The arrival of legendary games such as Space Invaders and Pac-Man almost wiped pinball off the face of the planet overnight, swiftly replacing the flipper-happy pursuit as the favourite pastime of arcade fun-seekers country-wide. Video games were the new cool and it wasn’t until the 90s, thanks to the arrival of licensed machines themed around movies and video games, that the table-tilting game had something of a mini-renaissance.
Inevitably, this period also gave birth to numerous pinball simulators on home computers and consoles which tried to emulate the elaborate designs, the advanced ball physics and striking visual styles of this new wave of pinball machines. Fast forward some 20 years and we now have Zen Pinball 2 on PlayStation 4, a simulator that sets a new benchmark for this niche sub-genre with its rich-sounding, glorious-looking and brilliantly designed tables that stay faithful to the old arcade game but also add a few modern-day twists.
Though Zen Pinball 2 has previously launched on PS3 and Vita, owners of the PS4 version can wallow in the fact that performance has been increased for this new generation of console to 1080p and 60 frames-per-second (FPS), which makes it the definitive and smoothest running iteration of this addictive simulator. If you do already own other PlayStation versions you can also import any DLC for free and then continue to download other tables or packs from the PlayStation Store.
Indeed, Zen Pinball 2 is all about DLC. From the main hub you get to pick and choose which tables you’d like to play and then pay for the privilege. With 20 tables to choose from there’s plenty of variety and also the chance to play demo tables for free. The fact that there’s no option to purchase all the tables for one knock-down price is disappointing, but users can buy individual tables or bite-sized packs to suit their preferred themes so the choice is firmly in the hands of the consumer.
Zen Pinball 2 does exactly what it says on the tin, impressing with its array of beautifully designed tables which emulate the pick-up-and-play appeal, excellent replay value and addictiveness of the arcade machines very well indeed. Ranging from the Star Wars Collection, which includes ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ ‘Boba Fett,’ and ‘The Clone Wars,’ to ‘Street Fighter II’ and ‘Ninja Gaiden Sigma tribute’ tables, a range of movies and video games are featured as well as other mediums, ensuring there’s a varied selection. Further tables will also be released as DLC in future months.
Playing Zen Pinball 2 is painstakingly simple, though mastering it certainly isn’t. It works just like an arcade pinball machine as you pull back the spring with the analog stick to send the metal ball whizzing around the machine and then use the left and right flippers with the bumpers of the DualShock 4 to fling the ball around and rack up as many points as possible; the ultimate aim being to top the online leaderboards or beat your own personal best. Notifications pop up on-screen when you achieve certain goals and there’s the option to compare friend’s scores, brag on Facebook, or enter tournaments, thus providing a social element that was missing from earlier simulations.
With the ball whizzing around the table, cascading over ramps, hurtling around spinners and rebounding of bumpers at breakneck speeds, gameplay can be extremely fast-paced, though the optional slow motion feature does come in handy. The combination of speed coupled with very bright visuals and the busy design of the tables can be a lot to take in – I had to take a break to give my eyes a rest on numerous occasions – but it’s very easy to get totally absorbed into racking up combos and multipliers or trying to hit certain areas of the table in order to trigger the likes of mini-games or cut-scenes.
Indeed, the big draw of Zen Pinball 2 is the diversity of tables and the way in which they’re designed. Though you’re basically repeating the same pull and flip moves in every game, each pinball table could easily have a review of its own as each offers something uniquely different. I didn’t get a chance to try all the tables but the ones I did were fun to play in short bursts and kept me coming back for more time and time again.
I spent most of my time switching in between the three Stars Wars machines and Sorcerer’s Lair. The latter is set in an ancient magical citadel with players essentially taking the role of a brother and sister who are battling against an evil sorcerer who has all kinds of tricks up his sleeves, such as summoning spiders and ghosts. Each table has a mini-story behind it and by playing the game you’re basically trying to complete missions and mini-games while scoring points in the process. The table looks fantastic, the ball physics seem accurate and, like all of the tables I played, replayability is excellent as you seek to become a pinball wizard.
Anyone who is into pinball will know there’s a great degree of strategy behind its simplistic control mechanics with secret passages, ball saves, multipliers and combos rewarding those players who try and master each machine. In this case, collecting mission runes and partaking in mini-games like the Freaky Forest, which opens up a new window and a side-mission that fits in with the fantasy theme, provide the entertainment. A quick check online and I found strategy guides and tips for each table, which I’d definitely recommend if you want to get the most out of Zen Pinball 2.
The Stars Wars-themed tables are excellent too with The Empire Strikes Back being the highlight of the pack. Hit a couple of barricades and you can choose between one of five scenes from the movie, while 3D models such as TIE fighters and AT-AT’s provide some entertaining twists to the usual gameplay. There’s some good mini-games too, including the ability to take control of Luke Skywalker, using the flippers to deflect lasers with a lightsaber.
The Bobba Fett table is also entertaining as you complete missions for either Darth Vader or Jabba The Hutt and then seek to destroy other bounty hunters. Of course, it all simply boils down to tapping your bumpers at the right time, but the intricate table designs ensure it’s actually much more challenging and entertaining than its simple control scheme suggests, while the theme and excellent audio work will appeal to those who have an interest in George Lucas’s franchise.
A word of warning though: unless you really understand pinball and the strategy behind it and what all the individual lights, holes, ramps and bumpers mean on each table you won’t get the best out of Zen Pinball 2. The lack of any tutorials or real explanation on the features of each table is frustrating and if you don’t know your ‘tilt’s from your ‘nudges’ the game will be over before it’s barely started. Nevertheless, Zen Pinball 2 is totally addictive if pinball is your thing and if you go searching online for strategy guides or join the Zen community then it opens up a whole new world of addiction.