Zen Studios, one of the most prolific virtual pinball creators, has teamed up with Disney and Lucasfilm Games to release a Star Wars-themed VR game filled to the brim with pinball machines. Much like the studio’s previous VR pinball game, Pinball FX2 VR(2016), Star Wars Pinball VR feels like it’s essentially the closest thing to owning your own fleet of pinball machines, albeit with more bells and whistles that simply can’t exist outside of the digital world.
In modern machines, oftentimes the object of the table isn’t just to launch the ball and hope for the best score; there’s usually a number of objectives along the way that need to be fulfilled in a precise pattern, like spelling out a name for access to some super complex mechanism that gives out massive bonuses. I rarely had enough quarters for that level of mastery though when I started playing pinball as a kid in the ’90s, so all I could hope for was the longest, luckiest run I could afford. Otherwise I’d just watch my mom play, who is a true pinball wizard in my eyes.
For this preview, I was allowed access to two machines—one based on The Mandalorian (2019) TV series and another based on the film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). If those two tables are representative of the quality of the rest of the game, which includes a total of eight at launch, then it’s possible Star Wars Pinball VR will be the best VR pinball game to date.
Physics-based Gameplay, Bells & Whistles Galore
If you’re looking for pure 1:1 pinball gameplay, Star Wars Pinball VR is about 90 percent of what you’d expect from a digital counterpart. Motion controller haptics are nowhere near as good as feeling the real thing, such as the actuation of flippers or the ball smacking against a bumper. The game also ‘helps’ a bit by keeping your ball on the table longer, but more on that below.
What it lacks in that level of physical realism though, it makes up for in the pure fantasy of owning an impossibly complex fleet of really well-crafted pinball machines.
On the outside, the tables seem fairly normal, however the more you pursue the game’s set of rigid goals, the clearer it becomes that each table actually holds hours of gameplay under the glass—way more than I’d expect from a standard physical machine. The Rogue One table alone offers a 10-chapter mission that each features its own creative mechanism to battle against.
There isn’t a ‘handy’ tutorial telling you what to do either, only the backboard’s delightfully retro orange LED sign giving you brief instructions. One of the most immersive bits is that you start out with ‘normal’ pinball tasks, but then you’re slowly baited along into increasingly fantastical mini-games and mechanisms. You can even shrink down to the size of a pinball to see the action from a different perspective, although that’s really only just for fun.
Ultimately though, one of the key things that makes or breaks a virtual pinball machine is whether the silver ball actually reacts correctly to flippers, bumpers, plungers—everything on the table that’s supposed to move the ball in one direction or another. Excluding the fact that draining the ball feels a bit more difficult, which helps the player stay on the board longer, physics always felt on point.
You can choose to play each table in either classic mode in arcade mode; arcade mode is vanilla gameplay while classic mode injects fantasy elements into the mix, such as slow-mo ball speed and other equally impossible things to help you reach a higher score. In classic mode you can unloack these talents as you play, usually by fulfilling certain objectives. There are so many objectives here too, which completionist (unlike myself) will have a ball with.
Some of the least exciting parts of the game for me is the achievement-based collection stuff. Every time you reach some goal, some Nerd Crew collectible nonsense is tossed at you to put up in your suburban mancave. Given the infinite expanse of places I’d rather be during a multi-year pandemic, the basement of a house is one of the very last I’d like to be in.
I also didn’t really care for the pop-up Star Wars dudes, Baby Yoda included, simply because I’m an old, crotchety pinball player who has zero issue with telling a kid to not touch my machine while I’m playing. It certainly adds some panache to the whole thing though, and models seem fairly well made. Voice acting is less convincing, but that’s not any different for many licensed pinball machines.
Star Wars Pinball VR is headed to Oculus Quest, SteamVR headsets and PSVR on April 29th. We’ll be diving in for the whole experience between now and then to give you a closer look at what makes the game tick. It’s safe to say I’m really looking forward to it.