Sure Plays a Mean Pinball: Marvel Pinball

By Josh Dean
January 7, 2012 - 11:46

Available on pretty much every gaming system save the Wii, Zen Studios has quietly introduced a product that should appeal to fans of comic books as well as pinball. As I fall definitively into both of those categories I can only assume the Marvel Pinball game (I play on my PS3) was designed with specifically me in mind. I imagine there is a whole generation of young gamers who have never set foot inside an arcade and, therefore, are unaware of the hours one can spend playing pinball.  As a youngster, I gravitated towards licensed pinball games that allowed me to play around within the narratives of some of my favorite movies (The Terminator 2 pinball game stands out in my memory as you had to pull a trigger to launch the ball rather than pull back a plunger). Zen could have created one layout, slapped a couple of super-hero paint jobs over it and called it a day. However, they actually took time to craft 10 unique tables based on various Marvel comics properties.*

I will get into the comic-related content in just a moment. First, I would like to discuss the play controls for any gamers interested in the play mechanics. The buttons required on your wireless PS3 controller are simple and intuitive to a degree. The R1 and L1 triggers at the top of the controller work your flippers (and unlike real pinball games, the springs never wear down). The X button works the ball launch and, since you are playing with a wireless controller, any drastic move to the left or right counts as a tilt (trying to jostle to table to control where the ball goes). Other than that, you use the start to pause and the joysticks to navigate menus. Pretty simple, huh? The only drawback, in my opinion, is the lack of options for moving the flipper controls. I have inflamed several tendons in my arms playing this game for hours on end. To be allowed to switch the flipper controls to the arrow pad or the x, circle, square or triangle buttons could be helpful to avoid repetitive stress on the player’s hands.

On to the comic content…

The original launch featured four games: Wolverine, Spider-Man, Iron Man and Blade. You may note that all of these are based on popular movie franchises as well. With 12 films between them (and a new Spider-Man on the way), these seem like solid choices. All of the tables allow you to access missions and defeat super-villains. The other neat thing about these virtual pinball tables is that characters move around and battle each other as you play. Unfortunately, one cannot pay attention to the battles and play pinball at the same time. A replay feature would be nice so we can see all the hard work the animators put into the battle scenes.

Wolverine- In this game, Wolverine goes up against Sentinels, Sabretooth (of course), The Hand and Silver Samurai. Daken and X-23 make appearances and the side of the board is even the good old Weapon X tank. This table is one of the easiest to get a handle on (although I have found it rare that I encounter the Silver Samurai) but hardest to complete missions on. Thanks to Wolverine and his enemies being generally drab in their coloring, the table is a little muted but the prowling form of Wolvie in his blue and yellow outfit and the Sentinels provide a little splash of color that keeps it from being boring.

Spider-Man- I find this board to be pretty clever. The return ramps spiral and twist like Spidey’s webs from an old Ditko comic. Dr. Octopus, Mysterio and the Green Goblin (as well as J. Jonah Jameson) are out to ruin your day. There is a little miniature play area at the top of the board and even a recreation of the skylight Spider-Man had to slip into throughout the 70s and 80s (perhaps he still has that, I haven’t read Spider-Man in years). The only frustrating bit is when one of the villains (The Goblin, probably?) inverts the flipper controls. I imagine younger gamers who are used to inverted crosshairs can deal with this but I have to turn my controller upside-down to avoid losing immediately. Again, these original boards are pretty tough, in my opinion, and I don’t think I have successfully completed a mission on this one yet.

Iron Man- By far the most difficult board of the ten that Zen has released. The middle of the board is blocked for most of the game and of the multiple ramps one can shoot, some are super easy to hit and others nearly impossible. There is, hypothetically, a SHIELD mini-game in this one, but I have never gotten to it. The villain selection is limited with Whiplash and Mandarin providing the only two threats. Mandarin attacks with a variety of powers (flames, electrical beams, the vortex-which is a multi-ball round, etc) and you confront Whiplash with a cannon that is confusing to use. Most of the game is spent as Tony Stark, inventing things and building up security for Stark Tower (“Surveillance cameras? Good idea!” he says at one point…seriously?). Once the armor goes on, there are pretty cool action scenes but, boy, does it take time to get there. I would also like to praise the clean lines and technological style of this board.

Blade- I found this to be the easiest board in the original launch. The play switches up from day to night the longer you play, with a demonic-looking Deacon Frost attacking you at night. Hannibal King is on the board to help you out. Dracula lurks on the board but does not appear (at least not yet to me) as an animated character. Blade has the best ball launch of the original four tables since you control the power behind your launch using the rpms of Blade’s motorcycle. There is a fun little mini-game inside this one that allows you to hunt down vampires for cash then trade the cash in for weapons. It is a nice RPG element to an otherwise straightforward pinball game.

