Zen Pinball Review: 3D brings new life to an old genre

Richard On January 15, 2012 15.01.2012 with 8 Comments

The eShop’s climb to excellence continues; Zen Pinball is amazingly good, combining great gameplay with a lifelike presentation only 3DS can deliver.

Many of today’s gamers have never played a real, hand-built pinball machine, but I grew up near a terrific pinball arcade where gaming nights involved staring down through glass cabinet tops (marred by old cigarette ashes and drinking glass rings) into mazes of ramps, bumpers and targets, all wrapped up in great, gaudy fantasy artwork.

A lifelong fan of flipper buttons, I’ve played a lot of virtual pinball on everything from the pre-2600 Atari Breakout box to the Electronic Arts Pinball Construction Set (EA used to be a small, lovable company), Metroid Pinball, Mario Pinball and the many collections that have appeared on consoles. I’m a pretty good judge of virtual pinball.

So, trust me: The 3DS eShop version of Zen Pinball captures the feeling of playing a real pinball machine better than any other release in videogame history.

Why? Much to my surprise, it’s the 3D. I didn’t see this one coming—never thought this genre particularly needed the effect—but when I downloaded this gem and started playing, my pinball-lovin’ heart soared. No other simulation has been able to perfectly recreate the feeling of actually looking down into a pinball machine’s cabinet at solid, physical mechanisms and props. It turns out that the added sense of depth has been the missing ingredient in video pinball all this time.

Of course, it helps that the game itself is wonderful. $7.99 may seem a bit steep for a pinball download, but you’ll get every penny’s worth. The game contains four separate tables—Excalibur, Shaman, Eldorado and Earth Defense—and each one is imaginative, challenging and unique, with plenty of surprises, animated characters and target quests. It’s easy to get so engrossed by a single table that you’ll completely forget there are three more waiting in the wings. I enjoyed them all, but Excalibur is my favorite by a long shot: through sound, pacing and table design, it creates an effective atmosphere of swordplay and jousting within its little pinball universe.

All action takes place on the upper screen, with the lower screen serving as an animated scoreboard. I was initially concerned that a single small playfield screen might cause a problem, but smart camera angles save the day. The game, in fact, offers eight selectable camera modes for a good range of viewing choices; I settled on one that zooms in enough to highlight details while intelligently following the ball around the table and still giving me plenty of time to react.

Sound effects are excellent—use headphones if you can—and the voicework is wonderfully hammy (“Now behold the incredible power of the great Merlin: MULTIBALL!!!!”)

It controls beautifully. I’ve played Zen Pinball on iPhone (different tables, similar gameplay), and I much prefer the real buttons of 3DS to the iOS touch controls. The iPhone graphics are sharper, but without 3D the iOS tables don’t spring to life as well as the 3DS offering.

In all, Zen Pinball’s a great addition to the growing eShop catalog. After all the fun I’ve had with the system lately, I’m surprised and delighted to find it now hosting the best pinball simulation on the market as well.

By the way, if you have a pinball-loving parent or grandparent who doesn’t generally enjoy videogames, this could be the game that wins them over. Beware, though, you might not get your system back for a long time!

8 Responses to “Zen Pinball Review: 3D brings new life to an old genre”

  1. Hitokiri_Ace says:

    Another excellent article Richard. :) I downloaded this game just the other day too, and I like it quite a bit! Took me a while to decide on which of the 8 camera styles to choose from though. lol Though like you, I went with a closer up one that follows the ball around. 3d definitely made it feel more natural to me as well. I’m not going to say the physics of everything seemed perfect, but hey, it was pretty close. Definitely enough to be fun. :) I recommend it!

  2. Fuzz says:

    Thanks for the review. I looove pinball, spent many hours and quarters in my youth. The price seamed steep on this one, so I passed it by, but will probably get it because of this review.

    So I have a request. I know these things cost money, but it’d be really nice if Infendo could do a lot more of these, at least for the games that aren’t obviously junk. Its hard to find decent reviews of Wiiware and DSware games. Infendo could drive some traffic to the site by making this a priority.

  3. EdEN says:

    Great review! I already own this on PSN, but the 3D really is something that might make me purchase it again!

  4. kgb says:

    A solid review, but I have one question still.
    Can you bump the table?

  5. Richard says:

    @ kgb:

    Good question, and the answer is: Yes you can, using the circle pad.

  6. kgb says:

    Hey Richard,

    Thanks for the quick answer. I think a purchase is in order here, I haven’t had a pinball game that I could bump in a while.

  7. CrusherX says:

    Great review. This is now on my to buy list when I add my points card to my 3ds!

  8. Eugene says:

    I’m totally going to buy this game as I love me some pinball. Thanks Richard for letting me know that it even existed!

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