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Monday, February 19, 2024

Exclusive: The sickest pinball game of 2019 is getting a sequel

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Pinball contains multitudes. I mean, not just multiball—pinball has a rich history of games within games, like the mini pinball table below the playfield in The Munsters or the boxing minigame in Champion Pub. 2019’s Demon’s Tilt, a pinball game I loved, embraced the benefits of a virtual table by being multiple screens tall, throwing bullet hell attacks at your ball, and having more than one secret sub-table to discover (real-life bowling would be a lot cooler if there was a giant skull at the end of the lane).

The sequel goes full videogame: it adds guns.

But not just guns! Xenotilt, which trades out magic and the occult for sci-fi, gleefully carries on the tradition of games-within-pinball. You can play blackjack with a cyborg waving cat, if you don’t hit him with the ball so many times he explodes. Being the dealer is a thankless job.

Xenotilt is so stuffed with… stuff that I’ve barely gotten a handle on it in a couple hours with a beta build. There’s a new system that lets you lock away up to nine balls, each one granting you a bonus or power-up. When you cradle the ball with a flipper you can set off turrets or lasers to shred the little enemies flying around the board, clearing a path for the ball. There are so many explosions and particle effects flying out of the screen at all times that I tend to get distracted and let the ball slip past the flippers. Xenotilt is intentionally overwhelming. 

“I’m trying to do a maximalist thing. It’s supposed to be aggressively, you know… screaming,” says designer/artist/programmer Adam Ferrando. “The perk system is basically the loudest version of each of those mechanics, but you build up to it—when you start the game it’s still exciting, but you’re building up to something.”

There’s nowhere that maximalist impulse is more clear than in Xenotilt’s art, which blends 3D boss monsters with sprites of all shapes and sizes and so many particle effects I’m honestly surprised that Xenotilt ran at full speed on the Steam Deck without stuttering issues.

“A lot of retro-inspired games put arbitrary rules on tiles and palettes and stuff, but I don’t really do any of that. The pixels are not one-to-one. The pixels are authored at a higher resolution than most sprite art. I’m playing with scale. I’m really just going for what looks good.”

Ferrando says he’s a fan of “screen-filling bosses,” and Xenotilt certainly has those—every game you’ll bounce between three levels of the playfield (it’s even taller than the already-tall board of Demon’s Tilt), each dominated by a sci-fi boss in the center of the field. Bosses in Xenotilt are not quite the same as bosses in your typical videogame. They can throw attacks at you or summon little enemies to get in the way of your ball, but there’s no game over for shooting a ramp to score points elsewhere on the board. “They’re not trying to drain you out or be unfair—it’s not that kind of challenge,” he says. “They’re trying to obstruct flow a little bit and change up the play space. It’s an escalating challenge, occupying that space and making it interesting and exciting.” 

Bosses are also there to make the turret mechanic more exciting and rewarding: if you save up ammo for the moment a boss explodes and spawns a pulsing red orb, you can trigger your turrets to pepper it with shots for a second jackpot. “Everything in the second game is built on existing ideas, but putting a new and deeper twist on them,” he says. If you’ve played Demon’s Tilt, you’ll recognize how Xenotilt remixes that game’s magic system and boss behavior. If you haven’t, though, the theme may be the biggest draw.

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Demon’s Tilt was clearly heavily inspired by one of the legends of virtual pinball, Devil’s Crush, and Ferrando laughed when he admitted that following that up with a sci-fi table was a deliberate riff on that game’s predecessor, Alien Crush—but with his own aesthetic.

“I said early on I don’t want to make H.R. Giger,” he says. “I love Giger so much… but the tone of this was less Giger, more grimdark, Warhammery, kind of chunky. Just trying to be different and finding things that surprised me.”

Xenotilt will be out this year and feels close to complete, though Ferrando and his publisher Ralph Barbagallo are still considering whether to launch it in early access. It’ll be fully playable, with all of the planned launch content—including a new time attack mode inspired by speedrunning.

“It’s way further along than the first game was when we went into early access,” Barbagallo says. “Getting that community feedback was a critical part of the dev process, so I’d still like to do that.” Ferrando chalks that up to how niche Demon’s Tilt was—turns out if someone is playing an early access extreme pinball game, they tend to have good feedback.

Here’s an appetizer to hold you over until you can play for yourself: a full game* of Xenotilt.

*A short game where I see only a sliver of what Xenotilt has to offer but c’mon I don’t have hours to practice here

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