The original bundle cost me $10, which was quite a bargain. Zen then released a Captain America table and a Fantastic Four table that cost $3 each. So, to get 50% as many tables, I had to pay 60% of what I originally paid. Not a crazy mark up but it did slow me from purchasing these two add-ons for awhile.

Captain America- This is the game I have the highest score on right now and I got that score my first time playing. Set in World War 2, Cap is set upon by the Red Skull and the original Baron Zemo. There is a fun mode where Zemo’s Adhesive X leaks onto the table and slows down the pinball as it passes through. Cap can hunt for the Howling Commandoes and get an assist from Bucky. My favorite bit may be earning the Cosmic Cube and using it to help you complete an objective. You can even invade Zemo’s castle off to one side of the table. Lots of fun here and, if you bought only one table, I would recommend this one.

Fantastic Four- This may be my least favorite of the tables so far but that is probably from lack of time spent on it. The FF are all on the board with Sue Storm and Reed saving your ball from the gutter at times. The Thing is front and center but there is a frustrating aspect to his presence. Whenever you hit his targets, he shakes the table and it can really mess up one’s aim. Shooting various ramps can make Johnny Storm flame on or Reed work on a science project. Dr. Doom and the Skrulls seem to be the big bads. Galactus looms on the back of the table but I haven’t encountered him. The Baxter Building must be entered before you can get a mission. The missions themselves are slightly tricky to pull off but not impossible. Freakin’ HERBIE is in the game. Sigh.
Just recently Zen released another four tables for $10 under the Vengeance and Virtue name.

Ghost Rider- I suppose with another movie coming out, this one was a smart idea. Lucifer taunts you from the middle of the table. The Orb (!), Scarecrow and Mephisto all show up to challenge you. I enjoy that the ramps are set up like motorcycle stunt ramps so you can perform Johnny Blaze’s stunts as you battle the forces of darkness. Another feature allows you to fire your pinball out of Blaze’s hellfire shotgun. There is one section of the board hidden away in the back corner that has another flipper. I was not aware of this until after playing the game a few times. Apparently, that hidden flipper is how you keep the souls of the damned from escaping. Ghost Rider himself doesn’t do much, animation-wise, but this table makes it easy to imagine your pinball is the Rider himself.

Moon Knight(!)- This was a big shock to me. The only table available that is not based on a movie franchise, Moon Knight is a pleasant surprise and in my top three favorite tables. The color scheme is almost all gray and blue, making the board sort of too much to take in all at once. Knonshu taunts you while you attempt to serve his wishes. Moon Knight tangles with Midnight, the Bushman and other super-villains you never thought you would see in a videogame. The animation on this board is probably the best in all the games. Like with the Captain America table, there is a creeping darkness that overtakes the board in one mode that Moon Knight must fight back lest the table become completely obscured. I would almost recommend the Vengeance and Virtue pack for this game alone. However…

Thor- If Moon Knight didn’t seal the deal for me, Thor would have. This is clearly based on the best aspects of Jack Kirby and Walt Simonson’s art. The Midgard serpent winds down the left side. Golden Asgard is off in the distance. Loki, the Destroyer, Surtur and Ymir are all waiting to jack you up. The missions are clearly defined and not impossible to achieve in this game (big advantage over some of the first tables). As a Thor fan, I am kind presold on this one, so your mileage may vary. Don’t forget to collect the Golden Apples!

X-Men- Of course, a Wolverine game alone isn’t enough. The clever notion of the X-Men game is that multiple balls come out and represent different X-Men. The Phoenix Force illuminates Jean Grey’s ball and Cyclop’s red glowing optic blast colors another. Magneto floats in the middle to attack Professor X. The Blob and Juggernaut are somewhere to be found on the board. Although I have a super high score on this game, I feel I haven’t come close to exploring what it has to offer. The Cerebro-influenced layout is somewhat hard on the eyes but still works. At the beginning of each game, the camera zooms around and examines the whole board, I would take advantage of these moments and pay attention to all the detail Zen put into these things.

Overall, I can’t recommend this enough if you are a comic book fan and pinball fanatic. Some of the games are frustrating and you can end up sore in your forearms if you play too much, but the pain is worth the fun.

*There seems to be a Hulk table out there somewhere, but I haven't found it for PS3.

Last Updated: August 31, 2023 - 08:12

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