Pinball M is the newest, bloodiest, and goriest offering from the renowned pinball developers and enthusiasts at Zen Studios. This review will also serve as an introduction for Gaming Cypher readers to the hobby of pinball, so I would like to begin with an overview. The game is definitely worth your time and money, with excellent tables containing the very best virtual pinball physics on the market today, and with the same great dedication for licensed and original themes that Zen has been known for well over a decade at this point.
This will be a special review to highlight not only the hobby, but the role that Zen Studios serves in it. I adore pinball, and thanks to this wondrous website, I will now be writing about more pinball forthcoming. I would, therefore, like to set the tone for readers unfamiliar with the hobby, or only in passing, so that they may enjoy these games as much as they do other video games. Read on if you not only want more technical detail and breakdown of the specific tables in Pinball M, but a history, both personal and practical, of the hobby itself.
In an age where technology is overly dominant (I know, ironic coming from the video game reviewer), I enjoy any kind of hobby that is tactile or involves some kind of mechanical or hands-on ability. It is the reason I practice martial arts and do miniature painting and wargaming, and my pinball story goes back to my youth, where I would be on vacation and watch my uncle play all time classics such as The Addams Family, in awe of these really cool machines and the fun we would have. In time, I got into the hobby myself. In high school, circa late 2000s, I found out about Farsight Studios and their pinball recreations, particularly The Pinball Arcade and Pinball FX. I would spend hours playing through virtual recreations of games like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Tales of the Arabian Nights, Monster Bash, Attack from Mars, and Medieval Madness to name a few. I would enjoy these all-time greats in an era where pinball’s golden age was considered to have come and gone, when Pinside.com was still relatively young, and Stern Pinball was the only manufacturer still around.
This story has a much happier ending. Pinball is in its renaissance. Some of the best designers and players of all time, such as Keith Elwin and Jack Danger, have risen to the top, and some of the greatest of all time, such as Brian Eddy, Pat Lawlor (now retired), Steve and Mark Ritchie, and George Gomez, are still around, and are still making some of the best games of all time. Stern now has competition. The games that once dominated the top 100 list on Pinside now see their standings in a different light with the modern marvels being produced at Stern Pinball, Spooky Pinball. Jersey Jack Pinball, Barrels of Fun, American Pinball, and Chicago Gaming Company. Farsight Studios has unfortunately gone to the wayside, but Zen Studios still endures, the developer of the famed Pinball FX series, and new heir apparent to reproducing classic tables in modern video game formats. Pinball as a hobby is in the best place it has ever been, and the future only looks brighter by the day.
You may be asking, “How does virtual pinball compare to real pinball?” An excellent question. While no technology currently can reproduce the absurd physics insanity that can occur with real silver balls (after all, “The ball is always wild!”), Zen Studios has always been extremely close. This is not Space Cadet Pinball on Windows XP – these are top of the line recreations or classic tables or original tables based on ideas or intellectual properties that are used in virtual pinball cabinets found in arcades or home environments. More than anything else, I hope I properly described how virtual pinball is an excellent gateway into the hobby. From the comfort of your chair, you can practice the techniques necessary to do well on real, physical tables. I am no master, but I have definitely gotten better thanks to virtual pinball gaming, and for many, it may be the only way to play pinball if there are no locations near them to go visit and enjoy.
Now on to brass tacks, Zen Studios is the undisputed master of virtual pinball, and if I had to name a personal favorite table, it would be their Pinball Noir table on FX. There was always one problem with Pinball FX, however – it needed to get bloodier and gorier! In an effort to match the love of horror themed tables that only real-life manufacturer Spooky Pinball has, Zen Studios has gone full on for guts and gore with Pinball M, a spinoff of FX that specifically caters to horror or more mature content (their South Park table notwithstanding).
Pinball M gives you a hooded ghost host as your helpful guide to getting started, and I truly prefer his commentary compared to the standard commentator present in FX. He reminds me a bit of the Cryptkeeper in Tales from the Crypt, and hearing “Terror made tangible in your high score!” is always a funny and rewarding call out. The rewards that you can spend your tokens on include player avatars, backgrounds, titles, and even cabinet art, lighting, effects, etc. for the tables themselves. They are all welcome and fun customization features. My only lament at the moment is that you cannot play your tables offline. That may be a big sticking point for some, even if most of the time, you will be online, but I believe the option should be made available at some point. The more access to pinball, connection or not, is always a better thing.
Thus, we have a cavalcade of tables containing creatures crammed with claws, ghouls gnashing with teeth and hatchets, eldritch terrors from the deep, killer dolls and their hideous, but surprisingly well-endowed brides and dark humor, and balls of steel! The lineup contains Zen’s original theme, Wrath of the Elder Gods – Director’s Cut, and the licensed tables consisting of The Thing Pinball, Chucky’s Killer Pinball, Dead by Daylight Pinball, and Duke Nukem’s Big Shot Pinball. I will try to break them down by piecemeal.
Pinball M – Wrath of the Elder Gods – Director’s Cut
Wrath of the Elder Gods – Director’s Cut is an excellent table for fans of H.P. Lovecraft and the slimy, horrid creatures lurking beneath the waves. It is easy to see why this is the starter table, besides the price covering license costs for the others tables – it is intuitive, unique, fun, but still brutally fast paced at times. A welcome table to begin your pinball horror adventure that is easy to learn, but hard to master.
