Review: Zen Pinball 3D

ZenPinball3D

Inching ever closer to global video game pinball domination, this week Zen Studios, with one deft flipper flick, releases its first simulation pinballer for a Nintendo platform and the first of any kind for a dedicated portable gaming system since Flipper Critters. Zen Pinball 3D, available now for only $7 from the Nintendo 3DS eShop, ports over the studios’ flagship pinball game first born on iOS devices and PSN. Surprise, surprise–it’s awesome!

Zen Pinball 3D consists of four tables right off the bat, with expansion plans in place for future table add-ons. Two of the tables, Shaman and Eldorado, are originals from the PSN version and the two others, Earth Defense and Excalibur, were pulled from Zen’s existing (and extensive) DLC catalog. From the originals, I would have personally preferred either V12 or Tesla over Shaman, but in the end they’re all great tables so I’m not complaining.

My favorite of the current bunch is without question Excalibur for its supreme balance, clever challenge contraptions, epic fantasy background music and eye-catching artwork. (Plus the Excalibur-shaped middle ramp looks flippin’ sweet.) There’s a jousting tournament area off to the left side, with success determined by launching the ball with correct timing as an opposing jouster figure gallops forward. In the upper-left corner, is a mini combat arena where you get to duel a knight champion. Mordred’s fortress stands to the right of the arena, and after winding the battering ram over to the gate a siege mission begins. And I can’t forget Merlin – hitting three balls into his spell cauldron activates multiball.

Between reliving the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, fending off an alien and robot invasion, mastering the art of tribal sorcery, and treasure hunting a mysterious jungle, the included tables offer excellent variety in theme, layout, and challenge. As usual, the ball physics are spot-on (better than the PSN version even) and the flippers are snappy and responsive. I began play using the shoulder buttons for the flippers, but this configuration had my hands cramping up before long. Luckily, Zen thought about this possibility and also mapped left and right flipper movement to down on the D-pad and the B face button, which I found far more comfortable.

Downsizing from the HD versions I’m accustomed to playing on my PS3, I was somewhat worried about visibility issues, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that even on the smaller screen the tables maintain their crisp, clear definition and intricate detail. Eight different camera settings certainly help set the perfect angle to each player’s taste, too.

Perhaps even more surprising, the 3D effect doesn’t interfere with visibility either, which was another potential pitfall I had concerns about going in. Forgive me for ever doubting Zen Studios. It won’t happen again.

Normally I start every 3DS game I play in 3D to see what it looks like, then, unless it blows me away, I shut it off to conserve battery juice (and to make sure my eyes don’t melt out of their sockets). Here, the 3D implementation is tastefully done, to the point where I do feel like I’m missing something if I play with it deactivated. With the slider turned on, all the flippers and ramps and bumpers and other components have distinguishable height, depth and shape, with the 3D sort of replicating the effect of peering through the glass of a real arcade pinball machine. There aren’t any issues as far as depth perception or ball tracking, and this is one 3DS game you can play without fear of headaches or motion sickness. I half expected my eyes to be rolling around in my head after mere minutes of tracking the ball quickly pinging around, but in 12 hours of play time already (hi, my name is Matt Litten, and I have a Zen Pinball 3D addiction!) I haven’t sensed any eye strain or nausea playing this game, even with the dial turned all the way up.

Except for true online multiplayer and tournaments, which sadly didn’t make the transition to 3DS, Zen Studios didn’t miss a beat. The cumulative scoring system introduced in Xbox Live Arcade’s Pinball FX2 has been carried over – individual table high scores are added together and calculated into an overall Pro Score, and after exchanging friend codes friends’ scores are added to the Pro Score to determine your Team Score. Online leaderboards allow you to compare high scores against rival pinball wizards around the world, and local hotseat multiplayer is always an option, if you and up to three friends feel like taking turns playing on a single 3DS. Zen’s helpful table instruction guides and customization options remain intact as well, for those who need help learning the ropes or like tinkering with all sorts of operator settings.

Really, my only complaint is with the dual-screen presentation. Having the dot-matrix display on the bottom screen makes it difficult to keep track of score and mission progress, because the moment you take your eyes off the top screen–even if only for a split second–the ball is likely to whiz by. But to be fair, this is a hardware limitation completely out of Zen’s control. If the score display had been placed on the top screen it would have been tiny and hard to see, and as a whole the view would have been far too cluttered. The current setup isn’t ideal, but I can’t think of a better option.

With Zen Pinball 3D establishing an insurmountable benchmark, portable pinballing on the 3DS is off to a sensational start and has a bright future ahead. Additional tables are coming via downloadable content, and as long as the price is right ($7 for the initial four-pack breaks down to under $2 per table, which is a positive indicator) this is a pinball platform with tons of present and long-term value. After that, Marvel Pinball is also in the cards for 2012, and if Zen Pinball 3D is any indication 3DS owners are in for a full year of ball-flipping fun.

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Pros:
+ Excellent table design and variety
+ Zen once again proves its mastery of pinball physics
+ Subtle and tasteful use of 3D
+ Fantastic value with plans for future expansion

Cons:
– No online multiplayer or tournaments
– Difficult to track score and challenge progress on bottom screen while playing on top screen

Game Info:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS via eShop digital download
Publisher: Zen Studios
Developer: Zen Studios
Release Date: 1/12/2012
Genre: Arcade Pinball
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1-4 (local hotseat multiplayer plus online leaderboards)
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!