Not so groovy, baby

  • Developer: Wildfire Studios
  • Publisher: Gotham Games
  • Release Dates: October 25th, 2002 (PS1 version), January 29th, 2003 (Windows version)
  • Available on: PS1, Windows
  • Genre: Pinball

Boy, fate sure can be a funny thing, right? I never would have guessed that I’d be playing Austin Powers Pinball in the year of our Lord 2022, but here we are. To be frank and get it out of the way now, I found this game to be pretty bad, the worst game I’ve looked at on this blog for sure! But I’m not about to pull an AVGN or anything like that where I pretend to get really mad and get deeply offended by a bad video game. It’s much easier to do what most Youtubers and the like would do and just trash on this game relentlessly, but I’m going to try and take this one on as honestly and as effectively as I can, which will be difficult and perhaps not even amount to much because I’m absolutely terrible at pinball and there’s only so much to say about this one, but I’m really trying here! Every game, no matter its quality, license, or whatnot deserves a fair shake, right?

Austin Powers is a fascinating thing to look at in 2022. Simultaneously dated in some ways and energetically charming to the point of sustainable memeability in other ways, I can see why myself and many others loved it at the time. Through a combination of endless sexual innuendos, visual gags, swinging music with oodles of swank, and parodies of 1960s spy movies, there was something there for everyone. Young kids and teens could have fun watching the kinda naughty movie that was sexier than anything they’d find on their usual TV channels of choice and get a kick out of all the jokes and quotable lines, whereas adults could enjoy all of the references to movies they remembered fondly in an unusual context. It’s also rare that a spy movie leans so strongly towards constant comedy. Aside from occasional examples like, I dunno, Spy Kids (what? It was the first thing that came to mind!), most spy thrillers tend to take themselves seriously, so Austin Powers immediately stood out in that regard. Plus, all three movies had some major talent on them, like Mike Myers, Seth Green, and even Beyonce, so names like that were bound to bring them some attention. As you might expect from something born in the late 90s, there’s some awkwardness in some Austin Powers jokes that hasn’t aged well, but its legacy is similar to that of Duke Nukem‘s: something that was beloved in the 90s and doesn’t hold up 100% cleanly to today’s standards, but has been co-opted into something purely wholesome through internet culture and memes. Considering that a through line of the movies is Austin Powers having to adapt to the changing standards of a different time period, it honestly makes a lot of sense that the character would be remembered fondly nowadays for different reasons than when he was conceived! I feel like a lot of the big media names of the 90s tend to get abandoned or looked upon poorly in retrospect for many different reasons (Earthworm Jim being a good example), so Austin Powers is both fortunate and unique to have lasted this long in the public consciousness in an overall positive way.

I wish all loading screens had this energy

The unexpected success of Austin Powers naturally led to it getting video game tie-ins, though those games are very different from what people likely expected. A trivia game called Austin Powers: Operation: Trivia and two Game Boy Color games are what we got, and while the trivia game makes enough sense since that idea ties into the many pop culture references of the movies, the GBC games are truly bizarre pieces of work. Have you ever wanted to emulate a fictional computer OS on your Game Boy and play minigames on it? Well, not only did Tarantula Software (now known as Rockstar Lincoln) give you exactly that, you can buy two different versions of it called Austin Powers: Oh, Behave! and Austin Powers: Welcome to my Underground Lair!, both of which were also published by Rockstar! In fact, Rockstar was seriously invested in the Austin Powers license throughout the early 2000s, to the point that they attempted to make but had to cancel four more projects, one of which was an extremely bizarre sounding kart racer that they tried to pitch in the weirdest way possible. This one quote should tell you all you need to know:

We have an extremely talented and experienced team here in Brighton, and the end product will make you very, very horny.

