Not Your Father’s Pinball
I’ll be blunt: I have no interest in the Senran Kagura series. No, wait, don’t click that back button, hear me out!
What we have here is something kind of special, and there’s a story behind it (and in it!). I was browsing video games on Amazon, as I often do, when I stumbled upon something I thought was very odd: What appeared to be a pinball-type game with a Mature rating. “How could you make a Mature pinball game?” I asked myself. Well fortunately for all of us, XSeed Games, the master of getting lesser-known Japanese games over to the States, was only too happy to help us get that question answered. (Be careful what you wish for, it just may be granted!)
Developed by Marvelous and Honey Parade Games, and published in the west by XSeed Games, Senran Kagura: Peach Ballwas released on July 9th, 2019, for the Nintendo Switch.
Yes, There Is a Story
The premise of Peach Ball has one of the characters, Haruka, who has taken a job working in an arcade (arcades have by and large faded away here in the US, but are still popular in Japan), running a fighting game tournament which the other major SK characters happen to be participating in.
Just as the event is about to begin, one of them needs to use the restroom, and when they return, they are dressed in an animalistic outfit and begin behaving oddly, and soon all of the girls begin to experience this…transformation. It turns out that the girl in question came into contact with some substance or another in the restroom that causes everyone to begin to transform into animals – or, at least, girls acting like animals with animal themed bathing suits.
Because this all makes complete sense, the only way to return all the girls to their normal selves is to use a mysterious ball and generate enough, um, “vibrational force” to create a magical aura which will transform them back. So Haruka has them sit on a giant pinball machine so that this can happen. Right off the bat, nothing is off the table when it comes to innuendo. It ranges wildly from funny to cringe-worthy.
That’s pretty much the story. If this premise seems ridiculous, that’s probably because it is. Needless to say, it serves to set the stage and little else, even though it seems to be trying for more than that. In Peach Ball‘s Story Mode, you play through a number of stages with each of the characters, whom you can select between freely, viewing their exchanges with others in dialogue scenes before getting into the pinball game proper. Successful completion of that stage’s Super Sexy Challenge (more on that later) rewards you with another dialogue scene where the character returns to normal and talks things out with a friend.
None of the story sequences really made me more interested in the characters. The entire story centers on a ridiculous concept, and the character specific story segments are little more than an introduction and a reward for beating the stages. As long as the gameplay is fun, though, I can fairly easily overlook that.
Let’s Have a Ball
The story mode is entirely optional, but most of the game’s extras, such as different outfits, accessories, and more for the characters, are unlocked through progressing through it. If you prefer (I know I do), you can also jump straight into the game itself in Free Mode and shoot for that high score. Other features include a shop where you can obtain new outfits for in-game currency (There is also DLC available on the eShop), “Diorama Mode,” where you can assemble several characters for group pose screenshots, and “Intimacy Mode,” where you can get up close and personal with your favorite character, if that’s something you’re into. Hey, I won’t judge! These are nice extras, but if you aren’t super into the franchise, I don’t think you’ll care too much about them.
Once you get through the anime girl exterior, what you have here is a pretty standard pinball game in many ways. Peach Ball offers a number of very open playfields with a handful of ramps and holes, nothing terribly complicated by typical pinball standards, but it’s all designed very well. The aesthetic is that of a theme park on the main table (which comes in day/evening/night variants), with a teacup ride and carnival tents and such in the background. The character you selected for the story or for free mode will be sitting at the back of the table in the center, and naturally, you can score plenty of points just by bumping the ball into them. You’ll also find other tables as you play with other themes.
The main driver of the gameplay as a whole, though, is the Peach Missions, which occupy the right hand side of the screen. These are all various random sub-objectives, such as hitting certain targets, just scoring points, or bopping the girl on the table a certain number of times (of course). Every time you complete a mission, a new one appears in its place, and you earn mission points. Further, hitting the right teacup on the teacup ride will trigger a small black elephant to scare the character on the field into falling over, during which time you get more points for bopping them. Finally, no pinball game is complete without a tilt feature, and unlike most, this game actually encourages you to use it (The characters like it!). Overall it’s a solid, cohesive experience here. The tables have good flow to them with all the traditional bells and whistles, alongside the more exotic elements.
Earning enough mission points activates a bonus game, called the Sexy Challenge, and in order to start it, you need to shoot the ball between the character’s legs. Yeah. Doing so will take you to a separate, small playfield with a timed objective and an unlimited number of balls. After completing two of these challenges, scoring enough points will open up the extra-special Super Sexy Challenge…and, well, it certainly lived up to its name, that’s all I can say (There’s a reason the ESRB rating has a Partial Nudity descriptor!). After meeting the stage’s goals and doing the Super Sexy challenge, you beat the stage. In Free Mode, you play until you run out of balls. Many different challenges are available, which adds a lot of variety and replay value.
Stimulate the Senses
On the graphics front, there are high points and low points. The gameplay environment looks great, and the initial ball launch sequence – which is sort of like a rocket launch through a trippy rainbow tube on the main table – is awesome. The animation on everything is solid, and everything performs well on the Switch, even in handheld mode (Although, I personally could do without the exaggerated, excessive jiggle physics).
The main problem for me was the intro and Story Mode cutscenes. Most of them begin with a static image and a monologue, and at first I thought the whole thing was going to be like that. Then it switches to talking scenes with the characters in 3D over a static background, which is better, but I feel like they could have made this part of the game a lot more interesting. At least put them in a 3D environment or have some actions taking place beyond the talking. It feels more like an excuse to put the girls on the screen and show off the jiggle physics. Fortunately, the gameplay side more than makes up for this.
All the while, you have this happy-go-lucky sort of soundtrack. It’s well made with many instruments and tracks, and sounds like something that would be in an anime show, if it had one (And I won’t be terribly surprised if that eventually happens). Each table has its own musical theme, although it stays quite upbeat throughout. Japanese culture fanatics will probably like this, but every time you bump the characters, tilt the table, do the bonus games, and anything else you could think of, they say stuff (in Japanese with English subtitles), grunt, and ooh and aah, which did get kind of annoying after a while for me.
Tying Things Together
Despite my lack of interest in the Senran Kagura franchise itself, I genuinely had a fun time playing. Even if you aren’t a big fan of overt sex appeal or anime aesthetics, there’s a pretty good chance you can have fun here too. Underneath all the anime girl stuff, there’s an honestly really well-made pinball game. Just remember, it definitely does earn that M for Mature rating, and goes pretty darn close to AO at times. A guilty pleasure, for sure, but a pleasure nonetheless. If you are a pinball fan who’s played it all and wants to try something more edgy, this just might be the game for you!
Review copy provided by XSeed Games for Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer.