Over the years, the quest to authentically capture pinball’s every nuance in a videogame (from the weightiness of the small metal ball to the lights and sounds that really bring a table to life) has proven to be surprisingly tricky, in part due to the attention to detail demanded by ardent pinball fans. Currently the Zen Pinball series stands at the forefront of the genre, offering a remarkably life like experience married with the bells and whistles that we’ve come to expect from modern videogames; but with the fundamentals pretty much perfected where next? Well, Zen Studios have looked to licensing to expand the game’s horizons, and thusly we bear witness to the launch of Marvel Pinball; but is this a worthy addition or just a cynical cash-in that will leave you turning green with anger and busting out of your purple trousers?
That the Marvel universe is a perfect match for a pinball game is something of a no-brainer, featuring as it does a cast of gaudily coloured, Lycra-clad superheroes that exude the whizz-bang neon excitement upon which pinball thrives. The comic publisher’s rich – and long – history also throws up near limitless potential for new table designs, a fact that Zen Studios’ plans to release numerous tables as DLC reflects. For this initial salvo (released as a standalone game on the PS3 or as DLC for the Xbox 360’s Zen Pinball 2) the studio has selected four characters – namely Wolverine, Spiderman, Iron Man and Blade – and built four suitably themed tables.
It would have been very easy – a probably just as lucrative – for Zen Studios to take some generic pinball-table designs and plaster them with the gurning visages of Marvel characters but, thankfully, that is not the case here. Obvious care and attention has been taken to ensure that these carefully crafted tables represent the characters on which they are based, from the aesthetics to the pace of play and challenges presented. The Wolverine table, for example, is slightly squat and cuts straight to the point, perfectly capturing the Canucklehead’s no-nonsense attitude. Similarly, the sweeping rails of the Spiderman table put the ball through some impressive gymnastics, spiralling it around the play area in a manner mirroring the web-slingers penchant for urban-swinging (ahem) and Iron Man’s table feels like a high-tech extension of his famed power-armour. This eye for detail evidences a genuine love and understanding of the source material; Zen Studio’s present the Marvel superheroes at their purist, stripped of any of the liberties that some of the recent movies have taken.
While Marvel Pinball clearly stands by the series’ dedication to realistically simulating pinball, it is not averse to adding slightly more fantastical touches as embellishment – and so we witness Doctor Octopus walking down the table, the Green Goblin gliding overhead dropping pumpkin coloured balls and the ball itself bursting into flame when imbued with a vampiric curse. Such effects are never overused (they’re generally delivered as a reward for particularly impressive achievements/scores) but do much to further bring the tables to life.
Underlying the hugely enjoyable pinball is an impressive suite of online features that range from scoreboards, four-person multiplayer, in-game video-chat and ‘Team Force’. The first three are exactly what you would expect, and all work extremely well. The latter is a new addition to the series that enables groups of players to form teams and tally their score, which are then entered onto an online scoreboard. Zen Pinball’s inclusion of full access to the tables’ factory settings proved Zen Studios commitment to authenticity; additions such as those included in Marvel Pinball shows a real commitment to a broadening the possibilities as well.
No matter how refined the simulation, or how fully featured Marvel Pinball is, there is no escaping the fact that it will not be for everyone – pinball is, and probably will remain, something of a niche area of videogaming. However, it is also hard to deny that Marvel Pinball is a wonderful homage to the Marvel Universe and the game of pinball itself, and if you have even the slightest interest in either, then there is a mountain of content here to recommend. The game takes an aging form of entertainment and makes it thoroughly modern, with robust and intelligently applied features that further embellish four tables that already stand up extremely well to repeated play. The ‘just one more go’-factor offered by the tables combines with the significant competitive pull of the online leaderboards to make Marvel Pinball the sort of game you may still be playing for months to come. And you don’t even need to keep pumping coins into a slot to do so – which is flipping marvelous!
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