Lost in the Zone

Recommended TPA Tables for Beginners and Beyond

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Bobby King of FarSight Studios gave an interview to WGN a little while ago (see thread here), during which he stated that the TPA tables are deliberately made a little easier so that more players can experience the wizard modes and other advanced features of the tables. A brief controversy erupted over whether this was a good idea and whether unmodified versions should also be available for advanced players. We won't revisit that argument here, but it got me thinking.

One thing that TPA doesn't do is give any indication of how difficult a table is. Of course, this is somewhat subjective, based both on a player's relative skill level and whether s/he has had the opportunity to play the table in question before, but it is widely agreed that certain tables are harder than others. A complete novice to pinball may pick up TPA, latch onto Medieval Madness because of the cool castle theme, and promptly get frustrated as the King of Payne proceeds to bury him alive. Or else just gets ran through by the Black Knight.

In an effort to prevent that, here's my take on the relative difficulty of the TPA tables up through DLC Pack #4, along with selected upcoming tables. Ratings are from one to five pinballs (what, you expected Stars?), one pinball being child's play and five being fist-through-glass tough. I've made some effort to consider the era of the machine, so even though Black Knight and Gorgar have shorter playtimes than modern tables, that in and of itself doesn't automatically make them harder.

Tales of the Arabian Nights (3 pinballs): The Genie Battle wizard mode is pretty easy to get to, especially with the aid of wishes, but TOTAN punishes lack of ball control harshly. This is a good table to return to once you've developed your basic aim and control, as it will quickly teach you what you still have to learn as well as prepare you for the more difficult tables ahead.

Black Hole (3 pinballs, 3.5 if your version doesn't have the lower playfield gate fix): Gottlieb's sole entry in TPA thus far is great for teaching the basics of having a strategy and preparation, as just heading to the lower playfield without first getting set up won't get very far. Also good for aiming practice with the BLACK and HOLE target banks needing to be spelled out in order.

Bride of Pinbot (1.5 pinballs): Several people here have tried to convince me that there's more to this table than the shuttle ramp, but after playing it both physically and on TPA, I'm just not seeing it. Mastery of that one shot and a little bit of control during the multiball phase and bam!, you're in the Billionaire's Club.

Black Knight (4 pinballs): This is a rough table from the early 80s, when five minutes was considered a long game. I don't recommend it for beginners.

Cirqus Voltaire (2.5 pinballs [consoles], 4 pinballs [mobile]): Playing CV well requires a lot of fine nudging. The mobile platforms do not have a good way of doing this currently, which combined with the unrealistically brutal outlanes and numerous bugs on the mobile versions, makes CV way harder than it should be. The 360 version is much better behaved and offers great opportunities for learning both emergency and voluntary nudging. Put a pillow under your jaw before starting Neon Multiball for the first time! Wizard mode is easy to get to but makes a worthy challenge to complete for beginning to intermediate players.

Creature from the Black Lagoon (3 pinballs): Easy on the surface, but the multiball can be cruel. Since it's only a 2-ball, any mistake drops you out of it immediately, and that restart shot is tough. On the other hand, out of all the tables this one is very forgiving on ball control, the outlanes have only a small appetite for steel, and there's plenty of entertaining and rewarding modes to go for even if you botch the multiball a few times.

FunHouse (3 pinballs): Probably the best table for general target practice, as it has a wide variety of shots to make without getting into the mode-stacking complexity of MB or RBION. Especially good for getting used to Lawlor's trademark features, like the through-the-bumpers shot and the horizontal jackpot shot.

Gorgar (3 pinballs): Features shorter playtimes like Black Knight, but is not quite as bad with the cheap drains.

