It’s been far too long since I’ve reviewed a pinball table. There was a small period where I wondered aloud at whether or not Zen Studios was out of the pinball business, so silent they were on what was coming next. And then, like that far off thunderclap that signals an approaching storm came not only news of some new tables, but also a redesign of their main platform, Zen Pinball itself. So with these words that follow, we’ll take a look not only at their newest tables, the Universal Classics Pack, but also at the program in which they live, Zen Pinball 3.
When I first heard the name Universal Classics, I imagined tables themed on the Universal Classic Monsters. Instead, Universal has seen fit to offer up three other classics based on their movie properties, Robert Zemeckis's time-traveling Back to the Future, and two Steven Spielberg mega-hits, E.T. and Jaws.
As the first tables released for Zen Pinball 3, all three tables look amazing, with each boasting improved lighting, textures and other newfangled bits that sound better as part of some PR package than in an actual sentence here. As someone who spent a huge amount of time with their previous engine, Zen Pinball 2, the differences are pretty dramatic. Everything looks cleaner, little details are easier to read, and the little bells and whistles that set video game pinball apart from its real-world counterpart are taken up a couple of notches.
Nowhere is the last point more noticeable than on the Back to the Future table. Chronicling all three movies in the series, the table features Doc Brown, Marty McFly, and the DeLorean, arguably the best time machine in modern time traveling (mea culpa to fans of the blue police box). The table prompts you to pick a time period, whether it be 1955, Biff era 1985, or even 1885, and then changes some of the table extras to coincide with the period appropriate DeLorean that proceeds to race across the table’s bottom area.
Back to the Future has a great flow to it, and I found it easy to not only keep up combos using the two main ramps, but I also completed the trophy for 1955 Part 1 during my first couple of go-rounds. Some of the pinball quests require some very precise shots to get to the outside, but overall, the table is not very taxing in the hard shot requirements. The lighting improvements are most noticeable during the Hill Valley lightning strike that Doc uses to generate the 1.21 gigawatts needed to initiate time travel, and the ball itself trails flame during the table’s multiball. That last effect gets truly nuts when there are three balls racing across the table during said thunderstorm, but it never feels overwhelming.
Jaws is probably my favorite of the new tables. Set in the water at the end of the film, as Quint, Brodie, and Hooper search for the great white on The Orca, Jaws is a joy. Casting the ball with a giant fishing pole, the skill shot involves hitting a moving shark’s fin all while Quint yells at you from the bow of the boat. The table has callouts to the pier that gets pulled into the water, the barrels that get attached to the shark as he dives beneath the waves, and even the ill-fated shark cage poor Hooper uses to try and help.
Besides the shark, Quint is the only human character present on the table, and he manages to slip on and off the Orca with ease. The animations for the character are quite smooth, and were it not for the abysmal voice acting employed by both this, and basically all other tables, the representation would be flawless.
The table itself plays well, with a lot of shots ending up around The Orca on the left and the representation of Hooper’s scanner on the right. There’s only one major ramp, on the right side above where the ball is put into play, while all the other aspects played quite close to the edges of the table. The shark cage serves as both the locking mechanism for balls and a movable piece of one of the pinball quests.
E.T. is the final table, and it’s… it’s fine. The brightest of the bunch, E.T. manages to capture the look of the film, with the lower half of the table furnished like Elliot’s bedroom, while the upper half moves like an old-timey movie, with the action happening in front while the background moves from right to left. The play area feels very wide, with a lot of emphasis falling on the lanes and ramps that make up the back of the table. A little off center is the extra-terrestrials spherical spaceship, which creates the mission activation zone by taking off and floating around the center. The table scores easier than the other two, and the high resolution makes seeing where you’re supposed to go a breeze.
As stated earlier, the three new tables were released at the same time as the Zen Pinball 3 platform, which, on top of a new look to its table listing, incorporates a leveling and XP system of all things. The leveling is done by both your account and per table, with each table featuring a number of wizard powers, offering greater scoring opportunities, as well as profile unlocks. Should you choose to skip all this stuff, they also allow you to play a standard game of pinball as well as Hotseat multiplayer. A kudos must also be given to Zen Studios for not being a complete garbage company and allowing everyone to download just about every table they had already purchased, fully upgraded with the newer graphics, for free.
It’s great that pinball is back, and it’s even better that Zen Studios seems to be back to form after the time off. The Universal Classics are just that, and while they don’t check all the boxes, particularly in the voice/sound department, the looks, complete with higher resolutions and crisper textures, and table accouterment are enough to make these a worthy buy.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!