There’s a convincing argument to be made that a long-running video game franchise has only seen true success when it’s had a video pinball spinoff on a Nintendo platform.
I jest, obviously, but there are a number of fun examples from over the years — primarily direct from Nintendo, it has to be said, what with Metroid, Kirby, Pokémon and Super Mario all getting the bouncing balls treatment.
Senran Kagura is a series about ninja girls, though, so how on Earth could that possibly… oh, you know they’ll find a way. Let’s take a closer look.
The concept behind Senran Kagura Peach Ball is that Haruka has been messing around with dangerous chemicals during downtime at her part-time job in the local arcade — a Crimson Squad has to support itself, you know — and accidentally invented a concoction that turns people into animals. And oh no! Asuka, Yumi, Yomi, Murasaki and Ryouna have all become exposed to it during a fighting game tournament at the arcade.
Thankfully, the transformation is a gradual rather than immediate process; any victims of Beastall, as the drug is known, initially take on animal-like characteristics while remaining in human form but, if left untreated for too long, will become completely bestial.
Fortunately, as it happens, Haruka also has a suitable antidote to the effects of Beastall. Rather inconveniently, this comes in the form of the titular Peach Ball, a spherical object that is only able to release its powerful healing properties when it has absorbed sufficient vibratory force. And what better way to generate such force than with a nice game of pinball?
It’s obviously a completely ridiculous setup, but much like the similarly comedic Senran Kagura Bon Appétit before it, Peach Ball plays itself admirably straight throughout. In fact, the story is rather touching over the course of its five discrete narrative routes; a key part of turning all the girls back to their original forms is triggering important memories for them, a task which the various characters accomplish in very different ways.
In some ways, Peach Ball’s story can be regarded as an exploration of instant gratification versus being true to yourself, even if the latter is harder, more long-term work. All of the characters find themselves very much enjoying the immediate pleasure of acting like the animal they’re transforming into, since the animal in question is a reflection and natural extension of their most superficial personality traits… but of course, continuing to enjoy this fleeting pleasure would mean completely abandoning the things that truly make them who they are.
Asuka’s rabbit transformation, for example, is born from her constant energy and enthusiasm, while Yumi becoming a cat is a natural extension of her beauty and grace. Ryouna turning into a dog needs little explanation when you consider her naturally submissive, masochistic nature, while the legend of tanuki being masters of disguise is entirely appropriate for Yomi, a young woman who looks and talks like a princess, but was born into poverty and remains a keen supporter of those struggling to live their lives in the slums.
Meanwhile, the rather shy and retiring Murasaki turning into a bear might seem a little odd until you remember that bears spend an awful lot of their time eating enough food to last the winter and then sleeping for months at a time — and, when she’s not forced to do shinobi things, Murasaki tends to subsist on delivery pizza in the darkness of her room. She’s also shown in the various other games in the series to have a particularly fiery temper if angered — though this doesn’t happen often — and this is reflected in the bear’s ferocious, intimidating nature.
Much like the previous Senran Kagura release on Switch, Senran Kagura Reflexions, Peach Ball is very clearly intended to be taken as a “fandisc” rather than part of the mainline narrative. This is probably most clearly seen in the way that the narrative is delivered. Rather than us passively observing events through the eyes of various characters and taking on the role of them when necessary, in Peach Ball the player is treated as a character in their own right. You are regarded as someone who happened to be in the arcade while the fighting game tournament was going on and while this whole debacle kicked off, and when the game’s pinball sequences get underway, you are the one who is actually playing the machine in order to get the Peach Ball up to speed.
It’s also implied that you already know who all these girls are — including the fact that they are shinobi, since none of them make any attempt to hide this fact — along with some of the key events that have happened (or, indeed, not happened, in the case of Yomi’s lie-filled route) along the way. In other words, the game gives a pleasing nod to the fact that you were there for all their past stories, even if your presence wasn’t previously directly acknowledged.
This can be regarded as another means of more abstractly exploring that core theme I mentioned earlier; sure, you can come straight to Peach Ball as your first Senran Kagura game and get some instant gratification from the cute girls, the ridiculous situation in which they find themselves and the fun pinball gameplay, but you’ll get much more out of it if you’ve been true to yourself — and, more importantly, true to these girls.
It’s a much more significant time and energy investment to experience the many weird and wonderful stories the Senran Kagura cast has been involved in to date, but in doing so the story of Peach Ball carries much greater meaning. You understand how their friendships developed over time — from initial animosity in some cases — and became as deep as they clearly are today; you understand how important these girls’ shared experiences are, and how they are able to make use of those memories to bring one another back from the brink of losing their humanity completely.
