Pinball is great. There’s nothing like hearing the low, dull thunk of the paddles as they smack a small metal ball far across a beautiful, seizure-inducing sea of multi-colored lights while a wonderful cacophony of beeps, bells and buzzers accompanies every action. I defy anyone to step away from a pinball machine and not feel a sense of quiet (or loud for that matter!) exhilaration. I’ve played my fair share of video game pinball and while they’ve offered stellar recreations of classic (and fictional) pinball tables, there’s nothing quite like those developed by Zen Studios. Though I missed out on Zen Pinball, Star Wars Pinball works as the perfect gateway into their amazing take on simulated pinball.
Disappointingly, Star Wars Pinball comes pre-loaded with one table, itself based on The Empire Strikes Back. However, for the price of a small fee, two additional tables can be unlocked. There’s a table based on Cartoon Network’s The Clone Wars and another that exists purely to stroke the ego (and delight fans) of the galaxy’s most notorious bounty hunter, Boba Fett. Each pinball table delivers two knockout punches: they’re exceptionally well designed (complete with all sorts of interactivity) and the table art is phenomenal. From a simulation standpoint, Star Wars Pinball behaves the way a pinball machine should. Backed by an impressive physics engine, the ball reacts realistically to where it's shot and bounced around by the table’s paddles and bumpers. Though it is a spheroid made from ones and zeros, I’m amazed to see that the pinball carries real weight as it moves across the table. As in real life, the ball can be teased into changing its trajectory by shaking the table (or in my case, the iPad) at the risk of tilting the machine (in which player loses control of the paddles leading to a forfeiture of that turn). For hardcore pinball fanatics, the tables offer a debug mode that allows for the testing of every light, dot matrix movie clip and sound element available. Casual players will have no need of this feature but to see it offered here shows off Zen Studios’ taste for hardcore simulation.
Now that we know that the game controls well, just how fun is Star Wars Pinball? The short answer is, “a great deal.” Each table is designed with all sorts of interactive bits and pieces that help to create a dynamic experience that makes subsequent playthroughs feel different. Across all three tables are various missions that can be triggered by lighting up certain words and objects or cycling through a series of ramps. With so much to see and do, it's almost difficult to try everything while trying to keep the ball from falling into traps. The Empire Strikes Back table combines two major elements from the film, namely the Battle of Hoth and Cloud City. Dominating the table is an imposingly animated Darth Vader who oversees your progress and will chime in with familiar quotes. Should you unlock the Vader bonus round, he will stand in the center of the table and wait for you to shoot pinballs in his direction so that he may use the Force to crush them (earning you a hefty score bonus). Unlock another bonus sequence and Vader is replaced with a Stormtrooper who will destroy balls that cross his line of fire. In The Clone Wars table, a bonus round has you tossing a pinball into a Republic Gunship as it flies around the table. For the Boba Fett table, tapping an onscreen button will cause him to shoot a missile at bounty hunter targets that are unlocked during play. Depending on where you shoot the pinball, the Boba Fett table allows you to tackle “missions” from either the Empire or Jabba the Hutt. Beware the hungry Sarlaac pit!
As great as these interactive bits are, it is the player’s job to know how to trigger them. This is what truly sets pinball apart from video games (ignoring the fact that they are two completely different mediums). Pinball does not have tutorial modes and Star Wars Pinball will not show you what needs to be done in order to trigger a bonus stages and missions. Instead, the player will need to consult a table guide that outlines what needs to be done in order to access the table’s special sections. You’ll miss a great deal if you don’t!
The Force Alignment system is a mildly interesting feature that doesn’t impact gameplay in any way. Before the start of a game, the player can specify which side of the Force, Light or Dark, they can ally with. This has no impact on the gameplay nor does it change the design of the tables. Instead, it is more of a community feature that pits Light and Dark Side followers against one another in a virtual form of tug of war. When the game is over, after the table points are tallied the player is given a Force score that will either push their alignment forward or backward (represented by an animated red and blue bar on the menu screen). The Force alignment does allow for a measure of competition as those who earn the highest scores are awarded with special titles that can be revoked if someone scores better.
The great thing about Star Wars Pinball is that you don’t have to read instructions in order to get something out of the game. My fondest experiences with it were spent during short, impromptu sessions that didn’t accomplish much outside of listening to the sound effects and watching the table light up. High scores be damned! Whether it's playing for the best score, or just to scream out, “OH MY GOD LOOK AT ALL THE FLASHING LIGHTS,” Star Wars Pinball is a great game that combines the thrill of pinball and the greatness of Star Wars. The game lends itself well to my iPad Mini as the full scope of the table, its alleys and bumpers is displayed without having to shift the camera about. Its slightly disheartening that only three tables are available (two of which must be paid for separately) but I will rush to buy additional versions when they become available. Star Wars Pinball is a must play.
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.