As gaming arcades and old-fashioned pinball tables become increasingly rare in public spaces, pinball enthusiasts can now revert to digitised versions for their fix. It’s good news for these gamers as the 3DS eShop’s latest 3D offering is Zen Pinball 3D, a stereoscopic edition of the highly rated PlayStation Network release. We found a room with a sticky floor, lots of noisy gamers and walls of bright flashing screens, and put these tables to the test.
Zen Pinball 3D provides an uncomplicated, no-frills gameplay experience. There are some flashy touches, which we’ll address later, but at its heart this is simply pinball, polished and optimised with plenty of care. Flippers can be controlled with the D-Pad and the B button, but the most intuitive option is to use the shoulder buttons. Combining the shoulder buttons with the Circle Pad for vital table nudges feels natural and comfortable, allowing for extended play sessions.
It’s entirely possible that you’ll be hooked into playing for good stretches of time, as the physics and feel of the tables is excellent. The four tables included give a good sense of diversity, suitable for pinball wizards and newbies alike. Excalibur is set in the Middle Ages and is relatively small in scale, including some nice challenges and table animations. Eldorado’s theme of treasure hunting is matched by a rather complex set up, with various bumpers and small areas filling the screen. Shaman contains a similar number of bumpers and targets to Eldorado, but feels more structured and instinctive to play and accumulate big combos: a result of clearer visual design. Earth Defense! is arguably the most extravagant table in the package, with plenty of flashing ramps and a mechanised robot that actually fires a weapon and disrupts the flow of the ball, a neat touch.
All of these tables are, in their own way, well designed and enjoyable to play. The only downside, in fact, is the platform itself. The 3D effect is impressive and a joy to behold, but the biggest issue is the size of the screen being ill-suited to the complexity and detailed design of the tables. Eldorado is an obvious example, with a clutter of ramps and bumpers that would be ideal for play on a full size television, but can be difficult to decipher on the 3DS screen.
It isn’t game breaking in any way and concentration, with some trial-and-error from multiple games, eventually reveals each table’s secrets and heightens the enjoyment. Such is your focus on the top screen, however, that the mission updates and messages on the touch screen’s snazzy dot-matrix score board is often left ignored, an obvious negative in comparison to DSi pinball titles that spread the table across both screens.
Beyond the simple but exceptionally smooth gameplay, the developers have gone to an effort to ensure that this title provides a decent level of content and customisation. In game, a tap of the X button allows you to select from eight different camera angles, while holding the button down allows you to explore the table with the Circle Pad. Though the default camera angles are normally most suited to each table, it’s definitely fun to experiment with the different viewpoints. There are other neat options contained within the pause menu, such as table guides that point you towards important ramps and targets, as well as options to slow down the action for gamers struggling to keep up.
For competitive high score chasers, there are also various online leaderboard options included. These rankings will show you how you stack up on each table on a weekly or overall basis, as well as showing you the scores for your country. In addition, if anyone on your 3DS friend list is posting scores you can keep track, as well as combine your scores together. This feature is neat whether teaming up with friends or not, as the game accumulates your top scores across all four tables to allocate a Pro Score, allowing the opportunity to brag about your skills across all of the tables. There are also four tough achievements to unlock for each table as well as a 'hot-seat' multiplayer where the 3DS is passed around, so there's plenty of replay value for pinball addicts or completionists.
This is, therefore, a thoroughly good package overall. The strong content is backed up by high quality presentation, with impressive visuals bringing each table to life. It’s with the 3D slider on that the graphics really pop, with sharp detail and effects that truly add to the experience. With well-produced themed music and voice samples, this pinball title ticks almost every box. The only downside, as mentioned earlier, is the small size of the screen and the resulting challenge of identifying and understanding the intricacies of each table.
Zen Pinball 3D is an excellent representation of pinball, with the attractive stereoscopic visuals adding an extra sense of immersion. Four challenging, well-constructed tables are joined by a number of pleasing features, the extensive online leaderboards being a particular highlight. Our only complaint relates to the initial disconnect between the detailed tables and the small 3DS screen — in some respects this was unavoidable, but alternative designs would have removed the initial trial-and-error gameplay in favour of more immediately intuitive tables. That’s a minor issue in the overall scheme of things, leaving a high quality pinball experience that is genuinely heightened with the 3DS’s capabilities: worth serious consideration for all gamers.