Sometimes you really, really wonder what people are thinking when they come up with the ideas for computer games. Take Akira, one of the best known anime properties in the world, it contains motorbike chases, gunfights, action galore and plenty of intrigue. What kind of game do you think Bandai would so with this license? Racing game? Action Adventure? Role Play Game? Shoot-em-Up? All of these would make feasible games equivalents for Akira, so why Bandai decided a Pinball game was the best way to go is completely beyond me.
This said, there are some good console pinball games and marrying such a recognisable anime licence to a good console pinball game could only be a good thing. Unfortunately the creators of Akira Psycho Ball have married Akira to a pretty average pinball game instead.
Pinball has always been a game that should benefit from being put on a console, due to the added scope of being able to create tables wholly impossible to reproduce in real life, unfortunately they usually suffer from trying to simulate reality. Akira Psycho Ball keeps the reality to the things it should be kept to - such as the physics of the way the ball moves - and throws in some suitably neon graphics and a few intriguing ideas for good measure.
The first innovation you will notice is that there is a story mode, and this is where the licence comes into it. The story mode ties the tables into the plot of the anime film, and it does it surprisingly well, with plenty of care and attention to detail on each themed table. The theme of the three tables each reflects a certain part of the film and hitting certain jackpot areas and ball runs triggers clips from the anime, it sounds weird but it does actually work and draws you into the story of the anime surprisingly well. The longevity of this story mode (and the game itself) is increased by the next innovation - the three tables are each in two parts, and the upper halves swap round which actually triples the available playing surfaces. On top of this there is also a two player 'battle' table themed to the film's opening riot scenes, a clever idea which gives players a set of flippers each with which they bombard each other with balls and try not lose any themselves - the player who concedes the least wins.
With a surprisingly good story mode, ten tables, secret areas and plenty of innovation you may be wondering why I described it as an average pinball game. Well to start with there is the fact that you have to play the story mode in order to unlock the tables for the other modes. At the start you can't play the two player or normal arcade modes until you unlock tables to play, which pretty much knocks any variety or quick playing on the head until you have played it for a prolonged session. There is also only one battle table, and the multi-ball action on it is just too frantic to be anything more than random, whereas despite - or maybe because of - the various combinations there isn't enough variety in the normal tables to keep it interesting.
It's a shame to be honest, there is a lot to like in this game but some of the innovations fall a bit flat and it is extremely annoying that the tables aren't available from the outset. The licence is blended into the game surprisingly well but always nagging at the back of your head is the question 'why a pinball game?'. There is still fun to be had, and the game does compare favourably to most console pinball games, but anime fans will be left thinking of what might have been if the licence was used in a more conventional way.
Akira Psycho Ball is enjoyable to play for short periods, but only diehard pinball or Akira fans will play it enough to unlock every secret the game has to offer. For everyone else it is a curious example of the kind of game that can happen when a development team has too much to drink at their initial planning meal.
There's quite a lot of extra stuff to see on the disc other than the game itself. There is a surprisingly in depth section about the film's story and characters, as well as a decent biography of Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo. There is also a comprehensive playing guide selectable from the game's menu and a stylish intro sequence made up from clips of the film, impressive stuff for such a minor release.