Allow me to set the scene for you. You enter the arcade, and the sounds of machines are chiming and singing for your attention. The smell of electric, plastic, and smoke permeates the room. Everywhere you look is a light show designed to steal your attention. Along the far side of the room is a line of tables designed to munch the quarters of the unworthy, sending home in tears those that are unable to tame the tables’ systems and minute idiosyncrasies.
For those that put in the time to hone their skill, however, that row of pinball tables is the place to prove your place among the would-be wizards, claiming your seat of greatness by way of displaying your high score for all to see. The honor and respect you now command is due to many hours learning every inch of the table. You know when it bends, when it breaks, knowing exactly which shots you should take and which will get you in trouble. What seems like luck to those that don’t understand such things is a feat of skill that you have practiced, learned, and accomplished. And now you’re on to conquer the next one.
The Genesis of Skill
Pinball, in many ways, is the root of all video games. While technically not video games themselves, the concepts for the earliest video games are present in the tables. Skills like quick reaction time, hand-eye coordination, spatial awareness in a game space, and learning and exploiting secrets, both intended and unintended, all were first found in pinball.
When Zen Studios began making the Pinball FX series, their tables felt very old-school in style. Tables like Rocky & Bulwinkle hearkened back to the styles of aiming for drop targets and getting various aspects of the board to light up for big scores. Stories, missions, and hidden game modes inside of tables were foreshadowed in some designs, but never fully realized. Then Pinball FX2 released, which began to show what Zen could really do with creative table design. Much more reminiscent of the pin tables of the ’90s, Zen Studio’s FX2 creations were much more complex, relying on ramp accuracy, winning missions and table goals, and unlocking wizard modes to bring your score to its fullest potential.
But aren’t we talking about Pinball FX here? Yes, but for just a moment longer, let’s fully set the scene so we can better address some of the discussion regarding Zen’s latest offering. Once Pinball FX3 was upon us, it was clear that all things in the digital pinball world belonged to Zen Studios. Their masterful table design even swayed Williams, the name behind the amazing real-world Williams pinball tables, to completely move their licensing from Farsight’s The Pinball Arcade to the Pinball FX series. While fully in the driver’s seat, Zen wanted to change a few things regarding their direction, adding more global features and modes to their masterpiece.
A New Age is Born
Thus, Pinball FX was born. Or, rather, reborn. Using the original name that started it all, Pinball FX sets out to revamp the series with a number of improvements. First, the tables feature an updated physics engine, which we’ll get into shortly. Next, each tables features a variety of modes, including many that are new to the series. Also, room customization has been implemented, giving you a pinball room in which you can showcase your earned or purchased treasures, such as carpets, statues, posters, and more. Earning a collectible by accomplishing a rare feat on a table, then displaying that collectible in your room, is quite a rush.
Of course, earning such rewards is only engaging if the action on the tables is fun in the first place. Continuing the pedigree set forth by the previous games, the tables in Pinball FX are, generally, incredible experiences filled with amazing moments. There is the odd table here and there that could be improved upon, but even playing those is generally a fun time to be had.
On the other end of the spectrum, some of the finest table design you’re likely to see is included in the vast plethora of tables on offer. New tables join many of the old, updated ones, and there are some incredible surprises amongst them. Themes such as the steampunk adventure found on Sky Pirates: Treasures of the Clouds, the eldritch horrors permeating the Wrath of the Elder Gods table, and the nostalgia and versatility of the Peanuts’ Snoopy Pinball table join up with legends like Medieval Madness, Pasha, and Monster Bash. Along for the ride are the incredible tables found in the Universal Classics, Marvel, Jurassic World, and Star Wars collections, such as Star Wars Pinball: Masters of the Force, and Blade.
Bringing each of these tables up to modern sensibilities is a slew of improvements, like physics and quality of life adjustments, and these get sprinkled among an assortment of modes in which to play. There is “Classic,” which is the purest way to play, or go with “Arcade,” to add in some super powers, such as slow motion or limited boosts in scoring, to the mix. You may also opt for one of the challenges, namely “Flips,” “1 Ball,” “Time,” or “Distance,” each granting a new way to think about playing.
