pinball n : a game played on a sloping board; the object is to propel marbles against pins or into pockets [syn: pinball game]
The existence of table-based games dates back to the 15th century. While some games took the wickets and balls of Croquet and turned them into the pockets of modern billiards, some tables became smaller and had the holes placed in strategic areas in the middle of the table.
In France, during the reign of King Louis XIV, someone took a billiard table and narrowed it, placing pins at one end of the table while making the player shoot balls with a stick or cue from the other end. Pins took too long to reset when knocked down, so the pins eventually were fixed to the table and holes took the place of targets. Players could ricochet the ball off the pins to achieve the harder scoring holes.
In 1777, a party was thrown in honor of the King and his wife at the Château de Bagatelle, owned by the brother of the king. The highlight of the party was a new table game featuring the slender table and cue sticks, which players used to shoot ivory balls up an inclined playfield. The table game was dubbed Bagatelle by the King's brother and shortly after swept through France. Some French soldiers carried their favorite bagatelle tables with them to America while helping to fight the British in the American Revolutionary War. Bagatelle spread and became so popular in America as well that a political cartoon from 1863 even depicts President Abraham Lincoln playing a tabletop bagatelle game.
The birth of pinballIn 1869, a British inventor named Montague Redgrave settled in America and manufactured bagatelle tables out of his factory in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1871 Redgrave was granted US Patent #115,357 for his "Improvements in Bagatelle", which replaced the cue at the player's end of the table with a coiled spring and a plunger. The player shot balls up the inclined playfield using this plunger, a device that remains in pinball to this day. This innovation made the game friendlier to players. The game also shrank in size and began to fit on top of a bar or counter. The balls became marbles and the wickets became small "pins". Redgrave's innovations in game design are acknowledged as the birth of pinball in its modern form.
Modern day pinball
Pinball and gamblingPinball machines, like many other mechanical games, were sometimes used as gambling devices. Some pinball machines, such as Bally's "bingos", featured a grid on the backglass scoring area. Free games could be won if the player was skillful enough to get three balls in a row. However, doing this was nearly random, and the real use for such machines was for gambling (similar to the way many places now use video poker). Other machines allowed a player to accumulate large numbers of free "games" which could then be redeemed for money. This type of feature was later discontinued, in an effort to legitimize the machines. Some games did away with the free game feature, giving players an extra ball to play in an attempt to legitimize them further (Add-A-Ball games), a feature which was carried over to newer pinball machines which give extra balls in addition to free games. Nevertheless, on occasion pinball games have been regulated or banned, notably in New York City beginning in the 1940s and continuing until 1976, when Roger Sharpe (a star witness for the Music and Amusement Association), after testifying in April 1976 before a committee in a Manhattan courtroom that pinball games had become games of skill and were no longer games of chance (gambling), began to play one of two games set up in the courtroom, and — in a move he compares to Babe Ruth's home run in the 1932 World Series — called out precisely what he was going to shoot for, and then proceeded to do exactly so. Astonished committee members reportedly then voted to remove the ban, a result which was then followed in many other cities. Even so, some towns in America still have these bans on the law books over fifty years later. (Sharpe reportedly acknowledges his courtroom shot was lucky.)
Most recent games are clearly labeled "FOR AMUSEMENT ONLY" so that the manufacturer can emphasize their legitimate, legal nature.
Another close relative to pinball is Pachinko, a gambling game played in Japan. Although they share a common ancestry, the games are very different, in that pachinko simply involves shooting many small balls one after the other into a nearly-vertical playfield while pinball is about the manipulation of the small number of balls currently in play.
Depression eraBy the 1930s, manufacturers were producing coin-operated versions of bagatelles, now known as "marble games" or "pin games". The table was under glass and used Redgrave's plunger device to propel the ball into the upper playfield. In 1931 David Gottlieb's Baffle Ball became the first overnight hit of the coin-operated era. Selling for $17.50, the game dispensed five balls for a penny. The game struck a chord with a public eager for cheap entertainment in a depression-era economy. Most drugstores and taverns in America operated pinball machines, with many locations making back the cost of the game in a matter of days. Baffle Ball sold over 50,000 units and established Gottlieb as the first major manufacturer of pinball machines.
