Zen Pinball 3D
| Zen Pinball 3D

A pinball game on a console. Seems a bit old fashioned, doesn't it?

Though there's been anecdotal evidence to suggest that the arcade pastime's popularity is rising again, it's largely considered a relic.

Metal balls pinging off objects as they're flicked across painted balsa wood panels is boring when you can have guns and high action and quick-time events. Yet Zen Pinball 3D is rather smashing.

Presenting four tables from previous releases on other systems, the game may initially appear to offer a miserly amount of content. Earth Defense sees you repel an alien invasion; El Dorado is a Mayan adventure; Excalibur is based on the British myth; and Shaman is all voodoo high priests.

They all look great, both in terms of artistic design and – barring a couple of low-resolution textures – fidelity. Filled with wireframe chutes criss-crossing the board, flashing lights, giant ramps, multiple fields of play, and highly animated Toys, each table is showy, busy, and loud.

[Insert obligatory "balls of steel" gag here]

This last point is a bit of a backhanded compliment: just like actuals pins, the number of audio effects each theme has at its disposal is limited, so you'll hear the same lines of speech repeated again and again.

It's true to the activity of pinball in this regard, but you might find yourself turning the sound down after a couple of hours of play. Which is a pity, because it's otherwise excellent.

None of this show and pomp really matters, though, because recreations of games in other media will always be held against one standard: how well they recreate the original experience. Happily, Zen Pinball 3D plays a mighty fine game of pinball.

Ball physics are superb for the most part, if a little heavy. The steel reacts well to the now-traditional elements of flippers and bumpers, though the engine does seem to give you a little push up ramps every now and then to keep things moving.

More advanced elements, such as a giant robot that fires a saved ball back on to the table in Earth Defense or the separate and more constricted castle area of Excalibur feel different enough to spice up the action, but work within - and feel faithful to – the physics model.

Your desire to learn how to reach and capitalise on these special elements is key to the enjoyment you'll derive from Zen Pinball 3D. If you just want to drop a virtual credit, play your three rounds, and move on to the next board, this release isn't for you.

But if you commit to Zen Pinball 3D, it's incredibly rewarding: the first time you're rewarded a multiball because you actively sought one is a real moment of joy.

Control is simple. You use either the shoulder buttons or down and B on the face buttons to activate flippers, while A launches the ball and the Circle Pad nudges the table a little.

But the game is let down in its fit and finish. There are minor annoyances that either grate over time or impede your progress from the start.

The Kicker

Although you can tweak almost every aspect of your play session – from the elevation of the table to the number of rounds per credit – you have to insert your initials every single time you finish a game with a highscore.

Zen Pinball 3D has elegantly implemented online leaderboards that do this without prompting the player, so how did it get it so wrong in local play?

An achievements system, in which you're rewarded with medals for completing set challenges, encourages you to mix up your play style and try new things, though the game does a bad job of explaining of how a table's systems work. You learn through repetition eventually, but newcomers to pinball will be baffled to begin with.

For a game that you can – and will – play in short bursts, it also takes a dash too long to load. In addition, if you want to check a highscore for a table you're not currently playing you have to back out of it (load), then select the table you want to see scores for (load), then wait for live data to be pulled down (load).

The engine drops an occasional frame or two during play. too, which is unacceptable in a game that's 90 per cent reaction-based.

Zen Pinball 3D manages to strike a balance between complexity of presentation and complexity of gameplay that can be richly rewarding, so long as you dedicate yourself to it. Online leaderboards add a great deal of competition, especially with a friend, and the table design is just plain smart.

But, while it manages to produce a relevant digital pinball for a modern audience, there are some conspicuously absent niceties – along with a couple of technical issues – that stop Zen Pinball 3D from being the great game that it could be.

Zen Pinball 3D

Zen Studios knows video game pinball and this release is no exception, though a few rough edges go a long way to dull the shine of the steel