Zen Studios deserves a pat on the back for supporting Zen Pinball2 with a diverse collection of tables. I visited a friend recently who’s husband purchased a digital pinball machine (essentially a two-monitor computer running Steam installed inside a pinball machine frame) and the list of tables available to date is impressive. It’s a nice mix of original content and licensed Marvel and Star Wars-theme sets. For its latest release, Zen adds Valve to its catalog of virtual pinball tables.
Zen Pinball 2: Portal celebrates the company’s famous first person mind bender in a table that pulls in familiar elements from both Portal and Portal 2 (the overall design ultimately favors Portal 2, however). As the pinball bounces against Aperture Laboratories press pads and ramps, Chell idles the time away at the bottom of the screen, waiting for a mission to bring her into the action. GLaDOS hangs at a fixed point in the upper left portion of the table and doesn’t carry as big a presence as I expected. If this were someone’s first exposure to the Portal universe, they’d likely miss that the AI is the big bad monster of both games. Atlas and P-Body make an appearance, as do Wheatley and Rat Man’s scribblings and doodles. The table’s biggest failure is the absence of Cave Johnson, Aperture’s endearing and insane director.
The structure of the Portal table feels rather crampy. There’s a lot of activity going on and the use of portals as a gameplay mechanism can make it difficult to keep track of the ball in early playthroughs. It’s best to familiarize yourself with ball paths before gearing up for serious play. Portions of the table don’t make a great deal of sense, either. Launching the ball comes with a skill shot opportunity involving a revolving portal and no information or hint built into the table to tell me what I’m supposed to do. Table missions also suffer from the same kind of communication problem. Other tables like Star Wars or South Park spelled out what you needed to do for each session. Portal does not. This was the first game where I had to dig through the Zen Pinball interface to find out what I'm supposed to do. There are five missions to play through, each built on a popular element from the series (like Rat Man’s hideaway and the sentry guns). Without knowing how to succeed in these sequences at the start, all that’s left to do is mark time until the ball falls into the sewer and normal play resumes.
Portal is a modern classic for Valve and it’s nice to see it celebrated outside the studio beyond t-shirt designs and tired cake jokes. It comes with ideas and concepts new to pinball tables and it is a nice little celebration of Portal’s legacy. However, the table isn’t perfect. While it is hardly a slapdash effort, the lack of direction and an overall feeling of claustrophobia means there is room for improvement. A decent enough addition for those collecting Zen Pinball 2: Portal tables though it is a slightly empty homage to Aperture Science.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.