Pinball Arcade is a very good explanation of why Farsight Studios– the team behind the excellent Pinball Hall of Fame series– has been out of the spotlight for quite some time. Rather than producing a new disc-based experience with several tables to choose from, Farsight has borrowed a page from Zen Studios and has delivered an experience that is very open-ended with more tables expected in the coming months. The overall Pinball Arcade package doesn’t have the bells and whistles that Pinball FX2 has, but it does deliver realism with proper ball and table physics and actual tables straight out of the arcade.
Pinball Arcade costs 800 Microsoft Points via Xbox LIVE Arcade, or $9.99 on the PlayStation Store. The purchase entitles players immediate access to four tables: Tales of the Arabian Nights, Black Hole, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, and Theatre of Magic. The first two tables should sound familiar to those of you who have played the two Pinball Hall of Fame games. Arabian Nights was part of the Williams Collection and Black Hole was found on the lesser-known Gottlieb Collection. The other two tables are completely new, and they’re quite good. Two more tables, Medieval Madness (a returning table from the Williams Collection) and Bride of Pinbot (a new table) will be the first DLC tables available, likely arriving in May.
Of the four initial tables offered in Pinball Arcade, Theatre of Magic is the most attractive and most accessible to all skill levels. Scores are high, flippers are long, and the table objectives are pretty straightforward. Racking up a billion points or more can be a common occurrence once you learn the ins and outs of the table, and there are some neat secrets to unlock. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not is another very good table, although it’s not nearly as easy to learn. It does have a rather interesting sense of humor and a jewel collection system that can open up some nice bonuses, such as double scoring, Super Jackpot shots, a Million Plus shot, and more. Black Hole, for the uninitiated, is highlighted by a separate lower playfield that is basically played upside down. Flippers are at the top and having the ball drain without opening the right outlane gate (via drop targets) beforehand leads to disaster. Finally, Tales of the Arabian Nights challenges players to collect jewels and save a princess from an evil genie. A spinning lamp shot in the upper middle of the playfield is key to earning big end-of-ball bonuses and learning the timing for specific ramp shots is vital to mounting a run at a high score.
One fact needs to be understood when talking about Pinball Arcade: It’s not Pinball FX2, Marvel Pinball, or Zen Pinball.
Zen Studios has made very impressive strides in delivering quality pinball experiences, but Zen’s strength has been making pinball accessible to everyone and very social. If you try Pinball Arcade after having spent many hours playing Zen’s pinball games, you’re going to probably get rather angry. Balls tend to be lost a lot quicker. Scores tend to be lower on at least three of the four current tables. The social element has been replaced by a crude user interface that doesn’t really promote a community. At the same time, for those players out there who have had experience with actual pinball machines, Pinball Arcade is very close to the real deal and a fair amount of skill is required to score well.
The ball physics in Pinball Arcade are slower than what we’ve seen from Zen Studios. It will take time to adapt to the slower speed and calculate shots accordingly. Some players may prefer Zen’s faster pace, but faster and lighter physics aren’t realistic. If you’ve had a chance to hold a pinball before, you’d know that they’re quite heavy. Heavier objects tend to move slower. It’s not impossible for ball speeds to increase, especially when it’s been affected by bumpers or gaining speed off of a ramp, but speeds on actual pinball machines tend to be a bit slower than what we’ve seen in most pinball simulations.
The physics engine in Pinball Arcade is excellent, but the game isn’t without its problems. Some players may have a hard time finding a camera angle that is comfortable. Varying camera angles for plunger skill shots are missing, for whatever reason. This leads to a lot of trial and error when trying to execute them. There are also some bugs that can affect the game, such as balls hopping over flippers. So far, these haven’t been anything more than an annoyance; however, until a patch resolves bugs like these, it’s important to note that they do exist.
Each table is accurately modeled after its real-life counterpart. You’ll notice little visual touches like light reflections and moving parts on certain playfields. In my experience, the frame rate has been very consistent, even in multiball situations. There have been times when the action will stop for a moment, especially when balls are being launched into multiball play. This has thrown off my concentration at times, but it hasn’t been a game-breaking problem. The in-game scoreboard has been smoothed for high-definition. I tend to prefer the option of keeping it more pixelated, but no such option exists here. This is a minor stylistic quibble, but one that I was nonetheless surprised to see.
The sound and music for each of the four tables is accurate and authentic. Aside from Black Hole, the other tables all have great music and voice work to hear. The mechanical sounds aren’t quite as crisp as we’ve been hearing in the last few tables from Zen Studios, but this isn’t a dealbreaker by any means. It is worth noting that Black Hole has a very droning, robotic sound that plays repeatedly in the background. It probably will drive many to turn the volume down before long, but it’s certainly authentic.
I realize that Pinball Arcade isn’t perfect, but its flaws don’t prevent a recommendation from me. It’s realistic, authentic, and makes players work hard for their leaderboard spots. It doesn’t have the social or community feel that Zen Studios has worked hard to implement for its pinball experiences, but Farsight Studios does have a solid foundation in place with actual tables and the most realistic physics engine around. Whether you’re an old-school arcade rat like me, or if you’re just a fan of pinball in general, Pinball Arcade is worthy of your 40 quarters.
