Game of the Week: Star Wars Pinball

I’m trying to give a little variety in the game of the week. I’m also trying to reflect what I play. I wish I had time for more grand strategy gaming, turn based tactical or even some strategy RPG’s. I have limited time and even more limited gaming time. So I try to pack as much fun in that time as possible. That means more action oriented games and open world games that are pick up and play. I also grab some fighting games (don’t bother challenging me since I don’t have time to master any of them). Often I play apps and Xbox Live Arcade/Playstation Network Games. They tend to be shorter and more focused experiences.

I picked up the first Pinball FX game right when it came out. My Dad was a big pinball player in the dark ages before video games. As a kid, I enjoyed the old silver ball, but with limited quarters, I tended to spend them on games that gave me the illusion of progress instead of seemingly random, near instant failure. Later I found a few that I liked; I seem to remember a Terminator pinball game for example. Video game pinball seemed like the perfect way for me to enjoy the game. Unfortunately, early efforts were laughable. Later efforts talked a good game, but messed up the basic physics. That may seem like nitpicking, but as someone who went on to earn a physics degree, it was a deal breaker for me.

It hasn’t been that long since they finally cracked the code on ball physics. Modern games seem to vary between excellent and spot on. This has created an interesting split in pinball development.  On the one hand we have completely accurate reproductions of physical tables.  On the other we have tables that could only exist in a video game.  I appreciate both, but due to my background, I’m more drawn to the latter.  Fortunately for me, the fine folks at Zen Studios have honed this craft into an art form.  Admittedly, some of their more experimental efforts haven’t all succeeded, but I’ve enjoyed the whole journey.

Their latest effort is Star Wars Pinball for XBLA, PSN, android and iOS (and Windows 8 and Mac).  This is the first three of ten planned tables set in the Star Wars universe.  The first pack includes The Empire Strikes Back, The Clone Wars and Boba Fett.  They are pretty straightforward tables that are easy to learn but hard to master.  I should also point out that the ESB tournament has just started.

Let’s jump in.  The Empire Strikes Back table has you playing through scenes in the movie.  You start the game trying to take out the Imperial probe droid for a skill shot. If you hit the skill shot, you can get a super skill shot by following it up with a hit on the swinging door right in the middle of the table.  The whole table is divided between the Sith and the Jedi and the Empire and the Rebellion.  You have two main ramps on each side of the table.  Just inside of those are a turn about that exits in front of a secondary set of flippers.  Those can be used to hit a pair of side ramps.  Most of the time, you use the force (magnets) to make those side ramp shots easier.  There’s also a Force target on the side to hit that’s key to many modes.

The table does quite a bit of transforming.  From the simple background graphic changes for each scene to alterations of the table and interactive elements for some modes.  Some favorites include Vader Frenzy where a central ramp pops up and Lord Vader comes out.  Your goal is to keep shooting balls at Vader while he crushes them with the force.  I also like the scene in the asteroid field where you end up shooting the same ramp trying to avoid the asteroids and a tie fighter that have descended on the table.   Most of the scenes are fun but hard to complete.  You have five scenes unlocked at the beginning.  You start them with some pretty easy middle shots followed by a shot into a large hole that appears in the middle of the table.  There are some pretty tight timers on the scenes.  I’ve only completed a few sections of two scenes.  I’ll let you know if I get better after playing in the tournament.  There is a pretty neat video mode that has you training with the laser sphere Luke used on the Millennium Falcon.  Clearly, of the three, this table feels most like the movies.

Next up is The Clone Wars based on the second version of the cartoon series.  I’m sure I’d appreciate it more if I’d spent more time with the series.  I loved the first series and didn’t feel like it needed a reboot already.  This table layout is a bit more complex.  You have ramps, turnabouts, half ramps, drop holes and loops everywhere.  You have an upper and lower set of flippers that can be used to juggle the ball quite effectively.  This table is all about scoring loops.  I’m sure a player with good patience could rack up a huge high score on this table.  I’ll never know.  I like to feel I’m progressing.  That means I keep going after missions and trying to complete them.  Missions encourage you to take risky shots in short windows.

This table is a bit weird in that it makes me think I can’t count.  It seems like everything triggers either a shot before or after I expect it to.  The end result is that I’m always a bit surprised when a mode starts.  The only mode I’ve proven any good at is the mission with Darth Maul’s brother.  I can do ok with the troop transport game.  Even though I score considerably higher, I don’t feel like I’m as good at this table as I should be.

The last table is the most interesting.  It’s Boba Fett.  You play as the titular bounty hunter.  You accept missions from Jabba the Hutt or Darth Vader. Completing missions increases your fame and respect level.  The main goal of the game is to try to maximize your respect in the galaxy.

Once you unlock an assignment, by shooting the Empire lane or the Hutt hole repeatedly, you get to choose the bounty level you want.  Lower credit (read points) bounties are easier to complete but earn less respect.  Once you select a level, you have to capture your bounty by shooting the flashing lanes.  The harder the bounty, the more lanes will be lit along with a reduced time limit.  One interesting twist is that you have a backpack missile launcher.  If you have missiles in your inventory, you can launch one to automatically take out one target.  The downsides are one less missile in your inventory and an explosion that rocks the table.  Once you capture your bounty, you can collect by calling your ship, Slave 1, and shooting the ball into the hold.

There are some neat features on the table.  The central spinner is Han Solo frozen in carbonite.  There is a canyon running at an angle near the top of the table called the Sarlacc pit.  To access the Hutt hole, you have hit a ball that raises a rocker.  Once you do that, the rocker turns into the entrance gate eye from Jabba’s palace.

It’s a very challenging table, but it perfectly balances risks and rewards on a per shot and whole table basis.  That’s all I ask for in a pinball table.  Highly recommended.



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