Unlike video games based on movies or popular comics, licensed pinball tables have a reputation of being pretty great — The Twilight Zone, The Addams Family, Indiana Jones and Monster Bash are but a sampling of the rich properties that have yielded some of the most popular pins of the past 20 years. Marvel Comic's iconic characters are plenty mighty to carry a mean table, and Zen Studios does right by four of their books with Marvel Pinball 3D.
Zen has released about a dozen Marvel tables on consoles, and the four packaged with Marvel Pinball 3D include early tables Blade and The Invincible Iron Man as well as the more recent — and more complicated — Fantastic Four and Captain America. Each table has its own feel and personality, requiring a certain play style to excel: Blade's tight quarters are quick and brutal, contrasting Iron Man's deliberate navigation and powering up of copious ramps and Fantastic Four's and Captain America's larger, exploratory play fields.
There is an evident maturation in Zen's work, with the studio appearing far more daring and confident in newer tables Fantastic Four and Captain America than the somewhat more restrained feel to Iron Man and Blade. Despite the leap in scope there isn't a bad pin in the bunch, and as each one is packed with missions and handles like a charm it's easy to fall into the loop of "just one more game." With the promise of additional downloadable tables coming sometime this year, we already fear for our spare moments.
Unless you are a die-hard pinball purist, that is, because Zen's handling of physics is more of a "truthiness" simulation than "true." Whereas that might pose a problem for a digital adaptation of a real-world table, changing how the table may actually play in its new form, Zen has the privilege of crafting the design around how the ball handles. The pace is generally faster, with the ball able to seemingly stop on a dime; its "game-y" handling can certainly feel jarring for those used to getting their pinball on in a dimly lit location with a sticky floor. If you can get over that hump, though, Marvel Pinball 3D plays just as well as, if not better than, any other strictly digital pin. And since these tables are designed for the digital realm, Zen is able to craft obstacles and challenges that would be otherwise impossible, put to good use with friction-altering hazards, alternate areas and animated characters that help lend a certain charm and let the licenses flex their comically oversized muscles.
Playing in stereoscopic 3D really opens up the playing field to provide a sense of place and height, helping distinguish obstacles that otherwise appear flat in 2D. However, it's obvious that these tables were designed with larger monitors in mind than the 3DS has to offer, making it more difficult up front to decipher a table. It's near impossible to make out on your own what any of the flashy doodads mean or why they are flashing, although you can eventually figure it out with a lot of trial and error and judicious use of the handy table guides. Perhaps this issue will be less troublesome when playing on a 3DS XL, but the matter of crummy audio cues will remain.
Instead of the table helpfully blurting out how to advance or provide some kind of clue as to what you just did, characters just kind of say the same stuff over and over — it's great that Tony Stark is a wealthy playboy genius, but we'd prefer Jarvis or Pepper Potts tell us which ramp to hit rather than hear him extol how amazing he is over and over. Most mission information is displayed via the dot matrix display on the lower screen, which requires you to divert your eyes away from the action to decipher small text and animations in a short amount of time, typically between hitting a sink hole and the ball jetting out somewhere quickly. With enough practice you eventually can put the pieces together in your head, but it seems as if teaching the ins and outs of a table could be handled with more elegance.
Marvel Pinball 3D does enjoy the same online features as its portable predecessor, Zen Pinball 3D, providing worldwide leaderboards and deft use of your friend list. The lower screen notifies and eggs you on as you approach a friend's high score, and the signature individual Hero Score, a number based on your tally for all tables, and friend-cumulative Team Force give both a competitive and cooperative spirit to your flipping about. Even with a small number of people on your friends list playing, high score and Hero Score races can get heated and addictive. For true heads-up competition, you can slam your digital tokens on the proverbial glass by passing the 3DS back and forth in a local tournament mode.
Zen Studios has gone from strength to strength with its digital tables, and some of the ones included in Marvel Pinball 3D are quite possibly the pinnacle of their work so far. These four tables are dense enough to continually find something fun to do, and their sense of reward and sharp high score implementation overshadow our few quibbles about an uneven learning curve and occasionally annoying presentation. As comics legend Stan Lee would say: Excelsior!