Pinball FX3’s bewildering new identity crisis

, | Games

The first four of hopefully lots more Williams tables for Pinball FX3 just came out this week. Williams Pinball: Volume 1 is $10 DLC that adds Fish Tales, The Getaway, Junk Yard, and Medieval Madness, which all feel dated…in a good way. They’re among the physical tables from the days of yore, from actual stand-up pinball machines that exist in the real world, now ported into Pinball FX3 thanks to Zen Studios’ licensing deal with Williams. They introduce an odd dilemma for those of us who’ve been playing Zen’s tables all these years.

Pinball FX’s physics have been criticized as “floaty” or “soft”, and it’s not an unfair observation. Their tables are made to play by their own rules, with their own feel for where the ball should go and how. They never claimed to model actual steel balls rolling down actual inclines, bouncing off actual bumpers, and flipped by actual flippers. You could say their physics are stylized, which has freed Zen Studios to do some truly strange things with their tables. That’s just part of the identity of Pinball FX. There are other videogame pinball options for people who put a priority on real world physics. But with these four new tables, when you play a standalone round independent of the unlockable bonuses and wizard powers, you have the option to choose a “difficulty” setting. The choices are Arcade Mode or Tournament Mode. Arcade Mode is Zen Pinball as it’s always been. “Floaty” and “soft”, if you will. But Tournament Mode is their brand new physics model, presumably built to bring a sense of fidelity to these classic tables. And boy, does it feel different.

It feels so different that it doesn’t feel like Pinball FX anymore. It feels faster, and less forgiving, which is probably why Zen calls it a “difficulty” setting. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s like playing a whole new game. Who could object to getting a whole new game? And if you don’t like it, you don’t have to play it. But if you do like it — which I really do — now you have four tables that play this cool new way, and 78 tables that don’t. Now you might find yourself wishing the 78 other tables would get their own Tournament Mode. Now you might find yourself understanding why people bitched all these years about “floaty” and “soft” physics. Really, it just means I have to make hard choices as I mess around with these new tables. Get used to the new physics? Or pretend they aren’t in there? There are separate leaderboards for each mode, and although part of me winces at leaderboards splitting off in so many different directions, it does give me more options to beat my pesky friends who play Pinball FX3.

But what’s most puzzling to me is that now I like these tables that I didn’t think I would like, and not necessarily because I actually, you know, like the tables themselves. I like how they play. I like Tournament Mode physics. I’m coming around to the actual tables. I’m sold on Getaway, which is fast and flashy and open and growls like a muscle car. It wants to move. The pinball whipping madly around the crazy racetrack at the top of the table will never get old. It also means I’ll never have to play V12 again. Have you tried that table lately? Ugh. Junk Yard and Fish Tales are kind of junky and weird, but it feels nice to play these old fashioned designs for a change. Medieval Madness, however, just feels superfluous, given that Zen already has a jokey generic fantasy table called Epic Quest. But you can’t play Epic Quest in Tournament Mode, so Medieval Madness has that going for it. This will all be a non-issue as soon as Zen releases more Williams tables, especially the real classics like Pin-bot or Bride of Pin-bot, which give that much more weight to the new physics. But please hurry, Zen! It’s a very confusing time for some of us fans.

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