It's that time again. A new game has arrived and Pinball News is there to review it.

Keep calm! That's the main thing. There's a brand new Lord of the Rings pinball game standing in front of me and the urge to hit that start button is overwhelming, but I must keep calm.

You will probably already have seen the earlier playfield pictures we brought you, and I can confirm that the game looks as great in the flesh as it does on camera. The artwork looks a bit dotted up close but from a playing position it looks just fine. The layout is wide open but there are still loads of features and no obvious sucker shots.

One thing that hit me straight away was the backbox. It's a new, slightly retro design. It's got chromed trim and I think it looks more expensive than the plain black we've had for some time. In fact, with the cabinet artwork, a new backbox and the coin door sticker, the game looks that little bit classier.

Keep calm! Keep Calm! Oh, to Hell with it. Let's play some pinball.

As soon as the game starts, a big red creature in the upper centre of the playfield (Balrog) swings out of the way to reveal a spinner at the entrance to the centre ramp. Balrog flashes red as he moves drawing your attention to the ramp and the idea that you can get Balrog back in some way, but more of that later.

With the ball sitting in the manual shooter lane, the music strikes up. If you're familiar with the films, this is the music that accompanies Gandalf as the drives his cart into the Shire, but it soon segways into the more dramatic main movie theme.
If that means nothing to you, click here for an MP3 of the main theme.

Unusually, there's no title animation on the display, it's just the score, ball and credit numbers. It doesn't even tell you that you have a choice of skill shots waiting for you. That's quite an omission because the playfield lamp inserts showing your choices are quite well hidden behind a model. There is a visual cue because there are eight controlled lamps running up the shooter lane and they strobe to indicate you should launch the ball.

If you look a bit closer you'll see the inserts labeled"Flipper", "Tower" and "Lanes". A seasoned pinball player would know what they mean, but even they wouldn't know how to achieve them.

So here's how they work. If you select "Flipper" you should launch the ball hard enough to send it all the way around the top down to the left flipper where you shoot the right loop for a super skill shot award. Select "Tower" and you should plunge the ball so it only makes it half way around the top of the game and falls into the tower on the left for a regular skill shot. For "Lanes", you should launch the ball even more softly so falls into the rollover lanes and passes through the flashing one. You can steer the flashing lane with the flipper buttons.

This is a nice idea. You can go for the relatively easy tower shot, the harder lanes, or the two stage flipper shot and they score accordingly. This feature and the choices available need to be related to the player in a better way.

Let's take a look at this playfield then. First of all, let's be up front about this - it borrows very heavily from Medieval Madness. It's no good trying to deny it, it does. Now that's not necessarily a bad thing - Medieval Madness is a great game and flows very smoothly - but Lord Of The Rings works in an altogether different way. What it does mean, though, is that there's an immediate familiarity with the shot layout.

But let's go through it anyway starting lower left and moving clockwise.

Two flippers on this game. No more, no less. As this is a UK-All Skill game, there is a centre up-post between the flippers and up-posts over each outlane. Unless you're in the UK, you won't see these on your game.

One inlane and one outlane on each side. They all have an lamp insert above the switch. They spell out K-E-E-P but may as well spell L-O-C-K because that's what they enable. Collect all four lights and lock is lit on the right ramp. Once collected they extinguish unless you have lit all three locks, in which case they stay lit. You also re-light the Spot Ring target but more of that later.

Above the slingshot on the left side of the game is the Mystery Vertical Up-Kicker of Hobbiton. This is a cross between the catapult lane on MM and the VUK on Playboy.

Balls shot into here can hit a target at the top of the lane or just fall into the up-kicker. The target doesn't appear to do anything but if one of the Gift of the Elves is lit, it changes the award. If Mystery is lit, a random award is given, otherwise the ball is kicked up onto the left wireform that leads to the left inlane. Because it's a regular VUK, it has no problem if three balls are in there at once.

Above this is the Outer Left Loop. Strong shots here loop round to the top of the playfield and into the Barad-Dur tower saucer at the very top right of the game, much like the fish finder in Fish Tales. Weaker shots fall into the rollover lanes.

Next to this, and with a thin piece of blue rubber diving them, is the left ramp. The ramp is actually quite shallow but has a sharp 180 degree turn which works amazingly smoothly for such a tight angle. This ramp feeds the left wireform and then the left inlane, as detailed above.

To the right of that is the Inner Left Loop. This is a dual-purpose shot, because there is a diverter at the entrance to the lane. Balls shot here usually end up looping around the top and coming down the right loop back to the flippers. But if the diverter is engaged by rolling through the right inlane, balls will fall into the Orthanc tower on the left.

