Review: Marvel Pinball: Avengers Chronicles

MarvelPinballAvengersChronicles

Zen Studios has been making top notch pinball tables for the last several years, combining wild and imaginative boards with fantastic ball physics and the occasional licensed property, most notably in the Marvel Pinball collection.  Previous tables from the Marvel Universe have included Wolverine, Captain America, Fantastic Four and Ghost Rider to name a few, and now to link in with the recent theatrical release of Marvel’s The Avengers, Zen Studios has assembled a four-table pinball super-team called Avengers Chronicles, which focuses on Avenger-themed storylines from the comic books in addition to a table centered around the movie.

As with the previous tables, each Avengers Chronicles board includes various ramps, bumpers, flashing lights and everything you would expect from a pinball table.  Playing through the original boards, I was always impressed but a bit frustrated with the complexity of each table.  Growing up I remember playing real pinball tables in various arcades, and as more advanced tables came out the one thing that stands out in my mind was the relative ease many offered up. Skill plays into a high score with any pinball table, but seeing your score pile up through incidental ricochets without even trying is part of why I enjoy playing pinball. You don’t need to be a pinball wizard to have fun and build a respectable score to be proud of.

I’m sure my view of pinball puts me in the heresy column of pinball purists.  I’m fine with that. I just want to play a few rounds of any table, launch the shiny silver orb around countless bumpers, blissfully watching my score increase without necessarily understanding the “story” or timing of each shot as the ball flicks around the table to unlock additional challenges and multipliers.  What I find interesting about Zen’s tables across the Marvel Pinball, Zen Pinball and Pinball FX games is that there is plenty of challenge to unlock if you spend the time learning and understanding what each ramp could potentially unlock.  One of my favorite pinball games on the PSP is Pinball Heroes, which offered challenges throughout each table without necessarily requiring four or five steps to initiate said challenge.  Each time I play a Zen designed table, I often feel like I have to prepare myself mentally as if I’m going to be racing a marathon, meaning the tables can be fun, but only after a grueling session of flipper saves and repetitive runs on the same highway path.

What keeps me coming back again and again with the Marvel tables is the familiarity with the license. I grew up a comic book geek and find that playing through the Zen tables reminds me of storylines I read many years ago as a kid while my curiosity is simultaneously piqued by the new storylines I haven’t read before.  While I’m not the biggest fan of the Avengers, what Marvel has been doing with its individual character movies and the recent culmination of super heroes has gone a long way to changing my perception of that series.  After watching the movie, I was looking forward to playing the new tables to see how much (if any) of the movie was tied into the four boards in the new Avengers Chronicles.

The first table I loaded up was the Avengers table, and initially I was a somewhat disappointed by the design.  The table is basically nothing more than a bunch of ramps circling around Loki, Thor’s half-brother and antagonist in the film).  My disappointment quickly was abated when the table started up and I got to pick which hero to play as.  Each Avenger is represented by their emblem or a certain characteristic on the pinball that is launched into play.  Each character allows for different enhancements to the gameplay and upon activating the appropriate ramp for each character enough times, the Heroes are locked away.  Once all heroes are locked a super multi-ball is triggered, causing some seriously crazy on-screen mayhem.  Overall, this table is one of my Marvel favorites, but at the same time the least favorite of this particular 4-table collection.  I love the idea of each hero being portrayed by unique balls, but the overall layout and “story” within the table leaves me wanting more.

Fortunately the next table I played gave me just what I reminisce the most about pinball.  World War Hulk is a storyline I’m not exactly familiar with, but the gist is simple: the Avengers launch Bruce Banner (AKA the Hulk) into space to keep him from destroying his friends, family, and basically everyone on Earth.  Banished from Earth, Hulk becomes a gladiatorial adversary and eventually fights the rulers of the planet in devastating Hulk fashion.  The table is made up to look like a demolished city with several ramps leading up to the top of the play area.  Other ramps lead to a hidden modified basketball court which is unlocked after sending the pinball across one ramp several times to spell out “arena.”  There seems to be several storylines referred to on this table as even Wolverine makes an appearance.  Overall, there is enough varying action that even with multiple stories converging the layout and pace are more enjoyable than the Avenger movie tie-in table.