Pinball M – The Thing Pinball
Here we go – this was the table I was the most excited to play, and was, in fact, the one I played the most. The ultimate in alien terror, The Thing has been ripe for a pinball adaptation for quite a while. And since Halloween has been made (listen closely, Spooky!), perhaps the real version will someday follow. In any event, we have this excellent offering to tide us over. To be frank, many of these tables do lack some film assets on the basis that paying for all of the actors would be horrendously expensive for a non-physical table (heck, even Stern’s Jurassic Park is lacking in many movie assets!), so many of the film clips are shown with below the waist footage of the cast, but I will absolutely give a shou-tout to the movie intro being used as the pre-game DMD/LCD start up video – it is awesome! The movie quotes and shout outs do a great job in using the film’s many sequences to their best potential. However, I am not sure if it is actually Kurt Russel and Keith David that I am hearing, and if they are recreated by voice actors, they have done an excellent job (I am unsure because some later quotes in the Chucky table do not sound like Jenniffer Tilly, but I would be happy to be corrected). It has a ton of that “just one more game” feeling to it, and the narrative drive of recreating the movie scenes is awesome. Hitting four flares to begin the snow-blind multi-ball is really fun, and it has to be in the running with greatest table start up quotes with “You’ve got to be f-ing’ kidding me!”
Pinball M – Chucky’s Killer Pinball
I am not the biggest Child’s Play fan, but I did recently get many laughs out of Bride of Chucky, and I realized just how funny the franchise is. It is somehow a grittier looking, yet more hilarious table than some of the others to play. Having the wedding ring finger launch the ball is ridiculous, as are Chucky’s call outs when he attacks some poor random victims. Again, it nails the theme, and for fans of the franchise, they will be delighted. The shots are fun, but the call outs are definitely the highlight here.
Pinball M – Dead By Daylight Pinball
I played asymmetrical games before like Friday the 13th, but never Dead by Daylight, though I do have familiarity with it. There are no guest stars on display here, but you get to choose between the killers or the survivors, who each have their benefits just as they do in their home game. This, alone, brings immense replay value, and I have to call out two specific functions that remind me of real tables. The upper left flipper being magnetized and released for a shot reminds me of the destruction jackpot shot in Stern’s Godzilla, which is always fun. And in a truly precognitive move, the way you lock balls on the meat hook is exactly how it works in Spooky Pinball’s upcoming table based on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and I have to be honest, if you are playing this game, you will definitely want to check that out in 2024. A slam dunk of a table on Pinball M – if you like the game this is based on, you will greatly enjoy how well it plays to and references the source material.
Pinball M – Duke Nukem’s Big Shot Pinball
I am convinced the only reason they did not name this Balls of Steel is that it was done in a virtual pinball package by Apogee years ago. Poor Duke has not been in the spotlight since Duke Nukem Forever, besides the recreation of the 2001 build (and boy, do I want to play that when it is complete!). Luckily, Zen Studios gives one of the great video game action heroes the respect he deserves with this table recreation of Duke Nukem 3D’s most famous (and first) level, Hollywood Holocaust. This is the other table I played the most. The sound effects and shots come directly from the game and presents an amazing throwback. The video mode, where you actually play some Duke 3D by shooting at alien grunts in the movie theater, only to get the classic stripper on the screen, is peak 1990s gaming at its finest. I really enjoy how they incorporate the enemies, locations, and weapons as a whole, and having Duke narrate while you play is always welcome. Here’s hoping that we get more Duke in the future overall, but a fun pinball table is a great start, as the franchise has always had reverence for the hobby.
Pinball M is another surefire hit from Zen Studios that will only grow more diverse in its offerings over time, just like its parent game, Pinball FX. The separation in order to offer more mature, specifically horror, content, is a wise move, and allows for players of all ages and taste to play themes that they enjoy, without alienating either. Zen Studios is the undisputed master of the virtual pinball industry, and continues to serve the hobby as a whole as a gateway for new players, accessibility for those who do not own a machine, or are not near a location that has them on offer. For me, there are few better hobbies on offer that keep you as addicted as pinball. Just remember not to tilt the machine when you lose your ball to an outlane drain!
*Join me for future pinball related reviews! With so many games released this year such as Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, The Godfather, Foo Fighters, Venom, and Galactic Tank Force, there is plenty more that I cannot wait to talk about. Next year promises the full release of games such as Pulp Fiction, Looney Tunes, and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, so I cannot wait to share thoughts, and hopefully, interest you in this physical side of gaming! First up…
Pinball M is available for Xbox, PlayStation, and PC via Steam and Epic Games Store. It will be available for Nintendo Switch this December 28, 2023.
Related: Reviews by Matt O’Toole
Your local neighborhood nutjob, gamer, and teacher! I'm an avid fan of many genres such as platformers, shooters, horror, etc. I am also an avid tabletop gamer - hugely into the worlds of Warhammer and all of their spinoffs. I'm a big believer in being objective - even if something is not my cup of tea, I want to talk about it on the objective level - is it well made, crafted with love, and with care for the fans? If so, that's a good game in my book for someone and well worth their hard earned dollarydoos!