The game’s theme is fishing, with a general goal of catching as many fish and telling the biggest lies about their size possible. The machine’s backglass is topped with a plastic fish that thrashes its tail when the player achieves certain goals, and the players launches balls with an autoplunger shaped like a fishing rod.
Fish Tales introduced flippers with lightning bolts on them that were believed to be 1/8 inch shorter than other Williams flippers of the time. While seemingly minor, an extra 1/4 inch gap creates a far greater ball control challenge for the player. As such, this enhancement was only added to a few pinball titles before being abandoned.
The machine’s rules present the player with three main objectives:
- Multiball – Like most games of the era, large point awards are found in multiball. Shots to the Caster’s Club “lock” (hold onto) balls. Three locks starts multiball.
- Catching Fish – Two sets of side targets allow the player to catch fish. When at least one fish is caught, the player has about 10 seconds to shoot a spinner to “Stretch The Truth” about its size, from 1x-5x actual size (points for the catch multiplied accordingly), or a “total lie” which awards the player nothing for the fish. However, completing the “L-I-E” rollovers at the top does remove the lowest value from “Stretch The Truth” and advances the bonus multiplier.
- The Boat – The center of the board contains a captive ball area in the shape of a boat. Successful hits to a lit captive ball give the player increasing awards, from Hold Bonus to Instant Multiball, and then increasing point awards leading to a “Special” (free game).
Other objectives include:
- Monster Fish: Shots to the lit criss-crossing center ramps light “Monster Fish” on the spinner, a “Hurry-Up” that can be worth 20 to 50 Million points. Some players regard this considerable easier than the jackpot combination.
- Feeding Frenzy: Four caught fish light the two ramps and two loops, for 5, 5, 5 and 20 Million if completed in a short time.
- Rock The Boat: A captive ball award, it gives the player 10 million for ramp shots for a short time.
- Video Mode: Another captive ball award, the player plays a video game on the dot-matrix display where he has to shoot down waterskiers for points and a possible extra ball. Hitting 15 boats gives 10 million extra, hitting all 20 boats awards 20 million bonus (totalling to about 42 million).
- Fish Finder: A random award achieved by shooting the top scoop after passing the right inlane next to the slingshot (Multiball and Extra Ball are only awarded in non Tournament Mode).
- Extra Balls: They are found in three places: Rock the boat, Fish Finder random award and Video Mode.
Scoring levels on Fish Tales are more geometric than on most games, meaning that the difference in scores between beginner and expert players is greater than it is on other machines. Replay levels on most machines tend to be in the mid 8-digit range, and most early awards in the game tend to award between 1 and 20 million. High scores found on publicly playable machines are usually 200-500 million.
However, the game’s multiball gives the player potential for far greater scores. If the player achieves three jackpots, the captive ball is lit for a Super Jackpot worth 100 million points. Once scored, future multiballs start the sequence again with all scores multiplied by the number of times the player had completed sequence, up to six. Moreover, when the super jackpot is lit, it stays lit for the rest of the multiball. This means that, potentially, a player can light the captive ball for endless repeated shots of up to 600 million points. As a result, scores in the billions are not uncommon among expert players. At the Pinburgh 2001tournament Glenn Wilson achieved a score of 12,724,506,740, and this was on a machine set to much harder “tournament settings” (most importantly meaning that no Extra Ball can be achieved).