Balls of steel: playing pinball on an Android tablet
I recently bought one of Google’s Nexus 7 Android tablets. Partly because the increasing popularity of tablets made me think that professionally I should have some experience with using such a device, but mostly because I’m a nerd with an insufficient number of barriers between me and my credit cards. So I’ve been exploring the device, looking for examples of apps that really shine on a device with this form factor.
One of the few I’ve found that really stand out is pinball games. I’ve always loved real, physical pinball machines; there’s something about their tactile response and the challenge of fighting elemental forces like gravity and resistance that I enjoy. Video games don’t have to deal with those forces, which lets them do things that no pinball machine can; but that very freedom can also make them feel hollow, disconnected from the real world. Pinball is real. And that reality makes it fun.
Unfortunately, with the decline of the American arcade and other venues where pinball tables once stood, finding a pinball machine to play can be difficult these days. As a mass-market entertainment, they’re effectively dead. There’s still places where a dusty, poorly maintained table can be found in a corner, or where enthusiasts tend to a meticulously groomed collection of machines saved from the dumpster, but these are few and far between.
All of that has led to many attempts to preserve pinball as a game by liberating it from physical tables and creating pinball as a video game that runs on a video gaming platform — a PC or a console or a portable gaming device. Unfortunately, in the vast majority of cases, this has not turned out well, because the standard form factor of the displays on these systems is wider than it is tall, which is the exact opposite of the dimensions of taller-than-they-are-wide pinball tables. The result is that pinball translates to them poorly; unlike a real pinball table, where you can see the whole playfield just by standing before it, video pinball games have to scroll and swing the camera around so you can see the ball as it bounces around the playfield. That tends to either be disorienting or frustrating, depending on how violently the developers chose to make those camera moves.
So video pinball tends to suck. But not on a tablet, it turns out! Because tablets can be rotated into a portrait mode, which lets the developer show you the whole playfield at once, just like you were standing in front of a real pinball table. (As can smartphones, of course, but the larger screen of the tablet makes it preferable to the smaller phone screen — you can make out more detail on the table.) So all those weird camera angles and swoopy pans across the table go away, and it’s just you and the game again. The way pinball is supposed to be.
I tried out two popular Android pinball games on the Nexus 7. I had trouble finding good reviews to help me find the one I would like best, so I thought I’d write up my experiences here on the off chance it would help other pinball fans.
The first game I tried is the more established of the two, Zen Pinball HD by Zen Studios. It concentrates on flashy visual effects, sophisticated tables with features that go beyond the things you could do on a real, physical table, and multiplayer features that let you compete with your friends for high scores and achievements. It comes with one free table, Sorcerer’s Lair, with other tables available as in-app purchases.
The second game was a newer contender, The Pinball Arcade by Farsight Studios. Unlike Zen, whose tables were all created expressly for the game, The Pinball Arcade’s big selling point is that it recreates real, highly regarded tables from pinball’s arcade heyday, including classics from Williams, Bally, Stern and Gottlieb. Like Zen, it comes with one table (Williams’ Tales of the Arabian Nights, from 1996), with many more unlockable through in-app purchases.
(Note that both these games are available on many other platforms besides Android, though for reasons I can’t even begin to fathom Zen appears on different platforms under different names. For example, the XBox 360 version, which I’ve played a little, is branded as “Pinball FX2.“)
Given the differences between the objectives these two titles are reaching for, I expected going in that The Pinball Arcade would be the one I would enjoy most. I like real pinball machines, after all; I was looking for a game that would remind me of playing them, not one that was struggling to overcome their supposed limitations. So Farsight’s goal of bringing classic tables from history to your tablet seemed like an obvious winner.
After playing both for a while, though, I was surprised to discover myself gravitating more and more towards Zen. The reason was pretty simple: The Pinball Arcade may have hyper-accurate tables, but the actual experience of playing them is disappointingly weak. Ball physics feel mushy and muted; clipping issues sometimes result in a ball passing right through a paddle; so many lights go off across the playfield that it’s hard to keep track of where the ball is. It’s real pinball, but not fun pinball, at least for me.
Zen, on the other hand, is great fun. While the tables aren’t drawn from real-world examples, they’re thoughtfully designed and attractively presented. They occasionally depart from the things a physical table in the real world could do — X-Wings and TIE fighters zoom around the playfield on a Star Wars table, for instance — but generally speaking they don’t try to make pinball into something that it is not. And they get the details of how it feels to play pinball right; the kinetic motion of the ball, the satisfying experience of hitting it with just the right part of the paddle to send it flying into a narrow lane. It all works, in a way that The Pinball Arcade does not.
This is not to say that Zen is perfect; there are some places in which The Pinball Arcade is clearly superior. One is in the selection of tables available for purchase; The Pinball Arcade has dozens, while Zen’s selection is both much smaller and dominated by themed tables created via marketing partnerships with other companies (Lucasfilm and Marvel Comics, mostly). If you want a table based on a Marvel character or storyline, Zen will delight you. If you just want a table that isn’t also an exercise in brand extension, there’s fewer than ten to choose from. That’s disappointing — especially because tables that you can get for editions of Zen on other platforms, like the XBox 360 version I mentioned above, are bafflingly not available to play on Android. The Pinball Arcade also lets you try new tables for free for a limited period before buying them, while Zen only lets you view a feature list and video of the game in action.
While Zen’s selection of tables is smaller, though, it beats The Pinball Arcade’s in one important way: pricing. Zen tables are purchased individually, with prices ranging from $0.99 to a couple of bucks; this is a clear and easy-to-understand pricing model. Tables for The Pinball Arcade, on the other hand, are confusingly grouped together into “packs” — even though most “packs” only contain two tables, and some have only one. And then, even more confusingly, the “packs” are grouped into “seasons” which can be purchased en masse at prices up to $30. That’s probably great for completists who want to buy lots of tables at once, but if you’re just looking to buy a single table you enjoyed the free trial of, figuring out what you need to buy to get it can be frustrating.
So: if I were going to recommend a pinball title for Android tablets, right now it would be Zen Pinball HD. It doesn’t have the heritage that The Pinball Arcade does, but it does have the fun that the other title lacks. And fun is presumably what you are coming to a pinball game looking for.
UPDATE (February 18): In the interest of fairness, I should mention that in my further exploration of both pinball titles since this was written I have discovered one Pinball Arcade table that is at least as good, if not better than anything in Zen’s table library: 1995’s Theatre of Magic, designed by John Popadiuk for Williams. It’s an exquisitely well-balanced table that manages to offer lots of fun objectives and mini-games without ever becoming inscrutable or overwhelming, and Pinball Arcade’s recreation of it is so good it makes me wish I could have played the real table in an arcade. You can get it with three other tables for a couple of bucks by buying Season 1’s “Launch Tables” pack.