Over the past five years Zen Studios has made a name for itself by releasing some of the best pinball video games ever made. With a mix of original and licensed tables, the Budapest-based developer has made a convincing argument why PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 owners should care about traditional pinball games. After conquering the home consoles, Zen Studios is ready to take on the next challenge: The Nintendo 3DS.
Despite its different name, Zen Pinball 3D doesn't stray far from Pinball FX's formula. We're given four unique tables to play around with, online leaderboards, tons of camera angles and table specific achievements. While the tables may be original, they fit in perfectly with what I've seen on the Xbox Live Arcade and PSN. Each table offers several goals to complete and plenty of incentives for repeat plays. Needless to say, fans of Zen's past pinball efforts will feel right at home with this Nintendo 3DS effort.
The four stages run the gamut of eras and themes. We start with Excalibur, a swords and sorcery table with knights and princesses. This medieval stage is simple in design, but full of fire-breathing action. This is a visually stunning table features an archery yard, a large sword ramp, a joust tournament and a sexy lady in the middle of the board. Despite a few interesting quests, this table is too prone to cheap deaths.
Up next is Eldorado, an Amazonian table full of ancient ruins and hidden treasures. There are artifacts to explore, a Mayan challenge featuring a nasty saw, a puzzle leading to gold and even poisonous traps. The lush environment is both interesting and fun to play, making this one of the stronger tables in the package.
Moving on we have Shaman, a witch doctor-themed board full of rickety paths and tribal imagery. This deceptively complicated board features ritual dancers, a hot volcano path, an elemental puzzle and all kinds of funky magic. Of the four tables, this was the easiest to score on. I found the goals easy to accomplish and achievements within grasp, which isn't always the case with Zen's pinball games. At the same time, I'm not a big fan of the theme and layout. Shaman is definitely a mixed bag.
The final table is Earth Defense!, a science fiction-themed stage starring humans, tanks and one very large alien robot. This is the most complicated of all the boards, yet is also the most rewarding. Here you work with the army to fight back an alien invasion. You do everything from man a tank to save innocent bystanders. Before long you'll be ordering in airstrikes and dealing with the skyscraper-sized menace that is ruining the city. This stage is worth the $6.99 asking price all by itself.
Beyond the four stages, the other big change is the presentation. Specifically, the way each stage is presented in 3D. The effect is relatively successful, especially when it comes to some of the layered stages in Eldorado and Earth Defense. On the other hand, I didn't find it impacted the actual gameplay in any way. With so many small 3D elements competing for my attention at the same time, I did find it hard to look at for long stretches of time. Thankfully you can adjust the 3D effect accordingly.
Unlike Pinball FX 2 on the Xbox Live Arcade, Zen Pinball 3D is a single standalone product. It doesn't look like you will be able to download extra boards, so once you've completed these tables you'll have to wait for a sequel or expansion pack. Thankfully the online leaderboards will keep you competing against your friends while you wait. The game uses the bottom screen to remind player how they are doing relative to friends and other local players.
Speaking of the bottom screen, this is also where Zen has decided to park the score. Unfortunately, half the time the score is not visible, thanks to the non-stop pictures and words taking up that real estate. I'm fine with goal reminders and numbers flying in my face, but I should be able to see my overall score 100% of the time. This is a minor complaint, but one I would like to see addressed in future revisions.
There really isn't much to the game outside of these four tables. Players can bring up to three friends along for single-system multiplayer. Beyond that you're limited to trying to beat your high score and earn all of the achievements. Then again, that should be more than enough for this budget priced eShop release.
The game uses the two shoulder buttons as the flippers. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that I really hate the Nintendo 3DS's shoulder buttons. These buttons don't have the same give that the Xbox 360 trigger offers, something that really screwed up my performance early on. Thankfully the developers have given us a second way to play, a more traditional D-pad and face button approach.
Zen Pinball 3D is a solid first attempt on the Nintendo 3DS. With its four tables and online leaderboards, there's a lot to like about Zen's foray into handheld gaming. If you're already one of the masses that looks forward to every new Pinball FX 2 table, then Zen Pinball 3D is a great way to waste the time when you're nowhere near your console.