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Even naked Jeff Goldblum can't save this 1999 pinball game I bought for $1

(Image credit: Fox)

I live by a code, and that code is "If you put naked Jeff Goldblum on your videogame box art, and it costs $1, I will buy it." It's a code I didn't realize was guiding my life until this weekend, when I went shopping for old PC games at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo. The very first PC game I laid eyes on was this monstrosity: it's called Sci-Fi Pinball, and it looks so generic, so haphazardly mishmashed together, that at first I thought it was a bootleg. It is not a bootleg: it's a real game developed by Fox Arcade in 1999, turning Aliens, Predator, The Fly, and at-the-time-new-hotness Buffy the Vampire Slayer into pinball tables. Really, really bad pinball tables.

Obviously I had to buy it. Just based on the box alone, it was $1 well spent. 

I've played a lot of real pinball in my life, particularly in the last decade. I'm nowhere near a pinball pro, but I've played enough to appreciate the designs of classic tables like Medieval Madness, The Addams Family, Theatre of Magic, and Arabian Nights. It's impossible to replicate the physicality of real pinball, but some digital versions do a good job of capturing the game design—how you progress by making certain shots, unlocking new elements of the table and learning where you need to shoot at any given time. Based on my memory, Windows' classic Space Cadet Pinball and Epic Pinball were fun, creative tables that felt good to play.

The four tables in Fox's Sci-Fi Pinball collection are not fun, or creative, and they definitely don't feel good to play. On the bright side, I plopped the CD into a USB disc drive (it's 2019; like hell I'd build a PC with a DVD drive) and the game booted right up, with no real issues. Upresing it on my 2560x1440 monitor does the game no favors, but the graphic design is hideously late-90s.

I don't really know what the right words are for this aesthetic. Garbage chrome? Photoshop hangover? Full motion vomit? Dumpsterpunk? Everything looks sort of generically metallic, with little or no inspiration taken from the actual killer production design of these classic sci-fi movies. Granted, early Buffy was an ugly and low-budget TV show, but this table actively tries to erase its personality in favor of forced perspective CG buildings.

But look, the late 90s were a dark period for graphic design, period. We were just one year out from the Dancing Baby appearing on Ally McBeal. I could maybe look past how ugly these tables are if they weren't so blandly designed. Each table has objectives to shoot for, but if they aren't active, your ball simply disappears off the screen for a few seconds before sluggishly falling back out of the hole, with no sound effect or flash to explain what just happened. Half the shots I made seemingly did nothing, like the table just giving me a big shrug.

When I did activate an objective, it was usually some ugly little sprites dancing in front of the same few ramps. Buffy has a digital minigame where you kick zombies, but if they get within approximately one mile of you, you automatically die. Occasionally when you hit the right sequence of shots the tables play film clips, but with an artificial pinball dot matrix display totally ruining the image. The one strength digital pinball has over the real thing—the ability to render actual video—totally squandered!

Where real pinball tries to set the mood—excitement!—with loud, upbeat sound effects, these tables primarily emanate droning industrial background hums that amplify their emptiness. It sounds like the white noise Trent Reznor would listen to while doing yoga.

None of these tables are good, but the Aliens table is the best, because you get to hear Bill Paxton say "Game over, man!" And it also has this animation of the alien running away with your ball, which is more fun than actually scoring points. There's maybe one creative bit of pinball design in this whole thing, and it's on the Fly table, where a series of gross blue tubes connect together, and a rotating dial determines which direction your pinball exits. You can also activate a teleporter, and a voice clip of Jeff Goldblum breathlessly tells you to leave and never come back. 

It's good advice. As bad as this pinball collection is, I don't regret buying it. I will, undoubtedly, make several friends experience its badness. And it also let me compile this dizzying collection of every voiceover clip from the game's source files, ripped from their respective movies and TV shows. Jeff Goldblum saying, with zero context, "Not while we're eating"—my gift, to you.

When he's not 50 hours into a JRPG or an opaque ASCII roguelike, Wes is probably playing the hottest games of three years ago. He oversees features, seeking out personal stories from PC gaming's niche communities. 50% pizza by volume.