“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” I genuinely can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve read that phrase in my lifetime. I’ve been obsessed with the Star Wars universe for the vast majority of my life, and it has been a key cornerstone of my personal identity for just as long. My son’s name is Luke! So, you can only imagine my excitement when Star Wars Pinball was released, way back in 2013. Full Disclaimer: At the risk of severely dating myself, I both previewed and reviewed it at launch. Now, things have come full circle. After gracing damn near every gaming platform in the intervening years, Star Wars Pinball is tackling the one frontier it has never touched: virtual reality. To say I was excited to cover the very originally named Star Wars Pinball VR is the understatement of the century. I’ll do my best to keep the fanboyish gushing to a minimum.
If you’re familiar with developer Zen Studios’ other VR pinball offerings, you probably have a pretty good idea of how the game is framed. Essentially, you are hanging out in someone’s Star Wars-themed gaming bunker. The room is chock-full of spaces to show off your favorite pieces of memorabilia and features a single pinball table, smack dab in the middle of the floorplan. You have the option to freely meander around the moderately sized virtual space and explore, or just directly approach the machine to dive directly into the action.
Welcome to the clubhouse
For the uninitiated, what makes Star Wars Pinball VR (and Zen’s other VR pinball offerings, for that matter) so compelling is that it genuinely feels like you are sitting at a cabinet, watching all of the pinsanity play out in real time. The tables themselves have perfectly recreated the physical appearance of each mechanical component, which in turn helps further immerse you into the action. The fact that you possess complete autonomy to move your head at any angle imaginable also helps drive this home, with a bullet. Plus, if you’re playing the game on Oculus, the dual-controller input lends itself well to emulating the authentic arcade “dual-flipper” experience.
Fans of Star Wars Pinball’s numerous previous incarnations have plenty of opinions about the selection of tables available at launch. Of the eight tables at your disposal, only two are new to the overall collection, inspired by The Mandalorian and Star Wars collectibles, respectively. Considering the other six tables have long since been available on other platforms, we’re going to focus a majority of the attention on the newcomers. However, if you’re curious, the additional six tables are inspired by each of the installments in the original trilogy, as well as Rogue One, Star Wars Rebels, and the Jedi vs. Sith-themed, Masters of the Force.
First turning our attention to The Mandalorian table, there’s a surprisingly open middle-playfield that almost appears too sparse. A vast majority of the proverbial bells and whistles exist along the periphery of the table. This wide-open space is used for several different minigames, revolving around specific chapters in the television series. Due to the long gaps in the layout, this means the moment-to-moment gameplay is usually slower and more methodical than to what most are accustomed. As long as you take your time and focus on hitting specific targets on the map, you will be successful.
Celebrating the classics
On the other hand, the Classic Collectables table features damn near the polar opposite playstyle. In my experience, it almost felt like the game was running in fast-forward, especially when compared to The Mandalorian’s deliberately plodding pace. The increase in pace is likely a byproduct of the ramp-heavy design, which tends to emphasize speed combos, as opposed to cold-blooded precision. That isn’t to say that you can simply go in, guns-a-blazing, but it is light-years swifter than its fellow newcomer. As its name implies, the core mechanics bank heavily on your appreciation of Star Wars figurines. These normally inanimate objects suddenly spring to life during gameplay, jumping around the playfield, and potentially even dueling against one another.
During my time with this table, I encountered something I’ve never run into with VR pinball, previously. For some reason, no matter the perspective that I positioned the camera, it always felt as if the tilt of the table was inverted. It is genuinely hard to describe the sensation. But it felt like I was playing downwards into the playfield, (imagine the flippers positioned at the high end of the table) which immediately threw my brain for a loop. Essentially this meant my noggin was also expecting the physics to feel inverted as well, but that was obviously not the case.
Odder yet, when I switched back and forth between the Immersion mode cameras (more on that later), I could definitively tell that the pitch wasn’t inverted. Yet when I switched back into the main head-mounted camera, the sensation returned. I even thought this could’ve been a one-time VR quirk, so I came back to the table on at least a half-dozen independent gameplay sessions, only to experience the same sensation each time. This may be a “your mileage may vary” situation, but I have a feeling that most will not run into this same scenario.
One aspect of Zen’s previous VR pinball outings that I loved was the scene-setting, and often scene-stealing cameos from characters featured on the table. A perfect example of this is The Mandalorian table, where you are being watched over by a life-sized Mando and Grogu. These two will meander around the open space surrounding the cabinet, often responding to events happening on the playfield.
