When it comes to pinball games for the Wii U, there's really not a whole lot of options available. Zen Pinball 2 is obviously the first name that comes to mind, and while it certainly delivers a diverse and in-depth library of tables to choose from (along with the standalone Star Wars Pinball), one occasionally must wonder what it would look like if another company took a meaningful shot at it. Enter Pinball Arcade, a title that aims to emulate the experience of dozens of real life pinball tables. While there are some slight performance issues, and the storefront could have a less confusing setup for buying tables, Pinball Arcade does a remarkable job of capturing the spirit of the tables it emulates and preserving their legacy.
While we weren't huge fans of the setup of Zen Pinball 2's means of acquiring tables (it was the first of its kind on the eShop, to be fair), the structure has come a long way since. All tables in Pinball Arcade are available in-game and are divided up into "seasons" of about a dozen tables each. You can try every table before buying, with the demo cutting off once you reach a reasonably judged score threshold, and you're able to then buy the table individually or as part of a pack, depending on the table. It's painless and straightforward, though things are complicated much more when you factor in Pro Versions.
Every table also has a "Pro Version" which is a few dollars more, but gives you access to operator controls, ball control, pro tips and more. The extra content being offered really seems to justify the higher cost, though the value may not seem worth it to everybody. Farsight Studios obviously wants to push Pro Versions more, so a discount is offered if you buy the Pro Version right off the bat. This creates a sort of in-game fragmentation that may grow confusing the more tables you buy.
The confusion stems from the plethora of discounts and bundles that are offered, some of which may seem conflicting. For example, say you own six tables in a season. Four of those tables are the Pro Versions and three of those Pro Versions were upgraded after you bought the vanilla version. Now suppose you'd like to buy the rest of the games in the season and you'd like to buy the bundle, but you already own half of the tables, and you want to buy Pro Versions for only two of the tables you don't have. At the end of it all, you may be left wondering if you could've paid less money for the tables you bought. It's not that it's hard to download the tables that you want, but it's not always made entirely clear if you're paying the least amount of money to do so, and this could be better communicated on the storefront.
All the same, once you have the tables you want it's a remarkable experience. Every table has been painstakingly constructed based on a real world equivalent, and the attention to detail is delightful. All of the original dot matrix screens and sound bites are recreated perfectly, and the extra content surrounding the history of each table is a nice plus. Upon starting up any table for the first time you'll be treated to a paragraph detailing the design, popularity and total units sold, and there are scans of the original flyers for several tables hidden away in the game's menu. If you buy the Pro Version you can also read through detailed guides written by pinball professionals that will help you to maximize your scores, and you can even buy custom balls for 99 cents each (US) that can be used on any tables. All this extra content adds a lot to the experience, and makes it very evident that the developers spent a lot of time doing their homework.
As for the gameplay itself, it's not always perfect but it certainly is a whole lot of fun. Try as they might, the developers haven't quite managed to nail that exact feel of how a real world pinball bounces about the machine, but it gets it very close. The action remains smooth and fast paced for the most part, though some of the more complex tables will see the framerate experience some slowdown. It's never enough to interrupt the experience but it's noticeable when it happens, and it feels like something that could've been absent from the final release.
Of course, the tables being offered are the real stars of the show, and the selection is extremely varied and diverse. Two to three decades' worth of tables are available, featuring just about every theme you could imagine. Naturally, there's maturation in the complexity of the machines according to the year of release; some of the earliest machines don't even feature a dot matrix display, and they continue to get deeper and more RPG-like the more recent they get. Regardless of the age of the machines, all of them offer exhilarating arcade action and are well worth their asking prices.
And for those of you that would like just a little bit more of replayability, there's a challenge mode to give these tables a little more longevity. Here, you'll be tasked with a variety of missions that challenge you to hit a certain score threshold, increase your score a certain amount between balls, or complete a specific objective. Sure, it's still the same basic pinball action, but it puts a different twist on things that make them all the more engaging.
Ultimately, Pinball Arcade is an excellent representation of classic pinball machines from over the years. The tables are generally very well designed, there's a broad array of options to choose from, and the replayability is virtually unlimited. Barring some performance issues and a hokey means of buying tables in bulk, this is pinball at its finest. We'd strongly recommend you pick this one up, there's something here for everybody and it's pure arcade magic.