Although traditional pinball machines were once a highlight of arcades and bowling alleys, they are rarities nowadays. It’s no surprise that video game iterations are just as hard to come across. Zen Studios continues to keep the pastime alive with the third installment of its digital pinball series, Pinball FX3. Not only have the developers included a vast collection of well-designed pinball tables, but they have also created a robust infrastructure that actively encourages an online community and repeated play.
At first glance, the tables resemble those you might find in an arcade. They play similarly, too; you use flippers to guide a steel ball through obstacles to complete challenges and earn points. You lose if your ball falls down the center too many times. But unlike traditional pinball machines, Zen Studios’ tables incorporates elements that would be impossible to implement in real life. Characters may begin dancing in the middle of the field to move your ball around, mist and darkness may suddenly engulf the arena, or you may be whisked away to a completely different area midgame. The gimmicks can get overwhelming, and it’s sometimes hard to tell where your ball went, but I appreciate the overloaded styles of these “impossible” machines. The pinball experience here is unrealistic, which makes it ideal for a video game, yet the physics remain consistent, preventing gameplay from becoming unruly. The developers understand the medium and embrace imaginative design over stern reality, an experience that, these days, is unique to Zen's platform.
Pinball FX3 is a free download on the Nintendo Switch, so you can actually obtain the game and its included Sorcerer’s Lair table now. You’ll have to pay to access the other 29 tables, but each one contains a great many differences. A little more than half of them are Zen’s original creations, themed after general concepts like wild west, space, and medieval fantasy. The remaining ones are licensed after specific properties such as classic Universal Studios movies (Back to the Future, etc.) Portal, and The Walking Dead. There’s a good variety that should appease fans of various genres - I was personally drawn to the Fox Animation offerings, which incorporated visuals and jokes from shows like Family Guy and Archer. Every table has distinct visuals, and licensed ones have an inherent appeal by featuring music, voice actors, and animation styles from the actual series. The licensed properties won’t appeal to everybody, though, and I wish that you could purchase tables individually as opposed to in a bundle. While each package appropriately groups similar genres together, it’s overkill to pay for four when you only want one.
Pinball already lends itself to a “just one more” mentality, but Zen Studios takes it one step further with its clever infrastructure. Each table has its own progression system. As you play, you unlock and level up special abilities that will help you in future playthroughs, such as increased combo scoring and longer ball save times. As if that weren’t enough, you can also obtain extras as you “master” a table, essentially rewards for being a loyal player. In addition, there are challenges that have specific rules like a five minute time limit. Successfully scoring earns you more special abilities, dubbed “Wizard Powers,” further encouraging you to play. It’s an addictive loop, and that’s only single-player mode.
The developers have also managed to construct a robust online community, thanks to a myriad of features. At its most basic level, Pinball FX3 has online leaderboards, so you can compare your high scores to the world or your friends. The game encourages you to outdo yourself and your friends with midgame notifications that inform you of upcoming leaderboard milestones. And honestly, this online dedication would have been enough for me, but Zen Studios hits their pinballs out of the park with league and tournament play. Thanks to cross-platform play with the Xbox One and PC versions, the online community is quite impressive. The only downside is you need to have the right table to compete in particular matchups.
This mantra applies to the free-to-play Pinball FX3 in general: the more you purchase, the more you’ll get out of it. More machines lead to more variety, which correlates to a higher total score and faster leveling up your profile for cosmetic extras. With less tables, it’s more likely to get old. Sadly, several of them from other versions are currently missing in the Switch version. Future updates are planned, but it’s up in the air whether they’ll include those missing tables. Additionally, you can’t import any previously purchased tables from older versions like the WiiU’s Zen Pinball 2. The Switch version does have some features to give it an edge. You can prop the tablet on its side and play it vertically, allowing you to fully see each machine in its proper display. The Joy-Con controller’s HD Rumble is also at full force here, vibrating to every bump and tilt. By far, the biggest draw to playing it on the Switch is handheld mode. Portability and the high score addictiveness of pinball fit together so well, and I have enjoyed the game even more undocked than on the big screen.
Pinball FX3 is a well-constructed platform for the old pastime. I appreciate Zen Studio’s take on pinball, favoring video game logic over a realistic one, while keeping consistent physics intact. Its online infrastructure and single-player progression are what keep me coming back and craving more, and this system can only continue to improve its appeal as more tables launch. But even as it is now, Pinball FX3 should be enough to make pinball wizards flip out.
I am a lifelong gamer, having grown up with Nintendo since I was young. My passion for gaming led to one of the greatest moments of my life, my video game themed wedding!