This second tower hides another VUK which fires the ball up onto the mini-playfield, called the Paths of the Dead. Not a very cheery title, is it?

It consists of a number of posts with small rubber rings on them. Between these posts are four switches arranged in a square pattern. As the ball moves down the mini-playfield it triggers two switches, scoring the number of souls shown on the display for each switch. Usually, some switches are worth more than other and the valuable ones are shown by the four green lamps at the top of the mini-playfield. Collect all the lit lamps and the next round is more valuable.

Once the ball has rolled over the switches, it falls off the mini-playfield, either straight onto the playfield, into the left wireform or into the Mystery VUK. You also collect souls all the time the ball is up there, but it's not normally a significant number. However, these extra souls continue racking-up until a switch on the main playfield is hit. As the ball can fall onto that main playfield, it is possible to catch the ball on a flipper without it triggering a switch, racking up lots of souls. I guess there is a maximum number of souls you can earn in this way, but I didn't manage to catch the ball without it hitting a slingshot.

Continuing around the playfield we come to the main centre shot. As I said, this can be blocked by Balrog. He's the big red creature mounted on something like the bank door in Monopoly, so he can swing closed to block the shot or swing out of the way (his normal position) the reveal the centre ramp. This is a fork-tongued affair which has a spinner at the base and leads up to the main toy in the game - the ring.

While weak shots to the centre ramp fall off the ramp into the rollover lanes, stronger ones fly into the middle of the ring where it is held by a hidden circular electro-magnet behind. If you've played Austin Powers you'll recognise this as the Time Machine, but here it's much more elegant because it's not visible.

If you have Mode Start lit the magnet does the same as in AP, throwing the ball through the ring, out the back of the playfield and onto the right wireform, leading to the right inlane. If the ring is not yet qualified, the ball is gently dropped out the front into the rollovers. It surprising how noisy this magnet can be. It clearly has quite a large drain on the power because I saw the lower left VUK fail to launch the ball when the magnet was holding a ball.

The ring is an important shot because it starts modes, scores jackpots, and is used to destroy the ring amongst other things.

To the right and in front of the ring are the three rollover lanes. These spell O-R-C and when completed increase the bonus multiplier. They are part of the skill shot as described above and they feed the pop bumpers.

These are of the skinny variety and are quite well hidden by Balrog when he's in his normal resting place. The pops also have red flashers on the top which flash when a pop bumper is activated. They are all linked, so any bumper hit flashes all three flashers.

Above the flashers in the top right is the tower of Barad-Dur. This has a saucer to the upper-left of it to register shots to the tower.

If you hit it enough times the tower collapses. Well, I say 'collapses', but really it just does a Kenny (from South Park). That's right, it just turns into the leaning tower of Barad-Dur. This is the weakest part of the game and is only marginally better than not doing anything. It would have been better to use lighting effects to make it explode and go dark.

Below the bumpers and to the right of the centre ramp is Gollum's saucer. You collect extra balls and specials here and start Gollum multiball.

Again, like the MM saucer, the ball can enter from both the front and the back although it is deliberately made so that strong shots from the front pass straight through into the bumpers. You can still collect the awards if the ball falls back into the saucer unless the ball hits one of the O-R-C rollover switches first.

The saucer kicks the ball up and onto the right wireform down to the right inlane.

Slightly to the left of the saucer is the Palantir target. When lit, this gives random awards designed to help out the current mode. It has a clear crystal ball above it which glows red when the target is enabled.

To the right of the saucer is the right ramp. This is shaped like Aragorn's sword and is used to lock balls in the build-up to Two Towers multiball. Because it is also a regular shot, the game has to allow balls to flow through the lock area, and it does this by releasing the front locked ball when a ball is approaching the lock area. This is initially a bit disconcerting, but soon becomes familiar.

The balls are locked by a nylon post and three microswitches to sense the balls. Because the post is quite sharply tapered at the top, a fast ball can hit the post and be deflected to one side and off the ramp, leaving no locked balls and an unexpected two-ball multiball. If you manage to get one of them back, it is locked and things continue, but I don't know what happens if you lose one of them.

Balls exiting the right ramp fall into the right inlane.

Finally, the last major shot is the right loop. This loops back through the left loop, or if it's a weak shot, falls into either the rollovers or the Orthanc tower and up onto the mini-playfield.

