Pinball might not seem all that compatible with a zen state of mind. Even in its neutered video game form, any game loaded with flashing lights that you have to play with crazy flipper fingers is not going to encourage quiet meditation. But while the PSN game Zen Pinball does not have the most appropriate name, it does pack in a lot of silver-ball excitement because of four great tables, a lot of nifty gimmicks, first-rate physics, and some innovative multiplayer. Only a few minor tech issues cause some ruts in your road to pinball wizardry.
Don't expect any big surprises here. Even with the offbeat name, Zen Pinball is a straightforward simulation of the glitzy modern game found in arcades from coast-to-coast. You use the shoulder buttons to work the flippers, and you use the left stick to muscle the table into some extended bumper action. The physics are totally believable, so it really feels like you're playing pinball. Even though the game lacks the physical interaction provided by the real thing, the ball rolls, spins, and bounces like it has real weight. Even the flipper movement is authentic. You can apply subtle touches to passes and take hard shots at banks of targets or into wireframe tunnels depending solely on how hard you push the shoulder buttons. The only flaws are that the flippers are arguably a little too slippery, and the awkwardness of using a stick to bump the table instead of the motion gyro of the Sixaxis controller, which might have felt more natural. It's odd that the game doesn't support the gyro during gameplay, since it employs it to let you pan the camera around tables before beginning matches.
Just four tables are included--V12, El Dorado, Shaman, and Tesla--but each is loaded with imagination and tons of gimmicks that can take hours to figure out. It's a good thing that each comes with a cheat sheet of rules, or you would be forever trying to suss out scoring bonuses and objectives on the packed playfields. Table themes are well developed, with beautiful graphics, great cheesy voices shouting out tips about bonuses and warnings, and tons of special effects both on the playfields themselves and on dot-matrix video animations in the top left corner of the screen. Tesla is filled with steam and electrical flashes, V12 transports you inside a car's engine, El Dorado whisks you off to a hidden South American city, and Shaman is set in a cannibal-haunted jungle.
The tables present a good range of difficulty, as well. V12, for instance, is insanely fast, with close-in targets on the lower board that can cause devastating returns down the central drain and outlanes. On the other hand, El Dorado is a beginner's paradise, thanks to a more spread-out playfield and attainable objectives that can see you top 13 million points with relative ease. Camera angles must be adjusted, though. Sticking with the too-low default view is like playing the game from the perspective of a Hobbit. Thankfully, there are better, higher vantage points available, although even these are a bit problematic due to the incredible amount of detail on the playfields. You have to study each table if you want to clock some serious scores. Otherwise, you can quickly find yourself lost amid all the flashing lights and shouts.
Gameplay modes include solo games, matches on the same system against up to four friends, and online showdowns where you race to set scores with an unlimited number of balls. Online tournaments are also being promised as regular events, although we didn't see any pop up during the time we spent reviewing the game. Voice and video chat support are also available so you can taunt opponents. And as another online amenity, more tables will purportedly be offered for sale at the PS Store in the future. The initial feature list is thorough for a $10 PS Network game, but right now it's hard to fully appreciate the online modes because frequent connection problems will get you booted out of quick matches and prevent you from setting up games. However, the head-to-head scoring races are a blast when you get connected.
While Roger Daltrey isn't going to hand over his pinball wizard crown anytime soon, Zen Pinball is a good contender for the title. Exciting, realistic pinball action and four fantastic tables make this a great alternative to shelling out quarters down at the arcade.