Doing a game of the year in past years seemed a bit silly as so few pinball machines were being made.
But considering that there are now several companies working on producing pinball machines, it seems like the time has come.
There were a number of really good pinball machines that were released in the past year.
2015 was a wonderful year for pinball.
- Look back on 2015 we saw a new KISS machine released by Stern featuring gorgeous artwork by the artist of the original Bally KISS machine.
- Stern’s Steve Ritchie released a great new Game of Thrones game with blinding lighting and shots — along with some intriguing rules.
- A game with an original theme was released (which rarely happens these days) in Whoa Nellie Big Juicy Melons.
- Heighway Pinball released their first pinball machine with some unique features and a great flowing playfield.
The game of the year however is none of these.
It is a game you might even think of as a 2014 game.
In 2014 Stern released The Walking Dead Limited Edition and Pro Models. There was a lot of initial interest; but initially the software felt incomplete and the game experience was nothing special.
People complained about lackluster rules and a lack of audio clips from characters of the show.
Very early in 2015 Stern released The Walking Dead Premium, which is very much like the sold out Limited Edition only with different art.
2015 also saw major software updates to TWD. These updates took a somewhat average game and transformed it to a new level.
The game of the year is The Walking Dead Premium by Stern Pinball
The Walking Dead Premium is an amazing game that I believe will be considered a classic for many years to come. Calling it a modern day masterpiece may sound like hyperbole, but is not without merit.
With its difficulty, depth, and intensity — TWD Premium is a perfect long-term challenge for the home gameroom environment. The game is going to kick your ass over and over again with you fighting to stay alive. Just like the characters in the show.
Let’s investigate what makes this the pinball machine of the year and one of the greatest machines to ever come out of the Stern factory (or any factory for that matter).
The Walking Dead Premium features innovative general illumination lighting with both white LEDs and red LEDs. I don’t think anything like this has been seen since the 1988 game Space Station.
It sounds simple…but this lighting trick adds a subconscious element to your stress level. Red lighting gets you scared, amped up and brings out the sweat in you.
The game also has the color changing insert lighting that is comparable to other recent Stern Premium or Limited Edition models. It helps indicate which shots are available for special jackpots, combos, etc. In the old days you would need an extra insert lens or bulb to indicate such.
The lighting in this game does such a great job at creating a mood, immersion, and elevating intensity — and does so in a way better than maybe any other machine I have ever seen.
Rules and Software
AC/DC was a game that at first glimpse seemed like a rehashed version of the Terminator 2 pinball machine. That was even a common joke. Anyone who actually has played the game realized that the software in the game created something very compelling and new.
The Walking Dead Premium also feels like a progression in pinball because of the software. The game is amazingly immersive and addictive.
Lyman Sheets has worked his magic again on The Walking Dead and I would venture to say this might be his greatest coding job to date.
TWD features a multitude of elements to stack with one another in exciting ways, four different multiballs, three different wizard modes, and several modes to work through. There is a lot to discover and work towards. 500 games in and I have yet to even see Siege, Last Man Standing, or Crossbow Multiball. This game is tough and stacked.
There is a pinball zombie frenzy when you stack something like Blood Bath Multiball along with Prison Multiball and a maybe a mode on top of those. The machine will go haywire in a way that I have not felt from a game since Bram Stoker’s Dracula (from 1993).
Another cool feature is the X multiplier.
When you have an X lit on an inlane and hit a shot immediately afterward, you can get an insane amount of points if you are smart about it. Depending on how deep in your game you are, the X will multiply the values of your shot at a certain level. You can flip-flop the X with your flipper from right to left, that way you can save it for the best time and best shot.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the magnets. There are two here. One in front of the prison and another in front of the giant Well Walker bash toy.
Magnets have become very common in recent years from Stern. But the randomness and ferocity of the ball making contact with the prison magnet is surprisingly intense. It feels more vibrant than previous games with magnets to me. The ball can actually fly all the way from the top of the machine down to your flippers in a flash. That is an impressive feat.
Stern improved the design of the magnets to add an outer core of metal. This prevents worn playfield wood on the edges of magnets that all previous games with magnets have suffered. A welcome gesture by Stern.
Great Throw Backs Mostly Forgotten in Past 20 Years
There are some features in this game that have largely been ignored by games the past few decades.
Tough Extra Ball Shot
Funny here we have an extra ball shot that is almost exactly like White Water. Thanks John, I love it!
You also need this shot to start the wonderfully intense Horde Wizard Mode, which creates pressure for the player.
Interesting Skill Shot
Most games in the past few decades have the same old simple easy skill shot. Shoot the ball, move over the light so the ball falls through the proper lane.
We have seen this a million times and can do it all in our sleep.
I miss unique skill shots from games like Pin*Bot or Taxi. They added a little extra flavor to a game.
Stern and Borg have brought us a wonderfully original and multi-leveled skill shot.
