Here we are again with another new game from Stern and that can only mean one thing - it's time for the Pinball News in-depth review.
Things are a little different this time around because we had a chance to play the game briefly at the ATEI trade show but it's hard to delve too deeply into the rules with so many others waiting to play. But now we've had unfettered access to the game to pull it apart and see how it ticks.
That's the backglass and although it's not an original design, sometimes there's no point reinventing the wheel. It does suffer from the usual problem of uneven illumination from the light tube but because the artwork is quite subdued, it makes the centre properly exposed and the edges dark. (I've removed the effect from the image above so you can see it all clearly.)
The cabinet side-art is going to be one of those love it or hate it affairs but I fall into the former camp and think it compliments the backglass and theme perfectly. Your mileage may vary.
So for the colour scheme we're talking about subdues colours, stark black and white and a generous splash of red as a contrast.
Oh dear. I suppose the TV series is all about inconsistencies and contradictions but it really looks like the licensors dictated the cabinet artwork and gave free rein when it came to the playfield.
Quite honestly I think it looks a mess with too many ideas thrown into the mix. It badly needed someone to keep the vision of what is trying to be said and maintain some coherence between the upper and lower halves. Down by the flippers it's a fuzzy photo-realistic table top and diner design, further up it changes to flat colours and cartoon-like illustrations. If you can block out the visual clutter, the layout of inserts is quite sparse and nicely logical.
OK, enough with the artwork, let's look at the playfield design.
It's a fan-of-eight layout starting with the fish kickout on the far left, the left loop, the left ramp, the inner loop, the safe in the centre, the boat, the right ramp and the right loop. There are a lot of similarities with Monster Bash's layout, especially if you swap the safe and centre loop. For "fish" read "Creature" and change the "Light Pork Store" standups for the "Drac Attack" ones and you're about there. But Monster Bash had a great layout so it's a good starting point for The Sopranos.
Let's tour the playfield, look at each of the shots and see what they do but before that, please bear in mind that this game is running prototype software V0.60 so many features have not been finished or implemented yet and the sound balance is dubious in many places. So expect many things to change before production begins.
The Sopranos is a two flipper, four ball game. There is nothing unusual about the flipper area or the familiar inlane/outlane arrangements. One inlane and one outlane on each side, there's no kickback or ball save feature in those outlanes. This game was fitted with the UK All-Skill extra posts but unless you buy your game from the UK you won't see these.
Each inlane and outlane has a lamp insert for one letter of F-I-S-H. Rolling over one of these lights it. Light all four to qualify the fish kickout. Just in case you thought they'd forgotten about the ducks, they feature on the display in the match sequence and...
... they made it onto both the slingshot plastics (just).
The fish is one of the toys in the game. It talks, just like in the TV series with the jaw moving up and down and the eyes lighting up. The jaw movement is a bit crude in this version and the speech is drowned out by other sound calls but these are things which can be improved in later software.
Below the fish is a kickout saucer called Sleeping With The Fishes. The mechanism is hidden by a brown wood-effect plastic cover but the ball is held here while the fish talks - either to say "Get out!" or to give you a semi-random fish award. The awards are shown on the display. During multiball it often adds another ball but in this version it mostly gave "Add R.I.P." as you can see in the video clip below.
As toys go, it's nothing exceptional but it does the job in the same way the Homer head does in The Simpsons Pinball Party and like Homer, its operation is not essential to the game.
To the right of the fish is the entrance to the left loop.
To the right of the left loop is one of two yellow standup targets.
Continuing round we find the left ramp.
After passing another blue rubber pad it's time for the centre loop.
So what about that safe? The premise is simple - keep shooting the safe until you "crack" it. When you do, the safe splits in two and rises up.
Although it may not look like it from the picture above, there's enough space below the safe for the ball to pass under it.
And when it does, there's a kickout saucer waiting on the other side where you collect the safe award. This kicks the ball out into the exit of the centre loop - i.e. into the pop bumpers.
The saucer is quite shallow so forceful shots will bounce right back at you often disappearing between the flippers. Care is required here.
Passing by the second yellow standup, the next item on our tour is the Stugots ramp.
The right ramp entrance is used as an exit from the jets and from The Stugots but it's more useful when shot the other way.
On the right of the right loop entrance are two standup targets labeled Light Pork Store.
These light the Pork Store insert on the centre loop shot which is a random award chosen from four possible choices in the meat counter.
Moving up to the top-left of the playfield we find the pole dancing women. They are strictly eye candy and only exist to demarcate the area for Bada Bing! and having no interaction with the game other than spinning round when the ball passes on the left ramp.
I know I mentioned this in the ATEI report but the shot of Tony's crew in the background watching the pole dancers is amazingly simple and very effective. I am assured the white poles will be chrome plated in the final version as I hoped.
To their right are the R.I.P. rollover lanes.
Balls end up here from either the left or right loops when the shot is too weak to make it all the way round or when Truck Heist is lit. The R.I.P. rollovers advance bonus X when complete but not in quite the usual way because above them on the backboard is this:
Each time you complete R.I.P. you collect another character from the board. Some simply increase the bonus multiplier by one but other increase it by three. They were awarded in order (top row left to right followed by the bottom row) with this software version and nothing appeared to change that order but it might be different in the production revision.