Medieval Madness (4 pinballs, 4.5 for completing Battle for the Kingdom): Probably the most humorous of all the current tables, but bad shots are instantly and wickedly flung in the drain, a ball bouncing in the slings will find an outlane, and that castle gate is not exactly kind, either. Merely reaching Battle for the Kingdom is an achievement in itself; completing it is probably slightly harder than reaching Atlantis on RBION (which means very tough). Barnyard Multiball and Video Mode are fairly challenging in their own rights as well. Novices, play MM for the fun factor at first and don't worry yourself over the Wizard Goals until later on.

Monster Bash (3 pinballs): MB probably has the best physics of any table I've played (although I'm hearing good things about Taxi). The two wizard modes, one for starting all 6 monsters and the other for completing them, give novices a sense of accomplishment (Monster Bash) while dangling a juicier carrot (Monsters of Rock) to keep them playing. Also very good for teaching stacking and strategy-based play.

Ripley's Believe It or Not! (4 pinballs, 4.5 for reaching Atlantis): A highly complex table, with difficult timed modes and the two roughest Wizard Goals in the core pack, Atlantis and Frog Frenzy. Even with its tendency to hand out extra balls like candy, getting a good score is rough, and arranging stacks for really good scores (like 2X Playfield on top of the Continent Super Jackpot) is challenging even for good players.

Theatre of Magic (2 pinballs, 3.5 for completing Grand Finale): Probably the table new players should start with. The entire top half of the playfield except the trunk is either a loop or a ramp, which means you're bound to hit something worthwhile even with terrible aim. The Theatre's also mild-mannered about errant balls; they generally are not punished like they would be on TOTAN. Grand Finale is a long trek, and reaching it is generally the sign that the new player is ready to take on more challenging machines.

Upcoming tables: Based on playing the real things: Scared Stiff is probably in the 2.5-3 range. Tales are fairly easy to complete, but the wizard mode requires accurate shooting under time pressure. Twilight Zone rates a 4 easily; errant balls are punished without mercy, the main multiball is tough to do well on, the bumpers have a nasty habit of feeding the left outlane directly with no hope of a save, the Powerball is a control freak's worst nightmare and Lost in the Zone is a looooooong haul to reach. Oh, and no ball saver! I have not played as much ST:TNG, but I'd give it a 3.5 based on what I've seen so far. Final Frontier is not too bad to reach (getting its value built up by collecting enough artifacts is a bit more challenging) but those outlanes will make your language very salty.

Updated 06-02-2013 at 05:28 PM by Sean DonCarlos



  1. Jeff Strong's Avatar
    Good read.
  2. Matt McIrvin's Avatar
    Black Knight is a fast table that drains a lot, but one thing that nevertheless makes it rewarding for less-skilled players is that the multiball is relatively easy to get: all you have to do is master the shot into the upper lock. In the TPA version (PHoF and reality are a little different), the optimum tactic seems to be to hold both flippers and trap the plunged ball on the left upper flipper, then shoot it up there. It's a nice beginning tutorial on "stuff to do with a held flipper".
  3. Matt McIrvin's Avatar
    ...Agreed on Monster Bash as a strategy tutorial. It was the table that taught me mode-stacking.
  4. Matt McIrvin's Avatar
    Also, while Gorgar is a fast-draining late-Seventies table, Farsight gave it the easiest set of standard and wizard goals of any of them; it was the first table where I finished all of them in both PHoF and TPA.
  5. David Greene's Avatar
    Time to update this article (Elvira and the Party Monsters, Harley-Davidson, No Good Gophers, Taxi).
  6. Sean DonCarlos's Avatar
    Haven't had all that much opportunity to play the new tables yet, and with the exception of HD, I don't have the real ones available to me. So it'll take me a little bit to work out strategies and from there decide how difficult to rate each table.
  7. Advalle's Avatar
    Nice, thanks for the read.
  8. Jutter's Avatar
    Methinks 1.5 is a little too low for The Bride. This is a you-drain-it-you-lose-it table, without temporary ballsavers, which should add at least an additional half-pinball on the dificulty scale. Same goes for funhouse.