When I think back to receiving my first pinball machine, White Water, I can still recall the thrill of playing pinball in my own home. After buying Creature From The Black Lagoon, Scared Stiff, Popeye, and Junkyard, it felt like I had a mini-arcade and more possibilities were on the horizon. But over the years I seemed to tread water...prices rose, money became tight, and I had to downsize the collection by selling Junkyard to pay bills. Fast forward to today, and it's fair to say I never imagined adding 6 more machines to the collection. Granted, each addition has been a budget title that still managed to challenge the pocketbook, because pinball machines, even budget ones, aren't cheap. but here I am now at 10 machines. I told myself that if I could only own a couple more machines, one of them had to be a newer, recent, expensive release. Not necessarily new in box, but close. Although I liked Stern's AC-DC and Metallica, those don't really fit my gameroom theme-wise. Big Lebowski, Aliens, and other new manufacturers were either unproven or had themes that I wasn't interested in. I really liked Wizard of Oz and the quality of Jersey Jack's machines. When I played The Hobbit recently, I expressed my desire to someday own one. Although Stern's new Ghostbusters machine offered up a serious challenge and was considered for the barcade, the quality problems and linear gameplay turned me away. And thus, game #9 in the collection became the Smaug Edition (SE) of Jersey Jack's The Hobbit.
So what is it about The Hobbit that attracted me and emptied my wallet? First is theme. A lot of people disliked the films for being overly long and introducing scenes that weren't in the book or were only hinted at. I actually liked the movies for those exact reasons. As much as I loved Lord of the Rings, it is a dark story about walking and fighting, walking and fighting, etc. The Hobbit movies had more of an adventurous feeling to them. When I was younger I owned a role playing game call Middle Earth Role Playing, or MERP. MERP's main selling point was creating adventures and content far beyond what Tolkien had provided, and it was brilliant. So I'm the last one to complain about content that was not in the book or movies being too long - I'd like the experience to last as long as possible.
The second thing that attracted me to the game was atmosphere. The spectacular color changing LEDs, the dragon that turns its head and talks, the creatures popping up out of the playfield, the barrel riders over the bumpers, the impressive and dramatic sound, the shaker motor, the controlled drop targets, the LCD that shows clips of the movies - all of those features were more than enough to hook me. The game looks beautiful, sounds, beautiful, and performs beautifully. Some people complain that there isn't much to shoot for in the game. I just have to laugh. Look at a game like White Water, which happens to be my favorite. It has 1 toy, the bigfoot. It has some targets, 3 bumpers, and loads of ramps. That's it. Yet it is so much fun to play. You don't need 100 toys in a pinball machine to make it fun, you just need a good design.
This leads me to my third reason for buying The Hobbit: gameplay and software. The designer, Joe Balcer, did not have a great track record with Sega and Stern until he teamed up with Keith Johnson, a brilliant programmer who worked at Stern on many titles until He was hired by Jersey Jack. He is known for epic, long rulesets...The Simpsons Pinball Party (TSPP) is regarded as having the deepest ruleset of any pinball machine to date. Lord of the Rings (LOTR) is another game full of modes and objectives with a highly regarded ruleset, and Johnson is primarily responsible for both of these games. At Jersey Jack, he was the lead developer for The Wizard of Oz (WOZ), a game that was originally ridiculed for its limited rules on release. However, over time and with several updates, WOZ now has one of the deepest, well-regarded rulesets in pinball. With Johnson hard at work on code for The Hobbit, it will only get better and better.
Lastly is Jersey Jack's quality and customer service. They are not without faults, but they do try hard to treat their customers right, and I love that. Their games are solidly built - the rails that the playfield sits on when being worked on are thick pipes that are sturdy and impressive. They have come out with solutions for every problems The Hobbit has exhibited, mainly stuck balls.
So far I'm loving this game, and I'm still running the 1.01 version of code, with version 1.9 available for download. Updates are done via a USB port under the playfield. My game came with a gold Smaug head, gold flecked lockdown bar and legs, and barrel riders over the pop bumpers. For more about the ruleset, here's a nifty chart and guide to the features of the game:
My home arcade is nearing capacity, and The Hobbit is the crown jewel of the collection, standing proudly next to all the other budget titles. But wait - isn't The Hobbit pin #9? And didn't I say there is a 10th pin? Why yes I did! Well then, look for another post soon to see what that 10th machine is...