Some friends and I recently took a road trip to a modern arcade. Modern didn't define the release date of the cabinets therein, but rather the proprietor’s approach to monetizing the games; pumping quarters was out and a ten dollar flat fee was in. After about an hour, when I had grasped the repetitive nature of X-Men Arcade and understood the futility of Punch-Out!!, I made my way to the pinball tables, which was where I remained for the next six hours. Pinball, while not technically a videogame, is basically the perfect videogame. Not only is it easy to play, but a good table effortlessly balances reaction times and player skill with a significant number of potential conditions and manageable goals. It was easy to play Revolution X until I cheesed my way all the way through, but the challenge behind the Terminator 2 and Phantom Menace pinball tables was nearly impossible to abandon.
Unfortunately, pinball tables mostly died with arcades. To the rescue were the folks at Zen Studios, the development team behind the fantastic Pinball FX series on Xbox 360's Live Arcade. Their latest content pack, Marvel Pinball, functions as an add-on for 360's Zen Pinball 2, but is offered as a standalone game on Sony's PlayStation Network. At $9.99 with no previous purchase required, PlayStation 3 owners are undoubtedly getting the better deal, but the question remains; are the tables any good?
Marvel Pinball boasts four tables featuring some of Marvel's most mainstream (read: movie friendly) heroes. Spiderman, Ironman, and Wolverine were practically a given, but Blade, not seen in theaters since 2004 and in a decent film since 1999, makes an appearance as well. Not only are the tables appropriately themed, but so are their locations. Spiderman's table is clearly in Peter Parker's apartment, whereas Ironman's is off in a corner in Tony Stark's lab. It's the subtle touches that add a sense of authenticity to the Marvel license, and with tons voice clips and Easter eggs, these four tables certainly aren't short on obscure references.
Wolverine was the first table I tried, and then subsequently lost about two hours of time in. Revolving around boss fights, smacking the ball in the right place a few times sets the course for a half dozen paths. Sabertooth taunts you throughout the whole match, and, should you be so talented, hops out of his pen to battle Wolverine in real time. Silver Samurai and Sentinels also make an appearance, as does a contextually appropriate Weapon X tank. True to form, Wolverine can also suffer amnesia and self heal, which represent random bonuses and a ball-saving opportunity, respectively. Wolverine, with its more somber music and breadth of potential content, was undoubtedly my favorite table.
Next up was Spiderman. Most of my time with Spidey was spent being heckled by Doctor Octopus and Green Goblin, but Mysterio was in the top corner for good measure. Spiderman offered the most diverse content; accessing Green Goblin required hitting him with a pumpkin bomb while Mysterio reversed the buttons of the flippers. Even J. Jonah Jameson and Aunty May made decent cameos. The Spiderman table also seemed to be the easiest; it was very open and ramp friendly, allowing points to flow like silk. It also seemed especially adept at returning my ball after a cheap loss, but that could have just been me.
Blade was the dark horse of the bunch, but even his table had plenty to do. Featuring a day and night cycle, the action occured when it got dark while day was used to essentially regenerate his power. Blade also features something of an economy; cash can be earned, which can then be used at a workshop to purchase points or upgrades. The best missions on the table involved finding all of Frost's doppleganger vampires or helping out Hannibal King, but accessing a multiball in the form of five glowing UV-balls was a blast too. Blade's only shortcoming was its visual presentation, which seemed a bit too dark in the night cycle.
Iron Man may be the hottest property of the four, but it certainly the least impressive table. A well dressed Tony Stark haunts the top of the table, and is easily transformed into Iron Man after hitting a few targets. After that he can do battle with different combinations of Mandarin and Whiplash, but they felt lifeless when put alongside villains from the other tables. Featuring a table that featured a bunch of ramps over true complexity, not even Ultimo was enough of a draw for me to stick around. Iron Man isn't bland by any means, it's just not as multifaceted and sensible as the other tables.
In addition to their boss battles and missions each table also features a mega point end-mode, dubbed wizard mode. In order to access that you'll have to systematically work your way through all of a table's missions, a feat I was not talented enough to accomplish more than once (and I'm currently ranked #1 on the Wolverine table, which I’m sure will change once the game is released, but you still need to be pretty damn good). If nothing else it serves as motivation to make it to the crazy end game.
If the rules and varying degrees of complexity sound like too much to handle, Marvel Pinball has you covered. Each table features a different help screen that thoughtfully explains the rules and potential missions. This player friendly approach spreads to the entire interface, as high scores, a metric ton of statistics, camera views, and settings to make it easier are all within reach. The operators menu, in particular, was a fun time waster. Essentially functioning as the owner of the machine, you're granted to option of messing with everything from light tests to adjusting the sensitivity of the arms. It's hardly essential, but it speaks of the ridiculous detail involved in Zen Studio’s work.
Marvel Pinball also does well to replicate the pinball experience without the cursory garbage. On one hand you're missing the real life charge associated with smacking a ball up and down a classic table, but on the other that experience usually came with broken parts, finite quarters, and buttons and glass greased by people unfamiliar with napkins. Marvel Pinball makes up for this with finesse; perfect parts, shiny metal ball tracks, and utterly spotless tables are a start, but impressive character animation and a dot matrix that perfectly emulates the feel of old school machines help seal the deal. You may have never played these tables in person, but their constructed in a manner suggesting you absolutely could have.
If there's any fault, Marvel Pinball might have too much going on at one time. I found that trying to pay attention to the score screen while managing my table to be a great way to lose a ball, and the camera pans in multiball situations definitely weren't friendly. These are minor squabbles, and indeed get better with experience, but expect some pratfalls until you're used to managing them.
Oh, and more content is apparently on the way. Hit Marvel Pinball’s website to vote on the next table.