Review: Zen Pinball (Nintendo 3DS)

Zen Pinball 3D
Developer: Zen Studios
Publisher: Zen Studios
Genre: Pinball
Release Date: 01/12/2011

It’s hard to deny that Zen Studios have been the premier studio for pinball simulations over the past few years. With games like Zen Pinball, Pinball FX and Marvel Pinball, all of which have received multiple downloadable tables, you could say that Zen has almost single-handedly kept the genre alive. Zen has made games for the PS3, the 360, Android phones and even the iOS, but Nintendo systems were suffering from a massive Zen drought. That’s all changed with the release of Zen Pinball 3D for the Nintendo 3DS. Not only has Zen promised DLC for the game, but Marvel Pinball is on the way as well, so if you’re a pinball fan and a Nintendo loyalist, you now have a third option besides Pinball Hall of Fame and 101 Pinball, the latter of which hit the eshop the same day as Zen Pinball 3D.

Of course, converting Zen Pinball from a console game to a handheld one is a tricky proposition – doubly so when you add in 3D graphics. So how well did Zen Studios succeed? Is this the best version of Zen Pinball yet, or are you better off sticking to a console for your pinball cravings?

Let’s Review

1. Modes

For $6.99 (which is $1.74 per table compared to $2.50-$2.99 per table on a console), you get four different pinball tables. All of these tables are ports of previously released ones from the console version of Zen Pinball. You have Excalibur, El Dorado, Shaman and Earth Defense. The original PS3 Version of Zen Pinball had Tesla and V12 instead of Excalibur and Earth Defense, which were originally DLC, I’m assuming the change was made due to screen size and 3D effect issues. Excalibur and Earth Defense were probably easier to convert in both those regards. It’s a pity, as Tesla and V12 were my favorite of the non-licensed tables for the game, while Shaman is my absolute least favorite.

The good news is Excalibur, El Dorado and Earth Defense are as awesome as ever. Shaman still sucks though, and has many of the same bugs and ball issues that I noticed in the original (say, balls getting stuck or outright disappearing). I also encountered a bug in Earth Defense where I triggered a mode that lasted for six minutes, but unfortunately my ball disappeared from the screen for the entire time. It only reappeared once the ball came back. I wonder how many other people encountered that issue and thought the game had crashed. That’s new to the 3DS version, but thankfully it only hit me once.

All four tables are well done and are mostly unique from each other. I say mostly, because there’s only so much you can do with flipper placement, multiple ramps and canals before things begin to repeat. It’s not Zen’s fault – merely a limitation of the pinball setup itself. Excalibur has a “fantasy dark ages” theme going on. Earth Defense reminds me of multiple physical tables I’ve played in the past where you play against aliens and/or robots. El Dorado is all about treasure hunting, and Shaman is, well, a slightly racist take on primitive societies. It’s straight out of the “Golden Age of Hollywood,” but I can see some more PC types actually being offended by it.

All in all, four tables for a hair under seven bucks is a great deal, no matter how you look at it. Everyone will have a favorite table and primarily play that, but I’m really happy with the selection here and the promise of more tables to come. Is it the best four tables Zen had to offer? No, but it’s still a good selection that anyone who picks this up will be happy with.

Modes Rating: Good

2. Graphics

All four tables in Zen Pinball 3D are a solid port of their original console versions. Obviously there is less detail due to the screen size, which does make playing the game a bit harder, but what’s here still look great. Hell, the game features some of the best visuals I’ve seen on the 3DS to date. When you’re in free view (looking at the table, rather than playing), everything looks top notch and you can see all the little nuances and/or details that comprise each table. Because it’s hard to see everything when playing, you might want to do this before the ball launches and memorize locations and well as angles of trajectory. After a few playthroughs of each table, you’ll know where everything is and play accordingly, but the small screen size will take some getting used to, especially if you’re a vet of the console version of the game. This might actually be one of those things where newcomers have an advantage – at least at first.

The game offers eight different screen views, all of which have their own benefits and negatives. I tend to prefer a look at the full board on the consoles, but due to screen size, I tend to go for a more scaled version on the 3DS. Regardless of what you choose, everything looks wonderful and I’m simply blown away by the sheer quality here.