– Nick Baynes, Development Director of Climax Brighton in 2002

What a world we live in, huh? But we’re not here to talk about any of those games today. Today, we’re here for Austin Powers Pinball, a game developed by Wildfire Studios. If you haven’t heard of them, that’s because they haven’t released a game since 2008 and most of the games they did release were budget pinball titles you likely passed over in your local Circuit City or Best Buy or RadioShack or whatever at the time, stuff like Kiss Pinball and, uh, Patriotic Pinball. The small team that made up the studio doesn’t have many credits outside of their titles, but Producer/Programmer Adrian Cook was credited as the Backup Lead of QA for NBA Live 96 and Darren Baker (the other Producer/Programmer of the team) was the “Community Coordinator” for Dungeon Siege, so that’s kind of interesting at least.

If you take a look at the games they made prior to this one, you can see some recurring themes: “missions” to give you something to aim for on the table, a specific theme that permeates everything, a dearth of options beyond a selection of 2-3 tables, and a general lack of utilization of the medium of video games to make something that stands out compared to just playing pinball in real life. There’s nothing profoundly offensive here or anything, especially considering that it was a late PS1 budget title meant to capitalize on the startling popularity of Austin Powers at the time, but the whole time I was playing this game, I couldn’t help but ask, “What does this game offer over the real life Austin Powers table that exists and was released a year before it?” Aside from ease of access (good luck finding that machine, whereas this game costs like $10 sealed even today), I couldn’t really think of anything! Maybe it’s because I’ve always been a console guy that doesn’t particularly care for pinball, but to me, pinball video games should try to take advantage of the fact that they’re video games and do things that extend beyond just pinball. I’m talking about things like the light platforming in Sonic Spinball (and its kickass music, don’t listen to anyone who tells you otherwise) and the collecting aspect of Pokemon Pinball. Because those games had different kinds of mechanics and goals compared to just earning high scores, they were able to draw me towards them, which wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Pinball games are probably able to survive just fine by focusing on a more hardcore, dedicated demographic, but it’d be nice to see some more entries in the genre try different ideas like those games did.

Austin Powers Pinball is a no frills game. You get two pinball tables based on the first two movies (no Goldmember, unfortunately) with four different difficulty selections, no other options, and what might be the simplest title screen ever made. The game also has some of the sleepiest sounding music to grace the PS1 – this stuff could seriously work on an elevator! I have no idea if there were logistical reasons that prevented the use of Soul Bossa Nova, but not having it on the title screen is decidedly not shaggadelic if you ask me! Again, this was clearly a very low budget affair, but considering that Austin Powers is draped in 1960s imagery that’s full of color and quirkiness in equal measure, the dull presentation makes a bad first impression. This impression is an indication of what you end up getting, at least, since it extends to the functionality of the tables themselves. All of the things you’d expect from the movies are there in some form, such as their notable characters plastered near the center of the tables and some bigger pieces like the chamber Austin Powers was cryogenically frozen in, but that’s really about it. Some additional elements appear during certain missions, such as new targets to hit, but the tables otherwise remain static and uninteresting throughout. There’s a screen at the bottom that updates whenever certain things happen, but the animations are so brief, so low res, and so tiny that it can be difficult to figure out what they’re even depicting. Whenever you lose a ball on the table for International Man of Mystery, you’ll get to see that part where Austin Powers hurt his crotch while jumping into his Jaguar, so you’ll be seeing this often! In truth, the sheer frequency at which this one animation came up (because I’m terrible at pinball) combined with how crusty it looked and other weird messages like “Fembot value grows” and “Play chess with Ivana Humpalot” actually made the experience funnier and more surreal to me than it would have been otherwise, so maybe they were onto something here after all!