First you have go over the rollover targets while they are lit (rollover targets are a retro feature too). Rollover both at the right time and you are set to then make sure you move over the light to have the ball drop over the proper lane at maximum value.
As the balls progress through the game, the rollover lights move quicker and quicker — making the timing tougher to gauge.
Use of Skill Shot in Modes Later On in Game Play
Games in the past like Twilight Zone, Funhouse, Road Show, or Guns N’ Roses put your shooter skills to the test in special modes later in game play.
The Walking Dead Premium does this too.
The Woodbury mode requires a shot to the shooter lane through the spinner. Once there you can decide which shot you are going to shoot for up above and what value you prefer (one of the lanes or one of the rollover targets).
Hit your chosen shot to score or fail and try again next time.
Are we all tired of fan layouts yet? I know I am!
A game like Lord of the Rings, while being a Stern favorite, does not have one truly rough shot in the whole game. Games lasting 30 minutes or longer are not uncommon for many on that pinball machine.
Most games in the past twenty years have a fan layout of one kind or another. Enough is enough already!
Walking Dead may not have the most unique layout ever…but it is something different from the usual.
After over 500 games on TWD Premium — I still struggle to hit the Riot shot and the Tunnel shot through the bumpers. Woodbury I rarely get on the first try either.
The bank shots.
Being able to hit the Twilight Zone Piano shot for a multiball jackpot from the right flipper via a bank shot is a thrill. I love bank shots, but so few games seem to have them (or maybe I just have not discovered them yet).
The TWD bank shot off of the Well Walker bash toy via the left flipper to seamlessly make the tough Riot shot is satisfying. Two shots in one and one not normally possible from the left flipper.
Nudge or Die!
Of course all pinball machines require nudging here and there to keep the ball in play. But TWD Premium brings that to a new level. You cannot sit on your heels with this game EVER. You best be nudging all the time on this one or you are going to drain quickly.
My ball times on TWD Premium are so poor my current average time per game is only about 4 minutes. I know how to play pinball too and am not a total slouch. This might be the toughest game I have owned since Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
What about the rest?
Keep in mind my experience with the game is almost entirely with a hacked sound package. A few helpful folks have created sound packages to override some of the default sounds of the game.
This is largely out of the disappointment of Stern not having speech from characters of the show within the game.
Initially I tried one of these sound mods, but too many of the original speech calls were removed with replacements that felt out of context and random.
Later I tried a different package and loved it (commonly referred to as the Milhouse version). It left a lot of the default callouts explaining shots you should consider, but added many great sound clips from the show.
And not random out of place ones — but sounds that make sense in context to where you are in the game.
For example on a quick ball lost that resulting in a ball save you might hear Michonne say “Stupid gets you killed.”
After achieving a high score you may hear Rick exclaim “That was a great win.”
The sound effects are very well done and the music is as well. The sound hack on my machine does (I think) swap out a few of the built in songs — so keep that in mind.
The TWD art is not going to make owners of Stern’s KISS or Metallica jealous. Unfortunately it features what is known in online forums as “Stern Photoshop Art.”
This is a let down. But I will say compared to other “Stern Photoshop” games (World Poker Tour I am looking at you) this is one of the better ones.
There are some artistic features that I do appreciate such as the dripping spots of blood on ramps and the creative zombie silhouette effects created from flashing lights from inside the prison.
An odd choice is the lack of any characters featured on the playfield. Especially from a TV show with such memorable characters.
It is nothing but zombies, blood, and dirt all over the playfield. If it was not for the cabinet art or translite — you might think this was a random zombie game.
So how is this still the game of the year?
The way I feel about the TWD art reminds me of AC/DC Premium.
The game is so fantastic in every other way that I can ignore the mediocre art.
Maybe it would simply be too unfair to the rest of the pinball universe if this game also featured fabulous hand drawn artwork by ZombieYeti.
There are several add-ons or mods that are out for Walking Dead.
These are my favorites.
This is easily in the top ten toppers of all time. Right there with White Water, Fish Tales, and the new KISS topper.
It features three realistic looking zombie heads floating in a fish tank that are lit up and in sync with the fish tank heads inside the game.
A totally epic topper — at an epic $400 price.
Like most modern Sterns the shaker integration is very well done and adds a lot to the experience. This is a slam-dunk value at just over $100.
The sounds and theme of this game warrant better bass response. I recommend adding a subwoofer mod.
More Extra Stuff
There are a lot of other mods out there. One that truly fills a slightly empty spot, is well done, and inexpensive is the Welcome to Woodbury sign. I recommend that one.
So there is our round up of the best pinball machine for 2015. We hope you enjoyed it.
If we convinced you, I suggest you contact your distributor now.
While I do like to gamble, I don’t think I would bet on Stern making many more of these. They probably will stop making them very soon.
2016 should be an interesting contest with The Big Lebowski, The Hobbit, Rob Zombie’s Spookshow International, and Ghost Busters all coming out soon.