If you don’t have a pinball game from Zen Studios, the latest Nintendo 3DS version is a great way to fix that. It’s only a seven dollar download from the Nintendo eShop away. But what if you’re already an aficionado of Zen Studio’s pinball tables. You’ve got them on your Xbox 360, your PS3, and even your iPhone, for Pete’s sake. Why bother paying seven bucks to download four tables for your Nintendo 3DS?

After the jump, I’ll tell you why

As a guy who almost always ends up diaing that 3D slider all the way down when I play games on my 3DS, I expected playing Zen Pinball would be no different. I was wrong. Against all odds, the 3D support is one of the niftiest things to happen to Zen’s pinball tables since they tapped into your Xbox Live friends list and turned the series into one of the most pitched brother-against-brother wars in the last 147 years. Oh, the burning shame of being unable to beat my friend’s Biolab score. He’s not even good at pinball!

As anyone who’s played real pinball can tell you, pinball looks great in 3D. Peering into that screen and seeing the depth of the table adds more than I would have imagined. It’s like, hey, there’s an actual physical table in there! I can hardly bring myself to care about the 3D in the Resident Evil shooter or the latest Super Mario Bros. game. But dropping the view low on one of these pinball tables and watching the ball roll around is exactly the 3D I didn’t even know I wanted.

And that’s one of three reasons that I’d call Zen Pinball on the Nintendo 3DS the platform of choice for portable Zen Pinball. As much as I love how the iPhone is perfect for the vertical presentation of Zen’s tables, I ultimately prefer the 3DS’s shallower view and fancy 3D effects. To learn a table, you want the high clear view, which is an option on the 3DS. But to enjoy a table, I’ve always liked dropping as low into the table as I can go. And if there’s one thing better than low, it’s low and 3D.

Furthermore, each table’s dot matrix display is large and readable on the DS’s lower screen, which is just a slight flick of the eyeballs from your flippers. This makes it easier to follow than in any other version of Zen Pinball, where it has to compete with actual table real estate.

Finally, the table selection is far better in this Nintendo 3DS version than it is on the iPhone. And not just because there is nary a dippy superhero in the mix. Veterans of Pinball FX on the Xbox will be delighted at Shaman and El Dorado, two tables previously exclusive to the PS3. Shaman has the slightly tacky vibe of a wooden cigar store Indian, but with plenty of goofy giggling, ululating, spinning plates, and colorful lights. It’s one of those pure comedy tables that doesn’t come along often enough when Zen is so busy licensing earnest superheroes.

Also from the PS3 is El Dorado, a straightforward and forgiving tomb raiding table with a consistent stone ruins aesthetic and a couple of decent gimmicks, including a thrusting totem pole that I don’t recall being quite so phallic in 2D. From the wider table set for both the 360 and PS3, you get Excalibur, which is no Rome, but neither is it a Sorcerer’s Lair. And best of all, you get Earth Defense, one of the finest tables Zen has ever made, featuring an alien invasion vs. Earth army theme, with a crazy giant robot presiding over the action. The robot’s expressive LED faceplate, which made it look like some coveted toy from the 80s, is unfortunately a casualty of the 3DS’s tiny screen. You can hardly make out his frowny face. But otherwise, these tables look great, with smooth framerates during multiballs and fine up-close graphics when you pause the table and scroll the view around with the analog nub. What a relief to finally enjoy nice graphics on a Nintendo system.

Of course, a Zen Pinball game isn’t a Zen Pinball game without the trademark social aspect of tracking your friends’ high scores, as well as adding them to your own score for an entirely specious “team score”, as it’s called here. Which is why it’s also a relief that Nintendo is only about three years behind the whole online gaming thing instead of their usual ten years behind. And so I leave you with my friends code in the hopes that you’re not very good at pinball, because I’ve really enjoyed my time on the leaderboards before Zen Pinball 3D was actually released. I find that I’m pretty good as being #1 when I’m also the only one. So add this code (1762-2761-7523), post your own friends code in the comments section below, and let the burning shame commence, because Zen Pinball 3D is no quick n’ dirty port. It’s a lovely new way to enjoy Zen Pinball on the go.

5 stars
Nintendo 3DS