Review: Star Wars Pinball (Nintendo Wii U)

Star Wars Pinball
Genre: Pinball
Developer: Zen Studios
Publisher: Zen Studios
Release Date: 07/11/13

As we’ve discussed previously, while Zen Studios is likely most notable to gamers because of their Marvel Pinball series of tables across the different consoles, they’ve been expanding their range of licenses as time has gone on. The majority of their non-Marvel tables have been licensed from other gaming companies, such as their Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2, Super Street Fighter II and Plants vs. Zombies tables, but it was only a matter of time until they picked up another big license. Well, whether through their own negotiations or through the dealings Zen has with Marvel/Disney, that time has come with the release of Star Wars Pinball, a collection of three Star Wars themed tables released for various platforms, including the Wii U, which is the version we’re looking at here. From a pure table perspective, Star Wars Pinball is pretty much what you’ve come to expect from Zen Studios, as it’s a collection of well-designed tables that do a lot with the associated license. From a release perspective, however, the Wii U version of the tables has some interesting positives and negatives associated; if you only have a Wii U available it’s not a bad investment, but if you have other options, you’ll want to think about what’s important to you in a Zen Pinball product before picking up this version.

Star Wars Pinball comes with three tables to start with, each themed after important parts of the Star Wars Universe: The Empire Strikes Back, arguably the best film in the original trilogy, The Clone Wars series, arguably the best part of the new trilogy, and Boba Fett, one of the most well liked characters in the franchise. Thematically, the tables match up to the style of the universe and their specific media well, and each table features elements specific to the characters and property in question that fans should appreciate. The aural and visual styles of the tables, as well as the missions and play elements, emphasize important aspects of each setting, and as with most Zen Studios tables, these don’t disappoint in the design department. This being a digital pinball game, 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 jumping all over the table or getting into battles with your heroes, which adds a life to the proceedings that real tables can’t quite match. Each table can be played alone or with friends offline, as players compete against each other for top scores, either simultaneously or by taking turns offline and through Leaderboards online, so you can get your pinball on with up to four players if you’ve got some friends who like it too.

Star Wars 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. The Empire Strikes Back table uses a very cool color scheme with a lot of blues and blacks, and features a lot of character art and animated characters and vehicles from the film. The Clone Wars table has a more warlike style, with a lot of metallic elements and heavy uses of red, as well as a lot of thematically interesting character models and character art from the television series. The Boba Fett table cross-breeds elements from Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in its table design and color scheme, and features a good amount of Boba Fett and Slave One throughout. 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, and these particular tables have reigned in the dynamic camera issues of prior tables by relegating most dynamic shots to the display on the Gamepad when they’re used at all. Some of the effects can be a bit distracting, in contrast, but for the most part that’s a minor issue that only comes up in certain cases. The game also sounds fantastic, as the different tunes for each table are immediately evocative of the Star Wars universe, including more than a few John Williams tracks to really bring home the experience. The sound effects are authentic sounding as well, as the three 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 franchise-specific effects, like lightsaber and blaster noises and such. The end result is a trio of tables that act as a love letter to Star Wars fans but also work on their own merits, and they’re fun to play and interesting aesthetically.

The core gameplay of Star Wars Pinball is incredibly simplistic to understand: hold and release a button or pull back the right stick 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. 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 percept 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 three 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:

STAR WARS: EPISODE V – The classic Empire Strikes Back themed table is the one that’s most likely to appeal to newcomers of the lot, which is good, as it’s also the easiest of the three tables to work with overall. There are five flippers on the table (three on the right, two on the left) to keep the ball mobile and in play, and the table structure is the simplest of the lot to understand, with two major ramps and a lot of easy targets to work with. It’s also easily one of the most involved tables from Zen Studios to date, featuring numerous missions and goals, five different ways to earn an extra ball, a cute first person Jedi Training bit that ties into another similar scene late into the table, several different multiball modes, multi-tiered missions and more. It’s one of the easiest and most fan-friendly tables to play with, but also one of the most involved and complex tables ever produced by Zen Studios overall and it’s basically the best table of the lot pound for pound.

STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS – Based on the Clone Wars television series, this table is a bit more complex than the Empire Strikes Back table in structure and design. There are four flippers on the table (two on each side), and there are two ramps and several more target locations to aim for, as well as several more paths for the ball to travel when returning from a ramp and such. With two extra ball options and two multiball modes, the table is a bit more limited, but there are still an extensive amount of missions to jump into, and there’s also a mini-table to jump to as part of a multi-tiered training mode. While the structure of the table is a little more complex than Empire Strikes Back, there’s a little less depth to the overall mission structure and scoring options, though it’s certainly a fine enough table taken on its own merits. It’s likely to appeal more to fans of the series and to those looking for a more intermediate table structurally, as it leans toward being a little more complex to score on overall.

BOBA FETT – Based around the famed bounty hunter himself, this is the most challenging of the tables in terms of pure table design, and while it’s not as brutal as something like Iron Man, it’s still a bit on the challenging side. With only three flippers (two on the left, one on the right), two extra ball options and two multi-ball modes, as well as a slightly more compressed play space due to the awkward layout of the ramps and targets, the table skews toward intermediate play almost from the start. The table becomes a bit more structurally complex through the bounties, which harken back to the structural design of the Blade table, as well as the ability to use missiles to reduce requirements in missions, and a goofy shooter mini-game make this one of the more interesting tables in the series. It can take some getting used to structurally, but it’s not oppressively difficult so much as it is just awkward to adjust to in style and design.

