|BIG BUCK HUNTER PRO|
Hello and welcome to this first part of the exclusive Pinball News In-Depth Review of Stern's Big Buck Hunter Pro pinball.
As usual, we've split the review in two and in this part we'll be looking at the game's physical build, the artwork and the layout of the playfield. The second part will go deep into the rules, explaining how all the features work, what they score and conclude with our overall verdict of the game.
Big Buck Hunter Pro (don't forget the 'Pro' part, even though the shortened BBH name was adopted before the full name was public knowledge) is Stern's second "back-to-basics" machine, following on from NBA and featuring a simpler playfield layout, fewer custom mechanical devices and a less complex set of rules.
Gary Stern has publicly said this is the direction Stern Pinball will be going. He's also acknowledged pinball enthusiasts such as you aren't going to like those changes but they are necessary to increase pinball's appeal to the wider public, broaden the player base and keep Stern making new games.
We're not going to comment on the desirability or otherwise of these changes. However, we are pinball fans and so we have certain expectations from any new model. We can't pretend machines such as Medieval Madness, Big Bang Bar, Twilight Zone and The Simpsons Pinball Party never existed. They set the benchmark for certain elements of a game and once that genie is out of the bottle, he can't be put back.
Not that you need to pepper a game with expensive toys or have fiendishly deep rules to make it fun - both can actually detract from the enjoyment if not kept in check and designed to be in keeping with the game's feel.
Simpler games have been tried in the past, most recently when Capcom produced the first (and only) machine in their Capcom Classic range; Breakshot, and before that Premier's created their 'Street Level' series of Silver Slugger, Vegas, Deadly Weapon, Title Fight, Car Hop and Hoops.
In both cases, the selling points were making the game easier to maintain, easier to play and more affordable.
Neither Capcom nor Premier had much success with their attempts. Stern are running with the same ideas, except the bit about making the games more affordable. Neither NBA nor Big Buck Hunter Pro were cheaper than the preceding games 24 or CSI, and in some markets were actually more expensive.
If buyers are going to pay more for less, the whole gameplay experience needs to be up there with the best of them. So let's see what Stern has delivered...
As you may know, Big Buck Hunter Pro is based on the Big Buck Hunter video game series which proved to be very popular in the US market. Its success has only partly been replicated in overseas markets where hunting is far less popular (or even outlawed), so in many of these areas the theme is effectively a non-licensed one.
Many elements from the video game turn up in the pinball as we shall see, but fortunately it's not necessary to know the video game to enjoy or understand the pinball.
So,let's get onto the pinball and the first thing most players will see is the backglass image you see at the top of this review along with the cabinet artwork. It a pleasant enough mix of the slightly comic and the near-photo realistic. The centre-piece - the buck itself - is highly detailed, as is the foreground flora. The rising sun backlights the deer and makes an almost idylic setting, if you can forget how the game is all about killing the main subject.
The background, while less detailed as you would expect, occasionally lapses into the slapdash with odd tree branches painted in with a flick of the brush tool.
The game's logo tops off the image and makes it very similar to the one found on the sides of the video game cabinet.
Speaking of cabinet sides, here's the side of the pinball machine.
There's no buck this time, just a slightly tweaked logo and a marginally more barren forest scene.
One thing you might notice here is the return to the old-style side rails. The flipper button area is no longer covered by a metal plate, allowing the artwork in that area to wear. Whether this is a deliberate measure to save money and reduce the longevity of the game, or if the artwork didn't allow for it we don't know, but our review machine was already showing signs of damage to the paintwork on both sides after 3 days at a trade show.
The cabinet art package is rounded off with the front design, featuring a fourth variation of the logo and some rather strangely placed acorn leaves right where the tournament start button sits.
All in all, it's an attractive enough design, taking its cues from the video cabinet and extending it for the pinball cabinet's extra length. It's not beautiful, but it works well and tells you a lot about the game before you get as far as playing it.
Before we move on, it's worth mentioning one change to the regular hardware we tend take for granted. With Big Buck Hunter Pro, the bottom apron has become plastic instead of the usual steel and it's also become a bit shorter.
The apron sits on standoff posts and although it looked good it did feel rather insubstantial, especially when pressing down on it to slide the playfield back into the cabinet.
So, on to the playfield itself and let's see what we've got.
Big Buck Hunter is a two flippered game and as a result there are no cross-playfield shots. Everything eminates from the bottom of the game and those two flippers, so we'll start our tour of the playfield there.
Big Buck Hunter uses black rubber throughout and this includes the flippers. This might suggest a reduced amount of bounce, but the game proved to be plenty bouncy enough, so white rubbers aren't needed.
The flipper area is quite busy in artwork terms but the flippers frame the deer head trophy nicely.
The shoot again insert is positioned quite a bit lower down the playfield than usual and can be hidden by the bottom apron if you're not that tall. It's probably placed there to avoid the 'Rudolph' effect seen on earlier sample games where the deer's nose lit up to show an extra ball.
