Misses the jackpot.
It’s a sad day for pinball aficionados when the local arcade closes down. It’s a great day when a new one opens up. Fans of Zen Studios got a bit of both when the company recently shut down development of Pinball FX 3, relaunching it as Pinball FX. Despite the title regression, Pinball FX comes with a new engine, a new user interface, and some new features. But will players miss the old arcade?
Trevor: I believe they will. Pinball FX3 is the Nintendo Switch game I’ve devoted the most hours to (Animal Crossing and Zelda’s numbers are padded, thanks to my wife). So, I very much approached this new entry with the conflicting emotions you spoke of. And though a pained admission, I concur to missing the earlier version. I don’t think Pinball FX’s new features were ready for primetime on the Switch.
Kirk: Before we get to that, let’s talk about what’s immediately lost with Pinball FX—all the tables you’ve purchased with Pinball FX3. That doesn’t mean you can’t play them anymore, of course, it just means you’ll have to keep Pinball FX3 around to do so. And if you want to play them in Pinball FX when/if they’re released there, you’ll need to buy them again. Thankfully, Pinball FX has enough new machines already available to keep you there for a while. The free tables you get with the game are Wild West Rampage, Fish Tails (one of my favorites), and Sorcerer’s Lair. In addition to those, which ones did Zen give you try out, Trev?
Trevor: Well, I was most excited to play The Addams Family. Besides having played the real deal, the popularity (best seller) simply demands my attention. But I also tried Gearbox Pinball—a trio of tables I have zero familiarity with.
Kirk: I was unfamiliar with my tables, too, but not necessarily with their subject matter. Zen provided the Godzilla vs. Kong Pinball Pack Bundle, which includes Godzilla Pinball, Kong Pinball, and Godzilla vs. Kong Pinball. I also received Crypt of the NecroDancer Pinball, which was just that one table. I’ll start by saying I dig what they’re doing with the dead space on the sides of the playing field. Instead of just showing us an arcade floor, we get images more conducive to the game’s theme. In Godzilla Pinball, for example, the table is wedged between the spikes on Godzilla’s back as he swims towards Hong Kong. It’s a fun effect; I just wish all of the visuals were treated with such care.
Trevor: That’s a good point about visuals outside the field of play. I usually use a table option that’s more zoomed in, so I tend to miss stuff like that. It does show some attention to detail, though, that I appreciate. More noticeable to me are some of the random in-game effects. Brothers in Arms, for example, will have rain showers pop up. While subtle, it’s a nicely implemented touch that I welcome. I must agree with you, though, that the visual package as a whole is mixed.
Kirk: And that’s the problem with Pinball FX. Yes, the overall imagery is fun and imaginative. Some of the special effects are cool (I really got a kick out of the kaiju attacks in the Godzilla and Kong games), but the tables themselves don’t look as crisp as in Pinball FX3. They may be more realistic with the lighting (and the gamma can be adjusted if you feel it’s too dark), but the edges aren’t as clearly defined. Things look blurry, like looking through a thin haze of cigarette smoke. Unintended ’80s arcade realism, maybe?
Trevor: The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades! Joking aside, that’s the first thing I noticed; the blurrier graphics. The darker visuals. Yeah, the lighting does seem a bit better. But why is this 2023 release unable to match (let alone surpass) its 2017 predecessor, Pinball FX3?
Kirk: A Switch thing, perhaps? Maybe the new engine (Unrea) looks better on PlayStation or Xbox? Regardless, I really prefer the gameplay visuals of Pinball FX3 over Pinball FX on the Switch. The Switch does, however, have one advantage over competing systems: handheld play. Flip the Switch to portrait mode and the table fills the entire screen, although I do wish the game was smart enough to automatically determine orientation. Handheld portrait mode is not quite as nice as playing pinball on the iPad, but it’s a good option for mobile gamers.
Trevor: That’s true. Cabinet mode, or tate mode, or whatever those with more knowledge than I call it, offers a welcomed way to maximize screen real estate. Regardless of how you choose to play, handheld mode is simply great fun—especially when reminiscing about playing Zen Pinball on the smaller 3DS screens. Hey, there’s a version that this 2023 release can outshine! Getting another zing out of the way, I can’t help but wonder why this new version wasn’t held for the Switch 2, Switch Pro, or whatever those with more inside tracks than I call it. After all, Pinball FX3 has endured on the system.
Kirk: And that’s what bugs me. Zen Studios certainly know how to make a good pinball sim. They’ve been doing it for a long time now, and the games I played in Pinball FX are still very fun to play. The physics feel right, the speed is fine, there are collectibles to grab and challenges to take on, and the whole affair is just very engaging. I even like the new navigation system more; I find it easier to get to the tables I want, though that may be subjective. But the gameplay visuals are an overall downgrade. Maybe they’ll pop into place on Nintendo’s next system. But until then, I imagine I’ll be launching Pinball FX3 more often than Pinball FX on the Switch.
Trevor: I’ll also be launching Pinball FX3 more, but for a couple of reasons we differ on. One of the leading physics improvements I was looking for was the absence of balls dying on the flippers—or whatever those with more…forget it, I’m milking that joke dry. However, I still occasionally encounter flipper stickiness. The Pinball Arcade had it. Pinball FX3 had it. Pinball FX (oddly named) still has it, and I expected better. I also found navigation more awkward than easy, though that likely stems from Pinball FX3 becoming muscle memory at this point. Seriously, next to Animal Crossing and Zelda, FX3 is my most-played Switch game. Several hours into Pinball FX, I still encounter moments where I need to pause and think about the navigation. Thankfully, I agree with your other points. I suspect newer (or less enthusiastic) players to Zen Studios won’t notice or care about these things. That’s good for them but less so for those of us returning.
Kirk: Of course, players will also want to consider the library of available tables. Although Zen has quickly put together a good collection of DLC, there’s still obviously a lot more available in Pinball FX3. As long as “Theater of Magic” and “Attack From Mars” are available there only, that’s the arcade I’ll continue to frequent. That’s my recommendation, too. If there’s a table you really want to try out in Pinball FX, go for it (I’ll admit to being tempted by “A Samurai’s Vengeance”). I think this release is a general downgrade for Switch users, but that doesn’t mean the games aren’t fun to play. If you’re happy with what you have in FX3, just keep your eye on FX until Zen finally gives you a reason to cross the street.
Trev: Pinball FX recently got Star Trek: The Next Generation. That’s the equivalent of a ball save bonus, as that table is a favorite. But yeah, a smaller library, plus being unable to import tables you’ve already purchased on FX3, are sizable investment considerations. While Pinball FX will have the support moving forward, it does come off feeling like change for change’s sake…or profit’s. Zen Studios must double their efforts to convince us why less is more. So far, they haven’t hit their target.
Review: Pinball FX (Nintendo Switch)
The ball is still in play in Pinball FX, and we hope it doesn’t wind up in the drain early. While fun, it’s a clear step back from FX3 visually on the Switch, and in terms of content. New players should still have a blast, but for existing fans, Zen Studios has let us down.