DOOM. Skyrim. Fallout. Some of my favorite gaming series ever. Zen Studios has really done a spectacular job creating creative and varied tables for these popular properties. This is an ambitious undertaking and while the end result is not flawless, it is incredibly difficult for me to put down. I mean seriously - Skyrim pinball? Sign me up.
Comic books, movies, cartoons and more have served as ample inspiration for the devs at Zen Studios in the past, but some of their most interesting tables are the ones based on video games. Ninja Gaiden, Street Fighter II, Plants vs. Zombies and more have been staples that I pick up and play multiple times a year. This new suite of three tables based on Bethesda games is among my favorites yet, despite some issues that creep up here and there.
I played these in order of personal preference for the games they were based on. I love all three, and while DOOM was a formative shooter for me, it gets the unfortunate 'nod' as my least favorite of the three franchises. This table is all fire and brimstone and it makes one (pardon the upcoming pun) hell of an impression. Right off of the bat, you're asked to choose your difficulty. I thought to myself - how in the world are they going to make it harder or easier? Well, by ramping up the challenge you get a points bonus and disables the saved balls that keep your pinball in play longer. This small element of gamification right off of the bat intrigued me and becomes a theme throughout the rest of these tables.
The rollicking metal music as fires burst forth in explosive fashion while an appropriately terrifying-looking demon in the background sets the stage wonderfully. Black colors are sharply accented by lots of red and orange, with some cool blues and metallic grays along the edges to give the appropriate science-fiction look to the aesthetic. The table's layout is very rounded in the middle, with various ramps and rails near the top adding a layer of height to the proceedings. This can be a tough table, especially on the harder difficulty setting (as one would expect), but the pyrotechnics were appreciated and created what was my second favorite of the tables.
Our second table is based on the popular Fallout series. It again adds an element of video gamification right off of the bat as you create a character. You select a gender, distribute your stat points and roll your character out onto the table. Of course, this can be a somewhat arduous process to go through each time, so there is an option to randomize your character. Amusingly enough, after a handful of times carefully constructing a few different character types, my randomized one is the character who had the best score.
There is again a theme here involving quests for the Brotherhood or Minutemen and again we have a big creature on the board - this time in the form of a super mutant. He will shoot at your pinball at times, messing up its otherwise predetermined trajectory and forcing you to be hyper aware of the situation as the ball might come veering back down at your flippers far sooner than expected if it had been on a previous trajectory upward. There is a small side-objective involving earning caps and buying items to help you along the way. In theory this sounds good, but the process is somewhat cumbersome. I get the idea that these menus are meant to mirror an actual pinball machine, focusing on flippers and the ball launch button as your only inputs, but this table really falls out of sync with the action during this section.
Otherwise the visuals are what you would expect, with lots of browns and grays accented by yellow that help to recreate the post-apocalyptic world Fallout is so well known for. Things are dingy and uneven-looking. It fits the theme perfectly, but of the three tables is the least attractive. The table design matches with a lot of open space near the middle and ramps and rails along the outskirts. This also feels the flattest of the three tables. Here the sound effects seemed the most repetitive as well with the least memorable music. All in all not a bad table, but my least favorite of the three offerings. On its own, I consider it one of the more average tables in the Zen Pinball catalog.
Last but not least comes Skyrim, which was my favorite of the tables by a narrow margin. Similar to the Fallout table, you pick race/class combination for a character who can level up through gameplay. This reminded me a great deal of the Epic Quest table with its RPG elements and persistent character progression, but the Skyrim table takes things even further. Stat progression, item acquisition and equipment all help to sell the role-playing aspects of the game. Of the three tables, this is also the slowest feeling one, so the start and stop elements while still a little clunky for the reasons I listed earlier about the inputs, does not feel as out of place here as it did in the Fallout table.
Visually the Skyrim table is built around ramparts and a castle, with stone ramps, little flares of electricity in the upper left corner and fire from a pesky and sometimes repetitive dragon. Yes, we have another boss-like creature in this table, and the dragon is probably the most challenging one as he not only sets fire to the field of play but obstructs your vision briefly as he soars over the tabletop. Instead of the metal and hellfire of the prior tables, here we have a lot of cooler grays mixed with some greens and browns to create an archaic, stony look that I liked. It is not as visually striking as the DOOM table, but more memorable than Fallouts. I will admit that the sound design in DOOM is objectively better (some of the spoken phrases in the Skyrim one - especially in regard to the dragon, got a little/lot old), but the music of Skyrim has a very special place in my heart (I've listened to the soundtrack more times than I care to admit), and it is well represented here and did the best job of all three tables in evoking memories of my time with the beloved game the pinball table is based on.
In terms of the table design, this one does not feel quite as tall as DOOM's, nor as open as Fallout's, and it is my favorite of the three in that aspect as well. There is some nice verticality to top portion as the ball rolls up stony ramps or slides around the ramparts. Couple this with the cool progression element that makes character design feel much more interesting than Fallout's disposable ones that restart each time, and Skyrim had the most staying power for me overall.
As a package of three tables, I really enjoyed the Bethesda Pinball set. Fallout was average-ish, DOOM was really, really good and I thought Skyrim was great. Now, these tables with their game elements might not appeal to pinball purists. I can imagine my dad wrinkling his nose a little at these because there are times they feel more like a video game than the typical Zen Pinball tables - but I believe that works here. These tables are after all based on popular video games, and to that end I applaud the devs for taking some chances and doing something unique with these tables. The overall package is one I will be coming back to time and again.
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Article by Nick