Graphics Rating: Good

3. Sound

Zen Pinball really captures the sounds of an classic pinball machine. You got the clacks of a flipper, the twang of a plunger, the sound that a ball makes when it hits a bumper and more. It also contains voice acting straight out of the more modern digitized pinball games. The combination of classic pinball sounds with modern voice overs and effects allows Zen Pinball to be appealing to both long time pinball wizards and younger gamers that have never experienced a real pinball game. I can’t say enough good things about it. Shaman and El Dorado are a little more wooden than the other two tables, but it’s also because they are older. Excalibur is definitely the best in terms of sound effects. You’ve got commentary by Merlin, the clash of steel on steel, trumpets and more. You’ve got great music, voice acting, and sound effects with each of the four tables though. It’s sheer quality across the board.

Sound Rating: Great

4. Control and Gameplay

…and here’s where Zen Pinball hits a bit of a snag. As mentioned Shaman is a pretty buggy table where I’ve had the ball get stuck or outright disappear a few times. Earth Defense had that bug where the ball was gone for six minutes. There are a few other bugs like being unable to tilt the board no matter how much you smack it around and the occasional physics burp, but for the most part, Zen Pinball is quite fun to play. My biggest complaint is that you can’t set your view (one of eight different camera angles) until the ball is in play, which is a distraction that is compounded when you realize you have to do this each time you exit out and come back to a table. I wish it would save my preferences or let me set it before the ball is in play. Sadly this is something I’ve wanted Zen to do for years, but they haven’t yet, so it’s doubtful it will ever come about.

Oddly enough, the biggest issue with the game is the 3DS itself. You have two choices for flipper control. You can either use the L and R triggers or the press down on the D-pad for the left flipper and the B button for the right. The triggers handle the best, but it’s hard to play the game for more than fifteen to twenty minutes before your hands start to hurt from playing this way. Down and B help prevent this, but it doesn’t feel as right to play this way, as it’s not as instinctive and it’s a bit harder to control. More casual gamers might also find themselves hitting the A button (plunger control) instead of B at times as well. Unlike the console versions of Zen Pinball where I can literally play for hours, Zen Pinball 3D is a game I had to play in much smaller doses as it really does cause your hands to cramp up after a while.

Other than these issues, Zen Pinball‘s tables play like pretty good games of pinball. Well, three of the four anyway. Shaman‘s bugs and design decisions ruin that one for me, but I can see why others would like it. You should know the drill. The goal is to keep the ball in play for as long as possible while racking up a high score. Zen Pinball tables also include “missions” you can activate and then complete. They’ll have thematic names of course, but the goal is then to hit the ball to a particular location, light or ramp. Some have time limits, some activate multi-ball and so on. These are a lot of fun, and completing them will definitely add massive amounts of points to your high score. The game also includes four awards per table. These do nothing in-game, and are merely holdovers from the PS3/360 versions where you could earn trophies or achievements.

The game also boasts the ability to turn on slow motion (although doing this won’t let you add your score to the rankings) and hotseat play. Hotseat play lets multiple people play the same table using a single 3DS. This is a great way to play locally against your friends as well as to introduce them to the game. The game also uploads your scores online so that you can see how you rank across all Zen Pinball 3D owners, as well as your friends that also have purchased the game. Currently I only have one friend that has downloaded this, so our team scores are pitiful.

All in all, Zen Pinball 3D is fun. I have to admit I prefer the console version as it is easier to see everything and your hand won’t massively cramp up after a while, but the 3DS version is still a fine alternative.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Enjoyable

5. Replayability

With four tables (and the promise of more to come), you can spend a lot of time with Zen Pinball. You can play the tables repeatedly just having fun, but trying to actually master the tables and their respective missions is a whole other ball of wax. It will take you dozens of playthroughs of each table just to get good at them and countless more to rack up a high score in the hundreds of millions. That’s the great thing about pinball. Anyone can play a table and have a lot of fun with it, even if their score is quite low. When you get into the zone though, it’s a whole other experience that has no other real comparison, video game wise. Needless to say, the better you get at a pinball table, the more you get hooked.

