As Ray Liotta noted in the movie Cop Land, “There are two kinds of people in this world: Pinball people and video game people.” With the slow death of the arcade and the increasing scarcity of pinball machines found out in the wild, that statement is becoming less and reality; as real-world pinball slowly becomes a forgotten relic of a bygone era kept alive as its own video game sub-genre, the two types of people are now one and the same. But if those games continue to be as lovingly crafted and insanely fun as Marvel Pinball, pinball people have less and less to be mad about.
Released on the Xbox 360 as an add-on for Zen Studios’ Pinball FX 2 and for PS3 as the standalone game Marvel Pinball, both come with four unique tables centred around some of the comic giant’s most popular characters, with Iron Man, Spider-Man, Wolverine and Blade all getting their own layouts. Four tables might not seem like much, especially for a standalone game, but after starting up Marvel Pinball, trying out the abundant activities featured around the Iron Man table and getting immediately hooked, it wasn’t until an hour or so later that I stopped and reminded myself that there were three more tables to play with.
Each table offers an immersive variety of missions to complete, the major ones triggering showdowns with the big bad villains who linger on the table itself. Those missions usually entail slamming the ball into lit up ramps or hitting highlighted targets, like the Stark Industries mission, which drives up the company’s stock with each progressive hit. The Iron Man table offers the most challenges, with secrets and tasks spread all over the board and a central boss mission hole which pits you against Whiplash, The Mandarin and Ultimo.
Blade initially seemed to be the second string wild card of the franchise picks, without the notable rogues gallery of well-known characters or the four-colour visual comic flair that the other selections offer. Colour me surprised that the Blade table turned out to be not just the most visually stunning pick of the bunch, but a bafflingly deep and creative pinball game in its own right, too.
The table makes inventive use of the character license, right down to the pinball taking the form of silver ball, perfect for toasting vampires. A day and night cycle has you regaining strength with successful shots during sunlight hours, hitting ramps to rescue bound captives while vampires sleep and raiding cash from enemy lairs to spend on power-ups, before taking on a hulking Deacon Frost and Dracula as night falls.
The shift in game mechanics from day to night makes for some fantastic visuals, too. A multi-ball night mission fires out luminous UV balls for you to send flying up ramps to kill vampires as the table adopts a cool blacklight glow. Adding to the table’s variety, there’s even a “spot the vamp” mini-game mission that throws a line-up of faces on the dot matrix display for you to pick from. It’s an amazingly creative, insanely fun table that’s easily the game’s best section.
The Blade table might be the highlight, but the other tables are certainly no slouches either, each bringing their own variety of fun gameplay ideas and visual styles. The sleek, high-tech Iron Man table offers the most missions, with secrets and tasks spread all over the board and a central boss mission hole. The colourful Spider-Man table boasts a host of character gimmicks, with The Green Goblin tossing pumpkin bombs onto the table and Mysterio unleashing gas which reverses the flippers and darkens the screen. The Wolverine table houses an elevated dump rail, which you can use to drop the ball onto the heads of Hand ninjas who pop up.
Thankfully, underneath the sheen of fancy gimmicky and fun game design ideas there’s a great core physics engine, too. The ball feels perfect, with a realistic weight, bounce and spin, providing the closest you’ll get to the feel of a real pinball table. There’s the added satisfaction of really being able to learn and adapt to the particular quirks of each table the more you play and the sweet spots you’ll need to launch the ball from. There are no real instructions for the tasks, mission and extras scattered around the layout, but half the fun of pinball lies in figuring out the ins and outs of each table and being rewarded with new ways to score massive points.
There are a great variety of camera views, with the Sixaxis controller put to great use, too – shaking it nudges the table to give the ball a tiny bump when you need, but doing it too much activates the ’tilt’ mechanism, freezing the bumpers much like a real table would. You can even play around with realistic, extensive engineer’s settings to tweak the table to your heart’s desire, though the score rankings will only count games played on the default settings. On top of it all, the game looks amazing, too, from the amazing lighting and realistic, colourful layouts to the way Zen wonderfully exploit the video game canvas and throw in more outlandish, fantastical elements that wouldn’t be possible on a physical machine.
Despite the thorough greatness of the game, a few minor quirks and issues do present themselves here and there: The snippets of voice acting can be stilted and repetitive, especially on the Iron Man table; the awesome animated dot matrix display, though incredibly cool, also proves impossible to watch at opportune moments without the ball sailing into the gutter, and there’s sometimes a button delay when using secondary upper bumpers (though this could be a reflection of a real-world pinball quirk).
Those tiny foibles do little to affect the sheer addictive joy of an amazing game collection though. With a great score system that catalogues your rank while integrating your friends list and their respective scores into your scoreboard, and a choice of online and local 2-4 player pass-the-controller style ‘Hotseat’ multiplayer modes, there’s an added, competitive element beyond the single player. But even if you just plan on jumping in alone, the trifecta of great physics, wonderful visuals and amazingly creative layouts make Marvel Pinball the PS3′s most polished and addictive pinball game by miles. If you’re a Marvel fan who happens to love pinball, this is an essential purchase, but pinball fans alone are unlikely to be disappointed by Zen Studios’ latest gaming treat.
Marvel Pinball is available to buy on Playstation Network now priced £6.29/$9.99.