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Zen Pinball
Score: 88%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Developer: Zen Studios
Media: Download/1
Players: 1 - 2 (Online)
Genre: Classic/Retro/ Arcade

Graphics & Sound:
The game of pinball has been represented pretty well when it comes to the videogame medium. From Pinbot to Pataank (one of very few reasons to play Panasonic's long-forgotten 3DO) to the innovative (and much more recent) Metroid Prime Pinball, the table-based reflex fest has aged quite nicely. Zen Pinball is perhaps the best looking and best sounding game of video pinball to date. Since video pinball games rely so heavily on presentation as a quality indicator, that alone makes it one of the best video pinball games around.

I don't think I've ever used the phrase "it looks real" when referring to a videogame, but I am inclined to make an exception for Zen Pinball. Zen Studios obviously went the extra mile to create as authentic a pinball experience as they possibly could. The tables don't just look fantastic - they look real. There is one visual design choice that subtracts marginally from the realism factor (emphasis on "marginally"). The ball blurs when traveling at high speed, which does not happen on a real table. With that slight exception, Zen Pinball looks phenomenal. The lights are appropriately blinding, the physics are spot-on, the camera angles are perfect, and each table is wonderfully themed - from the tuner culture-based V12 to the table based on the real-life scientific endeavors of Serbian engineer Nikola Tesla. Furthermore, the yellow dot matrix that is usually located on the backglass of every pinball machine is unobtrusive, no matter which camera angle you choose to use. All of this works together to make you feel like you're really in an arcade.

The top-notch presentation is not exclusive to the visual design; Zen Pinball sounds great. The flippers respond to your commands with satisfying "thunks," the tables emit hollow roars as the ball screams over the surface, and each table's announcer sounds wonderfully cheesy. For example, losing a ball in the Shaman stage will provoke him to shout "Sacrilege!" Good stuff.


Gameplay:
Once upon a time, people did not turn to videogames for their daily fix of interactive entertainment. Instead of booting up their high-powered consoles or dropping a quarter into the local bowling alley's Street Fighter II coin-op, they would resort to a game that was more mechanical in nature. A game that made use of electronics while largely relying on simple physics. They called the game... pinball.

I'll drop the pseudo-elitism, but come on - what's there to explain about pinball? You launch a steel sphere onto a slanted table with a bunch of targets, ramps, and loops, with two main objectives. One is to keep the ball in play for as long as you possibly can, and the other is to score an exorbitant number of points by hitting targets and racking up multipliers. That's really all there is to explain.

Zen Pinball features a multiplayer component, and it, like everything else in the game, offers an authentic experience. You can choose to go at it with a friend in local play, or you can take him on over the PlayStation Network. There is a difference between local and online play, and the difference has to do with modes of play.

In a local multiplayer game, you and your friend will take turns racking up points, just like a multiplayer game of real-life pinball. You can also play simultaneously in an online battle. A target score is set, and the two of you must race to see who reaches the score first.

Zen Studios could have released Zen Pinball without a multiplayer component and it still would have been a quality product, but they clearly wanted to make this game special.


Difficulty:
Pinball is not and never has been an easy game. Your reflexes must be razor-sharp, and you've got to make some split-second life-or-death decisions. There's also the element of chance; there are many targets on the boards, and it's very tough to judge where you want to send the ball. However, every now and then, you will sink into a kind of wide-eyed trance - yes, a zen-like trance. You'll find yourself making ridiculously awesome shots, and you'll be simultaneously dumbfounded and delighted. This only happens once in a while -- the rest of the time, you're left with a lightning-fast old-school experience that you must learn to keep up with. If you're not quick enough, Zen Pinball is not forgiving; after all, physics never are.

You'll often find yourself coming back to Zen Pinball, but usually for quick bursts. This is not the kind of game you can get lost in for hours upon hours (unless you're playing multiplayer), but one game per table per day is more than enough to keep you satisfied. You'll come back to see just how close you can get to the ridiculous scores earned by the PlayStation Network's top achievers. You'll also be intrigued by the challenges that the game offers you, such as one-minute scoring sprees and the game's unlockable Trophies, which offer some incentive to fully explore each table.


Game Mechanics:
Zen Pinball can be played in a few different ways, and the differences have to do with mechanics. You can play this game the old-school way. When I say "the old-school way," I don't mean wearing flare pants, acting like Ann-Margret is your mother, and feigning a championship with Sir Elton John. If you like to deconstruct gameplay experiences and experiment with new mechanics, you can play it that way, as well.

If you want to play by pinball's original rules or upload your score to the leaderboards, you'll only be left with three extremely basic gameplay mechanics. The (X) button draws back the plunger, and the strength of your launch is determined by the amount of pressure you put on the button. The (L1) and (R1) buttons control the left and right flippers. On some tables, there are more than two flippers, but each set of left and right flippers are controlled by the exact same buttons, so you won't be confused at all. Of course, no pinball game is complete without the option to abuse the hell out the machine. The (Left Analog Stick) will allow you to bump the table in hopes of getting a better result. Like in other pinball machines, the tables in Zen Pinball are loaded with tilt sensors that detect attempts at cheating, and they will take your control away from you (costing you a ball) if you push too much.

There is one feature that Zen Studios added that makes the game less realistic, but you don't have to play with it at all. By changing a setting in the game's options, you can enable slow-motion. This mechanic is mapped to the (O) button; holding it down will slow the action to a crawl. This gives you enough time to set up some really amazing shots, and it also serves as decent practice for the real thing.

If you like pinball, own a PlayStation 3, and can connect to the PlayStation Network, you should buy Zen Pinball. It's the most fully-featured and authentic game of video pinball I've seen in years. At first, four tables may seem a bit scant, even for a ten-dollar game. However, Zen Studios will be adding downloadable content before long. Plus, when the tables are this good, you get a real idea of what "quality over quantity" means. Zen Pinball is great old-school entertainment.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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