It's tough for comic book fans these days – movies based on superhero comics are more popular than ever, but the comic books themselves are often lost in the shuffle. Everyone loved The Dark Knight, but have you been reading Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's fantastic run on Batman? You may make fun of Ben Affleck in that Daredevil movie, but Mark Waid is writing one of the all-time best iterations of the character right at this moment.
Luckily for those of us who love comics as well as slapping metal balls, Hungarian developer Zen Studios has been hard at work pumping out a series of high-quality virtual pinball tables based on comic books for Zen Pinball 2. While focusing on Marvel characters who have become popular movies like The Avengers, X-Men and Spider-Man, the tables always include nods to their comic book pasts, in addition to a number of boards based on slightly more obscure superheroes like Moon Knight and famous comic book storylines like Fear Itself and World War Hulk.
Zen Studios is back at it with four new tables in the Wii U version, all based on popular comics: The Walking Dead, Guardians of the Galaxy, Deadpool, and Doctor Strange. They fall in line with what we've seen from Zen Pinball before, so if you're wondering whether the game is worth downloading, check out our review from last year that still largely applies to the new tables as well. If you can get through the wonky download interface, you'll find a rewarding pinball experience with beautifully-rendered tables, realistic ball physics, all sorts of tracked statistics that you can compare with your friends online, and oodles of customization options. For this hands-on feature, we'll be looking specifically at what sets these four new tables apart.
The Walking Dead table is in fact based on Telltale Games' Walking Dead graphic adventure titles – a video game adaptation of a pinball table based on a video game based on a comic book! Using assets pulled directly from Telltale, naturally it's a bit less lighthearted than most of the other boards in Zen Pinball. The tense music gives way to plenty of blaring zombie groans, and the whole table has the rusty post-apocalyptic look you'd expect.
It begins as a fairly standard board with Zen Studios' penchant for ramps everywhere, but true to the episodic format of the game it's based on The Walking Dead features five "episodes" you can activate – special modes where zombies appear on various parts of the board and you have to fight them off. There's even one where you'll look down the scope of a rifle and shoot zombies in a first-person shooter mode. Overall, it's an enjoyable board that goes to great lengths to recreate the source material; it won't make much sense if you're unfamiliar with The Walking Dead, but fans will love some of the nods to elements of Telltale's adventure. Even if you're not a fan, you can play this board as a fun zombie-themed pinball diversion.
Guardians of the Galaxy is perhaps the highest-profile table of the four due to the blockbuster film in theatres this summer, and unfortunately it's one of the weaker offerings. There aren't many classic Guardians comics to take influence from, so instead the board heavily references the new movie... but without the direct assets from the film. What we get comes off as a well-polished knockoff of Guardians of the Galaxy: characters look almost the way they do in the movie, but not quite, and some memorable quotes from the film are paraphrased out of context by much less talented voice actors. Star-Lord's famous "Awesome Mix vol. 1" tape makes an appearance, but without the rights to any of the actual pop music from the movie, the generic rock tracks lack a certain punch.
Strangely enough, the Guardians of the Galaxy table opens with five-ball multiball (to simulate the five Guardians); it's a great idea in theory that sets this table apart from others, but in practice it's a mess of balls everywhere that doesn't really allow for much deliberate tactical play. There are modes for each of the protagonists as the table attempts to recreate the plot of the story, culminating in a ball-fight against Ronan. It's an ambitious table that grows on you once you get accustomed to how overwhelming it is, but for most casual pinball players it's just confusing.
Deadpool is a polarising character, attempting to walk the fine line between over-the-top satire and adolescent stupidity. If you don't like Deadpool's sense of humour, this board won't change your mind, but it's a colourful table that captures the essence of the character perfectly, and is the most outright fun and upbeat table of the four to play. Naturally this board is full of voice-over work, as Deadpool constantly breaks the fourth wall with self-referential jokes and jabs at the player. The table progression is split into six "issues" of the Deadpool comic, full of a wide variety of challenges (including a button-mashing arm wrestling match?!). If you can put up with the Merc with a Mouth's sophomoric humour, this table is by far the best of the bunch.
The final table is Doctor Strange, the most obscure of the four comic book properties in this batch of tables; it's nice to give a less popular character his own board, but this one is the weakest of them all. A strangely empty middle section gives way to a heavy over-reliance on ramps – something Zen Studios is guilty of in many of their board designs, but this one especially. The mystical theme is a nice change of pace from the superheroes and space motifs in most other Zen Pinball tables, but much like the character himself, the Doctor Strange board seems irrelevant in 2014.
All of the boards mix realistic physics with mostly realistic gameplay, using the advantages of the video game medium for fun animated characters and complex designs you could never accomplish on a real-life pinball table. All four attempt to tell a true narrative through pinball with mixed results and some melodramatic voice acting, but it's an admirable effort. The controls are tight, the graphics are rendered beautifully, and the frame rate never dips. The clear standout is the zany Deadpool table, with The Walking Dead coming in a close second and gaining merit for its use of actual assets from Telltale's Walking Dead games.
Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange are not as well-designed, but if you're fans of those characters or a pinball addict who's mastered all the other tables, they're still worth a play. We appreciate Zen's focus on comic book properties, and we'd love to see some based more on popular current series: maybe Matt Fraction's Hawkeye, or even step outside the superhero realm to Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples' Saga? The possibilities are endless.
None of this comes close to the greatest pinball video game of all time, though: the colossally underrated Metroid Prime Pinball. Of course.