Note: Playing time was spent on the Xbox 360 version, which was self-purchased on April 4th. The PlayStation 3 version is available now.
Zen Studios has come a long way from its initial Pinball FX offering for Xbox LIVE Arcade back in 2007. Pinball FX2 (XBLA), Zen Pinball (PS3/PSN), and Marvel Pinball (XBLA/PSN) have gradually shown improvement in terms of ball physics, table design, and general appeal. Zen Studios continues to support Pinball FX2 and Marvel Pinball with new tables regularly, and Zen Pinball is slated to receive a makeover a bit later this year. I’ve easily spent dozens of hours playing these games, and that time has been enjoyable.
Now 3DS owners can take the pinball experience on the go with Zen Pinball, which is available now via the eShop for $6.99. Four tables await players; two are formerly Zen Pinball exclusives for the PlayStation 3 and the other two may be familiar to some as add-on tables for Pinball FX. The overall package is enhanced with some 3D graphics effects and active online leaderboards. The transition from console to portable isn’t quite perfect, but Zen Pinball maintains its identity as a solid pinball simulation that will keep both new and experienced pinball fans flipping for hours.
The four tables are all markedly different experiences. The Shaman table has a tribal theme with unique challenges like a ramp-accessible upper playfield with flippers and drop targets, as well as a cascading ball drop called the Volcano. The El Dorado table has a bit of an Indiana Jones or Uncharted feel to it, sporting an expanding totem pole shot and a “U-Turn” ramp in the lower playfield. The Earth Defense table is a sci-fi table with plenty of ramps and orbits to traverse as players attempt to thwart an alien invasion. Finally, the Excalibur table is a nod to medieval times and requires accurate flipper shots to take uncover all of the challenges that it offers. The Earth Defense and Excalibur tables are better overall experiences than Shaman and El Dorado, but none of the tables are bad and all of the tables are worth playing at least a little bit.
The control scheme is easy to learn. The analog disc (or the A Button) launches the ball into play. Flippers are controlled either via the L and R triggers at the top of the 3DS or via the directional pad (for the left flipper) and the B Button (for the right flipper). Several different camera views can be accessed via the X Button. It’s a little surprising that the 3DS accelerometer wasn’t used for nudging the table, but the analog disc handles the task just fine. Table nudging isn’t as vital in virtual pinball games as it is when playing a real table, but it can come in handy when a ball is heading towards an outlane. The controls are responsive, which is important in a pinball game as accurate shots are needed for the best success and highest table scores.
The biggest difference in the Zen Pinball experience for the 3DS versus its console-based relatives is the frame rate. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions run at a smooth 60 frames per second, but the 3DS version runs at half that speed. It’s similar to Pinball Hall of Fame for the 3DS; console players will have to adjust to the frame rate difference as it does change the overall experience. The difference forces players to alter shot timing to ensure accuracy. It’s not an impossible or problematic adjustment, but some trial and error will be necessary to find the right flipper window for certain ramp shots that were second-nature on consoles after lots of practice. Aside from the frame rate difference, the visuals are identical to the console versions with the exception of the addition of some 3D effects. The 3D isn’t overdone and it doesn’t make a ton of difference, but it does make the graphics pop just a little bit more than normal. The music and sound effects are also pulled right from the console versions, for better or for worse.
Zen Pinball boasts online leaderboard support, which is something that Pinball Hall of Fame sorely lacked. There are several different leaderboards, tracking all-time high scores, weekly high scores, Pro Scores, and Team Scores. The first two boards are self-explanatory, but are still key to replay value. The odds are that there’s going to be someone who has posted a better score than you have, so having a mark to shoot for aside from your own personal best is something that promotes regular play. The Pro Score is the sum of your scores on all tables; for example, if you’ve amassed 70 million points combined, your Pro Score would be 70. The Team Score is the sum of the Pro Scores of all of the people on your Friends List. This promotes building Friends Lists and exchanging Friend Codes with other players. (Speaking of which, I’ll plug my Friend Code, which is 1719-3185-8983.) Each table also has a few “achievements” that can be unlocked by accomplishing certain table feats.
Zen Pinball for the 3DS delivers a fun pinball experience with lots of replay value and the promise of new tables via downloadable content later this year. Fans of Zen Studios’ console pinball experiences will feel right at home after adjusting to the lower frame rate, while newer pinball wizards-to-be will have no problem picking up the controls and learning the ins and outs of each table. This game sets the bar for portable pinball, and I happily recommend this game for your 3DS downloadable library.
With a revamp of Zen Pinball due in a few months on the PlayStation 3 and the impending release of Pinball Arcade from Farsight Studios around the same time, Creat Studios has thrown its own set of flippers into the pinball arena with Pinballistik. Creat has some interesting ideas at work here, but the execution is unfortunately a step backwards for the genre with poor ball physics and vague table objectives that kill any semblance of table and scoring progression.