In 1932, Gottlieb distributor Ray Moloney found it hard to obtain more Baffle Ball units to sell. In his frustration he founded Lion Manufacturing to produce a game of his own design, Ballyhoo, named after a popular magazine of the day. The game became a smash hit as well, its larger playfield and ten pockets making it more of a challenge than Baffle Ball, selling 50,000 units in 7 months. Moloney eventually changed the name of his company to Bally to reflect the success of this game. These early machines were relatively small, mechanically simple and originally designed to sit on a counter or bar top.
The 1930s saw a leap forward in innovation in pinball design and devices with the introduction of electrification. A company called Pacific Amusements in Los Angeles, California, USA produced a game called Contact in 1933. Contact had an electrically powered solenoid to propel the ball out of a bonus hole in the middle of the playfield. Another solenoid rang a bell to reward the player. The designer of Contact, Harry Williams, would eventually form his own company, Williams Manufacturing, in 1944. Other manufacturers quickly followed suit with similar features. In addition, electric lights soon became a standard feature of all subsequent pinball games, designed to attract people to the game.
By the end of 1932 there were approximately 150 companies manufacturing pinball machines, most of them in the city of Chicago. Chicago has been the center of pinball manufacturing ever since. Competition between the companies was brutal, however, and by 1934 there were only 14 companies left.
Post-war boomDuring World War II all of the major manufacturing companies in coin-operated games were put into use manufacturing equipment for the American war effort. Some companies like Williams bought old games from operators and refurbished them, adding new artwork with a patriotic theme.
By the end of the war, a generation of Americans looked for amusement in their bars and malt shops. Pinball saw another golden age of growth. Innovations such as the tilt mechanism and free games (known as replays) appeared.
The post-war era was dominated by Gottlieb. Game designer Wayne Neyens along with artist Leroy Parker turned out game after game that collectors consider some of the most classic pinball machines ever designed. The most famous were designed by James Rider, the man behind the epitomous catchphrase "I've got it", amongst others.
Gottlieb's Humpty Dumpty, introduced in 1947, was the first game to add player-controlled flippers to keep the ball in play longer and added a skill factor to the game. The low power of the Humpty Dumpty flippers necessitated that three pairs be placed around the playfield in order to get the ball to the top. But the addition of a DC power supply enabled the flippers on Humpty Dumpty to become only two, more powerful ones at the bottom of the Triple Action playfield -- one of many innovations by designer Steve Kordek, who is also credited with introducing the very first "drop target" (1962 on Vagabond) and "multiball" (1963 on Beat the Clock) concepts to the game.
Solid-state eraThe advent of the microprocessor brought another new age for pinball. The electromechanical relays and scoring reels that drove games in the 1950s and 1960s were replaced in the 1970s with circuit boards and digital displays. Williams introduced their first solid-state game, Hot Tip, in 1977, and because of this new technology, they and Bally thrived in this era as they both sold large amounts of games with fancy sound effects, speech, and game features that only a computer could make possible.
The video game boom of the 1980s, however, signaled the end of the boom for pinball. Arcades quickly replaced rows of pinball machines with games like Asteroids and Pac-Man, which earned incredible amounts of money compared to the pinballs of the day. Bally, Williams, and Gottlieb continued to quietly make pinballs while they also manufactured video games in much higher numbers. Many of the larger companies were acquired by corporations or merged with other companies. Chicago Coin was purchased by the Stern family who brought the company into the digital era as Stern Enterprises, which closed its doors in the mid-1980s. Bally exited the pinball business in 1988 and sold their assets to Williams, who subsequently used the Bally trademark on about half of their pinball releases from then on.
Pinball in the digital ageAfter the collapse of the coin-operated video game industry, pinball saw another comeback in the 1990s. Some new manufacturers entered the field such as Capcom Pinball and Alvin G. and Company, founded by Alvin Gottlieb, son of David Gottlieb. Gary Stern, the son of Williams co-founder Sam Stern, founded Data East Pinball with funding from Data East Japan.
