Zen Pinball 3D|
I am a huge fan of Pinball ranging from the real pinball tables you can still find in bars and bowling alleys to the electronic versions on PC and console. I hate to think of the countless hours I spent in college playing with the Pinball Construction Set on my Atari 800 instead of doing my homework. And for the past five years Zen Studios has been keeping the pinball legacy alive with their stunning console editions of Pinball FX, and Zen Pinball, and most recently, a stunning iOS version that may just be the best pinball game you can play on your iPad.
Now, Zen Studios is bringing their pinball game to the Nintendo 3DS with Zen Pinball 3D, putting a new perspective on some classic tables. As a relatively new owner of a 3DS I was totally excited when I heard this game was coming to the Nintendo eShop, but was also surprised it wasnít releasing as a retail box. Then again, if you look at the Zen Pinball business model, itís all about getting you hooked with the core game then trickling in those extras tables down the road, so digital delivery makes perfect sense.
Zen Pinball 3D comes with four classic tables that fans of the franchise are likely quite familiar with; Excalibur, El Dorado, Shaman, and Earth Defense. Itís worth noting that this is the first time Shaman and Eldorado have released outside of PlayStation Network. Each table has a very distinct theme/premise like destroying invading aliens or searching for lost treasure, but these thin plots do little to mask the core essence of pinball, which is keep the ball alive as long as you can and rack up huge scores and multipliers.
There are a few nifty features on the 3DS that, while not entirely exclusive, are still surprising for the handheld system. Local hot seat multiplayer allows you to pass the system to a friend for local competition and the online leader boards and table rankings allow you to compete or at least share scores with your friends. In addition, players will compete to achieve the greatest Pro Score ranking: the sum of a playerís high score across all tables, and a Team Score: the sum of a playerís score and friends score. Zen Studios even includes various rewards for playing and accomplishing table-specific missions, much like the achievements and trophies on the console.
So, Zen Pinball 3D brings the tables and the features, but we all know youíre here for the 3D and sadly, that is where this game TILTS! The 3D effect is quite stunning in the opening logo and each of the table setup screens but once you get into the actual game things become a blurry mess. There are 8 table views you can cycle through using the X button, but no single view and no position on the 3D effect slider will yield pleasing results.
There is a ton of ghosting and the 3D effect is continuously lost and must be reacquired like those holographic pictures at the mall. The game can look amazing at times but these rare moments are usually when the ball or the camera isnít moving, but then you arenít playing either. The 3D effect pops the best in the furthest top-down view, which is so small itís unplayable, and in the closest view down on the deck behind the flippers, but then the screen pans and zooms to track the ball losing the 3D effect with each transition. Ultimately, the best way to play Zen Pinball 3D is with the 3D effect turned off but then you have to ask yourself, ďwhy bother?Ē
There are other gameplay issues that present themselves that are wholly unique to the 3DS. First, these tables are so complex and detailed and the 3DS screen is so small that you simply canít see what you are aiming for half the time. Only the lower third of the table is discernible, so any chance of hitting a target or a ramp is pure luck and a bit of rhythm intuition. If you zoom in so you can see all parts of the table clearly you still are looking through a fast-panning window that zips around trying to track the silver ball. There is an optional slow-motion mode you can turn on that allows you to slow things down with the Y button, but it really doesn't help to change speeds in mid-play and you can't use in hot seat mode.
Itís also worth noting that when playing in 3D there is also a significant lag between the time you squeeze/tap the shoulder buttons and when the flipper actually moves. This forces you to consciously build in your own lag buffer so the ball doesnít drain down the middle before the flipper engages. For me, this meant hitting the buttons as the ball reached the bottom of either side chute. Even after several hours of gameplay itís still very distracting to have to play with this built-in lag awareness and takes away from the overall experience. Playing in pure 2D mode is the only way to ensure a real-time flipper response.
Zen Pinball 3D can look amazing at times. There were moments while I was holding the ball with a flipper or just prior to launching the ball where the table just popped off the screen and I was completely immersed, but then once things started moving it all became a ghostly mess that gave me more migraines than enjoyment. If you end up getting this game then stick with the 2D mode, which looks really good, despite having 58-inches of HDTV detail crammed into a 3-inch screen.
The sound effects and music and even the occasional signature voice-overs have all made the trip from console to 3DS, and it sounds great. They could have made the max volume a bit louder for when you donít want to play with headphones. Itís all very clear and spacious with some sort of virtual surround thing going on. It's very energetic and very cool.
Zen Pinball 3D is a tough game to recommend. For $7 youíre going to get four tables that most franchise fans already own and have played to death. It would have been nice to have at least one 3DS-exclusive table to sweeten the pot, and Iím guessing that with dozens of other existing console tables ready to be ported there is no incentive to make anything original for the handheld at this time. I'm expecting Marvel Pinball DLC any day now. It might be fun to see these tables pop in 3D for a few seconds, but the bottom line is the game is pretty much unplayable in 3D, which for me, is the only real reason youíd want to get the game in the first place. Itís a good effort on the part of Zen Studios, but complex pinball tables, gimmicky 3D, and tiny screens just donít mix.