How Big Race USA Made Me a Pinball Believer

I wrote this review for a contest over at for Pro Pinball: Big Race USA:

Big Race USA occupies one of those strange, treasured spots on my shelf: that of the unexpectedly marvelous. Having grown up in the age of Nintendo, it was my tendency to dismiss pinball machines as limited things, rooted to their mechanical nature and unable to provide a lasting challenge, or any real depth. And selling one lousy pinball machine as a whole game? That’s just silly.

However, there are some things that are so well put-together, and lovingly crafted, that they tend to leap over such prejudices. Big Race USA is one such thing.

I don’t need to tell you about the overall game: it’s pinball. You control a few paddles, and can smack the table around, all to keep the ball from falling in the hole, incidentally scoring points along the way. However, Big Race USA has two major things going for it that you might not expect.

First, it is a believable pinball simulator, not merely a video game interpretation of one. Though the mechanical parts of the table are rendered in 3D, they perform like real mechanical parts. The flippers, bumpers, spinners, little pop-up trap doors, and the super-strong electromagnets under the table, all interact believably in the table environment and with your pinball. There’s nothing “magical” or video-gamey about this table, everything it does is something that real pinball machines do. You can even adjust the *age* of the machine, and how well-maintained it is, enabling subtle effects on the play. The result is the great illusion that you’re playing a machine.

This is every bit a simulator of a pinball table as IL-2 Sturmovik is a simulator of 1940’s military aircraft.

The second advantage of Big Race USA is in its depth. Not having many quarters as a kid, I never realized that a pinball game could have any depth beyond a few cheap tricks and multiball. But there’s a lot going on here besides trying to keep the ball from falling through to the bottom. The overarching quest is to take your cartoony cab to as many cities in the United States as possible. But, in each city, you can fill your cab with passengers, and drop them off. During that scheme, you’ll inevitably trigger a variety of challenges from other cartoony cars, from offroading, to battling aliens, to outrunning the police. Each challenge opens up a part of the table, or reuses a table element, prompting you to complete optional stunts. There’s even a store where you can buy stuff to give you an advantage on the field. The bottom line is that there is always something new and exciting to do, usually accomplishing two or three tasks while making progress on a fourth.

It’s roughly analogous to the depth of a good fighting game: you can play it as a button masher, and have fun that way, or you can persist into the mechanics of the game itself and discover a whole new way of playing. It’s up to you.

The other advantages to Big Race USA can be quickly summed up in bullet points:

  • Great, authentic sounds and crisp colorful visuals
  • Quick, fun play, easily as good as any ‘living’ pinball machine
  • Low resource requirements makes it a perfect match for a netbook

I never really cared about pinball, and figured that a digital pinball machine wouldn’t even be as good as “the real thing.” Well, Big Race USA does a great job of impersonating the real thing, and attracting a whole new fan of the genre.


2 thoughts on “How Big Race USA Made Me a Pinball Believer

  1. Hi, I couldn’t agree more…
    In ’98 I had a PSX demo version of BRUSA and I loved it.
    Three or four years ago I found the PC version in a shop and I bought it. I can’t stop playing it, it’s a highly addictive game. I particularly like the fact that it reuses the table in different ways (for example City VS Road mode) and that you can use the lovely dot matrix display to play mini-games.
    BRUSA is definitely one of my favourite games!

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