If you’d told me at the beginning of 2021 that I’d review not one but two virtual pinball options for the home, I would have nodded and said, sure, that sounds entirely unsurprising. A replica arcade experience seems like a great antidote for any nerd going stir-crazy in a pandemic. Yet while stand-up arcade multi-cabinets have rarely gotten me excited, virtual pinball is another story.
When I play classics like Pac-Man or Donkey Kong on a console, I generally feel like it’s the same experience as standing up with chunky joysticks (your mileage may vary, in which case, there are tons of products for you). But pinball’s orientation, form factor, and tactile nature have always precluded it from feeling authentic when virtualized on something like an Xbox. I don’t have the cash or space for a fleet of classic pinball machines, however, so I like the idea of a single system that emulates dozens of tables while maintaining the genre’s physicality—staples like flipper buttons, nudge options, and a plunger.
Last month, this led me to test the Arcade1Up Williams Pinball table, and I was left amused, if not charmed. But its great virtual table selection and solid physical construction were marred by enough issues to make it a tough sell to anyone beyond families. Still, I saw its potential as a moddable machine, whether to add more virtual tables or to use its $600 base as a cheap path to a dreamy homemade system.
Soon after, I got a friendly email from rival manufacturer AtGames that pointed to its own virtual pinball product. And after a recent testing period, I’m glad they reached out.
You want expandability? You want more options by default? AtGames Legends Pinball delivers. While I would definitely recommend that savvier virtual pinball fans choose AtGames’ product between these two options, that recommendation comes with a few crucial asterisks—along with the fact that less-picky players (particularly families) may be better off sticking with Arcade1Up.
Five important differentiators
Much of the Legends Pinball setup process mirrors that of Arcade1Up’s cabinet. This set’s biggest piece arrives pre-constructed, and it’s big and heavy—a little over 100 lbs in a box meant for two people to lug through a doorway with room to spare. The box contains aluminum legs that owners must screw into the primary body to stand it up, while an additional box includes a “backglass” attachment that slaps into the body’s top to better resemble the real pinball deal.
Put it all together, plug it in, and a monitor lights up across the top to display virtual, pre-installed pinball tables. Tap some buttons to page through an on-screen menu and pick a game, then use a real, physical plunger to launch the ball and side-of-cabinet buttons to work the flippers. Now you’re playing virtual pinball.
While that basic description applies to both of the cabinets we recently tested, AtGames wastes no time differentiating itself from the competition. First, its playfield screen is 33 percent bigger: 32 inches versus Arcade1Up’s 24 inches. Second, that screen natively renders at 1080p, compared to Arcade1Up’s 720p, and it sports much better color calibration. Third, this screen is covered in a full sheet of glass, which looks handsomer than Arcade1Up’s plexiglass topper. Fourth, the flipper buttons aren’t alone; next to each is a “nudge” button, so you can virtually bonk your table and nudge a pinball where you want it to go instead of relying on an imprecise accelerometer. (Arcade1Up’s product doesn’t include these nifty nudge buttons.)
Lastly, AtGames’ backglass includes a second LCD monitor, which changes its art based on whatever pre-installed game you play. Arcade1Up’s backglass, on the other hand, has a print-out of a single, static picture. Shockingly, AtGames’ superior construction launched earlier this year at the same $600 price as Arcade1Up’s tables, but once the sets began selling out, AtGames changed its tune. The kit’s updated price at AtGames’ official store is $150 more—and that’s coincidently how much you would’ve paid for the platform’s biggest downloadable table pack, which is now included in the $750 SKU.
Yes, you can add games—in a bunch of ways
AtGames clearly wants you to add content to this thing. Paid DLC packs are the system’s most obvious path to expandability, and each pack includes roughly 11 additional virtual tables. Right now, they’re limited to tables made by Zaccaria, an Italian manufacturer that made dozens of tables in the ’70s and ’80s. Williams classics, these ain’t, but their digital versions are decent enough.
You have to go to AtGames’ website to buy these packs, and once you do, it’s a matter of claiming a DLC code from their site then tapping on the system’s unwieldy d-pad to pick through an on-screen keyboard and type that entire code out on your table. It’s certainly an inelegant solution.
Should you wish to move beyond official DLC, though, AtGames leads you there via three noticeable ports on the top of the base unit: two for USB, one for HDMI.
If you want to download official DLC, you’ll need a USB flash drive in one of the slots, since Legends Pinball comes with scant internal storage. But you only need roughly 3GB for the DLC packs that are available thus far, and you may very well have room for many, many more files on your average USB stick. Plus, if you split said stick into a smaller FAT32 partition and a larger ExFat one, the latter becomes a perfect dumping ground for games you might want to emulate.
AtGames’ interface includes a tab for “BYOG” content, or Bring Your Own Game, though the set’s instruction manual doesn’t clarify exactly how this works. Instead, you’ll have to do some online digging to find out. I relied on a comprehensive, intimidating guide from Wagner’s TechTalk, which clarifies that the Legends Pinball machine, like other AtGames Legends products, supports emulation cores from the Retroarch family. You have to create “package” files for every classic game you might want to play then put them into your USB stick’s ExFat partition.
Once you’ve done this, sync a Bluetooth gamepad, and you have a robust 32″ vertical screen to play classic games on. Most classic console games will look silly on this, since they’re cropped to landscape orientation and waste much of the screen. But MAME games that run in portrait mode (sometimes referred to in the arcade community as TATE games) look great on this set, including megaton “shmups” and classics like Ms. Pac-Man. It’s not perfect, thanks to a lack of pure integer scaling and some sound-emulation quirks, but the SoC is powerful enough for the MAME games I threw at it, and the monitor’s default color calibration is decent.
All told, I wouldn’t recommend buying Legends Pinball to play Donkey Kong in its original aspect ratio. But it’s a nice perk on top.