Long before video games became a widespread form of interactive entertainment, pinball machines were enjoying quite a bit of success. With the origins of the machines dating back to centuries ago, pinball enjoyed a long process of refinement that brought it to the state we know today. Similar to how companies tried to bring video games from the arcades to your home consoles during the 1980s and early 1990s, pinball games existed on video game consoles as early as 1980 in the form of Video Pinball for the Atari 2600. Meanwhile, more and more pinball tables based on popular licenses were produced as the technical advancements allowed for turning the classical reflex and skill based game into real visual attractions for arcade and pub visitors, even sometimes based on video games themselves, like the Super Mario World pinball machine.
For those not in the know, a pinball machine involves manipulating a ball inside a sloping play field, using two flippers, sometimes more, but always controlled by just two buttons. Doing so, you must hit bumpers, aim for ramps and holes placed on the field in order to score points. Gravity always brings the ball back down the play field, towards a hole in which the ball gets lost. There are typically three balls per game and the game is over after losing them all. Other bonuses can be involved, including multi-ball (multiple balls must then be played at the same time) and extra balls (additional tries beyond the basic three balls provided). The goal is simply to score high amounts of points.
With technical advancements, pinball machines started to sport more artistic variations with different themes, often based on popular characters and licenses. Machines became able to save the high scores, sported monochromatic orange-lit LCD screens that gave information on missions in the game, plus came with more advanced sound effects -- and even voice clips -- to accompany the main theme of the table.
Marvel Pinball 3D follows the same modern formula. The four tables included sport great art of the main characters from their respective franchises. These include Iron Man, Fantastic Four, Captain America and Blade. Each table has its own distinctive design in how the ramps, holes, targets and bumpers are placed on it, and have their specific mission sets. The ramps, holes and other table components always play some role (like entrances to vampire lairs on the Blade table, for example), and the missions are based upon these specifications.
Missions and objectives vary a lot depending on the table, and even within each of the four, and all aim to test the player's skills and reflexes, leading ultimately to bigger scores. Many will have first been introduced to this kind of mechanic in 3D Pinball Space Cadet, a pinball game for PC integrated into every copy of Windows XP. This is essentially the same thing here, albeit with more intricate and detailed designs.
Table design varies a lot. The Iron Man table turned out so-so, while Fantastic Four and Captain America feel more original. The Blade table, on the other hand, is absolutely brilliant, sporting excellent gameplay ideas and design choices, which reminded your servitor here very much of the Nightmare on Elm Street physical pinball machine; an excellent childhood memory.
Looking for objectives and learning how to achieve them in an effective way is part of the learning process with any pinball table. The orange-lit LCD screen common to many modern pinball tables gives information on this. However, moving the virtual one included in Marvel Pinball 3D to the lower screen of the 3DS is a bit distracting. Players now need to watch out for the action happening on the upper screen while shifting occasionally to what is happening on the lower screen to get information on what mission has just been initiated and so on. That being said, the small upper screen would have ended up being too crowded had the LCD been left there. However, having it at the bottom makes learning all the possible ways of scoring and the different objectives that extra bit slower than desired.
Indeed, the size of the upper screen can be a bit annoying. What happens at the bottom of the table is easy enough to see but what is far off in the distance, not so much. Thankfully, different camera options exist to follow the ball movement in different ways. The player can alternatively pause the action at any time, by holding down the X button, and move the camera around at all times using the Circle Pad, which makes searching for targets easier. A short press of the X button switches between eight different camera modes. A screen-splitting mechanic like that found in Rareware's Pinbot for the NES would have been ideal to be able to tell towards which flipper the ball is falling back down, but that would probably have been hard to achieve in a fully 3D title like this one.
The 3D effect works incredibly well indeed, so breaking it would have been a real shame, since the sense of depth is absolutely amazing. There is no option to use the motion sensor capabilities of the Nintendo 3DS to tilt the pinball table, but this is not missed too much since that would have broken the perception of the 3D effect via the auto-stereoscopic screen. The level of detail, while obviously not on the same level as the HD versions due to the difference in screen resolution, is quite good.
Also, after placing the game on pause using the Start button, a countdown commences before the action restarts, which lets the player settle his or her concentration before going back to the gameplay, which is a fantastic idea. A motion blur behind the ball indicating what way it will start moving again would have been even better, though. Speaking of pausing the action, your gameplay can be suspended at any time via a Quick Save feature, in case you need to hop off public transport or if running out of battery, which makes it ideal for a portable console like the 3DS.
Complete with online leader-boards, an in-depth track record of every aspect of the gameplay (number of tilts, number of use of each flipper, and so on), the ability to slow down the action to make it easier for less skilled players (only available under certain conditions), different difficulty levels, and special trophies to unlock by achieving specific objectives on each table, help make Marvel Pinball 3D an even better title than it would have been otherwise.
Finally, the ability to share the same console with up to four players makes it ideal to entertain children with just one system during long car trips, which should be made all the more attractive for them with the Marvel theme made popular again by the many new movie adaptations over the past decade. This is all the more true thanks to the “easy to pick up and play” nature of pinball games.