On the lower right of the playfield is the Spot Ring target which does as its name suggests and is re-lit by spelling K-E-E-P on the inlanes/outlanes.

OK, so that's how the playfield is organised, let's move on to the rules.

There are three key features to play: Modes, Multiballs and Rings.

Modes are started at the ring, so shoot up the centre ramp and the ball is held in the ring while the appropriate mode animation is played. It is the thrown through the ring, down the left wireform and the mode begins.

There are six modes: Escape the Ring Wraiths, Gandalf vs Saruman, Warg Battle, War of the Ents, Attack of Shelob and Destroy the Witch King. They are shown around the ring and you can select the next one with the flippers.

All the modes have a target which is not revealed on the display or verbally, so you just have to keep following the instructions until it says the mode is finished. All the modes are timed and you can win more time from a random award or from the Palantir target.

As the time begins to run low, you get strong verbal cues from either Frodo or Gimli as they count down the remaining few seconds. Gimli is especially good at injecting a sense of urgency into proceedings.

If you do compete the mode in the time available you light the Gift of the Elves - one of a wheel of six awards below the left loop lane. You collect these awards at the Barad-Dur tower and change the lit award with that white target at the top of the Hobbiton area.

When you have played all six modes, there is a hidden final mode called There and Back Again - the name of Bilbo's book.

The ring is lit at the start of each ball but you relight the ring to start a mode by collecting all three of the Elf rings. Since you can only collect three Elf rings in total, if you have already collected them you have to collect all the other rings, play Ring Frenzy and go back to zero to collect another three. If mode start isn't lit when you shoot the ring, you are awarded a ring bonus instead and the ball is kicked out the front of the ring.

Next, let's look at the multiballs. There is one multiball associated with each of the three films, and you can play them in any order.

For The Fellowship of the Ring multiball you need to collect all nine members of the fellowship. You do this by shooting the major shots thus:

Pippin - Left outer loop
Merry - Right loop
Sam - Mystery VUK
Aragorn - Right ramp
Frodo - Ring
Gandalf - Left inner loop
Legolas - Left ramp
Gimli - Saucer
Boromir - Bumpers

Your progress is charted by the nine lamp inserts across the lower playfield.

Once you've collected them all you shoot the Barad-Dur tower to start Fellowship multiball. In this, Balrog swings across to block the centre ramp and you battle him by hitting him with the ball, but there's also the requirement to get all the members of the fellowship across the bridge guarded by Balrog. So you need to alternate hits to Balrog with left and right ramp shots. Each ramp brings a member of the fellowship across the bridge, but once you bring a member across, the ramps are no longer lit, so you have to hit Balrog to qualify the ramps each time.

The second multiball is the Two Towers multiball. You start this by lighting all four
K-E-E-P lamps on the inlanes and outlanes to light lock on the right ramp. Do this three times and Two Towers multiball begins.

The first ball lock is accompanied by two consecutive quotes which are quite long and don't quite run together smoothly. The second is accompanied by a rather cheesy image of Frodo donning a helmet. It looks a bit cartoonish to me. The third, though, has a great animation as multiball begins.

This is a bit complicated, but bear with me.

All ramps and loops are lit for jackpot, as is the ring and the Gollum saucer, so that's seven shots. If you have all three balls in play, the shots all score double jackpots. If you lose a ball then it's back to regular jackpots. I think if you start Gollum multiball too, you get triple jackpots while you have all four balls in play.

So far, so good, but there is a time element to this multiball too. Each time you score a jackpot, that shot is unlit and you have three seconds to shoot the next lit jackpot which is doubled in value. Then you have another three seconds to get the third (triple value) and so on up to all seven shots (septuple value). Each jackpot in the sequence is announced as "jackpot one", "jackpot two" etc. Don't forget, if you've got all three original balls then they are triple jackpots you are collecting, so you can collect up to 21X the base jackpot value. But those three seconds run out very quickly. Run out of time and all the shots relight but you're back to single values again.

If you get all seven then you start scoring Super Jackpots on all shots.

All in all, this is a great twist on the standard multiball and gives the opportunity to earn loads of points, but not easily.

Third, we have Return of the King multiball. This is qualified by collecting 5,000 souls from the Path of the Dead. As described before, you collect souls by hitting the right switches on the mini-playfield. Once you get 5,000 you get the quote "That's enough for an army" from Gimli and you shoot Barad-Dur to start multiball.

Eight hours after playing, I really can't remember what happens during Return of the King multiball. I think you have alternate jackpot shots on the left and right sides of the playfield, but I may be confusing that with one of the modes.

