STAFF REVIEW of Pinball FX (Xbox One)

Monday, February 27, 2023.
by Adam Dileva

Pinball FX Box art I’m glad I grew up in the gaming era I did, as my mom would give me a few quarters to go play at the local arcade on the way home from work. That’s right, I’m dating myself by talking about arcades; dedicated businesses that house dozens of different games that you could only find there, as not every game came out for PC or console at the time. I’d say a good half of my quarters would always be spent on a pinball machine or two, as many arcades used to have a handful of different pinball machines in a specific corner or wing of the building.

While playing virtual pinball is nowhere near the same thing as standing at an actual machine and feeling those flippers launch the ball and the lights brighten, it’s a substitute that will have to do as arcades aren’t commonplace any longer sadly. Hands down, the king of the genre is Zen Studios, as this is their specialty, bringing console pinball games for numerous console generations now. For over a decade I’ve been playing Pinball FX and its sequels, always up for a game or two if short on time.

Don’t let the name confuse you, even though Pinball FX released back on Xbox 360 in 2007, this is basically a remake/remaster/reboot, whatever you want to call it, for the modern consoles. Even though this too is named Pinball FX, it’s a completely new entry. Now something to take note of, Pinball FX really isn’t a game. Sure, it includes a free table to give you a taste, but Pinball FX is more of a platform than anything else, which is why it’s technically ‘free’. This platform is how you’ll try out and purchase any new tables that you enjoy.

Being completely rebuilt in Unreal Engine 4, there’s now 4K graphical support ray tracing and “better” physics. I only quote the “better” because even though it’s a major selling point in their marketing, I couldn’t really tell much of a difference after playing dozens of hours of the previous Pinball FX games. Zen Studios excels at creating unique pinball tables that certainly make me wish there was a real life counterpart, but also recreating some of my favorite tables that I remember playing when I was younger.

As stated above, Pinball FX is a free download and comes with one table to play on indefinitely. This is to hopefully entice you to try out some other tables and of course then spend money on new ones or packs. Certain tables can be purchased individually whereas others need to be purchased in packs. With 86 tables to try out and choose from, there’s certainly at least a few you’re sure to enjoy enough to want to purchase and keep. The pinball tables available vary quite greatly, themed from Star Wars, Marvel, Indiana Jones, Universal Studios, classic Williams Pinball tables and plenty of original Zen Studio designs.

Controls are exactly as you’d expect, with your triggers being used for the flippers. You’re able to use your Right Stick as the plunger if the table utilizes that style instead of a button, allowing you to perform specific powered shots. You're even able to 'shake' the table and bump it, though be careful of you'll error out the machine and lose your ball. There are a variety of different camera options depending if you want something stationary and far out, like how you stand over the table in real life to view it all from above, or something much closer that focuses on the bottom flippers, or even a camera option that follows the ball closely as it moves, though I found this one difficult to use with the constant movement and knowing where your flippers are until it’s too late.

Some tables are also what I’m calling ‘virtually enhanced’, meaning that there’s extra flair that can occur in certain modes. For example, playing with this toggled on with the Indiana Table you may see him using his whip to go from one side of the table to another, almost like if it was an augmented reality portion. You can toggle this off to play the table in its standard form without all of these extra distractions, but this is one of the bonuses of having digital tables, as Zen Studios can do a lot of things like this that wouldn’t be possible on a real table.

Given that there are almost 90 tables available currently, I’m not going to fully review every single one, instead saying that the majority are quite good, though having played these games for many years I’ve played a good majority of them already for many hours previously. There weren’t any that I particularly found terrible, though I certainly had my preferences of the ones I gravitated to for many plays instead of others. With 86 tables to choose from, there’s no shortage depending on your brand preferences, but I’m quite partial to the Williams tables as I can remember playing many of these growing up. Some of the Zen Studios original tables are quite entertaining as well.

If you’re a Marvel fan, you’ll be happy to know there’s a lot of different themes tables here from almost every superhero. If Star Wars if your thing there’s even more choices, spanning the whole franchise practically, even including The Mandalorian. If you enjoy classic Universal Studios movies you’ll want to check out the pack that has Jaws, Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, Back to the Future, and even E.T. There’s a handful of new tables too which I was excited to try out. Themed tables from The Addams Family (probably the hardest table I’ve ever played), Borderlands (and other Gearbox games), Snoopy, Garfield, World War Z and My Little Pony were all quite unique. Even though the Garfield and My Little Pony tables are clearly marketed towards a younger audience, they were simplistic to play, entertaining and quite colorful.

You can of course play each table in Classic Mode, your typical way to play with 3 balls, aiming to get the highest score possible. There’s an interesting Arcade Mode where you can set to have certain power-ups and a handful of different toggles, adding for some fun variety. The modes I enjoyed the most were Timed, Flipper and Single Ball. Timed gives you, well, a set amount of time where you have unlimited balls to reach a high score, not needing to worry about losing your balls down the middle, though of course waiting for a new ball to launch wastes precious time. Single Ball was a surprisingly fun mode though, as you’re given a single ball to see how high of a score you can get. Sometimes this works out well, and others you lose your ball almost instantly. By far though, Flipper challenge is something I gravitated towards. Here you’re given usually 200 presses of the flippers before the game is over. You have unlimited balls, but every time you lose a ball down the middle it counts as one flip, so you still want to play well. This actually made me a better pinball player as I had to be more specific and purposeful with my flippers instead of just spamming the triggers.

