The video game is now a ubiquitous part of American pop culture. Pinball, however, is still much cooler. Though there’s been a lot of consolidation in the pinball industry in recent years, the quality of modern games keeps improving. This is due, in part, to improvements in technology–though not at the expense of first rate playfield design. Pinball went through a few lean years during the early years of the video boom, when designers tried to cram as much stuff onto the playfield as possible, perhaps feeling the clutter was needed to replicate the video game experience. In recent years, however, designers appear to have concluded–and rightly so–that pinball cannot be a video game, nor should it want to be.
A great game of recent vintage is the 1997 Bally release “Cirqus Voltaire”. The theme is sort of a ‘Cirque du Soleil” on acid, and the iconography of the circus that they cram into the design and play of the game is amazing. The ultimate object of the game is to “join the cirqus”, which, of course, is a classical American archetype of freedom and escape. Yet this “Cirqus” is not a Norman Rockwell vision of juvenile fun–there are a lot of sinister undertones as well, including evil ringmasters and an almost palpable feeling of sleaze. The clowns here have more in common with the Simpsons’ ‘Krusty the Clown’ than with Emmett Kelly.
The game play offers many Williams/Bally standards, with sweeping ramp shots, clever uses of time-worn features (like the disappearing pop bumper, reincarnated here as a balloon. This feature dates back to the 1950’s and appeared on Williams “Gusher” among others), and multi-ball a-plenty.
At its nadir, pinball companies were cranking out games featuring themes and subjects that offered little, if any, synergy with game play. The low point might have been some of the celebrity tie-in games of the early eighties (which gave the world debacles like a Dolly Parton and Roy Clark tie-in). “Cirqus Voltaire” on the other hand is an almost perfect synergy of subject and gameplay experience.
The really great thing about the game is the multiple levels of contextual awareness it offers. A slack jawed yokel can play it and just think its a nice game about the circus. To a cleverer player, it alternately provides a celebration and condemnation of the circus and, deeper still, of the popular culture that spawns and embraces them. This is not a new notion for a pinball machine to offer different levels of interpretation of seemingly innocuous events (it dates back to the pioneering artist Roy Parker, if not before) but in recent years it may not have been done more deftly than in Cirqus Voltaire.
Ross Everett is a freelance writer and respected authority on NFL football betting. His writing has appeared on a variety of sports sites including sports news and sportsbook directory sites. He lives in Southern Nevada with three Jack Russell Terriers and a kangaroo. He is currently working on an autobiography of former energy secretary Donald Hodell.