ZEN Pinball – the PS3 Attitude Review
If you were to study the ancient annals of gaming, thumbing through the dusty tomes right back towards the start and past the aged and crumbling pages of Pong and Street Fighter II, you’ll find pinball.
Not the pinball you played on your Amiga back in the 80s or the wealth of Flash titles found on popular gaming sites today, we’re talking about pinball it its original manifestation. Springs, coils, solenoids, plungers, magnets – physical attributes that spun, flashed and chimed when interacted with by the player.
As a precursor to the digital age of gaming, pinball should be revered as at least one integral cog in the genesis of this pastime we call gaming. It’s therefore a natural progression that, over time, as one of the archetypes of the arcade, the concept of shooting a ball up an inclined table to score points has translated into more than a few software-based interpretations.
Ironically, ZEN Studio’s ZEN Pinball is the first of such titles to grace the PSN, and what ZEN have brought to the table (pun intended) is a faithful rendition of the popular genre with all the bells and whistles expected from a game of this sort. Unfortunately, what they haven’t managed to do is bridge the gap towards people who simply see pinball as an archaic game-type; a bygone gaming construct surpassed by new-age wonders such as polygons and particle effects. It’s this slight letdown that results in Zen Pinball being a pleasant distraction rather than the addictive pinball juggernaut it could have been.
You either get and like pinball or you don’t, and whether it’s the old-school physical version or its electronic flavour, there’s little doubt that it has a tendency to polarise the gaming community. There’s a strong argument that highlights the insane amount of skill involved in order to be a success at the ball and paddle game, often countered by the fact that you are also at the mercy of total randomness. Of course, you could also argue that all games have elements of chance and it’s how you respond to these random events that determines how good you are at the game in question. Some people though just see pinball as too fickle; too erratic to warrant the time it takes to get good at it.
ZEN Studio proffers all this pinball flavoured magic and chaos in a crisp and colourful HD presentation while safely staying within the predefined boundaries of the table-top genre. We could argue that this may very well be its biggest flaw as, though the game possesses the necessary physics and creativity that comes with designing weird and wonderful planar landscapes, the absence of any physical “build” constraints would suggest to us an opportunity to really push the inventive boat out. ZEN Pinball, though by no means austere in its table design, has not embraced this possibility, siding instead towards tried and trusted pinball mechanics that, while sometimes may dazzle, rarely astound.
Despite all the ramps, magnets, rails and sink-holes, ZEN Pinball is very much a pure pinball game and, though we freely admit this is very much a personal preference, we would have liked to have seen more outlandishness in the design with at least one of the tables really pushing the limits of pinball architecture. And herein lies the title’s biggest issue: the number of tables presented.
With four levels available upon purchase (V12, Shaman, Tesla and El Dorado), though each have a distinctive theme and contain numerous differences, the pinball cabinet does feel a little bare with the quartet on offer really not deviating from one another a great deal. We understand that more tables will be made available through DLC but we’re concerned ZEN didn’t get the balance right and offer more up front.
It’s possible they just didn’t have the time of course, a theory that is supported by the fact that there are other aspects of the game that do not share the precise attention to detail found in the tables’ presentation. The ticker “hint” stream and the score report presented at the completion of each game, for example, specifically lacks a degree of polish found elsewhere in the game.
Graphically, as mentioned above, the game’s aesthetic is lush with flair and character, and with four distinctive themes and palettes across the tables on offer, the detail is noteworthy and animations delightful as you whizz balls up into shamans playing drums or cause sparks to fly as a particularly fast strike sends a ball screeching around a rail.
The multiplayer element works to some degree insomuch as you can play with three other people across the globe. A slightly disappointing aspect is how the game mode merely has you compete towards a goal score; the first to obtain a certain amount of points gaining the largest share of the reward. We would have liked to have seen more player interaction as currently the actions performed on your table cannot influence any of your competitors’. You can’t tilt their table or send extra balls on to it. You can’t freeze one of their flippers for a second or cause all the lights to go out making it harder to see their ball. You simply play your game and they play theirs with the first to the target deemed the winner. Apart from the online play, there are regular tournaments and leaderboards that allow global recognition with some truly mind-boggling scores already achieved. There’s definitely longevity built-in for the competitive out there who enjoy the genre.
ZEN Pinball is a good game and, if you’re a pinball nut, it’s overwhelmingly recommended. Despite the documented shortcomings above, there is a lot of enjoyment in playing a few quick games if only a few minutes of gaming time is all you can grasp on a particular day. It’s also a great party game as pinball has always been an enjoyable spectator sport with friends and family often transfixed as the ball charges around the table and likely to drop into oblivion at any moment.
In conclusion, if you played the recent demo and are eager for more tables and the ability of pitting your flipper-wits against the best there is, this is a must buy. If, on the other hand, you thought the demo was quaint and a short distraction while the pasta was cooking in the kitchen, then you won’t find much else in the full game. ZEN Pinball would definitely be a game that we could see a lot of people picking up during one of Sony’s many sale bonanzas. At a discount price, it is definitely worth a punt.