While the World War Hulk table focused primarily on Hulk and only mentions The Avengers at the opening of the table, The Infinity Gauntlet delves a bit more into the actual team (albeit not necessarily the same heroes from the recent movie).  The Infinity Gauntlet table, which focuses on Thanos and the six gems that power the gauntlet, is the real gem of this collection.  Each gem in the gauntlet (when activated) alters the table in varying ways.  One gem flips the view of the board upside down, another inverts the flippers so that they are always up and pressing the buttons lowers them.  Another delays the pinball at various times.  This table is a complete blast to play and yet there is so much going on at times that I haven’t even figured out what all of the gems do.  As with the World War Hulk board and the hidden basketball arena, The Infinity Gauntlet also has a hidden area, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what I’m supposed to do before the ball is lost back to the main table.  Even though I don’t quite understand how to activate all of the gems or what the objective is in the hidden area, I find the layout of the ramps enjoyable while having just the right amount of challenge.

The final table rounding out the Avengers Chronicles is Fear Itself.  I apparently stopped reading comics before this mini-series was published as I am completely unfamiliar with the story or premise of this table.  That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy playing the table, in fact the more time I spent with it, the more I realize just how complex yet balanced Fear Itself is.  As far as I can surmise, enemies of Asgard have invaded Earth and have begun to spread fear across the globe.  What makes this table interesting is the fact that each of the summoned “Worthy” heroes appears in the form of a rock pinball. These champions (consisting of several Avengers) don’t seem to do much other than provide another way of enabling a multi-ball mechanic.  

One additional mechanic to the table itself is the way the bottom portion of the table is designed.  At times I found myself losing a ball down below the flippers, but a Mag Save mechanic kicked in and the ball zoomed around the bottom lane shooting up to the top of the table, only to be rocketed back down to the bottom, again.  Each time the ball passed down to the bottom, the Mag Save kicked in and the ball zoomed back up to the top.  The velocity of the ball on this table is a bit staggering, but that’s what makes it so fun at the same time. There is also another hidden area that is like a modified version of Pong, and while I quickly grasped what I needed to do, the paddle for reflecting Thor’s hammer moves sluggishly compared to the rest of the speed on this table. I may not be able to trigger a whole bunch of the events as I seem more capable of accomplishing on the other boards, but just seeing the speed and the table animations makes it a great addition.  

Fans of pinball will find these four additional tables to be a real treat, regardless of their affinity towards Marvel and/or The Avengers.  I have spent more time with these four tables learning (or at least trying to) how each specific event can be triggered, and that time spent has given me a greater appreciation for not only pinball in general, but the level of detail that Zen puts into each table it produces.  At times that attention to detail feels almost like there is too much to learn and not enough hand holding.  Again, that statement will likely not gain me any fans among the pinball elite, but at the same time pinball can be extremely fun for everyone once the fundamentals of any given table are mastered.  My biggest complaint about the Zen Pinball method of game presentation is that they bury the rules deep into the menu structure and let players fend for themselves.  One thing I would love to see with Zen Pinball 2 is an option to watch a table being played by the AI instead of just a static camera pan.  Actually seeing how each of the events is intended to be played out would help make an already fantastic game absolutely extraordinary.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ 4 more addictive tables to eat away hours of your life
+ Unique pinballs provide RPG-like gameplay on the Avengers table
+ Special events within tables twist the traditional gameplay

Cons:
- No demo view of how each table is supposed to work
- Gaining multiplier or table events can be extremely challenging to activate

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3 via PSN, also available for Xbox 360 via XBLA and coming soon to PS Vita
Publisher: Zen Studios
Developer: Zen Studios
Release Date: 6/20/2012
Genre: Pinball
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1-4 (2-player split-screen; 4-player online and local hot seat play)
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.