NFGworld

The problem with Zen Pinball

There aren’t many companies making pinball games, and fewer that are basically only pinball creators. Zen Studios do make other games, but they’re secondary (and basically irrelevant) compared to their pinball offerings. They take pinball seriously, and they make games that successfully walk the fine line between sim and game: serious enough that they’re basically real-world pinball, but game enough that they’re fun with features real tables cannot match.

Zen Pinball tables suffer one serious problem, however: clarity. Almost without exception their tables are more beautiful than functional, and every table is a high contrast lesson in how to lose your little silver ball. To compensate, they added a foxtrax-like tail so the ball can more easily be seen as it zips around the table, but in practice this tail doesn’t always work, and even when it does, on some tables it’s ineffective.

Let me demonstrate with two images. The one on the left, Clone Wars, a Zen Pinball table. On the right, Revenge of the Rob-O-Bot from Nena. (click these links for full-sized

Zenbobot

Click the image for a full-size view.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Zen Pinball. I buy almost everything they release, but the problem with their tables is visual clutter and priority. They have spent so much time working on table imagery that the result is amazing to look at but difficult to play. Ramps are hard to see, lights blend in too easily with the background, and in some games even the slingshots are barely visible. In play, the ball just disappears into the miasma, like a Where’s Waldo book made only slightly easier because the ball is moving.

Revenge of the Rob-O-Bot is plain looking in comparison. In play it’s a luscious, vibrant thing, but the screenshots can seem a little bit… flat. But it’s play that matters, and in that regard it’s simply perfect. Ramps and targets and lights are all obvious, and the table is mostly dark so the ball never goes missing amongst the clutter.

Zen got it right with one table: MARS. The two-tone sci-fi theme is perfect, and it’s easily my favourite Zen table. Naturally, it’s not available on Android (yet!) but I have hope it’ll come out eventually.

Every other table they’ve done so far suffers a contrast problem, and they don’t seem to realize it or consider it a problem. Zen Pinball / FX Pinball has been out for six years, and it’s been an issue I have with their tables since the very start.

I wish they’d figure it out. Having to memorize table layouts and intuit the ball location and trajectory rather than just see where it has gone is just not player-friendly.

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