Let’s not forget that this is a pinball game, though; as such, I’ll leave the finer details of the stories for you to discover for yourselves. Suffice to say for now that if you enjoyed Bon Appétit’s lightweight, character-centric stories, Peach Ball treats its narrative in a very similar way: ultimately fairly unimportant, but pleasant to witness and, in this case, to actually be a part of. And with that, let’s take a closer look at the actual mechanical side of things.
The relationship between pinball and video games is a long and interesting one. The two tend to be associated quite closely with one another due to the fact that they are — or were, rather — frequently seen together in arcades, and later pinball games featured significant electronic components akin to simple video games. It’s worth noting that pinball itself — or games like it, anyway — can actually be traced all the way back to the late 18th century, so it predates video games by a long way.
As a physical, mechanical device with a formidable physical presence, a pinball table provides a discrete experience from a video game. In the early days of video gaming, attempts to recreate the experience on the small screen often fell somewhat short of authenticity, but managed to create their own distinct feel in their own right.
As technology improved and video games were more able to accurately simulate the physics that underpinned a real pinball table, we started to see a noticeable split between games aiming to be an authentic pinball simulation, and games that used pinball as the basis for their experience while adding a uniquely “video game” twist to things. Peach Ball, as you might expect, falls mostly into the latter category — though that’s not to say enthusiasts of “the real thing” won’t find anything to like here.
Peach Ball’s distinctly “video pinball” approach is to provide the player with an experience that would be physically impossible in reality, somewhat similarly to SCEI’s Flipnic on PlayStation 2. We have a playfield that is big enough to fit a full-size human woman on it as part of the table furniture; we have interactive table elements that would be extremely difficult to recreate with physical mechanisms; and, well, we have “Sexy Challenges”.
That latter point probably bears a bit of explaining. It’s actually core to the main game structure, particularly when playing through the game’s Story mode, but before we get there let’s consider the tables themselves first.
Peach Ball comes with two different tables, which might seem a bit stingy when compared to more sim-like affairs such as the excellent Pinball FX series or The Pinball Arcade, the latter of which takes great pride in its accurate recreations of real pinball tables from throughout history. It’s a fair point, but it’s also worth noting that these two tables are packed with mechanics and details, and their limited number encourages you to practice and achieve mastery over their unique features rather than hopping back and forth between a variety of brightly coloured playfields, never really getting to know any of them properly.
Although simple in concept, pinball can be challenging to engage with at times, particularly on more complex tables. Many pinball tables — and simulations thereof — don’t make a point of explaining their various mechanics in detail, instead leaving it up to the player to experiment and discover things for themselves. There’s a certain appeal to this approach, of course, though it can get expensive if you’re playing a coin-operated game, and frustrating if you can’t figure out exactly what is happening when you shoot the ball into that particular hole over there that makes the big red light come on or whatever.
Peach Ball assumes that its players aren’t necessarily pinball wizards when they start playing. While it lacks a tutorial quite as exhaustively comprehensive as the one the aforementioned Flipnic offers, it does at least offer helpful pop-up tips on the two tables’ various features when your ball hits them for the first time. Not only that, as part of these mini-manuals, the game offers helpful suggestions as to which part of the flippers you should use in order to hit that target again in the future — something that I, as a cack-handed twat, was immeasurably grateful for.
It offered advice without being either patronising or overly daunting about it; before long, I could feel myself improving as my shots became more accurate and the ball started to go where I wanted it to more often, and I was able to trigger many of the tables’ various features reasonably reliably.
Those features tie in with a central system of the game known as “Peach Missions”. These line up in a list at the side of the screen and range from the simple (hit the slingshot bumpers near the flippers a few times) to the more demanding (trigger the “Lukahole Slot” by dropping the ball into a small pool of water twice in a row) or time-sensitive (obliterate the mechanical “fairies” parading around on the table before they disappear again), with “Peach Points” on offer for their completion.
Attaining Peach Points adds to a meter. When the meter reaches one of three milestones, a Sexy Challenge becomes available, and can be triggered by hitting the girl on the table with your ball. Said Challenge drags you, the girl and the ball into a strange room “inside” the pinball table for a minigame that usually involves hitting some sort of target or targets repeatedly against a tight time limit, after which the things you’ve been battering your balls against will do something amusing that results in the girl’s clothing being torn (this is Senran Kagura, after all) and you getting a little closer to fully charging the Peach Ball.
The Sexy Challenges can be a mixed blessing. While completing three of them is necessary to clear a stage in Story mode, triggering them too early can prevent you from obtaining a high score — and if you want to unlock all the game’s content on offer, you need to clear the various Story mode stages while meeting various increasingly challenging conditions, many of which involve reaching a particular score milestone.