Over on the left side we find a single inlane and a single outlane.
The inlane lights the first of the E-L-K letters - the other two being lit by the right inlanes - while the outlane can be lit to collect a critter award. You might expect the lit E-L-K letters to rotate round with the flipper buttons, but they don't; making it harder to complete the E-L-K sequence.
The left slingshot is of the regular design we've seen on all recent Sterns, featuring two tiers, a flasher on the top and a spotlamp illuminating the centre of the playfield.
Above the left outlane is the usual three-position adjuster post to vary the width of the outlane. There's no denying ball times on Big Buck Hunter can be very short indeed, so this may well need to be adjusted to give more value to a game. The one in a nearby arcade has both outlanes set to minimum width but even that wasn't enough, so it was also set to 5 balls so paying customers got a reasonable length game for their money.
As we move up the playfield we come to...
...well, nothing very much. It's a bit of a dead area with just two rubber rings to add to that bounce we were talking about earlier.
This is, of course, the end of the buck track so can't have anything protruding into the playing area, but still, you think something could have gone here. Nice flowers, though.
The artwork on the plastic pieces shows we are approaching Pappy's Porch. So despite the 'get lost' sign, let's pay Pappy a visit.
Pappy's Porch is the name given to the three-bank of standup targets which gives out mystery awards. There are three jugs on the playfield which illuminate to show which targets have been hit and completing them all gets you a mystery award and a humorous quote from Pappy.
More about these awards and all the other rules in the second part of this in-depth review.
To the right of Pappy's is the first major shot of the game, the left orbit.
As you might have guessed from the name, the left orbit will normally send the ball round the back of the playfield and allow it to exit at the right orbit.
All the major shots are identified by the red arrow insert which means it can be lit for a jackpot during big buck multiball or one of the bird multiballs.
The bullseye insert indicates the left orbit can be lit during one of the bonus round modes, while the elk insert lights when the shot can advance or score elk hurryup awards, or start elk multiball.
The elk is the first of the five creatures to collect (or shoot if you prefer), the others being moose, ram, birds and the eponymous big buck himself.
The lamps under the adjacent ramp provide good illumination to the left orbit, while the long lead-in guide rail makes sure it's not too difficult to shoot.
Next to the left orbit entrance is the game's sole ramp, the moose ramp.
Mounted over the ramp's entrance is a moose trophy with some instructions to shoot the ramp for moose on the loose mode. The trophy has the look of a prototype with very small text and screw heads which obscure some of the letters. The text is also quite indistinct and the whole object is quite dark, but as yet we haven't seen a different version which improves on these shortcomings. Hopefully it won't stay like that for production.
Under the moose ramp are two inserts to show when it is lit for extra ball or special, while in front are two more inserts which show the moose ramp can be a jackpot shot and features in the bouns round modes.
The moose ramp is quite a long single piece of plastic and includes some dips and turns as it heads round the back of the game and down to the right inlane, a little like the Insanity Falls ramp in whitewater, but without the same vertical drop.
Like the Insanity Falls ramp, though, the moose ramp does have an emergency escape at the lowest point so balls without the momentum to make the next climb have a way out.
But let's get back to the left side of the game and the next feature positioned to the right of the moose ramp is the ram kicker.
The ram is a double-action device, sensing hits and kicking the ball back at the player. There is an opto pair in front of the ram which senses when the ball is present and fires the kicker to shoot the ball out, much like the raptor shot in Jurassic Park only not quite so powerful.
Shooting the ram enough times starts a timed period of double scoring, indicated by the flasher lamp beneath the ram insert which throbs while double scoring is in effect.
Once again, the ram is one of the major shots lit for jackpots and also a featured shot during bonus round modes.
Next to the B standup target is the shot for the fourth of the five creatures you need to collect, the bird lane.
To be fair to our feathered friends (before we blast them from the skies), there are actually four types of bird to collect as indicated by the lamp board at the back of the lane.
Shooting the standup target at the end of the lane registers a hit and counts down towards the next bird multiball.
Moving on, we skip past the second B-U-C-K standup target and go up a bit to reach the C-O-W rollover lanes and the pop bumpers.
This area is not just an apparent homage to Attack/Revenge from Mars because both cows and flying saucers turn up in Big Buck Hunter Pro Trophy Club games as two of the secret hidden features which turn each doe into either a bear, a cow, a UFO or Pappy.
The C-O-W rollovers are where most lauched balls will end up thanks to an up-post in the orbit lane which pops up to stop the ball and forces it into the rollovers.
As the ball rolls through the C-O-W lanes it enters the pop bumper area.
It's the usual triangular arrangement of bumpers but there is only one exit from them - between the bottom bumper and the U standup. There is a one-way gate between the two right-most bumpers which only allows a ball into the pops area and not out of it. That gate is also slighly springy and so it helps to keep the ball moving around and hitting more bumpers.
There's also a round insert covering a couple of 89 flashers which fire when there's action in the pops.
