E3 is never a time for social calls. It's nonstop work. Last June, the only developer I met with outside the walls of the L.A. Convention centre was over drinks with Zen Studios' U.S. staff at the J.W. Marriott.
They'd built a great name for themselves with Pinball FX2, and their profile shot through the roof in 2011 with Marvel's licence on their series of virtual pinball tables. "Where do you go from here? What's coming up next?" I asked.
"We have some ideas, and some big things we can't talk about right now," was the reply, with a knowing glance.
"Oh, shit," I said, "You got Star Wars."
I've long known this was an ambition for Neil Sorens, Zen's creative director, and all of the Zen team, here and in Hungary — indeed, there are 10 tables coming, and everyone on the development staff was given a crack at one. The fruits of that labour began releasing today, with three tables for Zen's platform on Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network, as well as for Android and iOS mobile devices.
Star Wars Pinball shrewdly spreads out its appeal — there's The Empire Strikes Back for 40-year-old fogeys like me, The Clone Wars for younger fans, and Boba Fett, an intriguing themed table that bridges both audiences.
After playing this set for a week, I can sense that their difficulty has a similar spread. Clone Wars was the easiest and highest-scoring table for me; Boba Fett will require the most accuracy to reach eye-popping points totals. Touching both is Empire Strikes Back. Though it regularly rewards a player with big eight-figure numbers, the main objective — to replay what is, basically, the entire movie, through a series of timed pinball missions — is tougher than anything I've faced in this series, or any other.
Empire gives you a series of five "scenes" which come in the form of missions — a set of tasks to complete, usually hitting a target or a ramp. Triggering the scene/mission is simple enough — there's a three-paneled console at the centre of the table, and lighting up all of its sides opens a trap door that, after rolling a ball into the trap, allows you to select a scene-mission for play, in or out of order. For beginners, I recommend Scene 3, the Asteroid Field, as it's the easiest and most points-rich.
Still, hopping the ball three times over a ramp to the back reaches of the table is only the beginning. Fortunately, completing any task (hitting a ramp or a target) usually delivers a million-point-bonus. But to truly drag out the toys, like an animated AT-AT in one of the Hoth sequences, requires a lot of persistence. Yes, there's a checkpoint mechanism, so if you finish one stage of a scene, then lose a ball, you can pick up from where you left off later. But the time given to complete any of these sequences is preciously short and tolerates one, maybe two mistakes at the most. Hitting the wrong ramp ends in an agonizing, time-sucking loss.
As the missions go further, accuracy becomes a higher priority, as does transferring the ball from one flipper to the other. Boba Fett places the highest priority on this, with its swooping ramps (symbolizing jetpack flight) that often end up returning the ball to the side you wanted to avoid. Missions in Boba Fett aren't cinematic — they're cash-on-the-barrelhead rewards you can unlock after lighting the EMPIRE or HUTTS lane. Even though EMPIRE was more letters, I found it easier to trigger. Once a bounty is acquired, you have to hit all of the board's lanes (there are seven) to win its jackpot. The good news is, hitting any lane awards 1 million points.
So even if seeing missions through to the end is very difficult, Star Wars Pinball does offers a means of strategically failing them in order to plunder the instances for points (Scene 3 in Empire is useful, plus anything in Fett.) In The Clone Wars, I advise taking the mission "The Monster" once you unlock the Council (by hitting two ramps a total of seven times.) Hitting Maul's hover-thing returns a million each time you strike it and is much easier than "Attack on Kamino."
There is still a lot on the board that I've yet to discover, or have only seen once or a few times. (I made the Slave 1 fly into Boba Fett only once). There's an instance in Empire that sends you into a wild first-person combat mode where you block laser stings from a training drone (never mind that's from Episode IV, it's still rad). Boba Fett's skillshot feels arbitrarily awarded but it brings up a nice minigame on the main display. To reach the epic Luke vs. Vader showdown will take extraordinary persistence and accuracy. These tables are marketed for everyone, but very, very few, I think, will watch all of The Empire Strikes Back on its dot matrix board.
That's how I recall the great movie adaptations on pinball machines — adaptations which precede arcade or console games. There was always something lurking deep in the game, and there was always some kid or, more likely, the older brother of some kid, who could make the big secret come to life. It'll cost $US10, not a thousand quarters, to make everything happen, but the challenge is still pizza-parlor authentic.
I was able to get myself past 25 million on Clone and Empire after getting the series on Thursday, and hit 13 million on Fett. There's a lot more to discover.
But if you ask me what I think of Zen's effort so far, I'm brought back to my first thought: Oh shit. They got Star Wars.