It's that time again. The chance that comes around only two or three times a year. The opportunity to look at a completely unfamiliar pinball playfield and fathom out the shots, the rules and the reasoning.

Readers of Pinball News will of course already seen the RollerCoaster Tycoon playfield pictures and learned a great deal about the game, but what it all boils down to, is that you can never know a game until you've played it.

So that's why our reviews up until now have been of the factual variety, but now we've played the game, the cat's out of the bag, the chips are down and the big book of clichés can be put back on the shelf where it belongs.

Just to be clear, this game was running version A1.00 for the display and UK CPU 1.00 so that suggests it's not a beta or test version but the first proper release.

Knowing how PLD have enthusiastically upgraded the Monopoly game ROMs to fix bugs it would not be unreasonable to see an updated version for RCT before too long.

First impressions are often as far as a pinball game ever gets in a crowded arcade, so how does RCT (as I'll refer to it from now on) fare in this regard?

You've seen the pictures and there's no denying that it's a striking game. The bold use of colours on the playfield, lighting, inserts and wireforms makes the look like a cross between The Simpsons (no, the Data East version) and Roadshow. In reality, the colours are much warmer than any flash photography can illustrate making the game look inviting and friendly.

When you first see one you'll want to take a moment to survey the playfield before you pop your money in the coin slot because there are a lot of targets and several surprising ball paths at the top.

You might also notice the stickers "Made in the USA" sticker making a return.

American citizens might like to think about ways to welcome the extra six states about to join the union if the flag is anything to go by.

Let's see:
Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan.....

Politics aside, press the start button and out pops the first ball. The music is low key - neither irritating nor inspirational.

The manual plunger leads to three options - low power either falls back to the plunger or drops in the skill shot hole which is much like the skill shot on Playboy, only higher up the shooter lane.

You can make as many attempts as you like for the skill shot, which makes it something of a misnomer, but it may not be the best option anyway.

Medium power lets the ball fall behind the right loop drop target (maintenance man). This is one of the unusual - not to say innovative - features of the game - a dual function drop. An opto at the back of the target senses balls, but balls hitting the target from this direction don't cause it to drop. One of the game's six modes - super dunk, power ride, toss your cookies, dancing digits, spin and bump and dunk the dummy - is started when the ball is trapped in this way.

Finally, you can plunge the ball hard to send it round the right loop into the rollovers and/or the pop bumpers. Making the rollovers increments the bonus multiplier. Getting it up to 6X lights extra ball at the right ramp.

So we plunge the ball and get the most bizarre sound quote. I think it says "The park is open" but the "open" bit is missing and replaced by a Klaxon type sound and the whole thing is very echoey. If the volume was cranked up it would be turned down again very quickly as this sound is annoying and puzzling. As you get this with every attempt to score the skill shot I hope it's a bug as there are a few sound problems in this revision of the software, but even so it's not a great start to the game.

If you make the skill shot, the ball falls into a large hole and re-emerges at the Info scoop just above the lower right flipper.

You get a "Watch it!" quote as the ball is kicked out - usually onto the right flipper but occasionally straight down the middle.

I'd have preferred it if the ball was ejected onto the passing blue wireform. It would avoid the SDTM problem and more importantly give you more notice that the ball is coming back to you.

This is crucial because several times the ball was ejected unexpectedly - once it was half way through a replay animation - with no verbal or display warning. It may reduce ball time but it leaves you feeling cheated.

Anyway, we've got the ball at the flippers so what do we shoot for?

The aim of the game is to `build' several rollercoaster attractions - you do this by shooting each of them three times to change their associated traffic lights from red to green. When you've opened all three rollercoasters, the centre ramp (Flying Ghost) and left ramp (Chicago Loop) are lit for lock in the left shooter lane.

You can lock two balls and then shoot the right ramp (Flying Turds, sorry I mean Turns) to start multiball. This starts with a great display animation - easily the best of the game - and leads to various ramps lit for jackpot or super jackpot. I found it confusing and hard to know which ramps score jackpots and which don't. There are inserts to let you know but it's hard to look for them during multiball.

Multiball doesn't earn huge amounts - even with loads of Super Jackpots - which makes for a well balanced scoring system. The biggest earner is the Park Tycoon mode which you get once you've played all six regular modes. You can earn over 5M points in this wizard mode without too much effort, which is a lot of points (I think Super Jackpot raked in a modest 200K) for this low-scoring game. Default #1 score was 15M but that obviously didn't last long.

A lot of fuss has been made about the Troll/Doll character at the top left of the playfield.

It's true that when you look at the pictures of the game it sticks out like a sore thumb (whoops, the cliché book fell open again) but in reality it's not a big issue.

The version in the playfield artwork looks better but the hair of the real doll picks up the light nicely, even if the character isn't integrated into the gameplay very much.

It bounces up and down and speaks in a slightly annoying voice but lacks any real character or interest like a Rudy or Buzz/Bud.

And while I'm talking about that area of the playfield, it's worth investigating the various loops and paths up there. It's vaguely reminiscent of Independence Day with a choice of loops or shots from the upper right flipper but it's got more targets including a row of drops and several standups - both grouped and individual. It takes quite a while to get to know them all and what they achieve, but it's time well spent as it's one of the game's highlights for me.