The reason for that one-way gate is to guard the spinner lane which is the next major shot in the game we'll look at.
The spinner lane is a short lane which is used to collect the super jackpot during different multiballs. It is usually hidden by the buck in its home position but when it's revealed, just one spin of the spinner registers a shot to the lane. When not lit for super jackpots, the spinner light and increases the value of the critters on the two outlanes.
The C standup target is also partially hidden by the buck but it can just about be shot directly from the left flipper.
The sixth major shot is the right orbit lane.
Apart from being lit for jackpots and for scoring during bonus rounds, the right orbit also starts those bonus rounds when enough pop bumper hits have been scored and the bonus round insert is lit.
The ball can either travel all the way round and exit at the left orbit entrance or be stopped by the up-post above the rollover lanes if there a bonus round is started.
Some other games have a super skill shot where you can plunge softly and not send the ball into the rollover lanes, but let it roll back to the flippers for a flipper skill shot instead. Big Buck Hunter doesn't have this, so the only skill shot is into the rollovers to the flashing lane.
We're not finished with the ball shooter lane though as our next feature brings it into the gameplay. We looked at the elk shot on the left orbit before, but this is where elk multiball really takes place.
In its rest state the elk is in the poition above, allowing access to the right orbit. When the elk is activated, however, it rotates out to block the right orbit and send any balls shot up the left orbit lane back into the ball shooter lane.
It's actually best to think of the elk feature as just what it is - a giant flipper. It even uses a standard flipper mechanism under the playfield to activate it.
But the elk flipper does more than just move out, as indicated by the elk jackpot insert in front. The game uses the end-of-stroke switch on the elk flipper mechanism to sense when the elk is hit with a ball and registers that as an elk jackpot shot.
Stern autolaunchers being what they are, it's possible to get too many balls in the shooter lane for the autolauncher to handle, so some manual plunging is sometimes needed to help the game out.
Below the elk are the game's two right inlanes and the solitary right outlane.
Having the two L & K inlanes on the right is unusual as it shifts the centreline - a line drawn vertically down the playfield between the flippers - further to the left. The ball shooter lane already does that to a degree and putting two inlanes on the left side has counterbalanced that effect to some extent in the past. Putting them on the right increases the unbalanced look of the game, though it didn't seem to affect gameplay at all and that's what matters.
The moose ramp feeds the rightmost K inlane, while the outlane - like it's left side equivalent - can be lit to score a critter after you shoot the spinner enough times.
Although the inlane and outlane dividers are made of metal, they do seem to exhibit an amazing springiness and really want to bounce even the most innocuous-looking ball down the outlane. In short, they are not to be trusted.
Which leaves us with the game's most prominent and eye-catching feature to examine. Yes, it's time to bring on the buck.
Mounting it on an oversize chocolate lego block isn't the most elegant solution but it largely works, although the buck in this game had lost its front left foot.
The buck acts very much like the crane in Batman - having a rest position behind a deer blind and moving out to one of five marks where you have to shoot it with the ball. Shoot it at all five positions and big buck multiball begins.
Each position at which the buck stops is marked out with a shotgun case and equates to one of the major shots, effectively blocking that shot until you either hit the buck or the time allowed expires and the buck returns home.
In its home position behind the deer blind, the buck can still be shot and this will bring it out to one of the five positions not already hit.
A sensor inside the buck's base registers the hits with varying degrees of sensitivity. Some games we've played only required a weak hit with the ball, while others only recorded the strongest, most direct hits.
The buck moves across the playfield with surprising speed, so let's have a look to see how it works.
Under the playfield, the buck mechanism runs from one side of the playfield to the other along the track.
The central section is covered with a metal channel which protects the buck carriage as it moves and also provides some strengthening to the playfield to help compensate for the cut across its width.
At one end of the track is a motor connected to a long screw thread.
The thread runs the full length of the track and has microswitches mounted at either end to tell the game when the buck has reached the limits of its travel.
The buck's carriage is mounted on this screw thread so when the screw turns, the carriage moves. Its direction depends on the direction the motor turns.
The game uses the combination of the two endstop microswitches and an opto sensor on the motor which counts the number of turns to determine the position of the buck.
So that's how the buck moves across the playfield. Let's get back to the fun side of the wood and finish off our tour of the playfield.
We've returned to the flippers but between them and the buck track is the game's progress grid showing the player which features they have completed and which remain.
The objective is the usual one - light all these inserts and play the wizard mode called 'open season'.
We'll explain what you have to do to light each of these in part two but before we finish this first part, here's a look at the whole underside of the game:
We finish this part with a listen to the game's main theme - a suitably southern rock-style track with screaming guitars and a good catchy beat to draw you into the game.
Get the Flash Player to hear this audio clip.
Check here regularly because we'll be back soon with the second part of the In-Depth Review of Stern's Big Buck Hunter Pro.
In the meantime, why not tell us what you think of Big Buck Hunter Pro? We'll publish a selection of comments right here, so just tell us your thoughts and have your say.
© Pinball News 2010