Much like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, Pinball tables are arcade staples. The visceral connection between finger and flipper, the satisfying ‘thunk’ of earning a free game, the fine line between a cheeky nudge and a full on tilt. Yes, pinball is legendary – all the flash and excitement of the Las Vegas strip in a convenient tabletop format. Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but pinball really is great. Zen Pinball 2 is a video game that brings pinball to your sofa. Does it successfully capture the experience of playing pinball? Read on to find out.
Pinball is all about physics and angles. It’s about feel. Unfortunately, Zen Pinball doesn’t feel quite like true pinball. It’s missing a sense of weight behind the balls, which seem to roll a little too fast or float a little more than they should. It’s easy enough to adapt to, but as a representation of real pinball Zen misses the mark a bit. While there are lots of flashing lights and visual effects, the tables are eerily quiet. Pinball tables are constantly wooshing, clunking, and banging to alert players about the happenings of the game, and that is conspicuously absent in Zen Pinball 2. Instead most tables contain poorly voice acted catchphrases from their licensed properties, which generally have nothing to do with the action. It takes away from the strategy that (believe it or not) underlies pinball, since I often had no idea that I had a ball locked or a specific target to aim for.
The PS4 version of Zen Pinball 2 has launched with 19 unique tables and a heavy focus on Marvel and Star Wars. Each is a completely original creation, with no real life counterpart to draw inspiration from. The difficulty of the tables varies a fair bit, but some of them feel too easy, with very few risky shots or angles. Thankfully, each table has a setup menu where you can adjust the rake of the table, bumper tension, and other settings that a real pinball table incorporates. They’re fantastical, and do not adhere firmly to the layout of a traditional pinball table – ramps often run outside the limits of the table, and some tables include minigames that have no relation to pinball. It results in some interesting gameplay, but feels like it could be fleshed out more thoroughly.
Introducing table designs that totally forgo the traditional shape would help differentiate Zen from its competitor The Pinball Arcade (which strictly emulates real life pinball tables). For example, how about a double wide table designed 2 player co-op, or an adversarial table that plays like foosball with flippers? The problem with trying to compete directly with Pinball Arcade is that that game is already emulating the best tables ever made, and Zen’s original designs don’t quite stack up. Zen is already stepping outside pinball tradition, and I’d like to see them go totally outside the box.
Zen Pinball 2 has some really great social features. Leaderboards are in your face constantly, providing incentive to improve your score. Each table you play also contributes to your global score, giving plenty of opportunity for bragging rights.
Visually, Zen Pinball 2 is shiny and smooth on PS4. The textures generally look good, and there’s a nice amount of visual pizzazz to things. Zen also supports 3D on PS4, which looks good, but doesn’t necessarily add to the experience. The music does its job, with recognizable Star Wars pieces on those tables, and generic guitar rock on most of the others. The sound design isn’t great, as I mentioned above – pinball should be a complete assault on your senses, and Zen’s tables are too sedate for my tastes.
It may seem like I have beat up on Zen Pinball 2, but it still manages to be thoroughly enjoyable to play. I’m a harsh critic where pinball is concerned, and I believe Zen has room to transform their game from a good one to an excellent one. The social aspects are excellent and the gameplay is solid if not physically accurate. If Zen can hone their tables and create unique experiences instead of attempting to beat the best at their own craft, they’ll have something special on their hands. As it stands, the game is a fun romp, but only if you can get past the differences from real pinball psychologically.