Compile / NEC / NAXAT Soft
Genre: Sci-Fi Pinball
The basic premise of Alien Crush is that you, as the pinball player, are fighting back against the aliens inhabiting the table. Spanning across two levels, the table is fairly basic, though there is always something to look at considering the art style is heavily inspired by H.R. Giger, notably having worked on the creatures of the Alien films. Still, the table is about as sparse for player control as it gets with a pair of flippers at the bottom of each screen.
With some luck, however, the player can end up in one of the many bonus rounds. While each bonus round takes place in the same structured room, the objective shifts with targets such as a large alien worm whose segments must be destroyed by directing the ball into certain areas of the room to open eyes that are part of the table. The more segments, eyes and other targets the player manages to destroy before the ball winds up back on the base table, the more bonus points they get.
Along with the regular features of most pinball machines like multipliers and special areas to hit to rack up points, the game has a couple of spots that the ball can be hit into that will “reset” the round, banking the points that the player has received so far but giving them a fresh lease on gaining more when the interactive features start to pile up. It’s a little jarring at first since it seems like you’ve lost a ball just for playing the game, but after a while, it turns into a nice breather since the bankable areas aren’t tough to hit.
Alien Crush has a few interesting features despite having a fairly basic table setup. Players can choose one of two music tracks to play while the game is playing- Lunar Eclipse or Demon’s Undulate. Both are well-composed tracks that lend a different feel to the game. The speed of the ball can also be chosen at the beginning, offering a Fast or Slow option as a substitution for Normal and Easy mode. Even on “Fast”, though, the game can be pretty forgiving. The last- and possibly most interesting for the time- is that Alien Crush has an ending. It’s not a great ending- there are explosions and you are told you are the greatest player- and according to some research, it can take anywhere between 10 and 40 hours of gameplay to reach so it’s probably not worth exploring. It’s still a novel way to end a pinball game for the time.
Graphically and aurally, the game holds up really well, especially considering it is a 30-year old game. The backing track can become a little mind-numbing after a while but not in a negative way. It just feels a bit “featureless” after some time with the game. Both tracks are still quality 16-bit tunes, though, and they complement the colorful-but-foreboding visuals well.
If you’re a fan of pinball games, Alien Crush is a surprisingly fun and addictive entry into the genre. It’s not the most innovative game now and it’s hard to think of a way to justify a full retail price for the title at any given time (as it can be with most single table pinball titles), but it’s an above-average game in its own right and deserves a look if you want to nab it either physically or on the Playstation Network for PS3 and PSP.
Compile / NEX / NAXAT Soft
Genre: Dark Fantasy Pinball
A year later, the same folks would put together another digital pinball game by the name of Devil’s Crush. While the original had a science-fiction bent, immersing the player in a battle against alien creatures destroying them and their allies for points, Devil’s Crush approaches from a fantasy base. Instead of intergalactic invaders, the developers decided to pepper their second title in the Crush Pinball series with skeletons, cults, and skulls.
At the heart of pinball games, you can only change so much while retaining the feel of working with an actual pinball machine. Devil’s Crush takes some steps in the right direction for improvement, though. First and foremost, there are three levels to the table instead of two. By sheer table space, it’s already a larger game than Alien Crush. The first level resembles the breaching of a castle wall, complete with enemies littering the landscape. In the middle, a castle with a number of gates, guards, and a queen (who may not be what she seems). The top-level gets darker, a number of robed individuals circling about in a ritual with skulls and Gothic decor about.
The first thing people will probably notice mechanically is that there is a lot more going on. There are more ball catches, pieces that evolve and shift as the game plays on, and the bonus stages are largely the same format but are more involving. The notable difference is that the game feels more difficult than its predecessor since it feels like there is less leeway for earning extra balls. While there are more opportunities to block the ball from being lost through triggering certain conditions on the table, the ball seems to slide more naturally toward these pitfalls than in the previous game.
Fantastic as it is, the game’s major downfall is in its physics. While very few people were looking for realistic pinball physics back in the day, Devil’s Crush makes it difficult to line up shots because the ricochet of the ball seems to be a little random, traveling in the same general direction it was meant to but at a different angle than it was meant to nine times out of ten. Does this ruin the game? Not at all. Does it make things a little more frustrating than they should be? Sure does.
The benefit to the year between Alien and Devil is that the graphics and sound have improved, the former more so than the latter. Graphically, the game is a little more complex and feels like it has more polish. There are more moving parts and what little animation they have is fluid. Larger sprites like bonus room bosses are rendered well, and the score tallying scenes after are a nice touch, feeling more thematic than the first game. Overall, though, this game probably has one of the best soundtracks out of any pinball game I’ve played. The composer clearly took into account that people would be spending a while on the table and came up with a synth-rock jam that evolves as the game progresses rather than running the same loop over and over. The sound effects are right on par, too, so the whole game is a fantastic listen.
