It is my theory that we all want to buy something extravagant and slightly absurd in our lifetime. So, unless you are a millionaire, something like a mansion or yacht are slightly out of the normal person’s reach, therefore we need to set our sights lower.
For my friend it was to buy a fruit machine from a pub and install it in his living room, even if it’s not much played on anymore.
For me, even though I have never spotted trains in my life and only have one set to speak of, I have always wanted to convert my attic into a massive recreation of a train track system using model trains and landscapes. Either that or turn my house into 62 West Wallaby Street from Wallace and Gromit. However, I have neither the cash, the house or, indeed, the loft.
But for my granddad it was always to buy a pinball table; a massive, room-hogging, pinball table. Unfortunately, these pinball tables are a little on the pricey side, big and noisy and really just belong in pubs and youth centres.
Luckily, for this third one, you can play many excellent pinball simulators on PC or console, and a new one on the block is Zen Pinball, which has appeared so far on the PS3 and various mobile phones, and has now made the leap onto the 3DS eStore with a lick of paint and a 3D makeover, naturally.
Before I launch into my review I must say that I did have a love/hate relationship with installing the game, and this is more aimed at Nintendo’s communication than Zen Studios Ltd. Though paying for and downloading the game was as quick, simple and intuitive as ever thanks to Nintendo’s easy-to-use shopping channel, on launching the game nothing happened and all I could do was imitate IT and switch my 3DS off and on again.
It turned out from browsing some forums that an update to the 3DS’ firmware had caused the game to stop working. So, from the time I downloaded it mid-December until the fix appeared on the 21st I had paid for a game that didn’t work.
It’s not so much the delay that bothered me as, with consoles these days being a minefield of code and features and well beyond the days of thrusting a cartridge in a slot and switching it on it’s no wonder incompatibilities can happen, but the lack of communication. There were no green notifications from Nintendo or indeed any information on the eStore that users might be experiencing problems. The game stayed up on the shop even when it wouldn’t work on downloading. So, Nintendo, please in future keep your gamers informed about problems!
But, don’t worry, all works now!
Anyway, onto the game, and it was actually very much worth the wait to get hold of the game.
Zen Pinball 3D is actually a fairly hefty app for the 3DS in terms of size compared to others so make sure you have some space on your SD card, but upon playing it you can understand why as it’s full of great detail and features.
At this point it’s customary to explain exactly what pinball is but I’m sure most of you are familiar with the concept. I do believe that at some point I missed the lesson at school that teaches you how to play pinball – somewhere before or after the birds and the bees lesson probably – as, though I really enjoy pinball games, I often have no idea what I’m actually doing. Though for me this also includes how to work fruit machines, as these boxes of flashing lights and confusing buttons, with no instructions, remain a mystery to me. Who passes how to play these on?
I often find pinball games to be a very distance experience as it does feel that, aside from controlling the two flippers, much of what you hit seems to be down to chance but that’s pinball in general not a reflection on this game. Or it might just be my poor flipper control.
But I do love pinball games. So much so I even enjoyed Super Mario Ball, an often derided adventure pinball game set in the Mushroom Kingdom for the GBA.
So, on Zen Pinball 3D, your aim on each pinball table – a series of bumpers, flags, walls and other obstacles built into a colourful play area – is to guide the balls from the launch point to various objects to score points, stopping your metal ball from exiting the play area by re-launching it around the course using a pair of flippers. Over the course of each table your ball will launch into certain areas or complete certain tasks (e.g. knock down three walls) giving you bonus points, a mini-game or other task to complete. The aim of the game, as Abba once nearly said, is to rack up as many points as possible and get your name on the leaderboard.
Zen Pinball 3D consists of four individually themed tables. Excalibur, my personal favourite, is built around the legend of knights and dragons and such like. El Dorado, sadly not based on the BBC series, is an Indiana Jones style temple with the best mystical jungle music outside of Tomb Raider. Shaman is all voodoo. And Earth Defence is metallic and alien-based.
The main screen gives you the simple choice of picking one of the boards on the touch screen before presenting you with some more options. You can play the board as single player or hotseat (up to 4-player multiplayer, taking it in turns on one 3DS). The options allow you to tweak audio, your online name, change options such as the FX and enable slow motion, which does however stop your rankings appearing, see the credits and info on the game. Local highscores show everyone who has scored on your 3DS, while rankings require an internet connection and show how you compare to scores of all-time, weekly and in your country, plus pro score and team score – more on that shortly. Awards display which of the four of these you have unlocked on each board for completing a certain task, which gives you a nice shiny medal but not much else it seems.
Launching into a game brings up the board. There’s been a lot of chatter on the net about the lengthy load times and though, yes, you’re looking at up to about twenty seconds when you start a brand new table, it’s hardly a massive amount of time even in the realms of quick pick-up-and-play handheld gaming. Some players really need to learn some patience.
