Inside Pulse 12

Review: Marvel Pinball (Sony Playstation 3)

Marvel Pinball
Genre: Pinball
Developer: Zen Studios
Publisher: Zen Studios
Release Date: 12/14/10

It’s hard to digitally simulate pinball, or at least, the terrible attempts so many have made would imply. Getting the physics just right is no mean feat, and making a table that’s fine and interesting on top of that is a colossal pain, and as such, it can be a daunting task making a digital pinball game that’s okay, let alone good. Zen Studios has proven themselves to be up to this task, however, with their various releases from the Pinball FX and Zen Pinball series, as their games are often critically acclaimed, well appreciated and relatively highly downloaded. The most notable of these has been the Marvel Pinball series, which originally included tables focused around Spider-Man, Blade, Iron Man and Wolverine, but has since expanded to include the Fantastic Four and, this past week, Captain America. With the release of the Captain America table, Zen Studios was nice enough to offer us not only the option to review that table, but their prior tables as well, and while Alex took on the Fantastic Four and Captain America tables as needed, I opted to pick up the original pack, largely because he already had it. However, I’m also someone who appreciates a good digital pinball game, and while I never had a chance to pick up the original tables, I was always interested in them, mostly because I’m a big Spider-Man fan, so now that we’ve got a chance to sit down with the tables, let’s take a look and see what all the fuss is about, shall we?

Marvel Pinball comes with four tables to start with, each themed after fairly notable Marvel Comics heroes: Blade, Iron Man, Wolverine and Spider-Man. The obvious point that all four have been in blockbuster movies as of this point notwithstanding, the tables are more readily themed to their comic book personas than their movie personas, as you’ll notice when you start seeing characters who’ve never appeared in the movies before. Movie fans will find the tables to be accessible, but the real treats in concept are for the comics fans, as the tables are full of little touches like Dracula popping up on Blade’s table, Wolverine fighting The Hand, and Spider-Man returning home to his wife Mary Jane, the latter of which makes me a fan of Zen Studios forever. Ahem. Anyway, regardless of whether you’re a fan of one franchise or the other, or not even a fan at all, the themes also lend themselves to some very interesting table design concepts. This being a digital pinball table, the tables don’t exactly have to lend themselves to realistic design elements, so while the actual gameplay is all pretty much rooted in real pinball physics, you’ll see things like the villains you’ll face stomping across the table or attacking your given hero, which adds a life to the proceedings that real tables can’t quite match. Each table can be played alone or with friends, on and offline, as players compete against each other for top scores, either simultaneously online or by taking turns offline, so you can get your pinball on with up to four players if you’ve got some friends who like it too.

Marvel Pinball looks authentic, as the various tables capture both the appropriate aesthetics one would expect of a pinball table and the visual elements one would expect of the characters. Spider-Man’s table is heavy in blues and reds for him, as well as greens, purples and oranges for his respective environments and enemies, while Wolverine’s table features plenty of blues and yellows and claw-marked areas, Blade’s table features lots of dark colors and urban visuals, and Iron Man’s table is marked with lots of blues, reds and yellows, as well as a more futuristic look. The game looks great in motion as well, as the different active elements of each table are incredibly well animated and very bright and colorful, as is befitting of the characters in question. The game is also technically sound as well, as there aren’t any significant technical issues visually, though the game has a habit of making a bit too much use of its dynamic camera angles at less than desirable times. The game also sounds fantastic, as the different tunes for each table are immediately evocative of the characters associated, and the different voice actors and actresses used on the tables turn out great performances all around. The sound effects are authentic sounding as well, as the four tables make a great effort to sound like real tables, complete with various easily distinguished effects when you set off power-ups and bounce the ball off of environmental elements, as well as character-specific effects, like laser blasts on Iron Man’s table or “thwip” web-spinning effects on Spider-Man’s table. The end result is a collection of tables that have both visual and aural personality to spare, which is, again, great for fans of all types.

The core gameplay of Marvel Pinball is incredibly simplistic to understand: hold and release a button to fire the ball into the playing field, then press buttons associated to the left and right flippers to attempt to keep the ball in play and hit scoring areas of the table. You can also tilt the controller in the PS3 version to perform actual “tilt” actions in the game if you want, you big cheater you. If you’ve played any pinball table in your life you already know how the basics of the game work, and Zen Studios has managed to replicate the experience more or less perfectly. The ball physics, while not one hundred percent accurate to real-life pinball, are among the best around at replicating the experience, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how the ball will react across all of the tables to your shots and scoring attempts. Now, of course, pinball tables aren’t just about keeping the ball in play, they’re about what you can do with the ball to earn the highest score possible, and each of the four tables has its own unique elements that make it fun and interesting in its own way. So let’s break down the individual tables a little bit:

