I think it would be quite the challenge to find someone who doesn’t enjoy a good pinball game. Though the physical version of the game has become quite rare these days, it is still very much alive on the digital front, thanks to efforts like Zen Studios’ fantastic Zen Pinball series. With the recent release of Zen Pinball 2, players can once again experience the joy playing pinball can bring, but also do so in new ways that could only be delivered through video games. It’s that unique digital experience combined with the work to deliver the best pinball experience possible that makes Zen Pinball 2 not only unique but a stand out game.
Zen Pinball 2 is all about pinball; no story here. Instead, once downloaded, you’ll have access to various pinball tables to purchase and play, all with free trials. Players can just choose a table and go straight to playing. There’s quite a variety of tables too, ranging from various franchises and styles, like Street Fighter, or for comic book fans, there’s a a bevy of choices based on Marvel, for example. The most recent addition is one based on PopCap Games’ popular Plants VS Zombies game. All these tables are beautifully rendered, with a great eye for detail.
One of the most important details that makes Zen Pinball 2 stand out is how visually stunning each table is. It’s obvious how much work, care, and passion went into designing each of the tables to look and feel like real ones. There are the metal rails and secret paths, those bumpers in the back that you just can’t quite see, and the light signs that cover the table delivering crucial information that one ignores anyway because you’re too distracted trying to get the ball into that one lane. This is all accompanied by the dot matrix screens all real pinball tables have, strengthening that feel of realism that the tables carry, and also shows the love the creators have for the game, as they forego a more modern option to show the usual pinball game information, and instead go with a more traditional look.
The dedication of Zen Studios can be seen elsewhere too, of course. The sound captures the nostalgia of pinball perfectly. Whether it’s the clacks of the flippers, the loud thump of the bumpers as the ball bounces back and forth, or that first thud from the spring, all of them are there. And all of them just hit the right tones to bring one back to those old pinball tables. These are accompanied by various character voices and other similar sounds which depend on the table played, like Marvel heroes voices or groans from zombies, adding another unique quality to each table.
The gameplay is the last bit that emphasizes the combination of both realism and video game portrayed in Zen Pinball 2 that make the title such a joy to play. The realism and immersion is maintained with the use of very realistic physics. It will feel like real pinball at all times. Add to this a slew of experiences that take advantage of the medium and the gameplay is taken to another level. For example, each table has its own personality and with that come a set of unique challenges. One of the standouts is a Marvel table in which Thanos will twist the gameplay to challenge the player, most memorably by flipping the table upside-down. It’s a small shift that seriously requires concentration to deal with, as the perspective is simply so out of the norm for pinball games. The Plants VS Zombies table is another standout, in which elements from the original game are mixed in. At some points zombies will rise and the ball must be used to destroy them before they reach the bottom of the table. Some of the plants can be used to aid in this, such as the Nut, which will block a zombie’s path and hold it in place to give the player more time to take it down, or the Squash which will instantly smother one zombie.
It’s unfortunate though that each table must be purchased, instead of having access to them all from the beginning, limiting the options one can access from the start. This however also allows for each player to cheaply access the tables that interest them the most without the need to pay a higher price for tables they may not use.
Included as well is a social and multiplayer element. These not only allow a player to compare and compete for high scores with strangers and friends alike, but also actively have the player compete against up-to-three others to be the first to reach a certain score. This adds some replayability, though it’s unnecessary since the regular game lends itself to so much of it already.
This combination of realism and fantasy turns Zen Pinball 2 into a unique experience. The realistic elements are enjoyable and very immersive, and much like the idiom of not being able to define art, but knowing it when you see it, these elements just feel right. It’s true pinball in every way, with the exception that there is no heavy table to slump over. Combine this with fantastical elements that complement the pinball game and how the game takes full advantage of its digital medium, and you have a recipe for a excellent pinball game that will see many hours of play.