It’s when you reach a table that you appreciate the time they’ve put into the 3D on the game. I’m not exaggerating to say this is some of the best 3D I’ve seen in a 3DS again, with the table showing incredible depth with bumpers, items and table paraphernalia standing impressively, as if you’re really looking through the top screen to a mini-pinball table standing within the console. The background and menu visuals are just as impressive too. Big thumbs up for this for Zen Studios, for creating an effect that truly brings you into the pinball experience.
The boards are bright and vivid, and detailed with everything you’d find on a pinball table in your local pub. The top screen naturally shows the table whilst the bottom screen shows important messages like how you’re doing compared to everyone on the ranking tables plus a well-recreated Dot Matrix LCD screen like you’d get on traditional real-world tables, showing graphics, words, instructions and points collected. Though a thumbs up for the retro throwback it does suffer from the same thing that Tetris DS did that, in the most, you’re too busy concentrating on the top screen and stopping your ball from falling off the table to notice what is happening on the bottom screen as it passes you by, which is a shame as it’s well done.
Taking the Excalibur table as my example, there are lots of neat touches that tie in with the theme. The ball is launched from a catapult-style cannon; there’s a dragon that appears when you fulfil certain challenges which you have to hit; there’s a special mini-flipper area to find; a mini-game involving pinball jousting; plus a multiball section, among many others. There are other different challenges on each of the other three tables, all themed to the style of it. And though earlier I said that the world of pinball is often a mystery to me, there are instructions appearing at times to explain how to complete certain games, with the action pausing for a time allowing you to read them on the bottom screen.
You also can launch special challenges or tournaments on each table which requires you to hit something or do something within a time limit to score extra points, and often involve special items moving on the board, such as a battering ram on the Camelot-themed board.
Control-wise you can play with the d-pad as the left flipper and ‘b’ button as the right or, if like me you find it more comfortable, the two shoulder buttons. You can also use the ‘x’ button to oscillate between eight different views of the table from up top and far away, to up close and tracking. My personal favourite view is number five, so you might want to stick with that, but, you know, each to their own!
Though as with most pinball games feeling like it’s difficult to truly direct the ball using the flippers, the game nails the physics and it plays perfectly, and the exciting give-me-one-more-go feeling of the game tied in with the atmospheric themed music and helpful narration at times that is instructive without being overly repetitive and annoying, tied in of course with the excellent 3D effect, make this a very enjoyable game to play.
As with most pinball games you get three balls per turn to play with, with the option to save a ball at times when the marker is flashing, with a game over coming after the third ball is lost. You then have the chance to put your name in to go with your score, sadly using a rather slow and frustrating three initial typing bit that doesn’t, annoyingly, remember your initials from the last time. You can then go back to another game on the table with no loading time if you go back to the same table.
At the end of each game your scores are also added up with all your previous scores to create your ‘pro’ score, which is basically a point for every one million points you have. This pro score is also added to the pro score of all your 3DS friends – if they have the game – to form your team score, which are the two additional ones on the rankings screen I mentioned earlier.
You can also dig deep into the menus during each game for more statistics than a cricket match, including how many times you’ve hit certain bumpers, your average playtime, your percentage of unlocking certain challenges and lots more random and enlightening stats, including the improbable one of how many table plays have lasted more than 16 hours. Yes, really. You can also enter the operator’s menu which is recreated on a dot matrix screen as if you are actually at the back of the table changing the circuit boards (in my head anyway!) which allows you to tweak lots of settings including visuals and difficulty, but will affect your game appearing on the rankings as you alter key sections.
The usual rules apply for this game. If you don’t enjoy pinball simulators then this won’t change your mind but, if like me, you have a soft spot for bashing a ball around a table then this is one of the finest examples. Just like Tetris ticks off the OCD person inside us, so this satisfies the need to do some mindless gaming involving hitting things with a metallic ball. Plus, I have already found one challenge that launches about ten balls onto the table at once which, though chaotic, is truly fun to play!
The 3D effect is one of the best examples I’ve seen on the 3DS so far, up there with Super Mario 3D Land and far better than any other eShop game I’ve seen. The music and sound effects are catchy, atmospheric and never annoying. The game play works perfectly and there’s lots to enjoy in the challenges across the boards, and the ranking ability and the amount of categories is refreshing. I can’t say four boards is massive for the game but, for the price of £4.50, is just about right, but there are rumours of future DLC.
The eye to detail is great in the game even if at times the bottom screen distracts you away from the main game so you miss a crucial ball save or points.
It’s a shame there isn’t more multi-3DS or internet multiplayer but it’s not a deal breaker. Overall it’s a thrilling, well designed, and realistic pinball simulator that’s bright, varied and full of surprises, that will make train journeys, bus trips or a cold winter evening far less boring.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo 3DS code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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