Modern pinball machines, like the arcades that housed them, have certainly fallen by the wayside over the past decade and a half. The only hope of seeing one in the wild is typically through the lobby of a local movie theatre, or perhaps an event celebrating their existence like the Pacific Pinball Exposition. Of course, for a game that’s been around since the 1930s, (and longer if you want to argue what can be called a pinball machine), the fact that it still exists is pretty remarkable. How does it translate onto the Nintendo 3DS eShop, though? Cubed3 takes a look at Zen Studios’ Zen Pinball 3D.
Even though the actual construction of physical pinball machines has been in a steep decline, there has been a small resurgence of late in the form of digital or video pinball releases from a handful of developers. Not the least of which would be the studio behind this title, Zen Pinball 3D on the Nintendo 3DS. The developer, Zen Studios, has been pumping out pinball titles for the past couple years on a variety of platforms, most notably the PlayStation 3’s Sony Entertainment Network (SEN) and Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) for the Xbox 360. It has now decided to port over four tables to Nintendo hardware for the first time, and the initial offering is pretty great.
This initial pack, promised to be supplemented by download content (DLC) further down the road, gives the player access to Excalibur, El Dorado, Earth Defense, and Shaman as introductory tables. Anyone following Zen Studios as a developer will realise that unfortunately none of these tables are new. All four have been present on SEN through the Zen Pinball release history, whereas Excalibur and Earth Defense were also available in Pinball FX on XBLA. That said, all four are a good representation of what Zen Studios has to offer, and for new players it marks a great starting point for Zen Studios’ particular blend of video pinball.
The first table on the list, Excalibur, follows a King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table theme, as inferred by the name. This table, along with the other three in the set, features a number of different goals or events to complete in order to help rack up a high score. Also, every table has four individual awards to earn that essentially act as an in-game achievement system, and are directly tied into the table goals. The Excalibur table is of particular note from the set as it is jam packed with stuff to do and mini-events to partake in. Players can enter into a jousting scenario with on-table animatronics, duel in an arena to hit targets in the upper left corner, earn a multi-ball by concocting a special spell with Merlin, along with a number of other events.
The other three tables are also really fun to play, though. Earth Defense is also certainly a stand out, featuring a more compact table design but with some really interesting elements. The massive Flip-Bot robot that takes up a considerable amount of real-estate is fun to interact with, and the overall aliens and robots invasion theme is well designed. Also, the music used for this table remains one of the most memorable tracks throughout any release Zen Studios has ever offered.
There is a number of leader board features in Zen Pinball for both offline and online play. The biggest draw is, of course, the online portion of the game, allowing gamers to match their score against a number of players across the world. Leader board statistics can be focussed down to players from the same country, friends, or across the entire world. Besides straight up high scores, though, there’s also an overall pro score to compare against other players. The pro score is a number calculated off the total high-score from all four tables, which displays as a small number that works out similar to a True Ranking system found in a number of popular fighting games. Being able to switch between the various rankings is easy enough to do, and requires little in the way of menu navigation.
In fact, the overall design of Zen Pinball 3D’s user interface is nice and clean. The only complaint aimed at the menu is that once a table is selected and a game started, it is not possible to jump into the leader boards again once the game is finished, without jumping back to the main menu first. The only alternative is to put the game on pause, which opens up another menu that allows for leader board access, but placing the action on pause isn’t always ideal.
On the control side of things, the game performs really well, but it’s kind of hard to mess this up. The left and right triggers control flippers, the A button controls the plunger and eight different views can be switched between with the X button. The multiple viewing angles are also a great thing to have, as it does take some getting accustomed to how much of the table the player would like to see. The top-down, full table view isn’t as great as you might think, but that usually holds true for most video pinball titles.
Finally, the 3D effect that only the 3DS can bring to the table is actually really well implemented in Zen Pinball 3D. The 3D is immensely helpful in making the various interactive objects pop up and out from each table’s fairly busy background art, and does a lot to help with tracking the ball’s movement. It works as a pretty great way to offset the loss that comes from not having the higher resolution found in the home console versions of these tables. Turning it all the way up doesn’t seem to cause any significant problems with the way the game plays, and outside of some extremely minor frame-rate problems found mostly on the Earth Defense table, everything looks pretty flawless.
If you are at all interested in pinball, whether as a dedicated hobbyist or someone with just a general curiosity, Zen Pinball 3D is worth picking up. The appeal is lessened for anyone that has had a chance to play these tables in various forms before, but if not then the game is well worth the asking price on the 3DS eShop. Even as someone who has played these tables to death over the past couple years, it is hard to not be enamoured with having this in a portable format, and anyone making the purchase should certainly look forward to the future DLC announcements.
It’s hard to really mess up the simplicity of pinball, and Zen Pinball 3D controls as easily as might be expected. The four tables included can easily provide hours upon hours of entertainment in pursuit of ever-increasing high scores, with unique table environments that stand out well from one another. While it might not have any of the licensed tables that have certainly become more popular in the past year or so, this small collection of original tables is a great representation of what Zen Pinball has to offer.
Not much is lost in the transition to the small screen, but there are some very minor issues with the frame-rate that crop up from time-to-time, mostly on the very busy Earth Defense table. The added benefit of playing in 3D is just that, a benefit, and makes tracking the ball across the busiest of tables that much easier.
Not only do you get a number of unique pinball-style noises and sound FX from every table, there is also a unique musical track accompanying them as well. Of course, considering players will be using the same tables over and over again, the musical selection can get a little old, but Earth Defense probably has one of the best video pinball tracks of all time.
If you have never played a Zen Pinball release before, then this is definitely worth a buy at its asking price of GBP4.50 / 5.00 Euro. Four tables might seem a little light on the content side of things, but the sheer number of goals to finish and see will take hours to complete. For those that have played these tables in one form or another before, it is a little less exciting, but the fact that they hold up so well is enough to make this collection worth a look.
Zen Pinball 3D is a pretty fantastic representation of modern video pinball, and it’s certainly something that fills a noticeable gap in the 3DS library at the moment. There have been other releases on the handheld, most notably the Williams Collection by FarSight, but Zen Pinball remains a firm favourite so far. The collection of tables here represent some of the best entries from various platforms, and the jump to the small screen does nothing to impact their charm, replay value, or overall sense of fun. If Nintendo 3DS owners have been looking to scratch a pinball itch, then it would indeed be wise to check out this release.