The games from Williams now dominated the industry, with complicated mechanical devices and more elaborate display and sound systems attracting new players to the game. Licensing popular movies and icons of the day became a staple for pinball, with Bally/Williams' The Addams Family hitting an all-time modern sales record of 20,270 machines. Two years later, Williams commemorated this benchmark with a limited edition of 1,000 Addams Family Gold pinball machines, featuring gold-colored trim and updated software with new game features. Other notable popular licenses included Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Expanding markets in Europe and Asia helped fuel the boom. Pat Lawlor was a designer, working for Williams up until their closure in 1999. About a year after, Lawlor announced a return to the industry, starting his own company working in conjunction with Stern Pinball to produce new games into the new millennium.
The end of the 1990s saw another downturn in the industry, with Gottlieb, Capcom, and Alvin G. all closing their doors by the end of 1996. Data East was acquired by Sega and became Sega Pinball for a few years. By 1997 there were only two companies left: Sega Pinball and Williams. Sega later sold their pinball division to Gary Stern (President of Sega Pinball at the time) who called his company Stern Pinball. By this time, Williams had shrunk its production runs significantly and reduced the manufacturing cost of their machines by incorporating fewer playfield toys than in earlier games. In 1999 Williams attempted to revive sales with the Pinball 2000 line of games, merging a video display into the pinball playfield. The reception was lukewarm and Williams exited the pinball business to focus on making gaming equipment for casinos, licensing the rights to Bally/Williams parts to Illinois Pinball and names to The Pinball Factory. Stern Pinball is the only current manufacturer of pinball machines. Almost all members of the design teams for Stern Pinball are former employees of Williams.
RebirthIn November 2005 The Pinball Factory (TPF), based in Melbourne, Australia, announced that they would be producing a new Crocodile Hunter-themed pinball machine under the Bally label. However, with the death of Steve Irwin, it was announced that the future of this game has become uncertain. In 2006 TPF announced that they would be reproducing two popular 90's era Williams machines, Medieval Madness and Cactus Canyon. To date The Pinball Factory has produced no machines. Illinois pinball company PinBall Manufacturing Inc. has produced several reproductions of Capcom's Big Bang Bar for the European market and continues to build machines for the U.S.
Competitive pinball has become increasingly popular with the creation of the International Flipper Pinball Assosciation (IFPA) and the World Pinball Player Rankings (WPPR). The IFPA is run by Roger Sharpe and Steve Epstein, while the WPPR is run by Roger's son, Josh. Together, their goal is to promote competitive and non-competitive pinball throughout the world.
The current #1 player, according to the WPPR, is Keith Elwin, from California. He is trailed by #2 from MA, USA, Bowen Kerins. The current PAPA (Professional-Amateur Pinball Assosciation) World Champion is Jorian Engelbrektsson from Sweden. Current Junior (16 and under) and Senior (50 and over) World Champions are Ethan Blonder and John Reuter, respectively.
Several competitive pinball leagues have been formed in recent years to encourage friendly competition and to keep pinball in the public eye. These leagues exist everywhere from the Free State Pinball Association (FSPA) in the Washington, DC area to the Tokyo Pinball Organization (TPO) in Japan.
Pinball in popular culturePinball games have frequently been featured in popular culture, often as a symbol of rebellion or toughness. Perhaps the most famous instance is the rock opera album Tommy (1969) by British band The Who, which centers on the title character, a "deaf, dumb, and blind kid", who nevertheless becomes a "Pinball Wizard" and who later uses pinball as a symbol and tool for his messianic mission. (The album was subsequently made into a movie and stage play.) Wizard has since moved into popular usage as a term for an expert pinball player. Things came full circle when Bally created the Wizard pinball game featuring Ann-Margret and The Who's Roger Daltrey on the backglass. In the movie version, Tommy plays a Gottlieb Kings and Queens machine, while The Champ plays a Gottlieb Buckaroo machine.
In 1974, students at Jersey City State College wanted to make pinball playing a varsity school sport, like football was, so they started a Pinball Club Team to compete against clubs at other schools. Of the two schools that were asked to participate, only St. Peter's College took up the challenge.
Other examples of pinball in pop culture include:
- In the 1948 movie "The Time of Your Life" one of the characters was called "Willie, the Marbler Game Maniac". After repeated attempts he eventually wins. With a fanfare, the backglass descends to reveal a winning screen, American flags pop out from the side of the machine, and fireworks erupted from the back. He is award six nickles by the bartender, and says, "With a little skill a man can make an honest living beating the marble games."
