Review: Star Wars Pinball: Balance of the Force

StarWarsPinball-BalanceOfTheForce

As sure as arcade cabinets squashed the growth and fascination of pinball, home video game consoles just as easily squashed arcades. Fortunately, there has been a grand resurgence of virtual pinball in the last several years with games like Pinball Arcade and, predominantly, the various tables of Zen Studios’ Zen Pinball and Pinball FX franchises. Just as the need to compete and draw eyeballs (and money) existed many years ago in arcades when pinball manufacturers did their best to make flashier, more complex tables to compete with the likes of Pac-Man, Mario and the cast of Street Fighter, virtual pinball seems to succeed most when utilizing a licensed property.

Zen Studios has proven this time and time again, most prominently with the launch of Star Wars Pinball early last year, featuring three initial table designs themed after Boba Fett, Empire Strikes Back and Clone Wars. More recently, Zen has released a second set of three tables from a galaxy far, far away, collectively known as the Balance of the Force pack. The themes this time around are Darth Vader, Return of the Jedi, and Starfighter Assault. Each table highlights some of the best experiences a Star Wars fan could hope for while offering truly challenging and tense bumper on silver ball action.

When I first started playing the new tables, hands down my favorite was Starfighter Assault. The table just oozes cool. At the beginning of each new match players can choose to fly for the Empire or the Rebels. Picking Imperial or Rebellion means the ball launches from one side or the other, which is a cool gimmick not seen often in most tables. What really caught my inner Star Wars fanboy’s attention wasn’t so much which side I was fighting for, but rather the heavy reliance of John Williams’ assorted dogfight and battle march themes. Playing Starfight Assault brought me back to a time when I would spend hours at a time playing X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter in my college dorm with my roommate and friends. Each time a ball is sent back up a rail or a lane, triggering the battery of Star Destroy canons, I am immediately brought back to my former days of total uber-geekdom.

Launching various missions in Starfighter Assault only enhances those geeky memories. Shooting balls up specific lit ramps to defend against a Tie assault, or take out a wave of re-enforcements is probably the closest modern gamers will ever get to playing the classic adventures of the old LucasArts space sims. Hearing the various fighter pilots chattering back and forth, rocking out to the music, and seeing explosions fill the screen as mini TIE-Fighters and X-wings fly over the table add to the hectic fun that those old games used to have.

Switching over to the Darth Vader table, I found myself equally charmed by the notion that Vader is at the height of his black robotic samurai power seeking out to destroy the early foundations of the Rebel Alliance. One of the things that I love about Zen Studios is the idea that virtual pinball doesn’t have to bound by the constraints of real physical objects. Specifically, what stands out on this table is the lowering of lights during multiball events where some pinballs can glow red and others will glow blue and look and feel like the dramatic lightsaber duel between Luke and Vader at the end of Empire Strikes Back.

Another fantastic element to the Darth Vader table is the optional opening sequence. I know there are plenty of disappointed old school Star Wars fans that felt absolutely betrayed and let down by the Frankenstein homage of Anakin being saved and converted into the iconic image known fan and non-fan alike. The dreadful “Noooooo” still leaves a bad taste in my mouth when I hear it, but this table treats the transformation in a much better way than Lucas did. A point incentive! The decrepit Emperor is seen watching over the body of Vader at the top of the table, while the goal is to launch the ball into various robotic arms to perform the operation. Each section of the operation will net a cool million points, just for ridding the world of the whiny Anakin and replacing him with the black masked, angry powerhouse.

Finishing off the trio is the initially less than impressive Return of the Jedi table. At first glance the Return of the Jedi table does little to tantalize. The ball launcher is a nod to the Ewok tree stump trap during the Battle of Endor, but quickly feels like a dud as the ball seemingly launches and then bounces right smack into the unreachable zone between the bottom flippers. Ugh. It took me a long time to warm up to the Jedi table. The overall layout takes a lot of getting used. Even more, the missions which unlock special events often feel unobtainable. However, the key to enjoying the Jedi table is by not taking it on with the same fast-paced nature that the other two inevitably ramp up to. Learning when to flip the ball back to the top, and where to hit the ball with the flipper makes all the difference in this table. Patience is key. Once the pathways are learned and bonuses are unlocked, the Jedi table offers a well-rounded and fully complete Jedi experience.

That’s not to say that each table doesn’t have a flaw or questionable element. As with many of the Zen tables, mini-missions unlock when specific ramps are hit enough times or a certain number of bumpers are triggered. The weakest moments in each table come about when some of these mini-game missions occur. Using the flippers to move three X-Wings back and forth, sort of like a cross between Galaga and Breakout, just feels off. The response of moving the ships left or right doesn’t feel as accurate as when trying to trigger flippers. Flying in space from the cockpit view and using the flippers to move while trying to shoot down enemy ships also feels unresponsive and frustrating. Piloting a speeder bike through Endor with flippers, shooting down Stormtroopers and avoiding trees also feels downright sluggish.

One of the continued gripes I have with the Zen tables is the manner in which all of the mini-mission tutorials are explained. The new tables have plenty of unlockable events and bonuses, but learning how to master them all still requires reading through what amounts to static slideshows.

These minor gripes aside, the overall polish and fun offered by these tables give them a slight advantage over the first three in my opinion. Maybe the themes speak more to me on a Star Wars geek level than the first three did, or maybe it is a bit of neuvo-nostalgia. All in all, the leaderboard chase is still in full effect with the new Star Wars tables. One other optional perk that adds even more detail and vibrancy to these tables is playing them in 3D. Both PS3 and PS4 versions look fantastic in 3D, and having them on the go with the Vita is a perfect way to keep those flipper skills sharp while away from the big screen.

Yes, young padawans, the Force is strong with Star Wars Pinball.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Great use of specific themes on each table
+ John Williams’ music never sounded better
+ 3D adds a fantastic depth to the field of view

Cons:
– Some mini-game missions are unresponsive and fall flat
– Table tutorials are better than before, but are still menu heavy slideshows

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3, PS4 and Vita, also available on iOS, Android, XBLA, PC, Mac, 3DS and Wii U
Publisher: Zen Studios
Developer: Zen Studios
Release Date: 10/15/2013
Genre: Pinball
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1-4 (2-4 online)
Source: Review code provided by publisher

[nggallery id=3127]

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.