While only the Sega Genesis version of the game goes by the name Dragon’s Fury and has an ending (which sounds like it’s still not worth the time to get to due to its simplicity), Devil’s Crush is widely accepted as the best of the Crush Pinball series. It’s not hard to see why given how addictive it ended up being and how well crafted it is on most levels. Sadly, it’s tough to come by now without investing in the original game but it did see a brief second life on the Wii and Wii U through Virtual Console.
Compile / NAXAT Soft
Genre: Fantasy Pinball
With Devil’s Crush focusing on a dark “sword-and-sorcery” theme for its table, it seems like a mythology flavored title might be a great fit for the next Crush game. Jaki Crush gave players just that, focusing on Eastern mythology and figures to entertain its flipper-frenzied fans. Of course, the game never released in the US and is the only piece of the Crush series to not be released outside of Japan. Given the relative obscurity of the games at this point, though, and the Super Nintendo library at the time, it feels like it was probably a hard sell on US shores.
Once again, the format of the table follows the three-tiered setup from Devil’s Crush, offering about as much table space as the previous game. Whereas there was an entire progression of breaching a castle and finding its dark innards before, though, the general goal of Jaki Crush is to wage battle against many a demon, both through the main table and the bonus stages.
How have two years between entries treated Jaki Crush, though? There are some great ideas going on and a couple of steps back. By far, this is the fanciest and most involved table to date. There are plenty of moving parts and secrets to find. The best parts are the colorful and creative bonus levels by a large margin. Even the ball starts as a golden orb with a kanji (from the look of it) that is launched from place to place, almost reminiscent of a Dragon Ball or mystical charm- and it changes appearance and most likely strength once a boss is defeated. There is a lot going on in the game.
There are a few missteps in the table set-up, though. For one, the number of times the ball was launched and dropped immediately into a section that it couldn’t be saved from was frustrating. Even using the table shake option- which is almost vital in this entry- it felt like a number of turns at the table ended too quickly due to the slopes and ramps of the table rather than any skill I could apply. Where the physics in the previous game felt a bit off, the ball in Devil felt like it could generally be guided in the right direction as needed. In Jaki, the ball feels heavy and the trajectory of the flippers feels more arbitrary. Not in a way that can’t be handled or learned, but controlling the ball in Jaki Crush feels even less wieldy than the last game.
The presentation on the game takes a sharp deviation on each front, too. The graphics are stellar, again showing off some great environments in the bonus levels involving boss fights with thunder-wielding demons, blazing skulls, and ice creatures, just to name a few. In comparison, though, the sound feels like it has taken a step back. It’s not bad, mind you, but everything feels a little more like stock action music and sound effects for the Super Famicom at the time. It does compensate a little by having more musical tracks, taking advantage of the hardware and progressing forward, but it doesn’t reach the heights that Devil’s Crush had.
Given the fact that it’s a Japan-only release, Jaki Crush might be tough to come across without a little effort. If you’re a fan of retro games and pinball, it could be worth it with the right equipment. It certainly isn’t the worst of the series and it does some neat things that fans of Devil’s Crush may want to hunt it down for.
Genre: Fantasy Pinball
Having had success with Devil’s Crush in the US, the folks behind the series decided to ride that wave a few years later by creating a sequel to the game. Since a number of players knew the original by the more popular title Dragon’s Fury due to there being more support behind the Sega Genesis in this neck of the woods, the second game would be titled Dragon’s Revenge, picking up where Fury left off. Oddly enough, though, Compile and NAXAT Soft, the developers of the previous Crush titles, had nothing to do with this entry. Instead, the folks at Tengen (of Gauntlet fame) would take a turn at the wheel- for better or worse.
The “plot” of the game is that the sorceress Darzel and a dragon who are enslaving the village of Kaflin’s Keep. She has captured three adventurers who are integral to stopping her, and it’s up to the player to help rally those adventurers, freeing them to put an end to the dragon’s reign and stopping Darzel from taking over the land. While the plot’s a standard one, the game does its best to incorporate elements of the story into the bonus stages and the table.
Unfortunately, that’s about where the positive parts of the mechanics seem to end. While boasting what is most likely the largest table of the series up until then, it doesn’t feel like the game does much with it. Instead of having a ball with any kind of physics, the player is left with what feels like a bouncy ball let loose in a room full of trampolines; the more the ball hits, the faster it seems to go until it’s really just a matter of luck if it will stay on the board. The tilt option feels nigh useless, too, rarely coming in handy to save a doomed ball, and the ball seems to push through certain barriers and flippers when it is hit hard enough. It all feels like a mess that outweighs the fun action-filled parts of the game. Even the bonus stages feel sparse, relying more on spectacle than fun.