Fun With Physics
Regarding the physics, even though the engine is improved, many who casually play are likely not to notice. The ball feels weightier overall in the Zen tables, and the strange occurrence of insane backspin is mitigated. However, the ball physics on the tables still feel very tight, quite similar to previous Zen tables, meaning the “floatiness” that occurs in real-life tables as the ball loses its inertia isn’t as prevalent.
In the Williams tables, however, the physics feel slightly different. Due to the nature of being as realistic to the real-life tables as possible, the physics are somewhat more challenging, as if the table is angled a bit more. There is a “Pro” mode in each of the Williams tables that angles the tables even further while allowing for no extra balls. Another interesting difference between Williams tables and the rest is that it is impossible to do a “death save” on the Williams tables, where you lift a flipper and nudge the table as the ball descends down a side drain in an attempt to return the ball to play. This mechanic is very much possible on the other tables, with some even giving acknowledgements of the feat. Since a death save is not allowed in real-life tournament play due to the wear and tear on the tables, this is likely why the technique was rendered impossible on those tables.
Rest assured, however, that the physics on each table play like a pinball dream, with the ball being quite responsive. In fact, the attention to detail is staggering, inside the physics engine and beyond. I had the ball stuck on a couple of tables, and after a few moments, the table would flick all of its working parts, just like a real-life table would do. It worked for one, but on FunHouse, I had to nudge the table a few times to properly dislodge the ball from Rudy’s mouth. Other bits of detail include actual date and times displayed on the dot matrix of a table, along with phone numbers and the infamous “Say No To Drugs” message that was prevalent on all machines back in the day.
Another detail that returns from the previous games is the way scores are integrated socially into the experience. Whenever you play a table, you will be notified when you are getting close to your top score, either for the week or all time. But you will also be notified as you reach your friends’ scores. Knowing in real time that you’ve overcome their best efforts is a thrill that helps keep you laser focused toward reaching the highest score you can.
With the past Pinball FX games, we were given a host of excellent machines, but what about the new ones for this reboot? Even though Zen Studios impressed me with almost all of their past tables, I still find myself surprised at how amazingly well designed each of their unique efforts continue to be. While a couple of new Williams machines join the mix in the form of Swords of Fury, World Cup Soccer, The Machine: Bride of Pin-Bot, and The Addams Family, the original tables at hand run the gamut of childhood fun to old-school merriment. There are fifteen wholly original tables created at the time of this writing for Pinball FX, and even the “weakest” of them is a fantastic table. Add those fifteen to the seventy one others, and you have a truly marvelous collection to potentially acquire.
Pinball FX, itself, is a free program to download, and it comes with a free table in the form of the terrific but challenging Wild West Rampage. You may play all modes on this table as you will have full ownership of it. The rest of the tables come with a price, along with some controversy.
Before we get to that, I want to interject a story that might help mediate some of the situation that we’ll discuss in a moment. As a child I played a game called Pinball on the NES. The price was around $40.00, and the game included one table with three game areas. This model tended to be the norm for those times, where the digital pinball game would require a “full game” purchase price and deliver a digital table with an assortment of modes and play areas. Games like Pinball, Dragon’s Fury, and Demon’s Tilt adhered strictly to this rule, while titles like Sonic Spinball and Power Rangers Neo: Full Tilt Battle Pinball included a few different play spaces, albeit with similar themes throughout. Fast forward to today, however, and things have changed.
Now You’re Paying With Power
The controversy regarding Pinball FX isn’t necessarily regarding the pricing of each table, which is actually quite a value for what you get. Instead, it regards Zen Studios’ decision to include tables that were previously released in the series, but not allowing previous purchasers of those tables to access them in the new format. If those purchasers want to play those same tables, they must repurchase the tables at the same price as everyone else.
