Pinball may have been around since the 1700s, but the arcade game that we’ve all come to know and love didn’t surface until the 70s and early 80s. Smoke and sweat filled arcades would be lit up by the endless pinging and lit up screens of Pinball machines, complimented by the sound of coins dropping into slots alongside the more familiar arcade cabinets of Space Invaders and Donkey Kong. Now though the gleam of those silver pinballs has dulled over time and the bumper filled fun has migrated from the arcades and into the virtual realm of computers, with Microsoft’s 3D Pinball (Space Cadet) potentially being the most popular pinball game around due to being install on Windows XP. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t better options out there and Zen Pinball 2 has arrived on PS3 and PS Vita to bring you all the pinball fun you could want for free.
There is one caveat to this though: you won’t actually be getting anything for free besides the basic programme. Yes, Zen Pinball 2 seems to work more along the lines of a delivery platform for tables, a way of cataloguing DLC rather than providing you with something to play. Think of it like Rock Band Blitz except without any tracks to actually play once you’ve downloaded it. It’s not all bad though as tables don’t cost an awful lot to purchase, and you can dabble with them for a little bit first before you take the plunge and part with your cash – once you do select a table to download that’s when you can really sink your teeth into what Zen Pinball 2 has to offer.
If I was to judge the game solely on its looks then I’d be throwing a 5/5 down right now. It’s incredible. The PS Vita version, naturally, isn’t as fluid and sharp as the PS3 version; however both boast some pretty impressive reflection details on the table’s shiny surfaces as well as on the ball too. Character models that populate tables are also highly detailed and the attention to detail for each of the themes is again very impressive. Although it’s not the biggest deal around, as it runs tables from Zen Pinball and Marvel Pinball, they won’t see a visual upgrade in the transition – however they’re already pretty swish.
As mentioned before, each table is themed. Already you can grab a fair few Marvel tables – which is perfect if you’re a big Marvel fan as they feature some of the more obscure characters in the Marvel catalogue – but there are some other themed and licensed tables like Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 and, my personal favourite, Plants Vs. Zombies. What makes them so enjoyable is the small details, such as the “ball save” light fitting each theme, with NGS2 showing a Taliman of Rebirth instead.
It’s hard to produce a genre defying Pinball game, after all how do you smash preconceptions and reinvent something with such simple mechanics? Zen Pinball 2 doesn’t go stripping out the flippers and bumpers and replacing them with QTEs and action shots, but what it does do is provide themes to encapsulate the core gameplay of the arcade classic. You’ll have three very polished balls that you need to fire off flippers and bumpers and into switches and lights to rack up a score that your mother could be proud of.When you do strip back the themes though you’ll see that it’s just the same old, same old, over and over again – which does get dull rather quickly. Even when Zen Studios break out the missions on each table to achieve it’s still no more than firing virtual silver balls into virtual LED targets.
While this may all sound great, honestly, I wasn’t that impressed with Zen Pinball 2 on PS3. It may have looked really rather nice, but every moment of gameplay felt soulless and empty. Holding the Dualshock 3 pad in your hands and only pressing two buttons to see minimal interaction on screen is not how I want to spend my time sat on my sofa playing a game. It was largely an uninteresting affair once the novelty had worn off.
However, this is cross compatible with PS Vita and that’s really where you’ll see it shine. By taking TV action and shrinking it down so it’s happening between your hands, something changes and Zen Pinball 2 really comes into its own. Being able to whip your Vita out to flick some balls about while on the bus, train or – if you’re daring enough – walking down the street, is incredibly fun. The magic rarely wares off if you’re dipping in for a quick ten minute blast on the flippers. The Vita version also offers you the ability to have the table continually in full view by playing in landscape and using the touchscreen to work the flippers.
Social features also feature in Zen Pinball 2. As the PS Vita features full PSN compatibility you can compare your scores with anyone on PSN and your friends list, no matter what format they’re playing on, and you can share your scores to Facebook – crucial if you’re the type who likes to boast about small victories. In terms of multiplayer you’ll also get a ‘pass the pad’ mode so you can goad your mates while they try to best your score.
I can see why Zen Studios decided to release Zen Pinball 2 as a free download; it’s hard to entice many to the world of virtual pinball, and so by bringing it out for free and then allowing users to download tables at an extra cost, they’ve already managed to gain peoples attention. For me though it all fees a little bit too ‘freemium’ for my liking and personally would put me off buying anything. Luckily having had the pleasure of getting to play other tables it is worth the investment if you’re interested in virtual pinball – or pinball in general. You do get even more value for money as by buying a table on one format, you’ll automatically unlock it for play on the other - even if it’s an absolute pain to download and install extra tables on the PS Vita version.
It’s clear that Zen Studios have really put a lot of effort into Zen Pinball 2. The small details make all the difference and although it’s not ideal for sofa play on a big screen, it’s perfect for holding in your hands and enjoying on the go. I’d be going a bit far if I said this was a must buy title, but as it’s free to download and has – as of going to print – 32 levels to try, you’d be a fool not to give it a go on your PS Vita, just avoid it on PS3 unless you really love pinball.
Audio/Visual – 5/5: Sumptuous visuals on both formats and brilliant audio that brings the tables to life.
Gameplay – 3/5: It’s pinball. It rarely gets exciting, but thanks to the Vita portability it’s a nice pass time while on the go.
Value – 3/5: All previously owned tables work fine and you’ll bag both the PS Vita and PS3 title when you purchase it. Shame that you’ll have to individually purchase tables in micro transactions as you go along.
Innovation – 3/5: The PS Vita functionality is rather good with landscape gameplay and touch controls. The PS3 version, however, feels rather bog standard.
Final Score: 3/5