is_it_a_trap

It’s pretty easy to be dismissive of Zen Studio’s latest pinball tables. Check it out:

Zen Pinball continues their tradition of milking franchises with three more Star Wars tables. These include a Darth Vader table with traditional ramp-based gameplay. It opens with the infamous “noooooo” scene and continues with the Sith Lord commending your performance with basso profundo observations such as “fantastic”, “awesome”, and “absolutely marvelous”. Okay, maybe not that last one, but that’s probably because I haven’t gotten enough points yet. It’s a very open table, a very red table, and a very “Uh, really? Why?” table. You also get a Return of the Jedi table that iterates on the excellent Empire Strikes Back table in the last Star Wars pack. But just as Return of the Jedi is a pale shadow of Empire Strikes Back, the Return of the Jedi table is a pale shadow of the Empire Strike Back table, featuring Ewok collection, a terrible Princess Leia impersonator, and a mission in which R2-D2 and C-3PO have to walk to the door of Jabba’s palace. George Lucas and maybe even Richard Marquand would be proud. 2 stars.

See? How easy that was?

But, after the jump, there is another.

But then you get to the Starfighter Assault table and all your hard-assed cynicism about “ugh moar Star Wars” melts into the familiar shapes of X-Wings and TIE Fighters zipping around between a Star Destroyer and Mon Calamari cruiser and turbolaser beams and the signature TIE scream. “Oh lordy,” you might think to yourself, “how did Zen Studios get into my head and suss out the one pinball table that’s been missing from my life? How did they divine how to craft a pinball stopgap for the X-Wing vs TIE Fighter-shaped hole in my heart? What wizardry is this?” I might be projecting here. But that’s been my thought process.

Starfighter Assault is a challenging table, with a middle sink more than happy to swallow the ball and some treacherously grabby side lanes. It will not throw millions of points your way willy nilly (the Darth Vader table gives you ten million points before the table proper begins, but only if you’re willing to endure the “noooooo” moment). This belongs in the category of the most gratifying “tough but mostly fair” tables, as opposed to one of those flat-out tough tables, like the Boba Fett table in the last Star Wars pack. You don’t have to be good at pinball to want to hit the launch button over and over.

It’s also one of those blatantly “videogame pinball” tables, what with all the tiny fighters flying around and the turbolasers firing wildly and occasionally scoring a hit and capital ships heaving to alongside the table itself. Plus the minigames. Galaga with X-Wings, anyone? These are mostly gimmicks, but if the LCD is fair game for hunting vampires on the Blade table and piloting your submarine in Secrets of the Deep, why not just do something with the graphics engine itself?

The mission structure, which involves managing a squadron of ships during battles, is tailor-made for pinball. Shoot some ramps to launch fighters. Shoot other ramps to repair them. See the fighters idling on their ramps ready to launch. Watch them limp back, damaged and venting fuel, or whatever you put into X-Wings to make them fly. Build up your Star Destroyer’s shields and turbolaser battery to withstand the next barrage. Watch the number of your fighters compared to the number of their fighters. Earn experience and supplies and evade incoming attacks. This is war. Space war. Dare I say it? This is a star war.

Just below your flippers a bar shows the relative strength of your fleet and the enemy fleet. Think of it as your “how am I doing?” meter. You have a track on the side of the table for pilot experience and a counter where you rack up commendations for kills and valor and just doing stuff well. You can spend these commendations to upgrade your squadron, but only once you master hitting the infuriatingly tiny upgrade lane. Even the mission hole is a meticulous process of lining up shots with the two flippers at the top of the screen. There’s apparently a squadron hole somewhere, but heck if I can find it. Thanks for telling me the squadron hole is open, and I sure would like to work my way up those squadron missions, but can I get a flashing light or something? As I said, tough but (mostly) fair.

Every game opens with you choosing the Empire or the Rebellion (Zen Studios are obviously Rebel sympathizers by the fact that the default choice is rebel scum). This dramatically impacts your launch, but not much else as far as I can tell. Do you want your pinball launched between cute little TIE Fighter panels — I presume those are the twin ion engines — or do you want to launch it via a 70s-era targeting computer? And when you’re managing your ships, do you want to root for the adorable toy TIE Fighters or the adorable toy X-Wings? It’s as important as any choice that isn’t going to give you points. Not quite up to par with, say, your choice of superhero on the Avengers table, but I’ll take it. Starfighter Assault is a table with toys that, at last, aren’t action figures/dolls.

I also love that this fantastic table doesn’t rely on celebrity voiceover sound-a-likes (for all I know, this might be the real Porkins!) and it eschews pandering Boba Fett references or movie-specific moments. Starfighter Assault is all about the iconic sights and sounds of Star Wars space combat, translated into a very good pinball table. If this is how Zen Studios is going to milk a franchise, milk away!