Zen Studios has had some less than optimal releases through their career (The Punisher: No Mercy comes to mind), but one thing they know damn well is pinball. Whether they’re releasing themed tables based on existing franchises (the Marvel Pinball series, Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2, and so on) or their own unique and fun tables (Tesla, Mars, and so on) they generally tend to make one of the best pinball experiences available on the console or handheld market today. They’re clearly not just committed to making great pinball games, however; with Zen Pinball 2, they’re also showing that they’re committed to creating a strong front-end to house their creations. Designed as something of a main menu for all of the Zen Pinball series (well, almost all), Zen Pinball 2 isn’t something you can objectively rate using video game standards, since it isn’t a game in and of itself. However, the design bears analyzing, as it’s a pretty solid piece of work, and while there are a few things that could be tweaked or redesigned, there are far more positives than negatives.
1.) When you boot up Zen Pinball 2, the first thing you’ll see is the full laundry list of Zen Pinball tables. The front-end is compatible with twenty six tables already (including the recently released Plants vs. Zombies table), meaning that if you have any (or all) of the tables on your console of choice you can import them right into Zen Pinball 2 and get to playing. Tables you don’t own will show up in grey, tables you do own will show up in color, and tables you’ve grabbed a demo for will show up with a keyhole in their display to allow you to distinguish between them. The menu is clean and easy to work with and you can tell the tables apart in an instant, so from the get-go, the front-end works, and works fairly well.
2.) If you open up a table display of a table you already own, it’ll immediately let you jump in and play the table in single or multiplayer with no fuss, but if you click on a table you don’t own, the table will instead prompt you to either download the table or the associated pack, or to download the demo. If you have the demo you can jump right into that or, if you’ve played it and decided you like it, you can also buy the table right from the prompt itself. Moving over a table will also allow you to see the high scores for that table, including the local high scores, the scores your friends have (if they have any), who you have to challenge to be the best at a table, your total Pro Score as compared to your friends, and your Team Score. You can also check your table options and Trophies, the all-time high scores for a table, and basic instructions on how to play from the main menu, so everything you’d want to see before you jump into a table is right at your fingertips.
3.) The most interesting part of Zen Pinball 2 comes in from the fact that the application is cross-compatible with both the PS3 and the PS Vita, which adds in some wonderful perks for fans of the Zen Pinball series. Scores earned through the Zen Pinball 2 frontend carry across your PSN account, so if you achieve a score on the PS3, the Vita will know this when you next connect up to PSN and reflect it on your high score list, and vice-versa. This also holds true for Trophies earned between tables and scores earned overall, allowing you to basically keep one profile across two devices with basically no difficulty at all, so long as you can connect your Vita to the internet in some fashion.
4.) Of course, that’s far less impressive than the fact that you can download your tables across the PS3 and the Vita regardless of when you purchased them, so, yes, if you bought Marvel Pinball back when it came out, hey, dump that bad boy on your Vita and get ready for some handheld pinball goodness. The Vita as a handheld system may not have a large amount of content available for it that’s exclusive to the system just yet, but cross-compatible downloadable games and DLC are a great way to make the handheld viable outside of exclusive content. As such, this is an awesome benefit for those who those who love pinball in general, as being able to pick up your tables at home or on the go is great fun and well worth the two to three dollars a table.
5.) The Zen Pinball 2 frontend works as you’d expect it to on the PS3, and moving through the menus is as simple as pressing directions to get to what you want and pressing X to select it. On the Vita, however, you get the added bonus of touch-screen selection, allowing you to navigate the menus and select what you want with ease. You can tap and drag your way through the various menus, allowing you to select tables, navigate menus and select options quickly and painlessly, which is such a simple thing that works well, and works for all of the tables as well.
6.) Mechanically, playing tables between the two games is functionally identical. The triggers on the Vita work as the flippers, and all of the face buttons reprise their roles as they would on the PS3. You can also play tables by holding the Vita normally, which allows the tables to scroll upward by default when the ball travels into the upper part of the screen, or you can hold the Vita sideways for full-screen table viewing. It can take some getting used to when you try to work with playing with the Vita sideways, but otherwise, the game is mechanically fine on the Vita and works well on both platforms no matter what table you sit down with.
7.) Zen Pinball 2 comes loaded with four demos from the Avengers pinball set to give you an idea of how things work, on the off chance you don’t own any tables (or perhaps as an advertisement for the set, either way), but you can import in any tables you own to get you started. It also auto-saves if you drop out of a session mid-play, so if you’re having an excellent run but need to leave for some reason you can quit to the menu, come back later and get to work again, which, while not supremely important for the PS3, is fantastic for the Vita, adding some much needed “pick up and play anytime”Â functionality to the experience. You can also upload your high scores to Facebook if… that’s a thing you’d want to do, so there you go.
8.) One of the nicer ideas that Zen Pinball 2 offers, though, is the thought that players will be able to pick up individual tables more easily with a unified front end of this sort to access them through. Presently, several of the sets, including the first set of four tables and three of the Marvel sets, must be bought in packages, and while that’s fine for the pinball enthusiast, someone who only wants the Spider-Man table might not want to drop ten bucks to get it. It’s not that there aren’t single tables available, as there clearly are, but having the option to buy tables individually and as a package is better than an either/or proposition, and a frontend that works with all of the tables available encourages the possibility that this could happen going forward.
9.) There are a few awkward bits to Zen Pinball 2 that bear mentioning, though. The Fantastic Four table is nowhere to be found in the main menu, and as near as Alex has been able to see (as he has the table) it can’t be added into the program, which is weird and disappointing. Further, importing tables can be painful; while I was able to seamlessly import all of my tables on the Vita (since I’d not downloaded any of them yet), on the PS3 I ended up having to re-download Marvel Pinball because attempting to import it simply didn’t work, and attempting to add Plants vs. Zombies ended in much the same way. Also, it’s disappointing that Zen Pinball 2 doesn’t seem to be able to integrate scores across its prior releases, as my high-scores from Marvel Pinball basically only exist in that application, which is disappointing, especially since I had a high-score on Spider-Man that I was pleased with. Hopefully there will be ways to fix these issues going forward, especially the importing option (so as to make the application easier for newcomers and fans) but there’s nothing significantly broken, if nothing else.
10.) Zen Pinball 2 is basically a perfect frontend for fans of the series, as it allows for one unified frontend that allows you access to (almost) all of your tables, lets you scroll through your scores with ease, and allows you to play on the PS3 or the Vita without double charging you. That the application is free on top of this makes it an essential download for anyone with multiple tables purchased, and makes it easier for newcomers to find the tables they want without too much searching. The missing Fantastic Four table is disappointing, and fans will find the import functionality suspect and lack of carried over high scores depressing, but otherwise it’s basically everything you could expect from Zen, and more. We’ll also be taking a look at the newly released Plants vs. Zombies table that launched alongside Zen Pinball 2 shortly, so keep an eye out to see how it fares.
Mark B. is the Senior Editor at Diehard GameFAN, mostly because he’s been on staff for a decade. He has previously written for 411Games, InsidePulse Games, Not a True Ending, Retrograding and Beyond the Threshold, and he maintains multiple infrequent columns, as well as a Hitbox stream on Saturdays. You can check out his archives and non-game related work over at markbwriting.com, and follow him on Twitter at MarkBWriting or Facebook at MarkBWriting. (Special thanks to J. Rose for the artwork.)