We have our very first game review by two of our writers ClassicMoments and GillsRider, and our guest writer, Spencer! We’ll be looking at the new PS3 version of Zen Pinball from ZEN Studio. Zen Pinball is a realistic pinball simulator that includes four tables : V12, Tesla, Shaman and El Dorado.
ClassicMoments: I honestly haven’t played many pinball machines. I don’t have much knowledge about pinball. All I know about pinball is that it’s a game where you try to save the ball by using the flippers. I tried it a couple of times at one of my favorite local pizza places back in the day, but lost my quarters faster than I could say “What the…!” But now, I can play pinball as much as I want without losing my quarters, thanks to Zen Pinball.
Spencer: I consider myself a bit of a pinball fanatic – having owned my own physical pinball machine and having obsessed over many others. So when I was asked to help out with this review, I was quite excited as you might imagine. I purchased Zen Pinball’s Pinball FX on the Xbox 360 and played it extensively, gathering a few scoreboards rankings here and there before being knocked off by better players; I have to say I enjoy Zen Studios’ Zen Pinball for the PS3 much more than its Xbox 360 predecessor.
GillsRider: I think I’ve actually played on a physical pinball machine once, and that was because someone had started a game and had to leave. I do however, have some pinball experience: 3D Pinball: Space Cadet (remember this game on Windows!?). Needless to say, I know close to nothing about pinball machines, the physics behind it, or the fact that each pinball machine has its own set of rules and objectives to score high points. Even so, my experience with Zen Pinball was a pleasant one.
CM: The first thing I noticed with Zen Pinball was its very detailed graphics. You can hardly tell the aliasing artifacts unless you own a very large sized HDTV. Even if you’re not a computer-whiz who knows all of the latest 3D-graphical terms, you’ll immediately notice that Zen studio tried to make not just another fun pinball game, but an accurate pinball machine simulator like no other.
Spencer: Like CM mentioned, this game is a pinball simulation and the visuals serve to emphasize this. The graphics in Zen Pinball are fantastically realistic depictions of pinball tables. The wire ramps and reflections off the mirrored ball look great, as do the various lighting and special effects. The processing power of the PS3 is really utilized well to draw the player into the table and make them feel as if they are playing on a real machine.
I found the art direction for each of the tables appealing and unique (although the “Shaman” table was a bit politically-incorrect…), but my favorite has to be the “El Dorado” table, with its lush greens and overgrown stone colors blending well into the playfield design. The style here gives off an awesome “Indiana Jones” style feeling, and the stone totem dominating the upper left playfield is fantastic.
GR: This game is just so pretty. Each table looks immaculate down to the very last detail. The Free View mode allows you to freely move the camera around the table and inspect the machine (the current game pauses) using the Sixaxis feature on the PS3 controller. This feature was very very awesome.
CM: As important as the visuals are, sound is also a critical factor for a pinball game. Zen Pinball undoubtedly emulates modern machines, and it emulates them right. Sounds are accurate yet punchy, and you definitely feel like you’re playing the real deal. The BGM tracks are not bad at all either. The only downside is the voice acting, but even then it goes surprisingly well with some of the tables. I just wished there were a variety of voice tracks for us to choose from. However, you always have the option of turning them off and playing your own playlist from the XMB. A very nice option indeed.
Spencer: True-to-life, the creators here went for very typical soundscapes on modern pinball machines. Gone are the clanging bells and chimes of the machines form the 1960s and 70s; these tables sound very similar to the brand new state-of-the-art style machines. The voice acting is a little cheesy, but I enjoyed it. The booming god-like voice on “El Dorado” reminded me of the voice of Olmec on the Nickelodeon show I used to watch as a kid, “Legends of the Hidden Temple.” Pinball isn’t really a super serious medium anyway. It’s not like they’re trying to tell me a Shakespearean story (though I do think that might make an awesome theme for a table), so the cheesy Olmec-voice and the silly thick Russian accent on the “Tesla” table work well.
GR: All I can say is I definitely enjoyed the cheesy voices. I felt that the cheesiness of the voices further adds to the realistic experience of playing on a pinball machine (and I just LOVED all the little songs and cries the natives made in “Shaman”, no matter how politically incorrect they were).