Each one is announced both vocally and on the display as you can see in the fish and Pork Store video clips above. In case you are wondering, they are the eight major characters to have died so far up to the start of season six.
As mentioned before. the big problem with the rollover lanes is the boat. It blocks your view of the right hand lane making it tricky to know whether it's lit or not.
The truck is inactive and used to illustrate the Truck Heist loop shot.
Below the R.I.P. feature are the pop bumpers. They're the skeleton style and don't block your view of the ball but one is under the boat and you can't see that at all. The other two have flashers on top which fire together when either bumper is hit.
The final item of note is the Episode Board.
These are the five modes based around scenes from each of the first five seasons and each one is described below in more detail.
The overall aim of the game is to become the Boss. You do this by completing nine tasks which are laid out on the playfield.
The first task is to rise through the ranks from Associate to Under Boss.
You buy your way through the organisation by collecting money envelopes. These are awarded when you shoot any of the lit $ signs on the four major shots (loops and ramps).
You need all four and you can then pay a tribute to the Boss by shooting the centre loop to advance rank.
Besides advancing rank you also get a nice little bonus in the form of a doubler. There are four doublers and they double the value of different features in the game. They are: Shakedown, Safe, Meadowlands and Episode. The others we'll look at in a moment but Shakedown is played out in the pop bumpers and it is here that you might first notice the use of profanities if the game is set up to speak them.
Each bumper hit results in a hapless victim being beaten up a little more and the required number of hits counting down until the shakedown is complete and you get the bonus.
If you get the doubler, the hits are doubled in value as is the payoff when you complete the shakedown.
Now, shakedown is not a particularly valuable feature, so your doubler is not that useful, but the safe doubler will be worth an extra million before too long and the Episodes doubler can be worth over 6M per Episode mode.
You earn a new doubler every time you are promoted but can only have all four running at once and can't double a doubler. Also, they only last for the duration of the ball, so lose it and you start from scratch again next ball.
As you are promoted to Acting Capo, extra ball is lit at the centre loop.
You can get as high as Under Boss but you can't become Boss until you've completed the other eight tasks first. If you haven't, the next promotion takes you back to Associate and you have to climb the ladder again.
So, getting to Under Boss is task one. The other eight are arranged around the Under Boss insert on the playfield so we'll look at them now.
To light the Episodes insert you need to play all five Episode modes. You don't need to complete them all, just start them. Lighting an Episode involves spelling out the name S-O-P-R-A-N-O-S. Each hit of the yellow standup targets adds a letter as does the centre loop shot.
When complete, the centre loop is lit to start an Episode mode.
There are five modes and they all have a 30 second timer:
Arson - You have to burn down Artie Bucco's restaurant. The four main shots are lit to add gasoline, collect them and the centre loop is lit to ignite it and collect the payoff. During this mode, the red arrows flicker like flames which is a nice touch. Score for completion was 6.25M.
Exterminate - You have to find the hidden bugs in Tony's office. The four major shots are lit for 1M a piece + a 250K bump per shot. Collect 3 and then shoot the centre loop to find the bug and get your payoff.
Horse Race - Pie-O-My is racing and you have to make the four major shots to move it through the field and then shoot the centre shot to finish. Despite doing this, I only ever ended up in second place.
Executive Game - This is a video poker game but not knowing anything about poker it was hard to work out what's going on. The display shows 2 hands of cards, yours and the dealer's. You seem to have 2 + 5 cards, the first three of which are shown and the same for the dealer's hand. You can bet points or fold on successive reveals of the hidden cards. Your points at risk rises to around 3 million by the end or you can fold immediately and lose nothing. The winner seemed to be fairly evenly split between the dealer and the player.
Satisfaction - All four major shots and the centre loop are lit to hunt down a rat. Each shot scores 500K + 250K per shot. Shots remain lit when made and after five the rat is gunned down and you get a bonus.
The Bada Bing! is on the left ramp, so shoot this three times to start Party At The Bing! The ball is held at the top of the ramp while the display animations are played out and you then have 30 seconds to make 90 switch hits, so the spinner and the pop bumpers are your friends now. If you don't make it in the time allowed, don't worry. The number remaining when the clock runs out is carried over to the next try, so if you only get 60 hits in your 30 seconds, next time you start Party At The Bing in the same game, you'll only have the remaining 30 to get.
There's some unintentional humour in Party At The Bing as you hear the voice from one of the sexy pole dancers but unfortunately she sounds more like Tina Fey's cackly old maid from Medieval Madness and I kept expecting her to start talking about chickens.
Anyway, when you complete all 90 hits Bing! multiball begins. This three ball multiball lights all the major shots and the centre loop of 50K points which seems a little frugal to me but most importantly, starting Bing! multiball completes the task and lights the red insert.
You start a Truck Heist by shooting either loop three times. That starts a 10 second timer for you to shoot a loop again to complete the heist. Make the shot and you get your consignment of suits, DVD players or plasma TVs.
To complete the task and light the insert you have to make three heists. It's quite easy because you can advance towards, and then start heists at almost any point in the game.
