are generally in line with the sort of things you’d be doing on a real pinball table to unlock jackpot bonuses or additional game features. Hit a group of bumpers without dropping the ball; precisely hit a target; steer the ball into a lane; score as many points as possible with multiple balls vying for your attention.

The missions are mostly time-limited, and in some cases actually lead to the loss of a ball if you don’t complete the objective quickly enough. On the first table, for example, failing to trigger multiball on a smaller sub-table before time expires causes your ball to be “abducted” by a UFO, never to be seen again. Other, more forgiving — and/or challenging — missions simply kick you back to the main body of the table if you’re not quick enough.

One of the most delightful aspects of Flipnic is its presentation. The whole thing is narrated by some charmingly gentle voices that clearly want you to relax and have a good time. Hell, triggering multiball causes a soft female voice to actually say “have a great time”. On top of that, triggering any sort of table special features causes a brief video overlay atop the main display, with the special effects deliberately looking like they were shot on cine film in roughly 1985. There’s judder, there’s blurriness, and there’s a wonderful feeling that a lot of them were probably animated by hand through stop-motion or other traditional techniques.

Is it really worth playing if you’re not a pinball fan, though? Well, yes — for one very significant reason. There’s an excellent tutorial mode that not only teaches you about Flipnic’s specific quirks, it also explains a variety of basic skills that are likely second nature to genuine pinball wizards, but which you probably wouldn’t have thought of if you’ve only ever played casually. Things like how to stop and slow down the ball; how to “pass” the ball between flippers; how to more precisely aim your shots. There are a lot of tutorials to sit through if you choose to, but there’s the opportunity to learn a lot from them — which is more than I can say for pretty much any other pinball game I’ve tried over the years.

Okay, actually implementing the tutorials’ advice in the heat of a full-on game is something of a challenge, but much like a number of recent fighting games (Guilty Gear Xrd Revelator springs to mind) actually bother to explain their mechanics to new players rather than remaining deliberately impenetrable, Flipnic provides both a good means of learning the basics and then gradually applying that knowledge in more practical situations. Make no mistake, you’ll need to practice to get good… but it’s an enjoyable way to spend your time.

And on top of this, the game is structured in such a way that the critical missions you have to complete to unlock the next stage are among the easiest rather than the most challenging; that way you can quickly see all the content the game has to offer before returning to past stages to refine your skills, rather than forever being stuck on the first level. The game even mixes things up every so often with some rather peculiar “boss fights”, and several two-player games make use of certain table mechanics to provide interesting twists on traditional tabletop and arcade games such as foosball, skee ball and Pong for those seeking a change of pace or a way to involve a friend.

Flipnic is a very strange game, for sure, but there’s something utterly compelling and delightful about it that will make you want to come back for more time after time — even if you suck at it as much as I do. The combination of the presentation, the excellent sound and music, the variety of things you’re tasked to do within the context of playing pinball — and perhaps most importantly, the incredibly satisfying, tactile feel the whole game has — makes for a great experience… and for one of the PlayStation 2’s most baffling, wonderful games.


More about Flipnic

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