Review: Pinball M’s initial selection of paid tables is downright horrific in the best way possible

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Recently, I was drawn back to the virtual pinball goodness that is Zen StudiosPinball FX, thanks to the latest Steam sale and sheer abundance of tables there for nearly a quarter of their usual price. Now, coincidentally, the team is bringing a new platform to the PC in the form of Pinball M, a mature-rated collection of horror-themed tables that works the same as their own Pinball FX.

Now, it bears clarifying Zen’s admittedly confusing naming scheme to their pinball gaming platforms. Pinball FX, released earlier this year is actually the fourth game in the series, but the first one to be free-to-play, feeding you in-game currency that can be bought for actual cash, which is used to buy all manner of knicknacks to install in your den.

While that’s all well and good, Pinball FX3 is still very much a thing, with a huge library of tables already under its belt. Due to its F2P successor’s launch, however, new releases have basically been halted in favor of feeding my content to be bought in what is assumed to be the much more lucrative proposition of Pinball FX. During that time, Zen Studios’ put out a number of excellent conversions of real world tables based on famed pinball brand Williams

Sadly, with Pinball FX came the need to rebuy previously owned content in the form of “legacy” packs, and that understandably didn’t go very well with those who had already invested in them over the years, especially because backwards compatibility had already been implemented to all releases up to that point. Worse, some tables didn’t make the cut and remained a exclusivity of Pinball FX3, fracturing the userbase’s collections between the now separate platforms. 

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Come on! It’s The Thing for crying out loud! What’s there not to like here?!

And those are not the only things that differ from what came before it, since there are noticeable presentational features that are somewhat more lacking in Pinball FX in comparison, such as the poor font choice and blandness of menus when compared to the previous game. That’s not to mention its physics model, which feels different from how it was in Pinball FX3 – so much so that the community for these tends to favor the latter and generally scorns the former.

For me, however, things aren’t that dire since I’m at most a casual pinball player, so even with the aforementioned differences, Pinball FX is perfectly playable. Knowing that Pinball M would follow its steps, I had plenty to look forward to. And to that regard, it certainly delivers, albeit with some caveats.

Pinball M launched last Thursday and it offers four tables that can be bought separately: The Thing, based on John Carpenter’s body horror classic; Chucky, which stars the killer doll who’s been haunting movies and a TV series for decades; Dead by Daylight, centered around the multiplayer game of the same name; and rounding out the initial drop is a table based on Duke Nukem 3D. For some reason, that one is considered horror; ironically, you could make that argument given the abomination that Duke Nukem Forever turned out to be! 

There’s also a fifth table, a free version of a rearranged playfield from the last game, called Wrath of the Elder Gods. It’s themed around The Call of Chtulhu and its ilk, so folks who choose to play for free have something to do within the base game. It’s where the game’s tutorial is set and it’s frankly very fun and easy to get into, with plenty of creativity when it comes to minigames and how they toy with the established gameplay elements that are inherent to pinball, such as the use of ramps and, of course, what can only be done in virtual pinball, like its sanity effects in the vein of GameCube masterpiece Eternal Darkness.

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Has there ever been a time when Chucky hasn’t been at least a bit disturbing?

When I first got word that Pinball M was going to be a thing and heck, THE THING would be part of it, I was instantly hooked by the idea of playing through the pinball equivalent of what’s easily my favorite sci-fi horror movie ever. Not only because of my love for the source material, but also due to the overall quality that licensed material’s been treated by Zen over the years, with their incredibly fun takes on Marvel and even Universal Studios’ properties.

After having finally played through the actual table as well as the others, I can safely say that the wait was worth it. If you have been keeping up with the dev’s catalog, Pinball M is a no-brainer addition to your collection, as it smartly adapts the varied themes into very entertaining tables that are as well developed as the studio’s previous original content. 

The Thing in particular takes the film’s iconic moments such as the blood test scene and story beats like the sabotage of the Antarctic base so the monster had no means to escape, and turns them into its table’s varied set of missions. This includes lighting the ball in red fire to emulate the flare and chaos of a very specific and positively horrific moment from the movie where one of the characters is revealed to be the titular Thing and is apparently killed off by Kurt Russell’s character, McCready.

As for the other tables, there are features in each one of them that are noteworthy and unique. Dead by Deadlight, for instance, has you picking which side of the conflict you wish to play on, much like the asymmetrical adversarial game it’s based on, resulting in completely different play styles and sets of missions that further mimic it, such as the need to turn on generators as potential victims all the while avoiding their aggressors. Chucky, on the other hand, brings many of the movies from the franchise into play, showing off the most memorable scenes where the villain ends up chopped up and seemingly destroyed for good.

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The attention to detail on some of the tables is downright fantastic.

Out of all of them, however, Duke Nukem is surprisingly the one that manages to blend genres, by offering a first-person shooter segment, as limited as one can be in pinball form: you control where to shoot with the flippers and use the launcher to fire Duke’s handgun. Not only that, but the table is peppered with actual sound effects from the game, something that specially tingled my nostalgic bone.

Something that this new release shares with most of the previous licensed tables, especially the movie tie-in ones is the lack of actual voice work and music from the source they draw from. That’s the case here with pretty much all of the tables in Pinball M so far, for as much as Zen has tried their best to recreate signature lines from The Thing, for instance, as well as its simple but positively horrific synth theme, they just sound off.

And that’s understandable. Russell in particular would be prohibitively expensive to hire given the amount of success as an actor he’s gotten in the 40 odd years since that movie. On the other hand, the closest that they’ve got a voice in these is with Chucky, who has always been voiced by the excellent Brad Dourif. His soundalike gets darn close, but the laugh, though, nobody but Dourif can pull off, I’m afraid. 

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Duke is to this day still looking to get them to pay for shooting up his ride…

Visually, there’s something to be said about having lively colors dot playfields such as the ones here in the overall darker themes as they carry, but much of that is brushed off by the fact that, one, they are meant to feel like actual physical pinball, full of bells and whistles, and two, the lighting model of the game is put to great use in order to set the mood, even more so when raytracing and HDR are enabled.

As it is in its launch window, Pinball M’s selection of premium tables is generally very good, headlined by The Thing, not only the best of the bunch for someone like me, a fan, but for its overall quality and fun factor. While it helps that you know the material where the themes of these tables come from, as that elevates your enjoyment, that isn’t the final deciding factor as to whether or not you’ll like to play any of these. 

If Zen Studios had somehow gotten the core gameplay wrong, no amount of fan service would turn them around, and that’s not the case here, I’m happy to report. The possibilities for future tables are nearly endless. And considering that there have been actual tables based on, say, Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, there’s ample opportunities for a Williams-like showing of horror-themed ones suited to Pinball M. Here’s hoping that they will follow through with more and do it as well as they did with these. 

3 thoughts on “Review: Pinball M’s initial selection of paid tables is downright horrific in the best way possible

  1. Oh ya brother the roof is the limit with this thing as a fan of zen pinball and Duke nukem this is a dream come true can anyone say Texas chainsaw massacre!

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