A red and blue figure twists and spins through the skies of New York. Crimson and gold streaks through the clouds. Primal fury is unleashed. Darkness hunts darkness in the shadowy streets. This is Marvel Pinball.
That's a rather dramatic introduction to what amounts to four Marvel-themed pinball tables coming to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 next month from the creators of Pinball FX and Zen Pinball, but after spending some hands-on time with each of the four superhero-themed boards, the drama is completely warranted.
More than simply slapping Spider-Man, Iron Man, Wolverine, and Blade decals onto standard pinball tables, Zen Studios has captured the essence of each hero, translating their particular brands of action into unique ball and flipper experiences.
I'll go through each table individually, but first let's check out the trailer.
Zen Studios caught up with me in California during the weekend of BlizzCon to guide me through each of the tables. I played through on the Xbox 360 version, which will be available within the recently-released Pinball FX 2 pinball platform. The PlayStation 3 version will be offered as a standalone download.
The platform itself is quite a departure for Xbox Live Arcade. It acts like a shell that contains multiple pinball tables. The format not only allows for a comprehensive pinball experience on the service, but allows the combined tables to exceed Xbox Live Arcade's traditional gamerscore point cap. The sky's the limit.
But I stuck to the streets in the first Marvel Pinball table I played.
My hands-on time began with an unlikely character: The vampire hunting Blade. Of the four initial Marvel tables, Blade isn't exactly what you'd call a heavy-hitter of the Marvel universe. He was big a few years back, and he's making a bit of a comeback thanks to a new mutant-driven vampire storyline in the comics, but he's still not what I would call A-list.
Why did he make the cut? According to Neil Sorens, game designer at ZEN Studios, someone there really likes Blade.
It shows in every inch of the table. Images from the comics festoon the table, along with anamatronic figures of key allies and enemies, a running theme through each of the four tables. A larger-than life demon hovers at the back of the board, looming over the action at all times. As I play my first round the table slowly moves from daytime to nighttime, reflecting Blade's dual nature and his powers as a Daywalker.
At one point the pinballs begin to glow with an otherworldly light, transforming into phosphorous balls, perfect for vampire slaying.
I'm very impressed, but Blade is far from my favorite Marvel character. Let's try a board with a bit more snikt to it.
Wolverine's table feels a little shorter than most, but it makes up for it in sheer brutality, just like the iconic Canadian superhero himself.
The Silver Samurai and Sabertooth lurk towards the top of the board, but my attention is drawn to the massive Sentinel robot in the top right corner. Each of the characters moves as the action progresses. As the trailer shows, Sabretooth actually launches from his perch to savage Logan.
I don't activate the Sentinel during my brief play through. Part of me is glad. It's quite menacing.
From the fury of Wolverine to the finesse of the spectacular Spider-Man. This board is filled with twisting, twirling ramps, perfectly capturing the motion of Spidey as he bobs and weaves on his webs through the streets of New York City. The ramps are like twisting webs, bringing a great deal of character to the board.
Not that it's without character otherwise. Mysterio makes an appearance. The Green Goblin cackles menacingly. Hitting the right sequence of targets causes him to transform your pinball into his signature pumpkin bombs.
Doctor Octopus is probably the most impressive figure of the bunch. At times his arms will burst into motion, picking up balls in his claws and dropping them back onto the board.
This is the table that really drove the point home: Zen Studios truly gets what makes Marvel superheroes tick, and have done an amazing job of bringing that knowledge to the table, pun slightly intended.
the feeling only grows with the Iron Man table. Where Spider-Man had winding webs, Iron Man has a series of straight ramps, fanning out across the sky. Iron Man is a rocket. He sees the target and goes for it. It brings to mind images of jet fighters flying in formation.
Tony Stark stands proudly in the back of the table. As I play I trigger a transformation sequence, with robotic arms rising out of the table, outfitting him in his trademark armor. It's a glorious moment, and a necessary one, with the Mandarin and Whiplash waiting in the wings to take him out.
Marvel and Zen Studios worked closely together to get each table feeling right, said Sorens. Marvel would tell the developers when something fit and when a gameplay element fell flat. The end result is extremely impressive.
Marvel Pinball will be released on Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network before the end of the year. Hopefully it's only the beginning of a beautiful relationship between the comic book publisher and game developer. With Captain America and Thor movies due out next year, I suspect we'll be seeing more from the Marvel team-up very soon.
My time with the four tables left me hungry for more; I wanted more time playing, and I wanted more tables.