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Pinball M

Pinball M

Written by Eric Hauter on 12/4/2023 for PS5  
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Pinball M comes at a great time in the arc of Zen Studios. Perhaps rocked back on its heels a little bit by the video game pinball community’s vehement response to last year’s Pinball FX, the studio has regrouped and ratcheted down some loose ends, delivering with Pinball M a tight and deeply fun pinball package aimed at adults – and in particular, horror fans.

This isn’t the first time that Zen has released a specialty pinball table collection. Both the wide array of Marvel and Star Wars tables have seen their own independent releases. Though these were repackaged collections of existing tables, they remain excellent values – the Star Wars Pinball collection still has never deleted from my Nintendo Switch's hard drive; it lives forever in a place of honor. And VR fans would do well to check out one of Zen Studios’ VR Pinball offerings, which offer a different sort of tactile fun with the same great Zen pinball mechanics.

But Pinball M is the first collection of entirely new (well, almost) pinball tables. At first glance, fans could be forgiven for thinking that this is simply a horror-themed reskin of Pinball FX – and really, that would be okay. But Zen Studios has taken the time to come up with a few new twists that make this collection more than a simple repackaging, setting it firmly apart from what I’ve come to think of as “Pinball FX Prime”.

Everything players have come to expect from Pinball FX is here – the excellent table guides, the daily challenges, the “Coming Soon” banner on the Events tab (I kid! I kid!). Pinball M offers all of Zen’s usual ways to interact with the tables in the collection, including several single-player and multiplayer modes, and a fun series of sot-so-easily achieved mastery challenges. But my favorite feature in Pinball M is the game’s excellent new campaign mode.

Campaign mode in Star Wars Pinball was something that I absolutely loved, and it’s great to see it back, in a somewhat restructured manner. As opposed to presenting a series of challenges that bounce the player between tables, each table in Pinball M has a series of specific challenges that must be completed. You can tackle these in any order, and they range from “hit a certain score with just one ball” to “hit a certain score with just 150 flipper taps” to the insane “hit a certain score if we keep you in lunatic multi-ball with six balls for two minutes”, which is simply the best.

Each table has its own display corner (as opposed to Pinball FX’s open basement design), and completing the challenges unlocks various cosmetics for your corner. By completing the campaign, you can turn each table’s corner from a sparse empty space to an atmospheric display of horror (or Duke Nukem) fandom. Again, like the basement in Pinball FX, it’s a bit of a goofy motivator, but it absolutely works on me. I lock in on this stuff and pursue it with single-minded abandon.

I also enjoy the way the new leveling system allows the player to unlock additional cosmetics, beyond just themed icons and backgrounds for your player card (I have the dog from The Thing running across a snowy field as my background, so I’m set for all time, thanks). You can unlock new skins for the tables, custom lighting options, cool new custom pinballs, and trails of blood that the ball leaves in its wake. Neat stuff.

The tables themselves are, as always with Zen, excellent - though your success with each will vary depending on your skill set and proclivities. These tables are indeed more “adult” than the standard Zen Pinball offerings, though don’t expect to be shocked – the developer hasn’t sold its fun-loving soul. What we basically have here are Zen tables that include a healthy spattering of blood and sound clips that don’t shy away from cursing. MacReady from The Thing (performed so well that I can’t tell if these are original sound clips or an excellent Kurt Russell sound-alike) does not hold back on his profanity-laden opinions of the situation at U.S. Outpost 31, for example.

The excellent previously-released Wrath of the Elder Gods table is Pinball M’s free offering – pretty much the same game as before, just a bit bloodier and stickier. Even if you don’t decide to pursue further table purchases, I can think of zero reasons why you wouldn’t download the free version of Pinball M in order to gain access to this table. I would further argue that if you do, you’re likely to end up plunking down the additional $20 for the rest of the package – but maybe that’s just me.

The other titles are varied enough to offer something for everyone. To my surprise, the tables that resonated the most with me were the two video game related franchises – Duke Nukem’s Big Shot Pinball and Dead by Daylight. Interestingly, I’ve never engaged with either of these properties in their original forms, but I had a blast with both of these tables, working through their campaigns back to back over the course of a long afternoon. Duke Nukem is a great 80s throwback, with fun minigames that reflect the game’s different graphical eras. Sure, it feels a bit off-brand here among it's more horrific compatriots, but it's an excellent pinball table. The Dead by Daylight table offers players the ability to chose between being one of the survivors (each with their own bonus specialties) or the killer, which changes the vibe of the experience considerably.

As a massive fan of John Carpenter’s The Thing, I was horrified to find that I was completely unable to get anything going on that table. With design reminiscent of real-world 1970s pinball, the table has a big open space in the middle that seems specially designed to get the ball right past my defenses. I haven’t given up on the table, but it’s going to take a lot more work than I expected.

I've spent the least amount of time on the Chucky table - not for any particular reason. Rather, its because each of these tables represents a full game – reviewing one of these packages is a project, akin to reviewing five separate titles and the encompassing wrapper with all its bells and whistles. I just ran out of time for ol’ Chuck.

I’m frankly delighted by this new incarnation of Zen Pinball. My mind is awash at the franchises that it could delve into. I know that many horror fans would like to see the big slashers covered, but I might prefer that we take things a little darker or weirder. I would love to see Hellraiser Pinball, or maybe a Prince of Darkness table. The Exorcist? Or even some indie titles – what would The Witch Pinball look like? Or…The Battery? How about a Larry Fassenden table? Sid Haig? I mean, go nuts, Zen Studios. It would also be fun to see some remasters of previously released tables. Revisit the Aliens tables and give us some real Bill Paxton sound clips. Game over, man.

Regardless of where the game goes eventually, the opening salvo of tables is very strong. It’s great to see Zen Studios right itself a little bit and receive some much-deserved praise from the pinball community. As usual, I’m in for the long haul for this new platform. Pinball M is another Zen Studios game that will never leave my hard drive.

Bringing a new, adult spin to Zen Studios' winning pinball formula, Pinball M does enough new thing to differentiate itself from the Pinball FX mothership.  Bringing a strong opening selection of tables and many ways to interact with them, Pinball M feels like the start of something new and mysterious. I can't wait to see where it goes next.

Rating: 8.5 Very Good

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

Howdy.  My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a dad with a ton of kids.  During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs). I am intrigued by the prospect of cloud gaming, and am often found poking around the cloud various platforms looking for fun and interesting stories.  I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one. I've since added an Oculus Quest 2 and PS VR2 to my headset collection.  I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.

My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then.  I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep.  Currently, I play on Xbox Series X, Series S, PS5, PS VR2, Quest 3, Switch, Luna, GeForce Now, (RIP Stadia) and a super sweet gaming PC built by John Yan.  While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.

When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect. I also co-host the Chronologically Podcast, where we review every film from various filmmakers in order, which you can find wherever you get your podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @eric_hauter, and check out my YouTube channel here

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