Zen Studios is quickly becoming best known for its perfection of pinball video games. They have found a way to take one of the essential entertainment devices of any great arcade, the pinball machine, and transfer it into the digital world. With their latest release Marvel Pinball: Vengeance and Virtue they deliver not only some of the most interesting tables they’ve released to date, but they also find a way to take players to hell and back…literally.
If you’re not familiar with Pinball FX2 on XBLA or Marvel Pinball on PSN then here’s a brief rundown. It’s pinball. The left and right trigger buttons control your flippers and your A or X button (depending on your platform) allow you to shoot your ball. The analog stick shakes or “Tilts” the table and adds to the realism that you are playing on a real pinball table. The beauty of the engine Zen has built is truly in its physics. The ball and table act like they would in the real world. I recently played some other pinball games before writing this review and I quickly gained an appreciation for what Zen has accomplished.
With Marvel Pinball: Vengeance and Virtue, Zen delivers four new tables to add to the mix of their other great tables. The four Marvel themed tables are X-Men, Ghost Rider, Thor, and Moon Knight. Being a Marvel comic fan I couldn’t help but smile when I read that Moon Knight was receiving his own table. It’s about time Marc Spector received some respect. Each table features the heroes and their popular enemies, as well as some voice work that helps depict some of the more famous moments and quotes from each characters storied history.
The art style of each table is a perfect blend for each theme. Ghost Riders hellish table is filled with the reds and oranges of fire while Moon Knights is a blend of the bright white of his cloak and the neon blue of his eyes. Each table is fully animated and comes to life as your game progresses. These virtual tables are much more engaging than their real life counterparts ever could be and I often found myself staring at what was happening on the table rather than where my ball was going. This of course leads to some lost balls but sometimes I’ll take the loss at the expense of having some truly fantastic visuals.
As for the individual tables, the Thor table is definitely my favorite. It features the most animation out of any Marvel table released by Zen so far. The table features Thor as he battles his many enemies and it even gives you the option to “battle” them as your game progresses. There is a strong focus on Thor’s energy during these battles and it makes you feel like you are engaged in combat. The combat focus also carries over to the Moon Knight table which actually gives Moon Knight and his enemies health bars. The better you play, the more health you take away. I enjoyed this because it felt like I wasn’t just playing pinball, I was engaging in combat with some classic Marvel characters in a way unlike anything I had ever done.
The X-men and Ghost Rider tables each carry their own unique twists. The X-men table features the X-men heroes as they conduct missions inspired from actual comic events. The missions include confrontations with Magneto, Dark Phoenix, and Juggernaut and actually add some meaning to your play. I was surprised to find myself frustrated when I lost a ball and didn’t complete a mission. The hellish Ghost Rider table features a 3D rendered Ghost Rider that starts your session off by him breathing fire on the table. The highlight off the table happens when you are able to spell the word FIRE. Upon doing this you activate a giant 3D shotgun that you use to shoot your ball at certain targets on the table. Yes, they put a shotgun into a pinball game.
With all that said, what any game boils down to is its gameplay. Zen’s Marvel Pinball: Vengeance and Virtue is still of course just a pinball game. With all the bells and whistles they can throw in it, they still can’t escape the simple mechanics of pinball. Somehow however these mechanics have helped make Pinball FX2 XBLA’s most downloaded title in 2011 and I actually found myself somewhat captivated by playing it. It’s one of those games that I like to just sit down and play and not really have to think while doing it. Sometimes it’s just fun to play pinball. The most fun I had playing this title was with the multiplayer. The game features in-game leader boards with your online friends that forced me to play just “one more game” to beat my closest friends score. It also has split-screen which is an absolute blast! You can set the goal as either a time limit or score limit and then set a penalty for losing the ball. Playing against my wife with a 5 minute time limit and penalty of losing all your points was truly epic. Luckily no one was around to hear some of the things being said when all points were lost with only 20 seconds to go. I think I have a new addition to my casual multiplayer rotation.
One of the main issues I had with the game is that there is so much happening as you play that I often lost the ball. Sometimes this wasn’t even due to the extra animations but due to the colors on the screen. The greys and whites of the X-men and Moon Knight tables make it easy to lose the ball as it too often blends in with the art. I also found it hard sometimes to know what was happening with the different missions and battles. I was so focused on my ball that following health and energy bars on the dot-matrix screen was always a second thought. It’s great that Zen is adding these additions to the genre but I still think there’s some evolution of the presentation of these mechanics that need to happen before they are perfect
Bottom line, Marvel Pinball: Vengeance and Virtue is truly a fun game. It is one of those downloadable titles that appeals to both casual gamers and the hardcore (yes there are hardcore pinball players out there). It’s simple pick up and play mechanics blended with the visuals and fun gameplay twists create an experience not available from any other pinball title. Zen Studios has found their niche and are running with it. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.