This decision was justified by Zen Studios explaining that the tables have all been remade from the ground up, incorporating the new physics engine, integrating all of the additional modes and features, and getting a graphical overhaul. But these same justifications were used similarly with Pinball FX3, yet tables were still able to be accessed if the player purchased them in FX2. This inconsistency has led to many being upset about this decision.
While I can certainly understand the negative views toward that choice, I cannot understand any complaints regarding the pricing of tables. Most tables cost around $5.00 in the United States, with some licensed tables being $9.99, or even $14.99 in the case of the Indiana Jones table due to the higher cost of licensing that one. Many other tables require an entire pack of tables to be purchased, but none of these is more expensive than $23.99, and the fact that you receive up to eleven tables at a time this way means the cost of each individual table in the pack would be valued between 2 and 3 dollars. Even when purchasing a pack, or in the extreme case of the single Indiana Jones table, the pricing in Pinball FX is still much cheaper than what we used to pay for a single digital pinball table years ago.
So yes, I think the pricing is extremely fair in Pinball FX, especially for the quality that you get with each table. And while I understand the trepidation exhibited by those upset with Zen’s decision to make machines previously purchased in prior versions needing to be re-purchased to play here, it bothers me less than some because all of those tables are still perfectly playable on the prior format. Zen Studios didn’t take support away from those formats. I would say to those that do not wish to re-purchase their old tables that they certainly do not have to. Of course, that’s not a perfect solution, and at least a discount would be nice to see for prior table owners.
Oodles of Options
For those that simply want to try the tables, every one of them has a trial available where you get two minutes at a time to try the table out. Another option that Pinball FX features is something called a “Pinball Pass,” and it works like this. For a small price, you can purchase a license allowing you to play on nearly all of the tables, save for the Marvel Collection and Indiana Jones table (presumably due to licensing issues on those). You may purchase a month at a time, or you can purchase a full year, and you can play all of the features on each of the tables for the duration. Of course, you will not actually own the tables unless you buy them, but it is an available option.
Regardless, everyone should check out the newer tables. These include several that have gone completely modern by ditching the dot matrix display to include full, high quality graphical display screens, much like we see in modern masterpieces like the real-life Wizard of Oz table. Zen’s new tables have that kind of quality and tech included, and they need to be experienced by any would-be pinball wizard.
Looking for technical negatives is also a challenge. There have been some issues regarding input lag at first, but Zen patched that up, so the version I’m playing on Xbox Series X plays smooth as butter. I have seen some complaints in other versions, but I haven’t played those to confirm. Still, while Zen Studios continues to roll out updates and patches, be aware that there have been reports of stuttering or input lag, though most I’ve talked with about it have had few issues regarding this. One issue I have had on the Xbox Series X version is that the game will disconnect from the leaderboards occasionally, but a press of the reconnect button fixes the issue, and my scores have always posted correctly online. Still, it’s a slight annoyance at times.
Bringing it Home
Beyond that, everything, from setting up collectibles in your room to the action and details on the tables themselves, joins together to form the best video pinball you can play. While we know even more tables are coming, even if they didn’t, the eighty-six available in the game are incredible overall, featuring a great many hours of mastery to come. I do wish the social aspects featured the customizable rooms, allowing for a sort-of Animal Crossing-style pinball social experience where we could be invited to hang out in a buddy’s or stranger’s decked-out pinball room, but it is still a cool feature to be able to customize our own virtual environment with the treasures and relics that we’ve earned from the tables.
I cannot overstate how impressive these tables are in Pinball FX. Even if you purchase one or two of them, you are paying the cost of a sandwich for the best virtual pinball experience you’ll enjoy today. Whether you play the classic style, overtaking your friends’ scores in the process, or you opt to set up or participate in a Tournament or Event showcase where you can earn a variety of customization items for your room in a season-style setup, you’ll be addicted to the flow of play, the sounds, the lights, and the effects. It may even make you swear that the smell in your own room suddenly resembles those old, smokey halls of days gone by. Of course, you are likely too in the zone to care about such things as you are only a million points behind your highest score, and you are certain to pass it this time since you are one ramp away from activating wizard mode. And you’re just getting started.
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