SPIDER-MAN – Spider-Man’s table is probably the best overall table for pinball newbies to jump into, as it’s the easiest table of the four to really learn and work with. The color scheme of the table makes it easy to follow the ball visually, and the table is laid out in a fashion that makes it easy to score once you’ve spent a little time learning the particulars. There are missions on the table associated to Doctor Octopus, Green Goblin, Mysterio and J. Jonah Jameson, as well as a score point where Peter stops at home to visit his wife, and for the most part, they’re all pretty easy to access and do well at. Further, it’s very easy to get the kickbacks (the areas on the left and right sides of the table that can save an otherwise lost ball) and ball saves (power-ups that save your ball no matter how it falls out of play) activated on the table, and the ramps are all laid out in a way that’s very forgiving and makes them easily accessible. There are two right side flippers and three left side flippers; one of each at the bottom of the table, one of each at the top of the table, and a left flipper at about the middle of the table. Each of the flippers can be used to set off missions or activate additional scoring opportunities, with the two main flippers being the most useful, while the left side flipper is most useful for activating the Mary Jane scoring spot, and the upper flippers are good for setting off the Doc Ock and Mysterio missions. Of the missions, only the Mysterio mission is really problematic to complete, mostly because he reverses the function of the flipper buttons, but there are ways to get around this easy enough. Otherwise, the missions are mostly about hitting the appropriate ramps quickly, and this isn’t really hard to do with any of the missions, which (once again) makes this one of the easiest tables to score on and work with, and my personal favorite (though, oddly, not the table I have the highest score on).

WOLVERINE – Wolverine’s table is also quite easy to score on, though it can take some getting used to, as the color scheme of the table can make it hard to follow the ball movement at first, because it’s a very bright yellow that can be hard to adjust to. Also, there are missions on the table associated to The Hand, Sabretooth, the Silver Samurai and Sentinels, but unlike the missions on the Spider-Man table, the missions on the Wolverine table are a little more complex to activate, though not significantly so. Still, the table is exceptionally easy to score on even so, to the point where it’s the table I have the highest score on at this point, and it’s fairly easy to get kickbacks turned on, making it another good table for newbies to learn their skills on. There are three flippers on the table, with the main two located at the bottom and a third located on the top right side; the bottom two flippers are mostly useful for keeping the ball in play, while the top right flipper is good for activating the Sabretooth and Hand missions, mostly. The Silver Samurai and Hand missions are easy to complete, while the Sabretooth and Sentinel missions are a little more challenging, though not unmanageable. All told, the Wolverine table is going to be another fun and easy table for players, once they get used to it.

BLADE – Blade’s table is a drastic change in pace from the first two tables, due to the cycling of Day and Night that change up some of the play elements, and it’s laid out in a more challenging fashion from the first two tables mentioned. The Day cycle allows you access to Blade’s Workshop where you can buy power-ups with money collected from doing things on the table (like multipliers and ball saves and such), while the Night cycle lets you take on the majority of the missions against general vampiric entities and Deacon Frost. Most of the missions on the table are fairly easy to activate and clear, though the Deacon Frost missions get pretty complex later on, and there’s a final mission against Dracula that’s… unpleasant if you’re not skilled at pinball. There are five flippers on the table; the bottom two flippers are your main flippers, the top two are good for activating the mission hole at the top of the table, and the flipper on the center right of the table can be useful for hitting some ramps and the left center bumpers. While the Blade missions can be a bit problematic and the table is a little cluttered in places, the table is still somewhat reasonable to score on and the Day and Night cycles make for an interesting, if challenging, table.

IRON MAN – Here, hands down, is the hardest table in the collection, and the one that is going to be the most interesting to skilled pinball players in terms of sheer challenge. It’s challenging to activate and keep ball saves and kickbacks in play, the angle of the ramps makes it more difficult than on most of the tables to get shots to go in successfully, there really aren’t a lot of opportunities for wild scoring sprees, and the missions are more challenging than any of those on the other tables, making for an experience that’s really for the experienced player above anyone else. There are three flippers on the table, two main flippers at the bottom and one on the left center side, with the bottom flippers being most useful for keeping the ball in play and the left center being useful for hitting the Iron Man mission hole. There are two types of missions on the table: Stark Missions and Iron Man missions. The Stark missions mostly just revolve around hitting specific targets eventually or going through various ramps several times (usually eight), and for the most part are easy enough to get if you’re patient. The Iron Man missions, however, have you going up against Whiplash and Mandarin, often against timers, and with the complex stage design on top of that it can be daunting to complete them. However, unlike the other tables, Iron Man is also a bit… bland in overall design, and while it’s still a well themed and pretty table, aside from the Iron Man window dressing the table is kind of boring to actually play, challenge or no. As such, unless you’re looking for the challenge that this brings, while Iron Man is the hardest table in the package, it’s also the least interesting overall.