The next task is the food. There are food inserts on all the ramps and loops but only the ramps or the loops are lit at once. Making a lit one swaps them over and awards an item of food
There are 15 items of food to collect and Carmela announces each one as you collect it. When you collect them all Food Fight starts and you have completed this task. Food Fight is a timed mode where all food shots score points. The display said 85K but the actual awards were between 30K and 45K.
This has to be the easiest task to complete. All you need to do is keep shooting the safe until it opens which shouldn't take more than about 4 shots and then shoot it again to collect the safe award.
That will light your insert.
This is another straightforward task. Just collect all eight characters from the R.I.P. board by completing the rollover lanes or from random awards and not only will you light your insert but you will light extra ball at the centre loop.
This one refers to Stugots multiball and requires you to get a super jackpot to complete the task. It's not that difficult thanks to the easy backhand shot into the boat but here's how it goes.
You keep shooting the Stugots drop target until it stays down. Lock is now lit and you can shoot a ball into the boat to lock it. A new ball is launched and you have to lock that in the boat too to start Stugots multiball. The drop target then pops up again, the two locked balls are released and a third is auto-launched. Knock down the drop target for a jackpot, shoot a ball into the boat for double jackpot and then shoot another into the boat for a super jackpot and the completion of your task
You are then back at the start of multiball and can repeat this all over again but more drop target hits are needed for successive jackpots.
This is probably the dullest of the tasks. You shoot the right ramp three times to collect an item to help you dispose of things in the Meadowlands such as a shovel or a tarp. Collect four items and the task is complete. In other words, shoot the right ramp twelve times.
And when you do start Boss mode....
...well. I won't tell you for two reasons. First, it would spoil the excitement of finding out for yourself and second - it wasn't written in this version of software. There was a multiball launch but after that things got unpredictable sometimes leading to an immediate bonus count.
While the software will improve and some of the artwork may change, the game layout and design is fixed and is crucial to whether The Sopranos plays well and remains enjoyable, and I'm pleased to report that George Gomez has created another smooth, fast flowing design.
The shot layout may be familiar but at least it's a proven one and gives the player plenty of options.
Like all Stern games, miss a shot and it feels a bit "industrial" but it's quite possible to get into the rhythm and start putting together a few combos. I know Steve Ritchie is supposed to be the king of flow, but this game flows better than Elvis.
The safe is a highly effective device even though it sacrifices form for function. When the ball smashes into it the feel and sounds indicate you've hit something very solid indeed, and yet as it opens up you see that's not the case. I think it's partly due to the absence of any time lag between hitting the safe and the sound call, a problem often experienced on the Whitestar system.
There are a couple of shots where you have to control the speed you give the ball which initially seems a design flaw but I like the need to manage both the power and direction of your flipping. Fans of backhands will really enjoy this game because you can hit many shots from either flipper and some are best made that way.
The rules integrate nicely into the theme and the playfield design. They're not excessively complex but the ability to run the modes alongside the multiballs means you have to put some thought into your strategy if you want to get maximum points.
Double scoring on some features works well as far as it goes but I can't help but think it could be extended to double other features which would take it to a whole new level. Imagine getting two fish awards each time, or double super jackpots, or even double extra ball.
Having the ultimate goal of becoming The Boss is a good way to force the player to experience every aspect of the game. There's no feature you can avoid if you want the top job.
The features themselves are good if not exceptional with lots of "make all four major shots and then shoot the centre loop" to complete them. Some more variety would be nice. Also, the scoring seems a little unbalanced with Food Fight and Party Multiball undervalued and only worth playing to light their inserts.
Playing The Sopranos, I kept getting this nagging feeling that the game was more Williams-like in some subtle but indefinable way but writing this I've just worked out why.
It's the score on the display. It constantly wipes vertically off and on just like Williams' games did.
If The Lord Of The Rings was George Gomez's take on Medieval Madness - and I only say "if" - then The Sopranos is the revision of his Monster Bash design.
It's a very competent game with few surprises but a well integrated theme. Fans of the show will find several references to raise a smile.
Despite the work still needed on the sound, there were no really annoying calls and had clear (if unexciting) sounds to signify the end of modes. All the required characters are there and the lack of custom speech from James Gandolfini is not an issue.
The rules are logical and fairly obvious but perhaps could do with something to add an edge to the gameplay, something suitably dangerous and volatile to reflect the undercurrents of the TV series. Perhaps, to go along with all the things you must do, have something you must NOT.
Dot matrix graphics are well drawn and the animations fit the mood of the game nicely with possibly the exception of Stugots Multiball which looks more suited to Playboy than The Sopranos.
Lighting is not as in-your-face as in Elvis but there's a nice use of flashers on the two visible bumpers and a decent light show when you crack the safe.
And so for their crucial Spring game Stern have created a good all-round effort, and despite the reservations in this review, they have shown how they can take an unlikely theme and still produce a decent game.
Finally, thanks to John and Bob at Electrocoin for allowing access to the machine used in this review. It should be at the Casino arcade in London by the time you read this if you want to try it for yourself.
© Pinball News 2005