Buying Pinballistik ($4 on the PlayStation Store) includes only one table, called Circle The Wagons. The table has a Wild West theme and has its share of ramps, drop targets, and capture holes. There are several table goals that players can accomplish, but it’s not always clear how to do so. Some are obvious; for example, the Royal Flush mode is triggered by lighting all of the spinners and then hitting the Saloon ramp shot to get the ball to a smaller upper playfield where a series of drop targets guards a capture hole. Others, like the Revolver Multiball mode, aren’t at all intuitive and almost require players to read the instructions to figure them out. This was a problem with some of Zen Studios‘ early pinball tables, as well. Unfortunately, Creat didn’t do their homework when working on table design, and it shows.
Ball physics are a major problem in Pinballistik. The ball feels like it has very little weight to it, which leads to rates of speed that you just don’t see on an authentic pinball table. It’s more difficult than it should be to line up or plan shots, and even when your positioning is right, the ball sometimes doesn’t carry the momentum it should into ramp shots. There are also too many instances of the ball jumping off of the table or strangely kicking back into play from the outhole back through an outlane. Worst of all, the frequency of balls shooting down the middle or down through an outlane to the drain seems a bit high. Pacing is almost punitive, like a pinball machine at the local arcade that wasn’t level and seemed to steer balls down the side.
The poor physics model is exacerbated when playing Pinballistik‘s Battle Mode. In this mode, two players face off on an extended variation of the table at the same time. One player controls the flippers on the left side, and the other player gets the flippers on the right. It’s a big challenge to track what’s going on, as balls fly all over the table– and sometimes from your side to the opponent’s side, or vice-versa. It’s chaotic, which might be what Creat was going for. Unfortunately, with floaty physics and so much going on at once, it feels like a battle of attrition rather than a challenge to score well. Having a ball drain can take points away from your score, and when it’s out of your control, the experience just feels unfair.
Speaking of scoring, don’t expect very high scores when playing Pinballistik. Unlike Zen Pinball or Marvel Pinball, you won’t see scores in the billions here. My scores average between 2-3 million, and considering my averages in just about every other pinball game available, that’s low. This isn’t necessarily a fault. High Speed and Pinbot, two popular pinball tables from the ’80s, routinely had high scores average less than 10 million. It is, however, a problem when the low scores result from a lack of directed scoring opportunities. It’s possible to just keep the ball alive with flippers and randomly hit things to rack up scores, but the best pinball tables have clear scoring opportunities… and Pinballistik simply doesn’t have these unless you do a pretty intense read on each table’s feature sets and how to do things. It doesn’t feel intuitive at all, and that’s not fun.
There are two other DLC tables that you can add to Pinballistik for $3 each, but neither one is a marked improvement over Circle the Wagons. In fact, they’re arguably worse. Sector X is a dull sci-fi table that has even more vague objectives than Circle the Wagons. Made of Money is a table all about glitz and cash, with a somewhat interesting lower playfield that breaks up traditional play when triggered. Sadly, neither table fixes the pacing as balls drain far too quickly. The Battle Mode for the Made of Money table has a “Change Sides” sequence which can take you by surprise, but with so much going on, it seems that all you can do is keep tapping the flipper buttons and hope for the best.
Visually, the tables look decent enough. The level of detail isn’t on par with the other pinball games available, but the themes are varied and the tables are colorful. There are several camera angles to choose from, and the animated dot-matrix scoreboard is authentic with different animations that occur based on actions from the table. There’s no slowdown to speak of, including during multiball situations. One detractor is that there are some playfield effects that can sometimes interfere with keeping tabs on the ball. On the Circle of Wagons table, for example, a dust storm that can be triggered completely obscures the middle of the table and can hide the ball. This can make for late reactions as the ball shoots down towards the flippers and can be costly. Target overlays, like UFOs, mounds of cash, or Can-Can girls, don’t always work well and can redirect the ball in a negative way.
The sound is probably the best part of the package, surprisingly. The music for the Circle the Wagons table feels like it could have been pulled from a Wild ARMs game, which is not a bad thing. Table sounds like flippers, bumpers, and drop targets are generally authentic. There’s some sporadic voice work, and a few familiar sound samples for those with a discerning ear… such as a sound effect lifted from Nick Arcade on the Made of Money table or a sample of Offenbach‘s Infernal Galop (from Orpheus in the Underworld) for the Can-Can mode on the Circle the Wagons table.
If Pinballistik had come out before Zen Pinball, it might have been perceived as a better experience. It’s far from unplayable, but it’s also a giant step in the wrong direction when compared to the other pinball options available. Even with some unique modes of play like the flawed Battle Mode or setting timed or score goals to change up the usual “lose all of your balls and it’s game over” mentality, the game’s flaws win out. Unless you’ve tired of Zen Pinball, Marvel Pinball, and Pinball Hall of Fame and just have to have a new pinball game to satisfy your steel ball cravings, your quarters are better spent elsewhere.