Both tables use a similar structure – things to bounce off of at the top, a couple of tracks for the ball to land on, some conditional bonuses that depend on hitting a specific point multiple times, and a few doors to begin missions and whatnot – which is functional enough, but it doesn’t give either table much of an identity. The table for the second movie feels the same as the one for the first movie despite how differently colored they are, which is a shame considering how both movies have plenty of distinct moments, gags, and characters that could have been used as part of the table design to make them stand out. The back of the game’s case advertises 14 different missions to complete, which made me think this would be a goal-based game, but the term “mission” is somewhat misleading. By hitting certain targets enough times and then entering the appropriate door, you can begin a mission that results in an opportunity to earn more points. These missions are supposed to depict various moments from the movies, such as bullying Mini-me, the hot tub scene with Alotta Fagina, and ultimately defeating Dr. Evil, but since there’s no spectacle beyond maybe a new piece popping up on the table for a bit, it all feels hollow and too abstract for its own good. These missions can be failed pretty quickly too with little room for forgiveness, so I had several moments where I finally got to activate a mission only to fail immediately and go back to the aimlessness of regular play. But if your only reward is points, what makes missions any different from just hitting your ball around the table aside from the amount you’re getting and the target you’re hitting in the first place? Scoring high is obviously the point of pinball, but when your game doesn’t have anything else to offer compared to the myriad pinball games out there, points aren’t going to be enough to make most people stick around. In order to redeem this game, you’d need to provide something to latch onto while you get better at it, such as flashier visuals that are more faithful to the movies or even a story and (proper) mission mode that provides some context and something to aim for before you start going into score attack territory.

You’ll never forget this face by the time you’re done here

Despite how bland it is, playing the game was still an informative experience that was also unintentionally contemplative in its nature. Have you ever gotten so into a game that hours flew by without you realizing? Austin Powers Pinball was the opposite for me; one session felt like an eternity, but it turns out that I was only playing for about 10 minutes! Since there wasn’t much to take in, my mind started wandering and I got thinking: what would be the ideal Austin Powers game? One idea I had was something like Goldeneye 007 or No One Lives Forever, as in a spy game where you get the opportunity to solve a variety of situations using wacky gadgets, Austin Powers’ charisma, and stealthy shenanigans. Even with Austin Powers no longer having quite the same level of cultural cache, I think an idea like this could be pretty dang groovy with today’s technology! Like movies, stealth games tend to take themselves seriously outside of Hitman’s unique brand of player-created mischief, so something built to encourage creativity and cleverness like Hitman does would invoke the charm of the movies while also offering a kind of gameplay experience you don’t see often. Heck, getting the team behind Hitman to do it would be perfect! Alternatively, how about a point and click adventure game where you have to talk to the various characters from the movies and solve puzzles in order to complete missions that are either retellings of the movies or entirely new scenarios? Since the movies were big hits thanks to their dialogue (the late 90s and early 2000s had plenty of people quoting them and doing the Dr. Evil pinky thing, you had to be there!), it only makes sense that a genre that’s all about dialogue would be a perfect fit for the license. Get as many of the original actors back as possible, give it an extravagant art style, and you’d have yourself one charming game!

Ultimately, all of these ideas are mere pipe dreams, and even at the peak of the franchise’s popularity, they weren’t likely to happen. Ambitious projects cost lots of money and licensed games typically get handled by teams that don’t have big enough budgets for such things. Sometimes, you need a small team who knows a particular type of game to make something just to pay the bills, and I assume that’s exactly what happened here. No shade or ill-will towards Wildfire Studios for it though – everyone’s gotta make do in one way or another, and given the chance to do so, I bet they would have been way into the idea of trying something more ambitious than Austin Powers Pinball. Budget licensed titles serve as an interesting aspect of gaming’s history and really shouldn’t be ignored in the way that they often are because of their inconsistent quality. Licensed games are essentially cultural artifacts, a way to understand the history and the context of the industry at a given time based on the period in which they were released. Nowadays, something like this game would be laughed at and dismissed immediately as a joke, but back in the early 2000s, there was clearly enough interest in Austin Powers to get Rockstar salivating for projects and that’s pretty dang impressive! All those licensed platformers and kart racers and stuff didn’t just pop up out of nowhere – those games were direct responses to what people were hungry for at the time, and by examining them, we can not only get an idea of where the industry was at, we can also see if those games were actually successful in satisfying people. Austin Powers Pinball certainly didn’t make any waves nor was it the Austin Powers game of my dreams, but for a short while, it allowed me to reminisce of times that I fondly remember, an era that feels like a distant dream in the face of how different our world is now, and that’s worth something, right?

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