As in other tables and collections, you can jump into the tables with their default settings if you want to place your high scores on the leaderboards to compete with friends and the rest of the world. The game also allows you to specify if you want to contribute toward Light Side or Dark Side scoring to help the particular side out with points, and you can switch at any time if you want to earn awards in the game, similar to the Achievements and Trophies in other releases. The Operators menu is also available to those who are interested, 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 offline with friends, though the Wii U version of the game seems to have no online multiplayer options, or none that I could find in any case. You’re offered two player split screen multiplayer and two to four player Hotseat play, allowing you to pass around the controller as if you were playing pinball in an arcade. What the Wii U version does offer is the ability to play on the television or on the Game Pad display; the former allows you to keep cinematic camera angles localized to the Game Pad display for fun, while the latter keeps play up-close and personal (though it displays nothing on the TV which is kind of disappointing). This can be swapped at any time from the Game Pad with a simple drag against the screen so you don’t have to quit your current game if you need to swap in a hurry, and both play modes work just fine overall.

This would normally be the part where I would reiterate the point about how there’s little to say bad about Star Wars Pinball as with prior releases, but this time around that’s not so true. For one thing, you’re paying ten dollars for three tables, which is more expensive overall than the Marvel Pinball collections, and I’m sorry, I like Star Wars fine but Avengers was a better movie than anything that came out of George Lucas in the last decade so you’re not convincing me the cost is worth it based on “name brand” or something. Further, the Wii U tables don’t seem to offer any sort of online play, which seems to be a problem with all of the Zen Pinball tables if the main client is any indication, and that’s not a big selling point for those who like to play against friends. It’s still a great game of pinball, to be sure, but the Wii U version only offers the option to play on the Game Pad over its contemporaries, and with the loss of online play it’s hard to justify this version over any of the others even if you’re willing to eat the extra cost per table ratio. It also seems like it’s impossible to incorporate these tables into Zen Pinball 2 in any meaningful fashion, which is annoying in the “you have to use two clients to play” sense and it’s not user friendly either way. This comes on top of the occasionally wonky pinball physics that, while improved, still pop up now and again in Zen Pinball games and the otherwise normal complaints that come up across the franchise, mind you; it’s not that every other complaint ceases to exist here, it’s that there are the same obvious complaints and, due to the console and the franchise, new ones on top of that.

All told, Star Wars Pinball is certainly as aesthetically and mechanically interesting as anything Zen Studios has produced, and fans of Star Wars and digital pinball alike will find this a strong release, but between the increased cost and the limitations of the Wii U release, it’s harder to recommend than prior releases. The package offers three solid tables to play with that feature instantly recognizable scenes and characters from the Star Wars universe, the tables look and sound great, and there are all sorts of cute touches for fans built into every table. The tables are as easy to play as ever 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 tables so that newbies and diehard pinball fans can have a blast, both alone or with friends. The pricing makes this set a little harder to recommend, as you’re getting three tables for ten bucks instead of the expected four, which isn’t going to be exciting unless you love the franchise, the Wii U version doesn’t offer online play, there seems to be no way to integrate these tables into the core Zen Pinball package, and the normal minor physics issues and such are still here as always. It’s nice that the package offers Game Pad support and the tables are very good all in all, but compared to other packages, or other releases on other platforms, this version of this package doesn’t hold up as well as it could. Star Wars Pinball is a solid addition to your digital pinball library if you’re a big fan of having all the tables you can or you love the subject matter, but the asking price is a little higher than normal and the Wii U version is less feature rich than its other console counterparts, making this harder to recommend than it should be.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Star Wars Pinball continues the pinball tradition Zen Studios is known for, featuring thematically interesting tables that are fun and diverse, but the tables are a little pricier than normal and the Wii U version lacks features its counterparts don’t. For ten dollars you get three tables, featuring recognizable elements of Star Wars history in The Empire Strikes Back, The Clone Wars and Boba Fett, 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 franchise. 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, play offline with friends and instantly swap between the TV and the Game Pad, that add a lot of worthwhile depth and substance to the experience. The set is a little more expensive, asking ten dollars for three tables instead of the normal four, seemingly because it’s Star Wars, and even then, the Wii U version lacks the online play the other versions offer by default, the tables don’t seem to offer an option to integrate them into the core Zen Pinball setup, and the minor physics issues the franchise is known for pop up now and again. Star Wars Pinball is a fine package for those who love Star Wars and/or Zen Studios pinball packages, and it’s an excellent experience if you do, but it’s harder than it should be to recommend, both because of the license issues (added cost, lack of integration) and the Wii U specific issues (no online play) that hurt it more than they should.



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5 responses to “Review: Star Wars Pinball (Nintendo Wii U)”

  1. Brian Avatar

    Does anyone actually play pinball online?

    1. Alexander Lucard Avatar
      Alexander Lucard

      Yes. Lots. There’s a pretty active Pinball community for Zen’s products and especially with The Pinball Arcade.

      1. Brian Avatar

        Interesting. I didn’t realize that Pinball Arcade had an online mode. I kind of just ignored the one in Pinball FX2 since high score chasing seems more the thing to do.

        1. Alexander Lucard Avatar
          Alexander Lucard

          It just depends. I’m like you – a high score person so I don’t take part in the online tournaments and I rarely play a game online unless my friends are looking to get a specific trophy/achievement and they ask for my help, but I do see people talking about it all the time on my G+ and Facebook feeds. I chalk it up to a generation gap of sorts, with my being an older gamer that would actually play pinball in an arcade while younger gamers really have only experienced pinball in this form.

    2. Mark B. Avatar
      Mark B.

      I know a few people who do, though I’m not big into it personally. Some people like the competitive option in addition to beating scores and such.

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