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Pinball FX3 has big names lining up for a table

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Seven years after struggling to get a look

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in Pinball FX3’s Universal Classics Pinball Zen Studios

Like the restaurant whose walls are lined with photographs of celebrities, Zen Studios' Pinball FX suite has shaken hands with an eclectic mix of big names since 2010: Spider-Man. Darth Vader. Archer. Now it's to the point where the celebrities are showing up to meet Zen.

E.T., Jaws and Marty McFly are the latest to dine. They star in the three-table Universal Classics Pinball highlighting the upcoming launch of Pinball FX3, which will overhaul a seven-year-old platform serving more than 65 tables.

Launch dates have not been set but Zen did confirm last week that 63 tables from its Pinball FX2 generation — including all of the Marvel and Star Wars tables — may be imported to Pinball FX3 free if they were bought on the same console. Six aren't coming to Pinball FX3, all due to licensing. (Super League Football, which featured seven European soccer clubs but also a generic Zen team, was not mentioned.)

"When we first started making pinball tables, it was a challenge for us to get big licenses," said Mel Kirk, Zen Studios' vice president for publishing. "We had to work very hard to get them. Anytime we get to work with something new, I want to make sure it's something our team is excited about. I can tell you everything they're doing is inspired. That's what an IP owner wants to see."

Kirk said Zen has big names "knocking on our door daily," forming a pipeline of projects that made it easy to line up Universal for FX3's big splash. Universal entrusted Zen with adaptations of Jaws, E.T. the Extra-Terrestial and Back to the Future, which also needed the blessing of Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment.

Zen's development studio, based in Budapest, has turned in acclaimed adaptations of Disney's Star Wars and Marvel properties, whose cinematic universes are the envy of sci-fi blockbuster Hollywood. In movies, Universal is trying to get into that game with its Dark Universe franchise.

The tables in Universal Classics don't form a universe or a canon, but putting three heavy hitters together is at least a reminder that the studio has a formidable catalog of its own.

E.T., whose table is designed by Peter Horvath, will go first. Horvath agreed that taking on E.T., a movie with 35 years of emotion and good-hearted appeal built into it, was a challenge.

"It was a little rough for me," Horvath said. "It had been a long time since I saw that movie so I had to rewatch it a couple of times to feel out what it is that a family movie would like to see in the table."

Horvath credited Zen's 3D artist, Gabor Bodacs, with work that helped to capture E.T.’s essence. The scene where E.T., Elliott and his friends escape on bicycles anchors the table thematically. Horvath said he started with that image, working backward to create a day/night cycle on the board’s backdrop.

Peter Grafl was tabbed to design Back to the Future, for good reason. He'd had ideas for such a table preceding the deal with Universal. "I had in my mind the whole table before I even started to design it," for Universal Classics, Grafl said. "I wanted this project for a very long time, to create this table." The Flux Capacitor, naturally, will anchor Grafl's vision.

Jaws was given to David Szucs, who promises that like the film, the shark will be an unseen menace for most of the game. In all three cases, the designers were able to work with source material to build the tables, and Szucs said that Jaws will use audio from the movie for its set pieces aboard the ship the shark tears to pieces.

Pinball FX3 will be more than just three additional tables and a logo. Zen has already touted multiplayer features and a suite of practice tools to help users sharpen their game. But Grafl, considered the studio's pinball guru for his proficiency on real life tables, said Pinball FX3 will make improvements that affect its existing lineup too.

Star Wars Pinball for Pinball FX2, coming to FX3
The full suite of Star Wars Pinball tables may be imported to Pinball FX3.
Zen Studios

"We've made several other adjustments to make them more accessible and playable," Grafl said, drawing on years of player feedback. "There were some not-so-great shots, for example, these were corrected so that they're not so punishing." Skill shots in particular, he said, will be polished.

Pinball FX3 will include a practice mode, which is effectively a continuous ball-return mode so that users can keep working on shot placement, and see parts of the table design they may have been unable to reach before. That will be supplemented by a challenge mode that tasks users with accomplishing goals under certain conditions, with the intent of teaching them the "rulebook" of the table. Guides will be included with each one so players may pore over them and see what they're supposed to be doing, instead of just keeping the ball in play and hoping for the best.

Pinball FX3 will launch on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One. The Universal Classics Pinball tables will be added to the Zen Pinball suite for mobile devices.