Saturday, May 10, 2008

Mile High Pinball


Mile High Pinball menuMile High Pinball is a first party game published by Nokia, developed for the original gen N-Gage by and ported to the new N-Gage platform by the ever-reliable Ideaworks3D. The new version plays pretty much like the original, but has higher resolution graphics. Some of the original's levels have been removed (there are no Snakes or Ashen levels for example), but the new version is much cheaper too (7 euros compared to the 20 or 30 euros that the original cost).

MHP features one of those ideas that's so clever and simple you wonder why no one thought of it before. It's basically a pinball game, but instead of separate tables there's one huge table, and you win the game by getting the ball from the bottom to the top. The table is divided up into 45 levels (plus more hidden levels), with exits at the top and entrances at the bottom. If you fall through a level entrance you appear at the exit of the previous level, so you could in theory fall from the top of the table right to the bottom, though in reality the levels are designed to make such complete falls very unlikely. There are no lives in MHP, the only threat is to fall back down the table and be forced to climb back up again, so the game doesn't end until you've won.

You interact with the ball by using right and left flippers as on any pinball table, and there are also the usual bumpers and holes scattered about the board. Added to that mix are a variety of enemies (including four end-of-level bosses) which you can defeat by hitting them with the ball often enough, and a few dozen types of bonuses that let you do all kinds of things such as turn the ball into a helium balloon. To spice things up even more there are spinners, mysterious boxes which throw the ball out at a random angle, vacuum tubes straight out of Sonic 2, brick walls, crystals and other oddities.

You expect MHP to be an arcade game, but each level has its own "puzzle", a particular method required to get through to the next level. At the beginning these puzzles are very simple, you just have to hit a certain number of bumpers or earn a certain score to unlock the level exit. As you progress though, the puzzles can require real thought, and on some levels you have to perform a certain series of precise actions such as catching the ball with a particular flipper, holding it and then nudging it along the edge of the table to squeeze past a bumper. You frequently find yourself wondering if a particular level is impossible until you work out the solution.

Mile High Pinball first screenAnother interesting feature is the bonus system, which adds a strategic element. You can collect a very large number of bonuses and use these at any time during the game. Some bonuses are so rare, and some levels are so difficult, that you end up having to use them very carefully. While you're concentrating on a fast-moving level, a part of your brain is considering whether you can spare a particularly expensive bonus, or whether a lesser one might do the job. You can collect them from the playing field, but you also occasionally come across a shop where you can buy and sell them. You really do need to pay attention to the bonus system, because parts of the game are virtually impossible without the helping hand that the bonuses give.

There are also ten medallions in special hidden levels which you can get to by touching whirlpool icons scattered throughout the game. These are like the chaos emeralds in Sonic the Hedgehog, you don't need to collect them but it's a challenge.

The game is only playable in vertical/portrait mode, with 1 and 3 operating the flippers and 5 opening the bonus menu (you can redefine these if you want). Normally we would complain about the lack of a horizontal/landscape mode, but Mile High Pinball is a very special case, as it just wouldn't make any sense to have a horizontal version of a pinball game. Because it's a vertical-only game, and because it uses keys instead of the d-pad, MHP is equally playable on practically any N-Gage-compatible model.

Graphics & Sound

Mile High Pinball's graphics are weird and slightly psychedelic, as if some hippy technophile has decided to make a scrapbook of their favourite photos and drawings all blended together.

It works, the different backgrounds give each level a distinct atmosphere, and this is further enhanced by the absolutely excellent music (see below). The scrolling within each level is smooth and fast, though there's a delay between moving from one level to another which also breaks up the music. This delay feels very annoying at first, but you soon get used to it and on the later levels you hardly notice it because you're spending so much time within each level trying to solve the puzzles.

One nice graphical touch is the ability to choose a skin for your ball, and as you earn points more skins are unlocked. This is great if you're bored of the traditional silver model, and we've used the acid house smiley ball in our screenshots.

MHP has probably the best soundtrack of any mobile game (the other contender for this title is Lament Island). It's arguably nicer to play the game with the sound effects turned off so you can hear the music properly, and this reviewer sometimes paused the game just to hear the tracks play out in full. The soundtrack covers a surprising range of styles, with elements of gentle pop, world music, classical, prog rock, metal, electronica, dance and funk, and the tracks suit each level very well.

If you do want sound effects though, they're the usual pinball table noises of flippers and bumpers, with satisfying loud clunks and bleeps when the ball hits something.

N-Gage Arena

Mile High Pinball has three online modes: Rankings, Duel Score and Duel Altitude.

Rankings are pretty much like those on other N-Gage games, your game stats are posted to an online league table and you try to improve them to rise up the table.

Duel Score and Duel Altitude are real-time multiplayer modes where you find a partner in the Arena lobby and race to see who can get the highest score or who can get to the highest altitude within a time limit. You can see your opponent's progress next to your own, so there's a real tension as the timer gets closer to zero. The winner gets an Arena point, the loser loses an Arena point, and both players' positions on the Duel league tables are updated after the contest has ended.

Incidentally, the ordinary offline version of the game is called "practice", so the developers seem to expect people to be play MHP primarily as an online game.

TV & Keyboard Test

Some N-Gage-compatible phones (e.g. Nokia N82, N95, N95 8GB, N96) have a TV Out feature which lets you connect the phone to a television set. This can be used for playing N-Gage games, or for any other phone function.

All N-Gage phones are compatible with Bluetooth keyboards that use the HID Bluetooth standard, and such a keyboard can be used to control games or any other phone function.

Mile High Pinball looks nice on a TV set, though it being vertical-only means you're using just the middle-third of the television screen. Some of the sprites look a bit pixelly, but on the whole the game looks rather good.

The game worked fine with a Bluetooth keyboard, there were no problems in controlling it. You may possibly want to redefine the controls though, as 1 and 3 aren't in the most logical positions on a QWERTY layout.


Mile High Pinball is very original, and perfectly suited to a mobile phone's screen and key layout. As you make your way up the table the puzzle and strategy elements become more prominent, and the game starts to become very addictive. This reviewer played through the entire game in two multi-hour sessions, not because there was a deadline to meet but simply because MHP has such a strong "Just one more go" factor.

The major downside of the game is the frustration you feel when the ball falls down to levels you've already beaten. It's no fun at all repeating the same difficult level again, especially when success on that level is determined by random elements (the volcano sequence is particularly annoying in this respect). On the other hand this is the main reason to pay attention to the bonus system, as it contains ways to prevent falling to the lower levels, and ways to skip forward if you do fall.

Mile High Pinball has clearly had a lot of playtesting and tweaking, its difficulty balance is generally good and you do want to play the game until you finish it. It's simple to get started, but requires thought if you want to progress right to the end. The bonus system gives the game depth, and the hidden levels and online features give it longevity. The graphics might not be to everyone's taste, but they have a certain kitsch Pop Art style to them. The icing on the cake is the price, at just 7 euros it's one of the cheapest games on the N-Gage platform.

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