When Zen Pinball is everywhere, where do you go for your Zen Pinball?

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One of the advantages of an actual physical pinball table is that it’s always and only going to exist on its original platform: the real-world. It won’t be traipsing off into other dimensions or realities, where you have to consider buying it again because maybe it looks better, or maybe that’s where your friends are playing now, or maybe you need to set a high score there because you have the compulsive need to at least get your name on a leaderboard. An actual physical pinball table offers the dumb, loyal, here-and-now consistency of analog objects without EULAs.

Of course, they also have moving parts that fall apart. Not to mention there’s no room in my garage for a real pinball table thanks to all the plastic instruments and the Tony Hawk Ride skateboard I’m storing out there. So pinball is a strictly virtual pursuit for me. But what a confusing pursuit these days, with the next-gen systems and the iPad and the sudden ongoing relevance of Nintendo. Where does a guy pitch his pinball tent? Now that the Xbox 360 has been thrown over by a Playstation regime in my house — move over Tony Hawk Ride! — what’s the Zen Pinball platform of choice these days?

After the jump, my frank advice for the roving bands of homeless pinball wizards.

As a wandering Zen pinballer, the first thing I know is that the iPad is not a viable place to play pinball. Zen’s tables look fabulous on the Retina display, but controlling flippers with a touchscreen is an atrocity. That’s right, an atrocity. It ranks somewhere between genocide and parking tickets. Who can be bothered to hover his fingers a millimeter above the touchscreen while the ball zooms around the table? And all those times I’m positive I fingertouched the iPad at just the right moment, but the iPad takes issue with the amount of pressure I did or didn’t apply. It’s just not going to work. An atrocity, I tell you.

However, with its two dollar tables instead of the usual three dollar tables, Zen Pinball on the iOS is cheaper than anywhere else. And it damn well better be, because it’s unplayable. Until the iPad gets some sort of built-in tactile physical buttons (please don’t show me that there’s some sort of add-on available, because the only thing I’m ever going to plug into my iPad is the cord to recharge it), it will never work for pinball or action games.

So that rules out one platform. From here, you’d normally go where you can find your favorite tables. But that’s not really an issue given how many tables Zen has made and how widely they’ve disseminated them. There are enough tables on any given platform that you’re going to get some great ones, some good ones, some not so good ones, and some awful ones. I think you get the most tables on the Xbox 360. That’s certainly where I see the most tiny boxes when I boot up the front end and have to pick a table. But the bottom line is that there are plenty of tables on all the platforms, so you can’t very well pick one platform because it has 47 tables instead of 42 tables, especially when you’re only ever going to really care about five or six of those.

But, really, any platform where Zen Pinball exists needs only one table selection test to pass muster, and that’s whether Paranormal is one of the available tables. Which is another reason you really don’t want to play on the iPad. Any Zen collection without Paranormal is no Zen collection to speak of.

(Update: Zen Studios helpfully pointed out that Paranormal is indeed available for the iOS. Which you’d never know from looking at the game’s list of in-app purchases, which doesn’t include Paranormal. It’s almost as if Apple has made a store that isn’t easy to navigate!)

If you’re a PC guy — and you people are really an uptight group, so I can’t imagine that many of you play pinball, where you have to cede so much control to gravity and physics — Steam is a fantastic Zen Pinball platform for its breadth. Your Steam friends list is an ideal place for competitive high scoring. You might even have three or four people on that list who don’t have console systems or iPads and therefore haven’t focused their Zen Pinballing elsewhere. At any rate, you’ll have the exact opposite of the Nintendo problem, where all the social scoring stuff is useless because most people with Wii U’s can’t be bothered to set up friends lists because Nintendo spent so many years thinking of the children and therefore hiding friends list behind code numbers that you had to email each other (PSA: they no longer do that).

Unfortunately, Steam uses the same “wizard” score concept as the Xbox 360, where you earn a collective score based on the number of points you’ve got. This means lower scoring tables, also known as more challenging tables that don’t hand out points like candy, are less relevant. I prefer the social scoring systems on the Playstation, which are based on your ranking on a table’s leaderboard, and not the raw number of points. This makes each table equally important and it means I don’t have to play that interminable Plants vs Zombies scoring boondoggle anymore.

But you can’t deny that Zen Pinball looks good on a PC, with the caveat that it’s on a PC and therefore you have to sit in your office chair in front of your 22″ monitor. This is the point where I’d like to invite all the people who pipe Steam into their living room to please shut up already. Do you think I don’t see that stupid “big picture” button every time I boot up Steam? I’ll press it when someone invents a way to run a PC’s operating system without a mouse and keyboard, because if there’s one thing less likely to get into my living room than Steam, it’s a mouse and keyboard.