Zen Pinball isn’t a game you can play for long stretches, but it is a game that you’ll pick up regularly once you’ve purchased it. It’s a lot of fun and the four tables provide enough variety that even when you get bored (or frustrated) with one table, there’s something else to fiddle with.

Replayability Rating: Great

6. Balance

Zen Pinball 3D is a well balanced game, but it’s not without issues. I’ve noticed tilting rarely has much of an effect at all, if the game even registers it. As well, some table designs a bit wonky, such as well I’ve gotten my ball stuck under a upper side flipper or when the physics go wonky. Shaman is a good example, as I can always tell when the ball is going to go down a far channel that guarantees a lost ball even before it gets over there. It’s akin to a sports game where you know the opponent is going to score/hit a home run/etc even before it starts. Perhaps it’s video game sixth sense, or you’ve just played enough to know when the game’s going to do something wonky?

As I’ve said though, for the most part the game plays exceptionally well. If you’re good at pinball then you’ll rarely lose a ball to anything save for balls going down channels that circumvent your flippers. It’s definitely a series geared more towards pinball veterans than newcomers, but even casual pinball fans will find the game as challenging as you want to make it based on if you are trying to complete challenges or not.

Balance Rating: Good

7. Originality

Well, this is the weak spot in the game. All four boards have been rehashed in multiple versions of Zen Studios’ pinball titles. If you already own Zen Pinball for some other platform, then you more than likely know all four of these tables by heart. Even portability isn’t a new thing for the franchise as you can purchase this for an Apple or Android phone pretty easily. Only the 3D aspect of the game is new, and to be honest, it’s not implemented very well. Due to the speed of the ball and constant movements in the game, you get a shadow image effect almost constantly while you play, especially if you’re a pretty good pinball gamer. I had to turn off the effect to get anywhere with the game. Even on the lowest 3D setting, it still did more harm than good to my game. I found the game to be a lot more fun with the 3D turned completely off. Unfortunately that also negates any real novelty left with these four tables for me.

That being said, I’m glad I have the game on my 3DS. I would have purchased it even if I didn’t receive a review copy, which is telling because out of thirty downloadable titles on my 3DS, twenty-six have been freebies from Nintendo or some other company. I’ve only purchased three Game Boy Virtual Console titles and a single eshop game (Picdun). Zen Pinball 3D was going to be my second. That not only shows how picky I am about what I download to my 3DS, but that I’m a pretty big Zen Pinball fan. Still, when pressed as I am in this review, I can’t really say this version brings anything truly new to the table.

Originality Rating: Bad

8. Addictiveness

The best way to show how glued to Zen Pinball 3D I’ve been is by going to my 3DS’ Activity Log. It’s already #9 in my “Play Time” ranking and #6 for “Average Time Played.” The only things higher than it in the latter category are fighting games and RPGs, which are generally my favorite genres. If I didn’t already own this and Marvel Pinball on my PS3, I’m sure I would have spent a lot more time with Zen Pinball 3D. Another way to look at it is that in this month of January so far, I’ve only played four video games: this, Trinity: Souls of Zill Oll and umm… Where’s My Water and Fruit Ninja: Puss in Boots. What? I like puzzle games and they were free for my Kindle Fire. Truth is, I’m pretty burned out on most video games right now. I didn’t even plan to review any more video games after my 450th review, but Zen Pinball 3D brought me back… at least for this one review. Okay… at least until Pokepark 2 comes out because I know no one else on staff will play it, much less review it.

Basically what I’m getting at is that Zen Pinball 3D is damn hard to put down. Even with the issues I’ve talked about in this review, it’s still a surprisingly addicting game. Pinball without the need to shovel quarters into a machine just makes it all the more addicting. Even if you’re not a big pinball fan, this game will having you say, “Oh, just one more game,” until your hand starts to cramp up. That’s intense.