Embracing the Force
Each table has a set of unique characters and interactions that take place in the 3D world surrounding the table. Spaceships will fly, AT-ATs will saunter in the distance, and characters co-mingle with each other. You can expect to hear from the likes of Darth Vader, Emperor Palpatine, Yoda, several incarnations of Luke Skywalker, and a handful of different varieties of droid. Having all of these iconic figures in their life-sized form can be both amazing and intimidating, simultaneously. How is it possible not to lose your collective shit when Vader’s lightsaber comes swiping into frame from the left (while also gesticulating in Luke’s direction) on the other side of the cabinet. Organic “wow” moments like this are fan service in its most potent, and borderline weaponized form.
Speaking of fan service, I would be remised to leave out all of the collectibles that can be displayed throughout your pinball dungeon. These items, unlockable through standard gameplay and advancing through the career mode, can be put on display on any shelf or unoccupied surface imaginable. Anything from Stormtrooper helmets to scale replicas of important vehicles in the Star Wars universe can be shown off and customized to your heart’s content. Throw in a few posters and a jukebox full of tracks from the original John Williams score, and you have a fun way to embrace your inner fandom while also demonstrating your pinball prowess at the same time.
Another interesting mechanic that Star Wars Pinball VR took a whack at is the Immersion mode. These are three strategically located positions on each playfield where you can reposition the camera in a way that makes it almost as if you are inside of the table itself. Imagine something like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, only this time you are in a stationary position that allows for the camera to be rotated, but never repositioned. I completely understand why this feature was added. Zooming in to see the sheer amount of detail and care put into character models is pretty remarkable.
Unfortunately, the inability to reposition the camera makes it damn near impossible to play the game while still in Immersion mode. Despite each location supposedly being hand-selected for maximum visibility, I rarely found this to be the case. More often than not, I was constantly being overwhelmed by balls blindsiding me from just out of view. I understand what the developer was trying to accomplish by allowing you to get this close to the action, but the execution is mediocre at best.
Textures be damned
Most titles encounter a drop in visual fidelity when transitioning to the VR platform. When you chose to play something in a virtual space, you’re frequently trading visual polish for full immersion and freedom of motion. The problem is, I know that these tables are chocked full of intricate detail. Unfortunately, this results in many textures appearing heavily sandblasted while a round is in motion.
This is especially apparent on tables such as Classic Collectables, where you can barely distinguish the facial features of any figurines. To put it bluntly, they look like creepy animated mannequins dressed in Star Wars garb. I would be willing to bet large sums of money that these tables will look far better on a console than they currently do on my Quest 2, which is tethered to my PC via Oculus Link. Mind you, the game still looks fine and plays tremendously well, it just doesn’t look as great as I’ve grown accustomed to, playing Star Wars Pinball on 4K consoles for the last year.
A new addition that I greatly appreciated was the aforementioned career mode. Instead of merely picking a table and diving into the standard 3-ball action, the campaign provides an escalating set of objectives that need to be accomplished, to move onto the next set of challenges. This was a great way to force me not to obsess over a single table, which has been my inclination in the past. As long as you’re not completely terrible at pinball, it facilitates easily fluttering from table to table, with most early missions taking the form of either 5-minute timers or two-ball challenges. They haven’t reinvented the wheel here, but it certainly kept me from getting stuck in the same ruts that have plagued my previous pinball experiences.
The Force is strong
Unfortunately, the career mode’s design is hampered by Star Wars Pinball VR’s collection of confusing, convoluted, and downright off-putting menus. Am I supposed to be using my hand to touch menu screens? How about pointer support? Where is the damn play button in career mode? These are all questions that should have been answered upfront, instead of simply trusting players to understand using the left stick for navigation. Adding insult to injury, there’s no interface design consistency between modes. Hell, even the pause menu during a round looks completely different from the other menus scattered throughout. This far from a showstopper by any stretch of the imagination, but this could be perceived as a lack of polish. Hopefully, this is something that gets cleaned up and streamlined through future updates.
My final gripe is Star Wars Pinball VR‘s rather paltry initial slate of eight tables. Considering that there are 19 different tables that I can play on the damn iOS incarnation of Star Wars Pinball, I was hoping to see a few more included in the base package. That said, the amount of work that has gone into making each table look and feel authentic is overwhelming. When you consider each table has at least one, if not multiple fully life-sized animated interactive characters stomping around, the more meager offering begins to make a bit more sense.
At this point, I think it’s safe to say that Star Wars Pinball VR is a success. The developer managed to add a couple of solid new additions to its already stout stable of tables, while simultaneously delivering a rock-solid VR experience to boot. While far from perfect, thanks to the clunky UI and quasi-useless Immersion mode, it’s infinitely better than getting saddled with going to the Tosche Station to pick up power converters.