I have fond memories as a child of going to local arcades and national chain pizza restaurants whose only reason for having pizza – the quality of which was debatable at best and nonexistent at worst – was to get kids inside to pump quarters into the myriad of arcade games on display. Sure, I’d spend my time on the latest and greatest; Ninja Turtles the Arcade Game here, Time Crisis there, all with their own unique thrills and experiences. But the one thing I kept coming back to, the one thing I always looked for, was pinball. I loved finding a pinball machine I hadn’t played yet, to see if this particular machine would outdo the previous ones I’d played with crazy skill shots and convoluted ramp systems. Each machine was unique, with its own quirks and rules of play. I lived for the rush of hitting that tricky shot, and hated the feeling of missing the ball by just a hair, ending my million point streak.
From the moment I loaded the first table in Zen Pinball 2, by Zen Studios, all of those feelings came rushing back, offering one of the most authentic digital pinball experiences I’ve played, while showing off things that could only happen in a video game.
Zen Pinball 2 is, essentially, a platform. It’s a free download, and it becomes the hub for all things pinball related. You’ll have access to demos of every single table right on the main screen, and all the high scores, leaderboards, and trophy information for every table is easily accessible and you’re never too far away from seeing how much you are owning your friends (or vice versa). The platform is no-frills, but never gets in the way, and it puts what’s most important right up front – the tables.
With 26 designs available for purchase at the time of this review – which includes tables from the first Zen Pinball game, updated with enhanced visuals and ball physics – there’s no lack of selection. With thirteen different Marvel themed pinball machines, Ninja Gaiden, Street Fighter II, and even a Plants Vs. Zombies table (which I’ll go into more detail in a bit), along with a bunch of original tables ranging from one featuring a 1940s-era paranormal detective, to a light hearted fantasy romp, there is a wide range of content for a variety of interests.
My only real problem with Zen Pinball 2 is that, while the actual platform itself is free, the tables are not. Granted their goal is to make money (a noble goal, to be sure), and demos of every single table are available (which give you the tiniest sliver of a taste; you’ll finish each demo before you lose your first ball, most likely), in order to dig into the game, you’ll need to shell out some dough. Tables purchases come in two flavors: single tables or bundles of four. Single tables start at $2.49, while bundles of four go for $9.99. Considering the nature of how quick pinball games tend to last, that seems like a hefty price to pay. Fans who purchased tables in the first Zen Pinball game have the ability to import their previously purchased tables into this game, upgrading them to the new engine, but new players have a fairly steep buy-in if they want any sort of variety right off the bat. Each table includes Cross Play for PS Vita owners, which is a nice bonus for gamers on the go. It’s nice to be able to pick and choose which tables you want without getting ones you don’t, but the initial entry price does seem a bit steep.
I spent most of my time on the Plants Vs. Zombies table (as that was what was provided for the review), though I did check out demos for a few of the Marvel tables and the Paranormal table. The actual engine itself is quality; the pinball has proper weight, not feeling too bouncy or too heavy. Whenever I lost a ball, I only ever cursed myself, never the game. Visuals, while not taxing the hardware, let the theme of each board shine through. Each table looks like a real pinball machine, complete with blinking lights for each lane and the glossy finish of the table itself.
Of all the tables I played, the Plants Vs. Zombies table was by far the busiest. They condensed the entire Plants Vs. Zombies experience into a pinball format, complete with picking up sun and coins, buying seeds, defending your flippers from zombie attacks, and tons more. It’s a lot to take in at once, and it’s only after a few plays that everything really starts to click and you get a sense of what you need to do to get more points and progress the table toward the various missions (I even had to read the instructions to figure out what ramps and buttons activated what things), but it never becomes too overwhelming. Sound effects and music (along with the solid bumper and flipper sounds) are ripped straight from the actual game, and the whole thing just gave me a nice warm fuzzy feeling I’ve never really gotten from a pinball simulator. There’s no way this table could ever exist in the real world, but all the extra stuff going on never detracts from the solid foundation already set by the ball physics and overall feel of the table.
Zen Studios clearly has a lot of love for pinball; it shows in every facet of this game. The tables feel authentic, yet play like no other pinball game that exists in physical form. It’s the closest you’re going to get to going to an arcade and plunking quarters into an actual machine – and in some ways, it’s a better experience. Price of entry aside, pinball fans would do themselves a disservice to not download the game and give it a try. The first taste is free, but once you’re in, you’ll be hooked.