Thankfully there are a few ways you can delay the inevitable, usually involving knocking the girl down and “stunning” her temporarily. This can be achieved in various ways according to the table, and is the main means through which the two tables distinguish themselves from one another.
The Peach Park table, which is fairground-themed, features a number of mechanical “rides” around the table, each of which can be triggered by hitting your ball into the appropriate holes or lanes. A ferris wheel can be reached by using the upper flipper on the table, for example; a “freefall” ride requires you to accurately shoot a ball into its “seats” three times in succession while a barrier is open; and a teacups ride acts as a set of bumpers, gradually filling a meter with each impact.
In each case, “completing” the conditions for a particular ride on Peach Park causes an amusing animation to occur, which inevitably results in the girl getting knocked down and stunned, a condition known as After Break status. While in After Break, a Sexy Challenge won’t go off, so you’re free to concentrate on scoring points as much as possible; you can get some particularly substantial points by bouncing your ball off the girls’ respective wobbly bits, but it’s also a good time to pursue other table features without worrying about accidentally creeping closer to the stage’s conclusion.
The Spooky Shinobi Park table, meanwhile, is structured rather differently. Here, rather than directly firing the ball into features, bumpers on the table release collectible coins. Hitting these with the ball sends them into one of three treasure chests, and when a chest is full, it will release a special glowing token that will take you into a minigame when struck.
These minigames take place on their own separate tables and include a challenge where you have to hit fans while they’re open, another where you have to hit moving targets, and a particularly challenging one where you’re returning a shuttlecock to a rather aggressive geisha doll. In all cases, five successful instances of doing what you’re supposed to do triggers an entertaining animation that results in After Break at which point you can, once again, take aim for some high scores by bopping the girl’s boobies — or just try and collect some more coins to trigger even more minigames.
On both tables, various conditions trigger Fever Time, Super Fever Time or Hustle Time conditions, which provide combinations of substantial score bonuses, multiball situations and special table features while active. Learning exactly what sets these off is essential to pursuing high scores, whether it’s in the Story mode in an attempt to clear the missions, or in the pure score attack Free mode. You’re also able to obtain items that provide a temporary score multiplier, provide a Ball Return facility in the drain, replenish used kickers or even provide a “psychic ball” that is particularly strongly affected if you nudge the table in a specific direction using the analogue stick.
Peach Ball is enormously satisfying to play. This can be attributed to a number of things. The pinball physics work well and feel convincing, particularly if played using a controller that features HD Rumble. The different types of ball you’re able to use don’t affect the actual mechanics, but they do “feel” different as you play, and the physical sensation of playing Peach Ball is as much a part of the experience as the graphics and sound.
Visually, the game looks good, and is an excellent showcase for the Senran Kagura series’ consistently wonderful character animation. The girls are packed with personality and react convincingly to various things going on around them on the table, as well as flinching appropriately when struck by the Peach Ball. Their animal personas are well-represented through their various behaviours, too; each of the girls react noticeably differently on the table both when they’re alert and when they’re in After Break status, often requiring a different strategy to reach certain table features if they end up blocking a crucial lane!
As should be expected from the series by this point, there’s a substantial and extremely high-quality soundtrack, too, with each table having numerous musical tracks on offer according to which particular variation you’re playing, what is happening at any given moment and how well you’re doing. The music is consistently memorable and catchy; I defy you not to be whistling the ragtime-style piece from Peach Park’s night-time variation after hearing it once or twice!
And the whole thing is further evidence that series creator Kenichiro Takaki and friends really wish they were making early ’00s Sega games, since the game’s over-the-top user interface is constantly exploding with colour, particle effects, score bonuses bursting out of things, gigantic numbers keeping track of hits and tracking time limits to a hundredth of a second’s accuracy. It’s building on what Peach Beach Splash in particular was doing with its overall presentation, and it’s like the Dreamcast never died. I love it.
Like Reflexions and to a lesser extent Bon Appétit, Peach Ball is best thought of as a fandisc for the series rather than a mainline installment. As noted, there’s enough solid pinball gameplay here to keep non-fans entertained for a while — particularly considering the amount of stuff to unlock — but the true attraction of Peach Ball as a whole is to enjoy a thoroughly charming story involving these wonderful girls that just happens to involve some enjoyable pinball along the way. As such, the people who are going to enjoy this the most are the people who have been following these girls on their journey since those initial clashes between Hanzou and Hebijo… and who are anxiously awaiting whatever is in store for them if and when Senran Kagura 7even ever decides to show its face.
Even shinobi students need a break now and then, you know?
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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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