App Store Link: Zen Pinball, Free
The State of Video Pinball
Pinball is a game that I’ve never felt has translated well to video form. Part of it is the visceral, physical experience of a good pinball table – the other part is the form factor or aspect ratio of a pinball table (which is much taller than it is wide). While in the last few years video pinball has come a long way in terms of realistic physics, there is still the aspect ratio issue. Most of us play games on a widescreen monitor or TV which is the exact opposite of what is best for video pinball! Is pinball best left to the real arcades? Well, not anymore. Video pinball has launched a renaissance on iOS. With Zen Pinball, and now Pinball Arcade as well (which I hope to try soon), iOS gamers are now spoiled for choice to get their pinball fix.
iPad’s aren’t well-suited to many types of arcade gaming. Fast-action stuff with virtual d-pads is almost never satisfying. But pinball only requires 4 inputs – two flippers, the plunger and tilt. That’s no problem for a touch-screen. And the iPad’s 4:3 ratio 1024×768 pixel display is perfectly suited for pinball action in portrait mode. So with Zen Studios porting their console game Zen Pinball to iPad, its an absolute perfect match. Zen Pinball was originally released on PS3, but it has a very close cousin in the Xbox 360 Pinball FX2. Dozens of tables have been released on these console platforms, but so far Zen Studios has only brought 6 of these to iPad. The App Store download is completely free, and comes with the Sorcerer’s Lair table. 5 additional tables are available as in-app purchases – Thor, Epic Quest, Wolverine, Captain America and Excalibur. These tables are 99c each upon release, rising to $1.99 after a certain amount of time.
So this is a free app? Yup, and definitely one of the best free iPad games out there. Let me give you a shortcut to the article conclusion if you are short on time – download Zen Pinball today! The rest of this article is going to examine each of the tables in detail and give some recommendations on what are the best buys. The tables will be ranked in order, starting with what I feel are the very best.
1. Epic Quest
Epic Quest is an extremely innovative table, and to my knowledge there simply is nothing else out there like it. This table is a fusion of pinball and a Diablo-esque RPG. Insane? Maybe, but also incredibly fun and addictive. This table should be your first Zen Pinball table purchase – without a doubt!
Basically, the table works like this: you’ll find a monster to fight in 3 different places – the forest, the dungeon, or the Ocanium. The fight requires you to hit different lanes and ramps to either dodge, block, hit or cast spells. As you’d expect from a RPG, each enemy has different hit points and damage stats, as well as elemental resistances (yes its that complex!). The enemy also has a countdown timer that repeats, and each time it hits zero the monster hits your character. Of course, its possible to interrupt the timer by blocking or dodging. Once you beat an enemy you gain XP and can hit a target to collect your loot. Loot is just what you’d expect, random weapons/armor with different stats and elemental properties. Did I mention there is even purple Epic gear!
If that was all there was to Epic Quest, it would be an interesting idea. What puts it over the top is the fact that your XP and gear persist between games! This means you can ‘grind’ Epic Quest and level up your character and gear. Trust me, its addictive! Beyond what I’ve described there are a variety of other high-level modes, skillshots and targets. All in all, Epic Quest is a truly amazing pinball table that any pinball fan will fall in love with – whether they are new to pinball or a veteran.
2. Sorcerer’s Lair
Sorcerer’s Lair comes packed free with Zen Pinball, but don’t let that fool you – its far from a throwaway freebie. Initially I was pretty skeptical about Sorcerer’s Lair due to this free nature and also the ‘rated-G’ style of the table. But none of that matter’s when put up against the really excellent layout and gameplay that this table showcases. In addition to its many game modes and complex layout, Sorcerer’s Lair is also pretty newbie-friendly and forgiving.
The game modes in Sorcerer’s Lair are controlled by hitting the hidden ‘altar’ in the center of the table. Many of these modes, such as the one pictured on the left above, take you to completely new playfields. Clearing these playfields will earn you a Obsidian Stone. Getting these stones is important for high-scoring in the final Midnight Madness mode. So there is a clear progression of play in Sorcerer’s Lair, and its easy enough that even beginners can get a few stones and perhaps to the final mode.
Wolverine was my first Zen Pinball purchase and I certainly don’t regret it. Visually its an amazing table, showcasing detailed character models of Wolverine, Silver Samurai, Sentinel and Sabretooth. The tables ramps and lanes are nicely spaced and not overly complicated. Soon you’ll learn how to rack up impressive scores. The flipside of that is that perhaps Wolverine doesn’t have quite as much lasting power as some of the other more complex tables. I should also mention I found some of the voice effects on this table a bit more annoying and repetitive than some of the others. Still, its an awesome table to pick up and play without needing to go into the table guide and figure out all the inner workings.
4. Captain America
Captain America is certainly the most advanced of all the current Zen Pinball iOS tables. There are a massive array of multi-step modes (including many choices to make on the LCD), as well as a very complex layout of ramps, lanes and targets. Personally, while I appreciate all the effort that has gone into the table, I’ve had a hard time coming to grips with it. Yeah, I’ll admit – I suck at it… I would say this is a must-buy for pinball veterans, but others with less pinball skill might want to buy some of the other tables that are easier to handle first.
For an example of some of the impressive complexity that’s gone into Captain America, check out this amazing table strategy guide. Its an incredibly deep pinball table!
Excalibur is my most recent purchase, and I’m still learning it. Its packed with mini-games, such as jousting and dueling. But the controls of these mini-games aren’t as tight as I’d like. The jousting in particular I have absolutely no clue how to succeed at, and the table guide wasn’t much help either. I do really like the layout and graphics though. The multi-step mode to break into the castle is awesome in terms of both visuals and gameplay! I’m sure once I get a bit more time with the table and the mini-games I’ll start to appreciate Excalibur more.
Also, there is a third flipper on the right side of Excalibur that I’m having trouble making any decent use of. One of my pet peeves in pinball games is when a 3rd or 4th flipper is very rarely used – it seems like a waste. Leave me a comment if you have some advice on that! Or a link to a PDF table guide perhaps, as I haven’t found a good one yet.
Thor is an incredibly beautiful table. The voices and sound effects are quite polished as well. But I’m not sold on the gameplay. The first problem is that many of the modes require hitting the exact same lane or target, many, many times. Its just not varied enough, as well as being quite difficult. And further, on some lanes you can trigger a ‘boost’ – sending your pinball off to other parts of the table. That’s fine in theory, but you trigger the boost by touching a check mark on the screen (as seen above). This doesn’t work well in the heat of action, and worse, the timing of the boost trigger is very tricky. If Zen Studios patched this problem I think Thor would be much easier to enjoy.
Zen Pinball Summary
Since I purchased all tables shortly after they were released, I’ve spent a total of $5 on Zen Pinball. The amount of awesome pinball gameplay for a five-spot is pretty incredible. The fact that its a completely portable experience on the iPad is just gravy. Even though the table graphics aren’t quite as polished as their console counterparts, the form factor and convenience of the iPad make Zen Pinball the definitive video pinball experience today.
You may also be wondering how Zen Pinball matches up on iPhone. On my iPhone 3GS, there are some framerate issues but its playable. The bigger problem is the small screen – which makes seeing smaller table details very difficult. Of course, the higher-resolution screens of the iPhone 4 and 4S may alleviate this somewhat. But I still feel the iPad is the best way to play Zen Pinball.
As more tables are released for Zen Pinball on iOS, I hope to cover those in separate article so stay tuned – subscribe to GameThought via RSS!
App Store Link: Zen Pinball, FreeTags: ios, ipad, iphone, zen pinball, zen studios