Zen Pinball Review: 3D brings new life to an old genre

The eShop’s climb to excellence continues; Zen Pinball is amazingly good, combining great gameplay with a lifelike presentation only 3DS can deliver.

Many of today’s gamers have never played a real, hand-built pinball machine, but I grew up near a terrific pinball arcade where gaming nights involved staring down through glass cabinet tops (marred by old cigarette ashes and drinking glass rings) into mazes of ramps, bumpers and targets, all wrapped up in great, gaudy fantasy artwork.

A lifelong fan of flipper buttons, I’ve played a lot of virtual pinball on everything from the pre-2600 Atari Breakout box to the Electronic Arts Pinball Construction Set (EA used to be a small, lovable company), Metroid Pinball, Mario Pinball and the many collections that have appeared on consoles. I’m a pretty good judge of virtual pinball.

So, trust me: The 3DS eShop version of Zen Pinball captures the feeling of playing a real pinball machine better than any other release in videogame history.

Why? Much to my surprise, it’s the 3D. I didn’t see this one coming’never thought this genre particularly needed the effect’but when I downloaded this gem and started playing, my pinball-lovin’ heart soared. No other simulation has been able to perfectly recreate the feeling of actually looking down into a pinball machine’s cabinet at solid, physical mechanisms and props. It turns out that the added sense of depth has been the missing ingredient in video pinball all this time.

Of course, it helps that the game itself is wonderful. $7.99 may seem a bit steep for a pinball download, but you’ll get every penny’s worth. The game contains four separate tables’Excalibur, Shaman, Eldorado and Earth Defense’and each one is imaginative, challenging and unique, with plenty of surprises, animated characters and target quests. It’s easy to get so engrossed by a single table that you’ll completely forget there are three more waiting in the wings. I enjoyed them all, but Excalibur is my favorite by a long shot: through sound, pacing and table design, it creates an effective atmosphere of swordplay and jousting within its little pinball universe.

All action takes place on the upper screen, with the lower screen serving as an animated scoreboard. I was initially concerned that a single small playfield screen might cause a problem, but smart camera angles save the day. The game, in fact, offers eight selectable camera modes for a good range of viewing choices; I settled on one that zooms in enough to highlight details while intelligently following the ball around the table and still giving me plenty of time to react.

Sound effects are excellent’use headphones if you can’and the voicework is wonderfully hammy (“Now behold the incredible power of the great Merlin: MULTIBALL!!!!”)

It controls beautifully. I’ve played Zen Pinball on iPhone (different tables, similar gameplay), and I much prefer the real buttons of 3DS to the iOS touch controls. The iPhone graphics are sharper, but without 3D the iOS tables don’t spring to life as well as the 3DS offering.

In all, Zen Pinball’s a great addition to the growing eShop catalog. After all the fun I’ve had with the system lately, I’m surprised and delighted to find it now hosting the best pinball simulation on the market as well.

By the way, if you have a pinball-loving parent or grandparent who doesn’t generally enjoy videogames, this could be the game that wins them over. Beware, though, you might not get your system back for a long time!