There have been three “Golden Ages” of Pinball: the 1930s when modern pinball was popularised as a game played in bars and drugstores (and was subsequently banned by many U.S. cities as a gambling machine), the Post-War era when flippers were first introduced and the 1970s when pinball went electronic (and many of the bans were lifted). So what do these three eras have in common with each other, apart from the growth of pinball? They were all times of economic hardship when the public was crying out for cheap entertainment. Pinball fulfilled those needs perfectly and soon became a cultural icon of 20th century America.
All through the 1980s it was a largely held opinion that electronic games from Japan had killed pinball, filling halls with Pac-Man and Asteroids where pinball machines had once stood. There were, of course, many efforts at “virtual” pinball on home consoles (Pinball was a North American release title for the NES console in 1985!) as well as in arcade cabinets. Some met with reasonable popularity and there was another renaissance for traditional pinball machines in the 1990s (this time involving companies like Capcom and Sega) but in truth it was never going to claw back its ground in the entertainment business from the electronic newcomers.
Fast forward to 2009, it’s another time of economic trouble around the world and another opportunity for the innovation of pinball. There are no large manufacturers of pinball machines left in business so all we have left are the electronic renditions of a game which started with a billiard ball and some wooden skittles.
This is not the first time Zen Studios have brought pinball to a console; they have previously developed Flipper Critters for Nintendo DS and Pinball FX for the Xbox 360. This is, though, the first one they’ve put their own name right there in the title. They have a heritage in virtual renditions of the classic table game and it shows. Zen Pinball (£6.29 on the PlayStation Store) is as faithful a rendition of the iconic game as you could hope to find.
The physics are perfect with the ball rattling around the table with a real sense of weight and substance. The smooth 720p graphics never drop a frame and the sound brings back fond memories of family holidays and campsite arcades in the mid-eighties. The presentation is nostalgic and imaginative in equal measure with your score displayed (or not, you can remove it if you prefer) on a “dot-matrix” style inlay which lets you know how you’re doing on your march towards a world-beating high score. The menus are easily navigated and congruent with the theme – each option made to look like score and track lights on a pinball table.
Zen Studios have found a successful way to fit a large vertical pinball machine into your horizontally-proportioned TV screen by allowing five different viewpoints along with a “free view” mode so you can move the camera around the table at your own pace and explore all the different bumpers, switches and bonus areas. This is an invaluable addition to the game which you will really want to make full use of as the key to scoring high is learning where the bonus areas are and activating certain hits in sequence. You really need to learn the layout and sequences of each of the four tables (others are expected to be added later as downloadable content) in order to get the most out of the game.
As a newcomer with little pinball experience I found the initial period of not knowing how to score well to be slightly frustrating but plenty of fun. Over time you learn (by chance, more often than not, in my case) where the high-scoring areas are and how to get them working for you but this could possibly have been explained slightly better for those without any pinball experience. The mass of flashing lights and tracks might be slightly overwhelming to begin with but in truth it is only a matter of a few games before you learn some encouraging methods to increase your high score.
I think that perhaps the most enjoyable thing I found with Zen Pinball is that it was the first game in a while that I haven’t been trying to beat anyone but myself. There are multiplayer options (local and online) which work perfectly well for when you feel competitive. The game has extensive global score-boards and from time to time there are online tournaments you can take part in. There is even a ticker on the menu screen which highlights outstanding achievements made by certain players. There is, however, a simple joy in just trying to better a previous score that is lost in many modern video games.
If you have ever been a fan of the classic game then this modern rendition will be highly enjoyable for you. If you are a pinball newcomer you might have problems getting to grips with the complexity of the tables but perseverance will lead to greater enjoyment and it is well worth putting some time into this highly polished and extremely competent game. The only things that let down an otherwise fantastic title are the limited number of tables available and the fairly steep learning curve. If you want something to jump into and play for five minutes this is perfect but beware, those five minutes can become hours as you discover new paths to the high scores.
It is just possible that everything is falling into place at the right time for this title. An affordable, massively fun and entertaining take on an old classic done with real class and prowess. This might just be the beginning of another golden age of pinball.