Addictiveness Rating: Good

9 Appeal Factor

For a long time, pinball fans and video gamers were considered completely different markets. That’s changed over the past twenty years or so, to the point where the only new pinball games are video game simulations of them. As a long time fan of pinball, and someone who has visited the Pinball Hall of Fame here in the DC Metro area (and then got a killscreen on the Addams Family Pinball game…), I’ll admit I miss the real thing. Zen Pinball, however, is a great alternative to actual physical pinball games, and it is a lot cheaper to boot. I honestly can’t think of anyone that doesn’t enjoy a good game of pinball. It might not be their most favorite genre of all time, but it’s one of the few that has universal appeal. It’s something that you can have fun in the moment with, even if it’s not something you plan to play for hours every day.

At $6.99, it’s hard to say no to Zen Pinball 3D. It’s easily the best deal in the eshop right now, especially in regards to 3DS exclusive titles. I honestly can’t think of a reason NOT to get it unless you somehow hate pinball or, more realistically, you already own these tables for a different system. If you have seven bucks to spend on a video game, you could do a lot worse than Zen Pinball 3D.

Appeal Factor: Great

10. Miscellaneous

On one hand, it’s great to see Zen Pinball make its way to a Nintendo system. On the other, the 3D isn’t very good in this game and you’re better off playing it in regular ol’ 2D. At the same time, you’re getting four tables for under seven dollars, which is the cheapest the game has ever been, and a wonderful deal. Balancing things back out is the fact that you more than likely already own these tables if you are a fan of Zen Studios, and there’s no real reason to purchase these again. A plus in the game’s favour is that it’s now portable, while a negative is that it’s harder to see on the small screen and tables that were buggy before haven’t been fixed (some even have new bugs!). All in all, it kind of balances out here. I definitely recommend getting Zen Pinball 3D if you don’t already own it (or Pinball FX) as it’s cheaper here and you get the portability. If you do already own it, there’s no real need to pick it up again. With all this in mind, it’s a thumbs in the middle for miscellaneous.

Miscellaneous Rating: Mediocre

The Scores:
Modes: Good
Graphics: Good
Sound: Great
Control and Gameplay: Enjoyable
Replayability: Great
Balance: Good
Originality: Bad
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Great
Miscellaneous: Mediocre
FINAL SCORE: Enjoyable Game!

Short Attention Span Summary
For only $6.99, Zen Pinball 3D gives you four different pinball tables to take on the go. These ports from the console version of Zen Pinball hold up nicely and are a lot of fun to play through. It can be a bit hard to see everything on the small 3DS screen if you’re used to a regular sized television, but you’ll quickly get used to the size difference. Some of the tables can be a bit buggy, but said issues are never more than minor annoyances. Perhaps the biggest flaw in this handheld version of Zen Pinball is simply that it can be hard to play for long stretches without your hand cramping up. With that in mind remember to take breaks, even when you find it all but impossible to put the game down.



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6 responses to “Review: Zen Pinball (Nintendo 3DS)”

  1. […] about tabletop titles. Yet somehow I’m on my third video game review of the year. The first, Zen Pinball 3D was because I owned the PS3 version of the game and everyone else with a 3DS had a game assigned to […]

  2. […] about tabletop titles. Yet somehow I’m on my third video game review of the year. The first, Zen Pinball 3D was because I owned the PS3 version of the game and everyone else with a 3DS had a game assigned to […]

  3. […] a huge pinball fan. In fact, this is my third pinball review of 2012, having already reviewed Zen Pinball 3D for the 3DS and Epic Quest/a> for the PS3. I even nominated Addams Family Pinball for a successful […]

  4. […] a huge pinball fan. In fact, this is my third pinball review of 2012, having already reviewed Zen Pinball 3D for the 3DS and Epic Quest for the PS3. I even nominated Addams Family Pinball for a successful […]

  5. […] has been a crazy awesome year for digital pinball. In January, Zen Studios released a version of Zen Pinball for the 3DS. Then in February, they released a new table for the console version of the game, A […]

  6. […] has been a crazy awesome year for digital pinball. In January, Zen Studios released a version of Zen Pinball for the 3DS. Then in February, they released a new table for the console version of the game, Epic […]

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