Zen Pinball 2 is a title that's seen its Wii U eShop release delayed from an original December target, as a result of its free download/paid DLC model requiring extra attention for publication. While the actual pinball is polished, fun and generally first-class, the infrastructure behind it is the exact opposite.
With 26 tables available at the time of writing — through a combination of four table sets and individual options — there's a significant amount of choice on offer, with short and snappy free trial runs available for every table that can be played as many times as desired. Surprisingly, the initial download only includes four trial tables, with all others requiring a fresh visit to the eShop; a larger initial package with all trials included would have been far more convenient. Convenience, unfortunately, was completely overlooked when putting together the process for buying and downloading content.
It's surprising that when you pick a table and select to buy it or download the demo, you're greeted with a text box telling you to buy the table from the eShop, but no link to do so directly. The fact that New Super Mario Bros. 2 on 3DS lets you purchase Coin Rush packs from within the game shows how clumsy and out-dated this is; you need to go to the Home menu and then select eShop, or visit the store and find the right area before going into the game. The related area in the eShop then lists the individual trials and unlock packs, though bizarrely you're only allowed to download five options at a time, which again seems rather archaic.
Once you've processed the transaction on the eShop it downloads as expected in the background, yet when complete — if you haven't already done so — you'll need to quit the game and re-open it, at which stage the download is installed and your tables will appear. Or not, if you purchased an unlock option. The unlocked tables that you've just clumsily paid for will only work if you've already downloaded the equivalent trial tables, too; the game doesn't tell you to do this. [Correction: a line stating this appears on the age classification page, missed during our review testing. Our overall assessment of this process as being unintuitive remains unchanged] Not only does this necessitate yet another unnecessary trip to the eShop, but would have been avoided entirely if the initial download had included all trials in the first place. Whether Zen Studios or Nintendo is culpable for this disappointing infrastructure, an update is sorely needed to ensure that those with less patience or familiarity with the Wii U operating system aren't driven away.
If anyone does decide that the fiddly process is too much hassle to make buying tables worthwhile, it'd be a terrible shame. Once you've downloaded your content and calmed your nerves with a strong drink, the actual experience is — for the most part — a delight. The front end of the app, showing your content, settings and scrolling leaderboards and stats, is clean and easy on the eyes. There are a dizzying number of customisation options for those that want to try different settings in the game as a whole, or even to modify the rules on an individual table — only scores on factory settings go onto leaderboards however, which is perfectly fair. You can view awards and leaderboards — split into friends, country, all-time and weekly scores, for example — intuitively, and the only issue can be with some occasionally lengthy load times or connection issues with the rankings.
The pinball action is as expected, with control options including the intuitive use of the ZL and ZR shoulder buttons. Two of the many tables that we've played are El Dorado and Shaman, which were included in Zen Pinball 3D. It's an enlightening comparison, with the bright and sharp HD visuals being accompanied by an impeccably smooth frame rate; the 3DS release performed admirably, but this is a significantly stronger experience. Across the tables the visuals may be basic, from a technical perspective, but there's strong art design that lights up the screen, with no excuses for the player not spotting important bumpers or ramps — the useful table guides are also invaluable for finding your way around each layout.
The biggest attractions, arguably, are the licensed tables that introduce familiar brands to accompany the using ball flipping fun. "Original" tables focus on a theme and, often, include more complex combo requirements, bumpers and switches to worry about before triggering big-scoring missions — Tesla is an example of this. Generally, the licensed designs seem to have a heavier focus on ramps for combos, which may seem simplistic to pinball wizards but will appear fast-paced and fun for those not necessarily obsessed with mastering complicated tables. There are some designs, both licensed and original, that we feel lack balance — such as the sparse Mars table — but the option of admittedly short trials at least allows for educated purchases.
If you're particularly invested with a licensed brand or series that's portrayed, meanwhile, then you'll probably enjoy some of the nods and winks to characters both in the various actions on the tables and their missions. The same formula ultimately applies in missions — hit the lit ramps, spinner or flashing switch — but this is pinball, so complexity isn't necessarily important. No doubt holes can also be picked in music or voices, but touches such as balls with different characteristics to represent Marvel heroes are occasionally clever and always welcome, while charming battles and character animations add to the appeal. Thor and Moon Knight are stand-out tables in our view and Plants vs. Zombies, meanwhile, is perhaps closest to its source material, with sound effects and and a visual style immediately recognisable to those who've enjoyed the original game.
Use of the GamePad is generally excellent, with perhaps a couple of minor missed opportunities. When the main action is on the TV the controller shows how many balls are left, your score and its progress towards your top ranking, and occasionally switches to a zoomed-in action camera angle of a key event. In truth your eyes are glued to the TV, meaning that these inclusions are largely ignored, though they're nice touches. We would have liked the option to fill the GamePad screen with the dot-matrix display — which does also show on the TV in the top left corner — but that's a minor quibble.
Off-TV play is a welcome and classy touch, however, as you simply press and drag your finger on the GamePad screen to move the main action from the TV to the controller, and vice-versa. The GamePad screen does a solid job, and this is exactly the kind of game for which the function was surely designed. The colourful visuals understandably have far greater impact on a HD TV, but Zen Studios deserves credit for its use of the Wii U controller, including a minor but neat ability to launch the ball into play with a touch-screen operated spring.
Much like the 3DS titles this entry also includes hot-seat multiplayer, where you take turns to set a higher score, as well as a new split-screen score "race" where you'll need a GamePad and Wii U Pro Controller — Wii Remotes and Classic Controllers aren't supported. Multiplayer is fun for some local rivalries and is a nice extra albeit not fundamental to the score-chasing experience, but the lack of support for the Wii Classic Controller is unfortunate.
And so Zen Pinball 2 is a download of contradictions. Its processes for accessing trials and unlocking DLC is exceptionally disappointing, making us wonder why on earth the game was delayed to implement such a messy setup. And yet once that's out of the way and you have your tables unlocked, it's an absolute pleasure. As most of your time will ultimately be spent playing as many or as few tables as you want, then this delivers terrific variety and gameplay to satisfy pinball fans.
If Zen Pinball 2 is the beginning of a new distribution model on the Wii U eShop, of free apps accompanied by paid DLC, then it's an extremely rough start. The infrastructure is clunky and, to be blunt, unacceptable, which could be enough to put off some that decide it's too confusing or clumsy to be worth the effort. Once accessed, however, the content is excellent; tables looks and play wonderfully, a treat for the eyes and the senses with sharp controls and on-screen responses. Credit is also due to Zen Studios for its use of the GamePad, which just makes us wish that the overall package could hit a big combo and top the leaderboard.