You don’t see genuine pinball machines around that much anymore. They’re surprisingly difficult to maintain and people just don’t seem interested enough for them to be worth the effort, so I’m willing to take pinball in pretty much any form I can get it these days. But trying to mimic a tangible experience like billiards, chess or pinball in digital form is tricky: visceral actions like frantically smashing the flipper buttons or knocking your hip against the machine to loose a stray pinball from behind a bumper are arguably futile to attempt to replicate; it feels doubly so when you consider the often fickle fanbase these games appeal to. There’s always going to be that crowd that obsesses over all the little details, right down to the text on the scoreboard and the flipper accent color, with all the attention of an auteur pornography director trying to line up his million-dollar money shot. That’s where games like Pure Chess satisfy, and where games like Portal Pinball focus instead on simply being fun to play.
Portal Pinball is not some lavish recreation of an existing pinball table, but it is still absolutely lavish. Despite being filled with such exhaustive references to Portal 2‘s lore, Portal Pinball manages to maintain a clean and cohesive design. The background on the floor is some simple-yet-attractive artwork depicting Portal 2‘s co-op robot buddies, Atlas and P-Body, that leaves the playing field clear enough that you’ll never lose track of your ball. That’s in stark contrast to many of developer Zen Studios’ other themed tables, like the gimmicky ones built for Star Wars and The Avengers. Where the Star Wars tables were muddled with needlessly busy artwork and text, Portal Pinball is straightforward and attractive. Where The Avengers tables were cluttered with endless ramps and unclear objectives, Portal Pinball is visually coherent and intuitive. When the game demanded I hit a specific ramp or target, it was dead simple to identify and execute, and that’s a surprisingly tough feat to pull off in a pinball game.
What’s great about Portal Pinball isn’t just the sheer number of Portal 2 references it crams in, but how it weaves those references into the action in a genuinely fun and interesting way. You can unlock Atlas and P-Body by hitting specific ramps a number of times, then locking in the current ball to make the corresponding character appear on a platform above the field. Once you’ve summoned both robots, the ball you locked earlier is released back onto the table for some multi-ball action in a clever nod to the duo’s co-op roots. There’s a test chamber that you hit once to open, then again to select one of several different exercises. Most of these are probably a little too simple, requiring you to just hit a couple of specific ramps in a limited time, but my favorite was “Ratman’s Den,” a smaller table underneath the main field with four ramps and a locked middle door. To open the door, you have to hit the ramps in a specific order, then blast the ball through it, downing one of two turrets. It seems easy, but Ratman’s Den is tilted up to increase the gravity and the challenge. Unlocking those doors became the most addictive part of Portal Pinball for me.
The entire table is narrated by the incorrigible Wheatly and sinister GLaDOS, the familiar (and chatty) artificial intelligence from Portal 2. It’s nothing overly complex, but it adds a touch of personality that was much appreciated to keep the experience feeling like the games it’s based upon. There’s less going on with this table than many of Zen Studios’ previous tables, so it’s a fairly necessary move. While on one hand, Portal Pinball is focused and engaging, nailing that hard-but-not-too-hard difficulty balance; on the other, it felt like I had already exhausted the content out of it in about an hour or two. It’s inexpensive and well-designed, but it’s only one table, and it would’ve been cool to see one or two more in a proper pack; still, the table as it is manages to stay entertaining even after I’ve already done everything in it.
With tons of references and entertaining gameplay, Portal Portal is a great new table. It’s a little thin on content and will require the purchase of either Zen Pinball 2 or Pinball FX2 to play it, however, so it’s an investment that those coming only for the Portal aspect might need to rationalize. But as it stands, Portal Pinball is a great pinball table that doesn’t adhere to reality but still keeps things simple enough to be light and enjoyable. It’s not the hardest pinball table around, but it provides just enough challenge and uses its license well to hook you into playing more than you probably intended.