For the majority of the past 35 years, it was an impossibility to play a good, realistic pinball game on a gaming console or handheld. Early attempts like Atari’s Video Pinball (1978, 1980) were too abstract to make much sense, and later attempts at a semi-realistic approach by Nintendo and HAL in the late 80’s were simply too floaty and uncontrollable to be much fun. For a while, it seemed like the best approach to video pinball was to give up on it entirely. Luckily, one company had another idea: keep the pinball, loose the realism. Finally, something clicked, and the result was Devil’s Crush.

I’ll start out by pointing out that Devil’s Crush wasn’t the first entry in Naxat Soft’s Crush series of pinball games. Alien Crush appeared in 1988 for the PC-Engine/TurboGrafx, and is a solid pinball title itself. However, Alien Crush isn’t without its flaws. The speed of the game leaves something to be desired, and the screen is split in two, creating a jarring effect when the ball suddenly flies upward amidst some intense pinball action. Naxat went back to the labs, and two years later, Devil’s Crush was released as much more refined and smooth experience.

The first thing you’ll notice as you start a game of Devil’s Crush is the atmosphere. Rife with goblins, monks, skulls and pentagrams, Devil’s Crush is the only video pinball game endorsed by Tobin’s Spirit Guide, and it shows. What’s more impressive is how well the theme works with the pinball concept itself. In lieu of kickers, you have dragon skulls that release spider-like demons after enough hits. Locks are replaced with a woman in the center of the field who becomes more and more serpentine with each ball that’s locked. Adding to all of this is a superb soundtrack that while mostly being one long track will draw you in just as much as the gameplay itself. Try not to be too drawn in, because this game is fast.

What makes Devil’s Crush work so well as a video pinball game is how it gives you the best of both worlds. The playfield is populated with creatures and targets that wouldn’t be possible on a real pinball machine, but the pace and physics of the game itself seem perfectly in line with anything Stern or Williams would ever put out. The game gives you an option of fast or slow, and while it may seem tempting to take it easy on yourself, you’re only missing out if you choose anything but the “Fast” option. With the added speed, Devil’s Crush achieves in video pinball something that “real” pinball has managed for years – that perfectly nagging feeling that you could do just a bit better each time.

It’s easy to get a few balls that seem to be on a beeline to the drain and assume that pinball is a game of luck. Devil’s Crush is no different, and there will be plenty of times when you feel that the game is being cheap, and you can’t catch a break. Keep playing, however, and you’ll realize that Devil’s Crush, like any pinball game (video or else wise) is all about control. Manage to get into your rhythm and you’ll find that you can almost predict where your ball will go, and you’ll soon be exploring the depths of the pinball underworld with the zest of a Space Marine.

Devil’s Crush was ported to the Genesis in 1992 as Dragon’s Fury, which while an admirable effort, isn’t very good. The Genesis simply can’t execute the soundtrack as well as the PC-Engine, and the movement of the ball itself doesn’t feel nearly as fluid. The Crush series also saw one more entry and a remake with Jaki Crush appearing on the Super Famicom in 1992, and Alien Crush Returns showing up on WiiWare in 2008. While all of the entries in the series are respectable pinball games, Devil’s Crush remains the high watermark for not only the series, but perhaps video pinball itself. Devil’s Crush (and it’s Japanese counterpart Devil’s Crash) go for around $40 if you want to play it on the TurboGrafx/PC engine, but can also be found on the Wii Virtual console and the iPhone through Hudson’s Turbografx-16 Gamebox App.
The appeal of Devil’s Crush is simple: it’s a pinball game with a crazy theme and fast action. Repeat plays will showcase not only a depth thats uncommon to video pinball games, but a gameplay experience that always leaves you wanting more, possessed by the idea of playing just one more game.