The game is nice enough to look at, about on par with the rest of the Genesis library. Nearly all of the game’s artistic stock is in its bonus levels this time around with interesting enemies that are animated against some nice fantasy backdrops in an attempt to emulate some of the sword-and-sorcery art that was so prevalent at the time. The sound design takes a heavy dip, though, steeped in the heavy bass and repetitive tunes that also permeated a lot of the more average games on the system. Sound effects are all either canned vocal effects (with an embarrassing amount of female moaning) or over the top explosion sounds. While this was an attempt to appeal to the cool action that Genesis had promised at the time, it misses the mark so far as the rest of the series is concerned.
While it’s not a terrible game overall, Dragon’s Revenge feels like the weakest of the Crush Pinball games. Whether it was due to the lack of Compile and NAXAT’s input or trying to appeal to the popular demographic of the time, the game is sloppy and feels like more of a relic of its time than a pinball game made to be fun and engaging. It was certainly the first game in the series I was okay with putting down one I did a few runs.
Alien Crush Returns
Tamsoft / Hudson Soft
Genre: Sci-Fi Pinball
While critics seemed to enjoy Dragon’s Revenge, it would appear to be the final piece of the Crush Pinball franchise for years after. In an odd resurgence, though, the actual parting title for the series would come out fifteen years later as a WiiWare exclusive title. Returning to the origins of the series, the team at Tamsoft- who has an eclectic history of games, to begin with- decided to develop Alien Crush Returns, a modern retake on the first game from 1989.
From the beginning, the improvements are clear. Boasting a story mode and an arcade mode, Alien Crush Returns has a little more depth than its ancestors. Arcade Mode is exactly what it sounds like and plays like the older titles. By choosing one of three tables, the player can aim for the high score and play through three balls worth of alien slaughter. The Story Mode threads a narrative across the tables, placing the player as the universe’s last hope against the aliens in an attempt to destroy their mothership and keep Earth safe. While it only consists of five stages- the three tables and two boss levels- it’s a unique take on the gameplay of the previous games. There is also an added feature of “Action Balls” where with the push of a button, the ball will be propelled forward, backward (key for saving a turn sometimes), or splitting it in a sort of multi-ball. These are all earned as the game is played.
Returns isn’t without its flaws. Overall, the story feels short, especially for a game that has a save feature and lets you retry whichever table you left off on when you lost your final ball. While there’s no need for an in-depth story, the objectives are achieved quickly across the tables, consisting of destroying all of the aliens that appear or destroying the boss. Really, the game’s longevity is in its Arcade Mode, but the effort to include something new is appreciated.
The physics are still a little off, but they feel a ton better than Dragon’s Revenge, the ricochets and paths feeling much more natural and easy to shoot with skill. Tables are a little smaller and less happens across them, but they are fun to navigate. The two boss battles are also a blast with enemies that actually fight back who can destroy your ball if you aren’t careful. What Returns attempts to offer is a fun pinball experience that can be approached a few ways, depending on your play style.
Fifteen years makes a world of difference for both visuals and music, and Alien Crush Returns takes advantage of that. It’s hard to deny that the graphics are fantastic to look at, losing some of the retro charms of the other Crush games but making for an interesting- and sometimes nauseating- design that compliments the original game’s Giger-esque veneer. It can be easy to lose your ball in the visuals at times, though, which is the only setback. Listening to the game is nice, and none of the tables last so long that the soundtrack grates. The mix of techno and ominous tracks are engaging and while they still don’t beat the best of the series, the soundscape of the game is solid.
While the game’s length is the pain point for most critics, it’s a kind of sad that Alien Crush Returns doesn’t have a way to be purchased anymore, the true issue with WiiWare exclusive games. It’s a fun deviation that has some great ideas and works effectively as a love letter to its 20-year-old inspiration.
The Crush Pinball series is a jewelry box of hidden gems. Even the games I enjoyed the least were still fun to play even with their flaws. Pinball games don’t exactly hit the mainstream often anymore, though, and quite a few of them try to get every bounce and pivot right in an attempt at an accurate recreation of the tables that line almost every arcade. Stepping into this series with the mindset that these are meant to be stylish and a bit wacky rather than a representation of the real deal will definitely help anyone interested in checking these out. By sheer ability to retrieve the games at this point, though, the series may not be worth pursuing since Jaki Crush is Import only, requiring a Super Famicom to play, and Alien Crush Returns can’t be bought anymore, knocking out almost half of the titles right off.
If you happen to have these games or you’re looking to add to your retro collection, it wouldn’t hurt to put these titles on your shortlist. The original trilogy from Compile and NAXAT is a ton of fun and the replayability of the series, in general, is pretty high due to the nature of pinball itself. The trappings that the developers placed to draw people in further are a nice bonus that pays off more often than not.