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I never liked bullet hell shooters, until Xenotilt put one inside my new favourite pinball table

 Xenotilt pinball art.
Xenotilt pinball art.

I don’t consider myself a pinball purist, but I’ve been burnt enough by attempts to mix pinball with other genres to be somewhat cautious. You don’t live through Odama, an absolutely bizarre attempt to mix pinball and RTS that had to be played with voice controls, without wishing that developers would just leave lovely old pinball alone.

But then something like Xenotilt comes along. Xenotilt is so good it’s even distracted me from my Balatro obsession. It mixes pinball with bullet hell sci-fi shoot-’em-ups, and this self-described ‘hostile pinball action’ game has pretty much ruined normal pinball for me. Although to be fair, it has about as much in common with a normal pinball table as I do.

If the Xenotilt pinball machine existed in real life you’d need to be nine feet tall with a spare pair of eyes in your neck to be any good at it. Because it’s really three pinball tables stacked on top of each other, with a boss monster ruling over each one. These include an angry android cat that’s also a blackjack dealer, a furious Shodan-a-like at the top of the table who also serves as the game’s cutting commentator, and another cyberlady with cleavage that makes me a little embarrassed to be writing about this game.

A sci-fi pinball table in Xenotilt.
A sci-fi pinball table in Xenotilt.

(Image credit: WIZNWAR, FLARB LLC)

If that last run-on sentence felt overwhelming and nonsensical then just try playing it. In motion, Xenotilt is a gorgeous riot of colours, detonations, multiballs, gunfire, pained shrieks, and barks (which vary from “impressive!” to “UGH! HOW DARE YOU?!”). It only ever really pauses for breath when it’s teleporting you to another table, sometimes for a break to play an explosive game of billiards for some reason. Like a dolphin beached by an exploding fireworks factory, you’ll likely spend your first few games just desperately waving your flippers as you try to figure out what the hell is going on.

Luckily the basic principles of pinball will see you through the early confusion: hitting things with ball is good and ball falling in hole at bottom is bad. After 65 hours of play, I understand most of its jargon and how to achieve the biggest scores. But I’ve enjoyed it from hour one because I don’t think I’ve ever met anything more satisfying to slam a pinball against than a giant angry face that hates me. On glorious impact, these bosses flash, sometimes they bark, and often they look incredibly offended that a mere pinball dare strike them. The not-Shodan lady at the very top loses more artificial skin with every wallop, revealing the furious Terminator head lurking just under the surface. Naturally these bosses then counterattack, usually by spraying waves of bullets and swarms of smaller enemies everywhere, all increasing the chances of your tiny little ball taking a fatal bounce into that gap at the bottom.

A billiards minigame in Xenotilt.
A billiards minigame in Xenotilt.

(Image credit: WIZNWAR, FLARB LLC)

When you down a boss, they explode (it would be quicker to list all the things in Xenotilt that don’t explode).

So why not fire right back? As long as you’ve collected enough ammo on your trips around the table, you can trigger a pair of turrets by stopping the ball so it rests in the flipper and pressing down (which is also a clever way of making you rethink a ‘just smack the pinball away as quickly as possible’ approach). These turrets make quick work of the underlings the bosses throw at you and add yet more chaos to the table. ‘Pinball with guns’ sounds like the kind of sweaty elevator pitch you make when you’re on the verge of jumping from the top floor, but now I struggle to imagine pinball without a pair of bullet-spraying turrets backing me up.

Best of all, when you down a boss, they explode (it would be quicker to list all the things in Xenotilt that don’t explode) and leave behind a big red sphere. You need to activate your guns ASAP so this sphere can be riddled with bullets and destroyed before it flies away. This is worth a million points and is called a ‘Core Overkill’ because every name in Xenotilt is ridiculously metal. I love this! Why don’t more games reward you for spitting on the boss' grave? It’s like celebrating downing an Elden Ring monstrosity by quickly stuffing their corpse with dynamite and getting a prize for doing so.

An android monster woman looking over a pinball table in Xenotilt.
An android monster woman looking over a pinball table in Xenotilt.

(Image credit: WIZNWAR, FLARB LLC)

What I love about Xenotilt is how gleefully disrespectful of pinball it is.

You get chances to ‘lock’ the ball in a 9x9 grid that saves it for one of the game’s many multiball opportunities. That’s a pinball standard, but each entry on the grid also gives you a power to choose from, like ‘Ammo Doubler’ or the near-essential ‘Piercing Shot’ that lets your pinball smash through all the bullets unheeded. ‘Pinball… with a skill tree!’ makes that pinball with guns pitch look borderline dignified, but I like the layer of strategy it adds. I’m a little less sold on the NPCs that you occasionally rescue while playing. Between games, you can use earned currency you find to unlock these NPCs (you can have up to 12 in play), giving you advantages on the table like multiplier bonuses or stopping one boss from being able to throw your ball around. There’s potential for some interesting trade-offs here, but I’m never a fan of overcoming a challenge in a game by just switching it off in a menu.

Then again, perhaps I’m still stuck in an old-school pinballers mindset, when what I love about Xenotilt is how gleefully disrespectful of pinball it is. This comes to us from the developers of Demon’s Tilt, which was less sci-fi and more like a heavy metal album cover come to life. It was definitely the lesser game, and not just because I suspect our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ would be unlikely to enjoy it. Demon’s Tilt didn’t have the guns. Which means it didn’t have those magical moments where a boss is throwing everything it has at me and I turn the tables by returning fire on its underlings and then smacking it triumphantly in the noggin.

How about the developers try mashing up pinball with a rhythm game next? Or a soulslike? Or even a farming simulator? Right now, all I want is for this studio to keep making bizarre pinball game hybrids forever.

The writer of this article wishes to confess that they’ve never played Odama and is currently searching for a copy and a GameCube microphone on eBay. We wish them the best of luck.