So if I want to play pinball in the comfort of my living room and farther, that leaves me to decide Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo. Zen Studios came to prominence on the Xbox, but like many developers, they jumped ship while Microsoft was busy Dr. Frankensteining the Kinect. So the Xbox One currently has no Zen Pinball. None. Nada. Zilch. Not even that godawful Bullwinkle table. Zen has “pledged support” for the Xbox One and I’ve been told they’ll announce more about that support “soon”, at which point a subset of the subset of gamers with Xbox Ones might still be looking for a place to Zen Pinball. It should be a pretty small group, because a year is a long long time for a platform to be without Zen Pinball when every other platform already has Zen Pinball.

Furthermore, the problem with Zen Pinballing on a Microsoft system is that there’s no provision for mobility. The Xbox, from the company that brought you the Zune, will not be leaving your living room anytime soon. So if you want a way to pinball on the go that isn’t on the iPad, it’s got to be Nintendo or Sony.

At this point, after their stellar showing at E3, I’m tempted to migrate my Zen habit to Nintendo. On the Wii U, the gamepad offers some unique selling points. You can use the touchpad to pull back a stylized plunger. It is, hands down, my favorite way to launch a Zen pinball on any platform. Furthermore, the gamepad shows the action camera and information as you’re playing. It’s always helpful/daunting to see your score/minute stat update in real time. And it’s a great way to get a closer look at parts of the table you might not normally see. Finally, there is no better way to play Zen’s unique multiplayer pinball race. Normally, you do this splitscreen, playing simultaneously beside another player, racing to see who can hit the score threshold first. But with a Wii U, one player gets the TV display all to himself, and the other play gets the gamepad all to himself. Or you can both share the TV in splitscreen. It’s your choice, but no other platform gives you the option to each get your own screen during local multiplayer.

However, the tables are so fractured on Nintendo’s systems that there’s really no such thing as Zen Pinball. Instead, it’s a set of classic tables with some Marvel tables called Zen Pinball 2, and the Star Wars tables as a separate product with its own DLC, called Star Wars Pinball. Whatever licensing issues Zen Studios worked out on the other platforms apparently fell apart when it came to Nintendo, a company that apparently relegates all licensing issues that don’t involve Mario to a team of interns.

(Update: Zen defended Nintendo by letting me know they intended the Star Wars tables to be separate for the purposes of “discoverability”. Namely, that they wanted folks doing a search of Star Wars to more easily be able to find their game.)

But a strange silver lining is that since the Star Wars tables are all separate products, I don’t have to manually switch the music on when I play them. I can’t abide the music in Zen’s other tables because it wasn’t written by John Williams in his prime. But I can’t imagine playing the Star Wars tables without the music going. So on every other platform, I have to change the audio options depending on which table I’m playing. This isn’t an issue on the Wii U where all the John Williams scored tables are a separate product. Also, Star Wars Pinball on the Wii U does a really cute gimmick where you choose whether you’re playing for the Light Side or Dark Side. In addition to the usual community scoring, your points rank you up as a Sith or Jedi, regardless of whether you get a high score. This makes Star War Pinball on the Wii U one of the only tables alongside Epic Quest that rewards you just for playing. In case you’re wondering, I’m about half way between Jedi Padawan and Jedi Knight.

(Update: Zen Studios was also all, “yep, that’s totally one of the reasons it’s a separate game”. At which point I’m all, “Well, you guys got me…well played!”)

Your Jedi or Sith rank is also compared to your friends, but I have no friends playing Star Wars Pinball on the Wii U, so my Jedi and Sith friends lists consist only of me. Unfortunately, this doesn’t qualify me for the Master of the Force medal for being highest ranked. My hope is that someone who sucks at pinball will friend me on the Wii U. If that someone is you, friend me. I’m on the Wii U Network, or whatever it’s called, as “tomchick”.

So while I would never migrate my Zen habit wholesale to Nintendo, it’s well worth grabbing a couple of your favorite tables on the Wii U, especially if you have any interest in how the gamepad is used and especially if you’re okay with your Star Wars Pinball being shut up inside its own social ecosystem. As for the Nintendo 3DS, where the tables are similarly fractured into separate products, it also has its own unique selling points. The 3D really makes a difference in pinball. The illusion of depth makes it easy to follow the ball despite the tiny cramped graphics. Because of these useful 3D effect, I almost prefer the relatively soupy 3DS visuals to the crisp top-down full-length table presentations you can get with the Vita. Almost.