Though not a new concept, there’s a collectable aspect to Pinball FX as well. Here you can earn items to decorate your own pinball cave, placing the unlockable items in your display shelves, carpets, posters and more. These items are generally tied to specific score accumulation totals for each table, so the more you play the more you can unlock. The items are usually themed to the table or a small figure from it which you can then place on your shelf to decorate. It’s a fun little bonus and gives you a little incentive to play the tables you might not generally gravitate towards.

If you’d like to create a Tournament for others to play, you’re given a handful of different options including the table, length of time to enter and try, what mode, and nearly anything you can think of. Great idea, but the problem with the Tournament functionality is that it’s just filled with an endless list of other player’s postings, so it’s difficult to find what you want.

Pinball FX’s latest addition, and my favourite, is the Events. These are official challenges that when you’re successful you’ll earn points towards your ‘Season Pass’. That’s right, a pinball game with a season pass. Luckily you don’t have to purchase it, but you only get points by completing these events that go towards your progress. These are fun and rotate daily or weekly, depending on the event. Some also only allow a certain amount of plays and attempts a day, and these can even be some of the more unique modes like Single Ball or Flipper challenges. The best part is that since there’s online leaderboards for everything, you get a quick notification that you’ve passed someone’s score that was above you in the rankings, always fun to see as you’re having a good game. The only thing of note is that many of these events are with premium tables, so clearly another way to entice you to purchase more.

Then there’s what’s being called the Pinball Pass. You know how you have a subscription to Netflix, Prime, Hulu and probably a few more services? How about adding one more for your pinball needs. The Pinball Pass is essentially that, giving you access to nearly every table for as long as your subscription lasts. Some tables are great, others maybe not so much, so instead of purchasing every single table, this is another option for you. There’s even supposed to be more bonuses included in the future, but I can’t speak to those as they’ve not been revealed yet. The Pinball Pass gives you unlimited play and access to the included tables, but there are a few that are not included, which I’m sure is for licensing reasons, but imagine loading up Netflix and being told that the latest Season of Squid Game isn’t included and you need to purchase it separately; it’s the same disappointment.

In typical gaming fashion, instead of simply purchasing the Pinball Pass with real money, you first need to buy their own currency, Pinball Coins, then purchase what you want with those. There’s a handful of different bundles to buy, as you can spend these coins on other collectable items and such, but the Pinball Pass is 1200 Pinball Coins. That converts to $128.99 CAD. That’s NOT a typo. It’s well over a hundred dollars for a year of your pinball subscription. Sure it’s great for the year you have the pass, but I can imagine the frustration when the day comes you need to re-subscribe and are reminded of how expensive that is. Yes you can purchase tables outright to keep, so there are options, but it can get pricey quite quickly.

Pinball Pass questionability aside, if you really enjoy a table you can purchase it to keep and play whenever you want, but what about the players like me that have been playing the Pinball FX games for well over a decade and already have a hearty collection of tables? Well, it seems Zen Studios doesn’t care about that and want you to repurchase everything. Spent hundreds of dollars in the past for tables? Well, too bad. Start all over here in Pinball FX. Not being able to transfer any previous table purchases is sure to give a really bad taste in many mouths with the new engine being blamed for the reason that’s not a possibility. Sadly it gives off a greed vibe, as the new coat of paint and slightly better lighting is questionable for a full repurchase of everything you may have already purchased in the past. Whether I believe the reasoning or not isn’t my job, but it’s certainly questionable. Even a one-time fee import/export I would have been fine with, like how the Rock Band games did, but this is sure to draw some ire form the pinball community for sure. For complete transparency, we were given a Pinball Pass and all the tables not included with the subscription for review purposes.

Also, some tables can’t be purchased individually, so if you only like one table in the Marvel pack for example, well, you’re going to have to purchase the whole thing, which is obviously more expensive. All or nothing seems a bit disappointing and might even prevent some from purchasing what they actually want. Making matters worse is the menu system for downloading the trials and games is cumbersome within game, even if you purchased it externally on the Xbox store already.

There is an option for Performance or Quality in the options menu (on an Xbox Series X at least), though toggling both and scrutinizing multiple tables, I find it quite hard to find much of a difference. I was hoping Quality mode would have drastically better lighting and ray tracing, you know, the ‘reason’ for forcing you to rebuy all your tables, but I couldn’t tell much of a difference other than maybe some slightly better smoothness with Performance mode. The tables look great, just as they did over a decade ago, and reliving some of my favorite tables from my childhood (shout out to Medieval Madness) always puts a smile on my face. The only issue I had with performance was some massive slowdown whenever an Xbox notification popped up on screen, lagging the game for a few seconds as it occurred oddly enough.

Pinball FX is looking to make a comeback on console with this reboot, though your enjoyment is solely going to depend on which tables you enjoy and how much money you’re willing to invest into it. For recreating an actual pinball experience digitally, no one does it better than Zen Studios, it’s just a shame that the cost of entry is quite high to accumulate a decent pinball collection once again and you’re constantly tugged in multiple directions to open your wallet. Pinball FX as its own gaming experience is entertaining and a great way to spend a few relaxing hours on numerous tables once purchased, but the pricing structure is something to check before you dive in head first and sure to massively disappoint those that have already previously bought tables in the past.

**Pinball FX was provided by the publisher (Pinball Pass and numerous table collections included) and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 7.5 / 10
Gameplay: 7.0 / 10
Visuals: 8.0 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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