Reviving an Old Pinball Dream in Demon’s Tilt

While there’s no one set way to make a digital version of what’s a very physical game, modern pinball recreations focus extensively on getting as close to real as possible.  There was another way, though, as evidenced by classics like the Devil/Alien Crush and Crue Ball.  While it’s hard to complain about today’s pinball renaissance it wouldn’t be amiss to get a bit crazier in the presentation, so Demon’s Tilt takes a page from the 16-bit era and cranks up the videogaminess until the knob pops off.  Wandering demons, bullet-spewing boss targets, magic ball teleporters and plenty of other non-physically-recreatable features cover a pixel-art dark-fantasy table, and the only way to survive its onslaught is with the unrestrained might of precision flipper action and an indestructible steel ball.

The board is divided up into three sections: Zodiac, Lilith and Hermit.  Each area has its own set of goals to shoot for, plus multiball modes if you’re good enough to earn them.  The top field is Zodiac, dominated by a manticore with a breakable steel mask over its lion’s face while the snake guards one of several ramps.  The center section features the head of Lilith flanked by a bumper field on the left and spikes on the right.  Finally at the bottom is the Hermit, who hangs around in the top-middle with a lane of pop-up targets to the right and a series of u-bends to the left. Pinball is a vertical game so the actual playfield only takes up about a third of the screen, with scoring on one side and bonus goals on the other.  In standard play the game shifts from one section of the playfield to the next depending on where the ball is at the moment, but you can also zoom out in the options to see the whole playfield all at once, all the time.  It’s perfect for tate mode although at the moment there doesn’t seem to be an in-game option to rotate the display.

Like any pinball game at the start, the best you can hope for is to bat the ball around the playfield and enjoy the effects, but once you get to grips with which targets do what the entire table opens up.  The instructions are a bit thin, basically six tips to help avoid draining the ball and the rest you need to figure out while playing.  It makes a bit more sense, though, when you realize how rituals work and that the game is basically explaining itself as you go.

The three tiers of the table each have their own goals to aim for and succeeding lights up the letters in (starting from the top) ZODIAC, ARCANE and HERMIT.  Rituals are the goals that light up a letter and beginning one simply requires hitting the ramp with the green Start indicator above it.  If you can take your eyes off the playfield for a second there’s a hint beneath the word, such as “Destroy Matroshka” or “Hit Pop Bumpers.”  A little experimentation reveals the Matroshka are the hooded skull enemies that sit there chattering away, while the bumpers are in a cluster off to the side.  You might have to hit a ramp or plow through a swarm of bloodbats to light a letter, but the game isn’t running on a time limit so as long as you keep the ball in play it’s bound to hit the target eventually.

Separate from the letter goals, each section of the table also has its own multiball mode to unlock, attained by beating on the main target until it completes a transformation.  There’s also a lock mechanism up by the manticore that I sometimes persuade to keep a ball but for the life of me have no idea how to activate intentionally.  By default the camera focuses on the lowest tier of the table a ball is in, but multiball and regular play have separate zoom functions in the options so you can pull the camera all the way back to see the whole table when the action kicks off.  Or you can flip at random and hope things happen on the part of the screen you can’t see, which I’ll admit I’ve had surprisingly good luck doing.

One of the things to get used to in Demon’s Tilt is that it’s a video game first, pinball second.  While this means that the physics are looser than you’d expect from a recreation, it also means enemies throw out massive waves of bullet-hell that will either throw off the balls trajectory or, if you time it right, turn into sparkly golden coins that bump up the jackpot.  Green teleporter spots pop up and shut down on the field, sending the ball all over the place and frequently in a winding path through streams of wandering monsters.  I’d like to see snappier flippers for more reliable ball control, but smacking the eyeballs out of a giant wolf head to use for a temporary multiball goes a long way towards making the quirky handling just something to get used to.

The version of Demon’s Tilt released on Early Access may be a work in progress, but it’s one with the bulk of the core features in place, making for a ridiculously playable table.  There’s hours of play available already, exploring each of the three tiers’ secrets and chasing the more obvious goals and the current plan calls for polishing up the existing content and presentation while adding unspecified features along the way.  The months of Early Access should do good things to wrap up production, but Demon’s Tilt is already an intense pixel-art blast of pure video gaming pinball action.