CM: Again, I wasn’t a big fan of pinball machines so I don’t know how a real pinball machine reacts to the physics and controls, but this game has an amazing feel of reality. Everything translates well what a player should feel, and everything moves the way a player would expect. But a good simulator doesn’t mean an easy game; it just means it’s closer to a real life pinball machine. So if you’re not good in real life, you wouldn’t be good at this game. You need time to actually learn the machines.
Spencer: Being a pinball fanatic, I have improved my skills considerably since my humble beginnings, but believe me when I tell you, pinball is a game of skill, not luck. Knowing whether to tap the flippers or to hold them down, where to launch the ball off the flipper to hit the shot you are aiming for, are all great skills to learn if you want to truly enjoy this game. Hell, the fact that I am even speaking about these machines as if they were real physical pinball machines (and the fact that my skills on a physical machine translate to the game) is a testament to the hard work put in by Zen Studios to create a true simulation of the game of pinball.
GR: Like CM, I can’t comment on how accurate the physics emulation is on this game due to my lack of pinballing experience, but I can definitely say that it feels real. The biggest difference I noticed in the way this game feels is in the weight of the ball. The pinball being flung across the playing field actually feels like it has weight, unlike the little silver dot on Space Cadet that glides all over the place. Hitting the ball with the flippers, I can almost feel the slight vibration you might feel when they make contact. I would say even without the sweet graphics and sound, this realism alone makes it an incredible simulator.
CM: This is where I felt Zen Pinball really shines, or I should say, could shine. Multiplayer is always fun. But, we experienced a freeze during our initial search for a match, and this was the first and only game freeze we’ve experienced with our PS3s. Like I said, it happened only once, and it looks like the game recovered perfectly well after a reboot. But it kinda leaves a bitter taste.
Spencer: Unlike CM, when I heard this game offered multiplayer, I was a bit concerned. Knowing that when I am having a great game, it can take me up to 10 minutes to lose a single ball, I was worried about what I would run into when I faced a great player on the PSN Network. However, the multiplayer mode here handles this concern perfectly, offering a “race-to-the-score” style of play, where each player plays on his own individual machine, trying to beat the other players in the game to a pre-determined score (I find 10million to be the most fun). Each player is associated with a color, and there is a simple progress bar displayed on the top of the screen showing how close to the goal each color is.
GR: Like many games, multiplayer gives Zen Pinball an even higher replay value, and adds competition. It even supports the PS3 Eye, and other PS3 compatible webcams. The players’ feeds are displayed next to the dot matrix display and outlined in the color corresponding to their icon on the progress bar. It’s kind of a neat little function, especially playing with your friends, but when playing strangers, it’s just weird and the webcam obstructs the upper part of your table.
CM: I am pleased, and am having fun. Though I do have a wish list, it just means that I really enjoyed the title now and am planning to have more fun with it. This game could have earned a higher score if it wasn’t for the minor bug we all experienced, but it is also the best pinball game out there for the current generation of video gaming. Bold statements like that don’t come out easily, but I dare to say it and I dare YOU to play if you have the chance. I sure hope that ZEN Studio is working on the next machine. I can’t wait.
Spencer: While I think V12 is the weakest of the four tables offered in the game, each one is extremely well designed, with deep rulesets that will keep you interested for hours. These tables could truly be built in real life and played with fantastic results – they aren’t shoddily thrown together layouts and are a large improvement upon their predecessors found in Pinball FX.
As a pinball fanatic, I strongly recommend this game to anyone who has any interest in pinball whatsoever. If you’ve ever been interested in buying a pinball machine, this is the closest representation I’ve ever seen in virtual form. You can even edit the game settings using an operator menu which looks and functions exactly like operator menus do on a real life machine. Even if you never even realized pinball tables had different rules and you weren’t just supposed to randomly bash the ball around, you could learn how to play on these tables.
GR: Even as an extremely inexperienced pinballer, I had a lot of fun with this game. Though I initially felt the learning curve was a bit steep, I was able to pick it up fairly quickly, and was able to actually tackle the available objectives and challenges. Being able to access the ruleset anytime through the pause menu definitely makes this game more accessible to the newbies. Like Spencer, I really felt that not only was this a fun game, but its an excellent introduction to and simulation of the world of pinballs.
Our Score: 9 / 10
We DARE you to play this awesome pinball simulator!
REVISION #1 (2009/05/20) : Scoreboards are now fixed. The players outside of top 1,000 rank can check their own scores and ranking.