And on that note, here come the most important reasons that a full-on Zen pinballer is best served by migrating to the Playstation:

1) The shape of the Vita’s screen

The best way to learn a table’s layout is on the Playstation Vita, turned sideways. You can play a mostly top-down view on any system, which fills the sides of the screen with whatever peripheral artwork Zen has built around the table. For instance, there’s a really cute haunted Ouija board next to the pinball table in Paranormal. But in terms of maximizing the ratio of screen real estate to situational awareness, the most helpful way to learn any table is to play it on the Vita, where every pixel and every millimeter of screen space is spent in service of showing you relevant stuff. Note that this isn’t necessarily the best way to play! You eventually learn a table and then you can sink into one of the more gratifying “down in” views. But the Vita is the best platform for sussing out the layout from a top-down perspective. You can even switch on the fly by setting the table orientation to automatically switch based on how you’re holding your Vita. Hold it vertically for the top-down “portrait” orientation. Then, in the middle of a ball without even having to pause, turn it horizontally for whatever view you’re using for the down-in “landscape” orientation. Zen has always done a great job of giving you various camera views and even a helpful freelook (just hold down the camera switch button to pause the action and scroll around the table). But it’s most flexible and most useful on the Vita.

2) The backwards and forwards compatibility of your collection

The best way to have the most tables available in the most circumstances is with the Playstation 3, Playstation 4, and Playstation Vita. One of the selling points for the Vita is that Zen has made it 100% backwards compatible with the Playstation 3. If you bought a table on the Playstation 3, you can import it into the Vita. It even uses the same high score list and trophy system. If you want to work on your high scores, which is a significant part of the appeal of pinball, you can do it on the Playstation 3 or Vita. Furthermore, any of the 19 tables currently available on the Playstation 4 can be transferred forward from the Playstation 3 or Vita without having to re-buy them (but not the other way, so buy first for one of the earlier systems!).

Unfortunately, your progress won’t transfer to the Playstation 4, which maintains a separate high score list and social system. This is an unfortunate symptom of Zen Pinball not enjoying an entirely graceful transition to the next generation. Zen Studios has told me that they are unable to bridge the divide between the Playstation 3 and Playstation 4 in terms of high scores, and they’re furthermore not sure whether they’ll be able to do that with the Xbox One. And while it’s great that tables you already own are available for free on the Playstation 4, I can’t imagine Zen will be able to swing a similar deal on the Xbox One. Given Microsoft’s propensity to milk you for money at every opportunity, I don’t see it turning out well. My advice is not to hold your breath and to just throw your lot in with Sony.

3) The graphics

The next-gen tables look gorgeous on the Playstation 4. The next gen is, well, the next gen and it shows. It’s really hard to go back to playing Zen Pinball on the 360. Of course, even the Wii U shows up the Xbox 360 tables. There’s no going back at this point. I’ve resigned myself to saying good-bye to my Xbox collection and my wizard score and even my friends list, limited as it was to 100 friends. And I’m certainly not going to wait around for Microsoft and Zen to work out whatever complications are keeping Zen Pinball from the Xbox One. So while the Wii U is a perfectly good way to Zen Pinball in the living room and however far from there my gamepad reaches (i.e. about ten feet down the hall), there’s no upgrade that delivers Zen Pinball to the biggest screen in my house as gloriously as the Playstation 4, not to mention to a portable system like the Vita. If you’re lucky enough to have remote play working in any meaningful sense of the word “remote”, this even gives the Playstation 4 tables a pair of legs.

But before I recommend that you Zen ronin become full-on Sony devotees, let me warn you about one important thing. The Playstation 4 controller isn’t ideal for Zen Pinball, because you can only use the triggers or shoulder buttons. I prefer a crisp responsive control for my flippers, yet the Playstation 4’s shoulder buttons have a mushy quality to them. They don’t click. They don’t snap decisively. I feel like I’m having to push my fingers down onto a marshmallow to flip the flippers. It’s a considerably thinner marshmallow than when I use the triggers, but it’s still a marshmallow. It’s playable, but it takes a bit of a learning curve to adjust to the mushiness. You have to tune your brain latency by a fraction of a second.

So while Zen Pinball works its way as awkwardly as everyone else into the next generation, your best bet for the foreseeable future is to go with the Playstation, and maybe hedge your bet with a little Wii U on the side.