Anyway, if you play all three multiballs you light Destroy the Ring at the centre shot.

Shoot into the ring and you start a three-stage finale. You have to collect the left outer loop, left ramp, right ramp and right loop shots to complete the first stage. Then in stage two you shoot a ball into the ring. It is held there and a new ball is served. In the final third stage you have to use this new ball to knock the first ball out of the ring and complete the mode.

If you succeed, the flippers die and the game goes slightly crazy - kind of like vacation jackpot on Whitewater, but not as good. In fact, the first time it happened I thought the game was doing a ball search. It needs a light show to accompany the solenoid firing to indicate it's something special.

There is the potential for the ball to be held in the ring for a long time if you can't make the shot to knock it out. This happened to me, and eventually the game released the ball and kept it in the lock area instead. The ultimate disgrace.

Finally, we get to the rings.

Just above the flippers are three concentric circles of LEDs which indicate your progress in collecting rings. There are three different types of ring to collect - Dwarf, Elf and Men. Most of the major shots have the three types of ring as playfield inserts. When you shoot them you collect the appropriate ring. You can light certain types of ring by making particular shots:

Mystery VUK lights Dwarf rings
Ring lights Elf rings
Gollum saucer lights Man rings

Rings can also be collected by rolling the ball through the left inlane and shooting the Spot Ring target on the right.

Once you collect all the rings you start Ring Frenzy where all the ring shots score frenzy jackpots and add to a finishing bonus which can be collected by shooting the ring.  There is a timer on this mode of around ten seconds which is reset by shooting any lit ring shot.

That's how the game works. There is almost certainly more to it that this, but that is yet to be discovered.

But what about how the game plays and most importantly, is it any fun? Oh yeah!

One of the things that hit me immediately was how smoothly everything worked. All the shots flowed exactly as you'd hope, aided by the all-metal ramps and they're interesting shots too. OK, the Barad-Dur tower lets things down a bit but it's the only down-side of note.

The game is very bouncy so you're never hitting bare metal posts or panels and killing the ball, which gives you plenty of opportunities to stop ball drains even with the outlanes set to maximum width.

But a game is more than just a playfield and some rules.

The sound package on Lord of the Rings is really excellent. It uses a new hardware system to provide some real 16-bit sounds and the improvements are obvious. Start the game up and just listen. The music is powerful and entirely suitable to the game. There are also some great sound samples, such as the intros to each multiball mode, the clashing swords when you hit the spinner along with the hammer and chisel sounds when you complete the O-R-C rollovers.

The quotes aren't overwhelming or repetitive in the slightest. Even the jaunty music bed when you get a place on the high score table makes the effort worthwhile.

Moving on to the display animations, apart from the previously mentioned cheesy lock animation, the quality of art is very high. The animation of the ring used to start every mode works especially well, though perhaps more time is needed to read the instructions.

The multiball animations all convey the intensity of the moment and choreograph well with the sound and playfield actions.

My only other criticism would be the inconsistency of typeface used on the game. The K-E-E-P completed animation is extra bold and looks like something from T3 whereas most of the rest uses a roman serif typeface. Some consistency is required here.

The lighting is exceptionally good. The light inside Balrog which glows when he moves or is hit gives the perfect feedback that you've scored a successful hit. All the playfield inserts are clear and give the cues you need to make the appropriate shots. My overall impression was that there seem to be an awful lot of controlled lamps in this game which probably means they are all used well. The flashers on the pop bumpers add that little extra.

You can probably tell by now that I had a blast playing this game. So many of the shots are hugely satisfying to make and you really get drawn into the action of the game and the storyline it is presenting you with. I played this game for almost four hours straight and it was only aching wrists and the desire to miss the rush-hour traffic that persuaded me to leave.

It is undoubtedly a great game and deserves to sell in large numbers.

Just time to throw in a few observations and qualifiers. This was a sample game and not the final production model so some thing may change between now and the time it goes on general release. Some things were unfinished. Getting a random award of "add 0x bonus" or "medium points 00" probably won't make the final cut. Occasionally the display said to shoot for the flashing light but there wasn't one, but we can forgive these in such an early software release.

Although the designer name is not revealed, there are some hints in the high score table. First place goes to an Alan Smithee - the name used in film making for a director who won't or can't have their name associated with the project. However, a bit further down the list is a certain G Gomez. Make your own mind up on that.

Last but by no means least, a huge thanks to Bob and John at Electrocoin for their great hospitality and help in preparing this report.


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