Now, if you’re looking to get your name up on the metaphorical wall, you can take on the tables with their default settings, set your own high score, and compete with your friends and/or the world. The game also scores against your Hero Score and Team Force Score, with the former being a united numerical value that indicates your overall ranking across all of your tables, and the latter indicating your score combined with that of your friends’ scores across all of your and their tables, so, yeah, you’ve got three different scores to try and max out at once if you’re into that. For those who prefer to screw around with the pinball mechanics, you can jump into the Operators Menu, which allows you to adjust all sorts of settings on the different tables. You can play around with things like the tilt warnings, how many extra balls you have in stock, how many extra balls come out in some multiball sequences, how difficult the table is, what the pitch of the playfield is, and so on, depending on how involved you want to get in customizing the table to be easier or harder for you. This, however, disables leaderboard scoring, so bear that in mind. You can also, as noted prior, play the game on or offline with friends. Online play puts you up against one another simultaneously to try and either earn a specific score or the highest score after a period of time, and also allows you to punish players who lose a ball (since you have infinite balls to reach the time limit or winning score) with score penalties. Offline mode is a simple “pass the controller” mode, similar to how a normal pinball table would handle multiple players, where you change player after a ball is lost. Both modes support up to four players, though the PS3 version lacks any sort of split-screen option, something the XBLA version of the game apparently has, which is somewhat disappointing.

Honestly, there’s not a lot bad to say about Marvel Pinball; for ten dollars you get four solid tables that are fun to play around with and well developed overall. As noted, the Iron Man table can be a little bland if you’re not looking for the challenge it offers, but the other three tables are rather exciting and fun to play around with. The pinball physics, while very solid, aren’t perfect, and the odd instance pops up of the ball going off in an odd direction and either staying in when it should have gone out or vice-versa, though this isn’t common and it’s only a mild annoyance. The game also sometimes seems a bit impressed with its dynamic camera angles, and while you can change the camera view once you’re in play, it’s disorienting at first to flip from the plunger view to the main view when you’re starting out, though you do eventually get used to it. The tilt function also isn’t as useful as one would expect, and while that might be an issue with the Sixaxis mechanics or the design of the game, the end result is that you can’t really count on it in an emergency situation as it’s just as likely as not to cause you to lose the ball anyway.

The bottom line is that Marvel Pinball is a very good digital pinball experience, featuring four tables that are well designed and laid out all in all, and while there are some spotty issues here and there, it’s a great game for the price if you’re a pinball or Marvel fan. The game offers four solid tables to play with that feature instantly recognizable Marvel characters, the tables look and sound great, and there are all sorts of cute touches for fans of the comics and movies alike. The game is easy to play and the pinball physics are mostly accurate to real pinball, the table designs are mostly interesting, and there’s a good variety of challenge across the four tables so that newbies and diehard pinball fans can have a blast, both alone or with friends. The Iron Man table is kind of boring on a table design level and is really only appealing if you’re a fan of the character or the challenge the table offers, the pinball physics are occasionally spotty, the game lacks any split screen multiplayer to speak of, the dynamic camera can be annoying at first, and the tilt feature doesn’t always work as intended, unfortunately. If you’re a pinball purist you might take exception to some of the physics issues, but that aside, Marvel Pinball is a blast to play, and it’s a great pinball experience alone or with friends that’s well worth the ten bucks.

The Scores:
Game Modes: GOOD
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: GOOD
Balance: GOOD
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal: GOOD
Miscellaneous: GOOD

FINAL SCORE: GOOD GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Marvel Pinball does what it says on the box: it provides a pinball experience featuring Marvel Comics characters, and a good one at that. For ten dollars you get four tables, featuring four recognizable Marvel characters in Spider-Man, Iron Man, Wolverine and Blade, each with their own unique elements and designs. The tables are aesthetically pleasing, both visually and aurally, and are filled with little details that are sure to please fans of the characters. The game is as simple to play as regular pinball and offers all sorts of fun extra features, like the ability to upload scores online, play around with the table mechanics, and play on or offline with friends, that add a lot of worthwhile depth and substance to the experience. The Iron Man table isn’t especially inspired in its design and is really only compelling for character fans or those looking for a challenge, however, and the occasionally spotty pinball and tilt physics, sporadically annoying camera shifts, and lack of split screen multiplayer included in the XBLA release can hurt the product in some respects. Diehard pinball fans may find fault with the physics issues to a more involved level, but overall, Marvel Pinball is easily worth the ten dollar asking price for pinball or Marvel fans, as it’s a collection of generally fun and interesting tables that mimic the experience of real pinball nicely.