By way of contrast, the lower left flipper is a modest little affair, hiding it's charms under the lock diverter. It only has two shots - the skill shot sinkhole to build the snack booths and the row of three E-A-T standups below it, so it's easy to forget all about it but it plays an important roll in preventing left side drains and the angling makes it hard to shoot the ball straight down the right outlane.

The other feature of note is the Scrambled Eggs ride.

It's tucked away above the upper left flipper and consists of a loop with a rotating table (think magic lamp in TOTAN or spinning table in Safecracker) at the top.

It's not really a roller coaster but it scores Jackpots, features in modes and is a cool - if simple - toy.

The exit of the Scrambled Eggs can be tricky if the ball dribbles out but it's not a sucker shot - the only shot to fit that description is the Info Scoop which gives out random awards so it's a player friendly game in that respect.

Ball drains came from failed centre ramp shots, weak Scrambled Eggs exits and dubious Info scoop kickouts. The potential for failed Chicago Loop shots to go SDTM didn't materialise making the game as much fun to play as it looked.

There was no sound when a ball drained down an outlane which isn't something you usually think about but it was very noticeable by its absence. You did sometime get a delayed quote of "The Chicago Loop is" which isn't a huge help.

Once you've got used to the idiosyncrasies detailed above it's a thoroughly enjoyable game. You can build a good rhythm of ramps shots (Chicago Loop > Flying Ghosts > Chicago Loop etc.)

One slight disappointment was the new larger LED billboard which never fully features in the game. There is the familiar Stop-n-Win mode where you hit a target to stop the changing numbers of the billboard (stop three numbers and you get that many points x 100K as a reward) but because the billboard was out of your line of sight when making the shots you don't really know when the timing is right so whatever witty messages appeared were lost on me as I was too busy to read them.

I did see some nice ones during attract mode "Other games thought they had a monopoly on this sign" but that aside it seemed under-utilised. How about counting down the number of points needed for a replay or to get a place on the high score table?

So now it's time to rate the individual elements and the overall package that is RollerCoaster Tycoon.

The imagery is lovely. Nicely detailed and bright with the usual Youssi cheeriness. The coloured wireforms look totally appropriate and the bold side cabinet artwork, while not exactly inspirational, benefits from a well designed initial logo to create a well blended whole.

Perhaps I'm getting used to it by now, but the lack of animated backbox lighting has slowly ceased to be an issue. It's true that it detracts from the overall light show at celebratory times but that aside I think I'm reluctantly accepting the change. The rest of the lighting is very nicely done. The clear ramp glows red from the rollover lane separators and the doll's hair picks up colours too. The multitude of coloured inserts adds to the carnival feel.

Build quality seemed quite good but there are some concerns here. The lock lane kicker wasn't consistently powerful enough to launch the ball properly and sometimes took several attempts. The lock diverter occasionally trapped the ball or failed to divert it properly.

Credit is due for the much tidier routing of cables around the game in ribbed tubing but there is one unfinished looking area of the game just below and to the right if the Info scoop, where the blue wireform touches the playfield. It's not a big issue, but it looks a bit bare as though it is missing a plastic.

The flippers were nice and strong, so I don't think they are an issue any more which is just what we all hoped for with earlier criticisms.

Sound is probably the most disappointing element for me. In fairness, the music level was quite low on the game I played, but the quotes never made me chuckle and occasionally had me wondering what was going on. When the ball is trapped behind the maintenance man standup there's a jumble of different quotes, some cut short by the next, making it hard to know exactly what is happening. I'd like to hear more of the music before making a judgement on it but nothing caught my ear.

The game's rules were surprisingly easy to get the hang of and left me thinking there are a number of niceties I've yet to understand, which is how I like to leave a game after the initial play - it makes you want to come back and find out a bit more next time. After some confusion with Monopoly I think these rules are clearer with distinct modes and the prospect of a wizard mode at the end. Multiball is slightly unclear but not enough to stop you planning a path towards it. The game coped well with the very few hardware problems that occurred and there was no cause to remove the glass.

Whenever we get these first tastes of a new game it is always a combination of excitement and trepidation, expectations and disappointments, hopes and fears. Is this the holy grail of pinball games or is it a real dog not worthy of fitting a power lead?

In reality, it's always somewhere between these two and often the true worth is only revealed after many many plays. RCT has some very nice features and they are really the product of intelligent playfield design, not based on toys which will break or become tedious. The rules fit around the theme without suffocating it. The sound needs improvements but importantly those improvements can be made whereas a poor initial design cannot.

I think this is Pat Lawlor's best designed game for quite a while - I think we probably need to go as far back as RoadShow to find anything comparable, possibly before that. And when you start the show with a good design, it takes a lot of poor supporting players to foul up the performance and thankfully that hasn't happened here. RollerCoaster Tycoon has shown itself to be a very capable game. It's not a great game, but it is very good and you should seek out one to play.

Finally, a big thank you to Kevin Weir and the good folks at Electrocoin for their hospitality and supporting pinball in the UK.


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