It’s no secret that I’m a huge and pretty much lifelong fan of pinball; I grew up playing pinball and feel like I got to experience a real high point of the format, with the 90s being an incredibly exciting and innovative time for pinball machine design. Likewise for Star Wars – the first film I ever remember watching in the cinema was The Empire Strikes Back and – again – in retrospect, I feel ever luckier as time passes that I was able to see it as an entirely new film, amidst all of the hype and that shocking (in its day) Vader twist, on the big screen.
So a melding of two of my favourite things was always going to be a winner for me. I’ve also – because of my interest in real pinball – been a fan of the Pinball FX series since its humble beginnings as an Xbox Live Arcade title, way back in 2007. It was clear from the very beginning that Zen Studios have a real understanding of what makes for great pinball table design, with generally clear table goals, authentic lighting effects, realistic audio touches and even excellent use of dot matrix screens (including video mode minigames). Though that first batch of tables were entirely virtual, they all felt as if they could be real tables. As time has worn on, the sequels have introduced layers of audio and visual effects that may not all be possible on a real table, including animated figures and other touches that bridge the gap between authentic reality and embellished digital tables. Despite the more outlandish digital touches though, it’s always felt as if the tables could genuinely be recreated in reality.
Over the years, the licenses that Zen have picked up have led to some surprising tables too, with some fantastic machines based on Aliens, Marvel, Fox Animation (including Bob’s Burgers and Family Guy), classic Universal movies (ET, Jaws and Back to the Future, Jurassic Park/World and others. One of the biggest collections Zen have released is the Star Wars series, with – prior to the release of Star Wars Pinball VR – an astonishing 19 tables released. All of these are original creations, with many based on entire franchise movies or series (such as The Clone Wars or Rebels), but some being more original concepts (Starfighter Assault or Masters of the Force, for example). They all feel very different to play and each table showcases the trademark Zen Studios attention to detail – it’s clear that there’s a lot of love for the franchise at the developer.
Which brings us to Star Wars Pinball VR – a collection, at launch, of eight tables including two entirely new creations: The Mandalorian and Classic Collectibles (the previously-released in non-VR Han Solo table has since been added for free in an update). So, how does it play in general?
The tables themselves are as good as they’ve always been, with the two new additions being excellent too. Though – on the Quest 2 at least – the resolution of the tables feels disappointingly low (there is a higher resolution mode that can be enabled, but it’s ridiculously hidden in the already difficult to access settings menu), there’s no denying that the feeling of playing on a real, sizable pinball machine is absolutely phenomenal, particularly when accompanied by the excellent soundtrack and watched over by the table-side, life-size characters such as The Mandalorian or Luke Skywalker as you play. The added dimension really does give the impression that you’re in control of a physical game; it’s all very impressively done, if a little fuzzy on the table itself due to the resolution.
There’s a number of ways the game motivates you to play and challenge yourself beyond just going for high scores too. The table you play on is situated within a Star Wars fan’s dream abode, with numerous spaces for posters, statues, figures, helmets and other ornamentation dotted around the area – which you can either teleport or walk freely around. Reaching different score targets on the various tables nets you new collectables which you can customise your surroundings with; even the carpet in front of the TV can be changed. The R2-themed jukebox even has a selection of John Williams-composed music from the movies to collect and play, so you can add to the already impressive Star Wars ambience of your fan-home with the audio too. The TV gives you access to a series of well-thought out and sometimes very tough challenges to take on, which – when complete – earn you the right to increase your table bonuses or give you access to physics-defying powers to use during play (it’s using these that’ll get you to the higher scores needed to unlock some of the more desirable collectables – who doesn’t want a floating Grogu for their Star Wars pad?).
The options menu seems to be only accessible via the TV though – it’s a bit tucked away and could be better placed being available so you can change the options on the fly at the table (there’s only one pinball machine in the setting, which changes depending on which table you want to play). The hands you see during play seem oddly frozen in place too – they just seem very stiffly rendered in comparison to other VR titles.
Still, the gameplay is – as is to be expected from Zen Studios – where it counts, and Star Wars Pinball VR absolutely delivers on that front. I was particularly taken with the new tables – perhaps partly because I hadn’t played them before – and loved having baby Grogu and Din Djarin on either side of The Mandalorian table as I bashed the flippers. The Classic Collectibles table was a nostalgic fan’s dream come true too, with brilliant recreations of the Kenner action figures to collect; toys I know so well from my childhood. That’s not to take away from the other, more familiar tables though – each of which benefits hugely from their new, virtual reality lick of paint. Some minigames even take on a first person perspective now, getting you right into the thick of the action – and there’s even the option to play the table from practically inside it, which is impressive, giving an amazing sense of scale, but isn’t quite as playable as looming over the proceedings as you would in real life.
I was a little disappointed with the barebones selection on offer in the basic edition of Zen’s Pinball FX2 VR – which only came with a selection of three tables for the initial asking price, with the rest available as (in my opinion, somewhat overpriced) DLC. However, Star Wars Pinball VR offers not only a decent selection of tables, but a wealth of challenges and a great, customisable setting that really makes it a much more complete and appealing package. The fact that another table has already been added for free bodes well, though when the inevitable paid DLC arrives – with another ten Star Wars tables still to make their way from flatscreen to VR – I certainly won’t be complaining about adding them to my collection.
I’ve often lamented the demise of real pinball, with machines that you now find in the wild being in increasingly dilapidated condition unless you’re lucky enough to visit an arcade that truly takes care of them, but playing in VR is truly the next best thing. Playing in VR surrounded by TIE Fighters, Stormtroopers, Jedi Knights and Mandalorians, however, is something that’s next to impossible to recreate in real life – and Star Wars Pinball VR is a genuinely addictive and compelling, near-enough essential collection for Star Wars fans and pinball enthusiasts alike.
Disclaimer: Zen Studios provided me with a Star Wars Pinball VR code for review purposes.
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