- Singer/Songwriter Lonnie Irving's song "Pinball Machine" made the Top 100 Singles Chart in March 1960 on the Starday label. The lyrics are the lament of a victim of an addiction to truck driving and pinball machines.
- "Pinball Blues" performed by Charlie Moore & Bill Napier
- The 1973 movie Heavy Traffic, directed by Ralph Bakshi, uses pinball imagery as a metaphor for inner-city life.
- The British 1973 movie The Final Programme, has a club in which couples enter transparent balls and roll them around on a playing field the size of a dance hall.
- The 1979 movie Tilt starring Brooke Shields as a young pinball wizard
- The 1970s TV game show The Magnificent Marble Machine featured a giant pinball machine.
- Happy Days Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli often played a "Nip-It" pinball at Arnold's Drive-In. This is notable only as the show was set in the 1950s while Nip-It was created in the 1970s.
- In the Three Stooges short film "Three Little Pirates" there is a scene where the boys happen upon a pinball machine and Larry says, "A game of skill", possibly alluding to the then common allegations that pinball was a game of chance.
- Episode 13 (Season 1) of the 1990s kid's show Are You Afraid of the Dark? titled 'The Tale of the Pinball Wizard' dealt with a boy with a penchant for pinball games becoming trapped in a pinball game made real.
- Sesame Street had a segment called Pinball Number Count where a pinball goes through many different places. The song was sung by the Pointer Sisters.
- British singer/songwriter Brian Protheroe had a 1979 chart hit with his song "Pinball".
- Monday Night Football introduction played a computer generated pinball with their theme song.
- On The Simpsons, Sideshow Bob said that his former medium of TV "destroyed more young minds than syphilis and pinball combined."
- Blernsball, the futuristic version of baseball in Futurama, features pinball game elements, including captive balls and multiball.
- Pinball-themed zones made numerous appearances in the early Sonic the Hedgehog series of video games, including an entire game based on the Pinball theme, Sonic Spinball.
- A Pinball-themed courtship is featured in Bad Santa when Billy Bob Thornton shows the mechanics of the "tilt mechanism."
- In the movie West Side Story one of the gangmembers is playing a pinball machine when the Sharks and Jets meet in the store.
Features of a pinball game
PlayfieldThe playfield is a planar surface inclined upward from three to seven degrees (current convention is six and a half degrees), away from the player, and includes multiple targets and scoring objectives. Some operators intentionally extend (to raise) threaded levelers on the rear legs and/or shorten or remove the levelers on the front legs to create additional incline in the playfield, making the ball move faster and harder to play. It is important that the playfield be level left-to-right; a quick visual test compares the top of the back cabinet against a brick or block wall behind it. Or, roll a marble down the center of the playfield glass. If it clearly rolls off to one side, a player may be inclined to stuff folded paper beneath the legs on the lower side to level the playfield. Additionally, leg levelers that are all extended fully make the game easier to nudge; when collapsed low, the entire game is more stable, and nudging becomes harder. A game that's fun to play makes more money for the owner; a game that is faulty does not get repeat customers. The ball is put into play by use of the plunger, a spring-loaded rod that strikes the ball as it rests in an entry lane, or as in some newer games, by a button that signals the game logic to fire a solenoid that strikes the ball. With both devices the result is the same: The ball is propelled upwards onto the playfield. Once a ball is in play, it tends to move downward towards the player, although the ball can move in any direction, sometimes unpredictably, as the result of contact with objects on the playfield or by the player's own actions. To return the ball to the upper part of the playfield, the player makes use of one or more flippers. Manipulation of the ball may also be accomplished by nudging (physically pushing the cabinet). However, excessive nudging is generally penalized by the loss of the current player's turn (known as tilting) or ending of the entire game when the nudging is particularly violent (known as slam tilting). Many games also have a slam tilt in the bottom of the lower cabinet to end the game if the cabinet is raised and dropped to the floor in an attempt to falsely trigger the coin counting switch.
PlungerThe plunger is a spring-loaded rod with a small handle, used to propel the ball into the playfield. The player can control the amount of force used for launching by pulling the plunger a certain distance (thus changing the spring compression). This is often used for a "skill shot", in which a player attempts to launch a ball so that it exactly hits a specified target. Once the ball is in motion in the main area of the playfield, the plunger is not used again until another ball must be brought onto the playfield. In modern machines, an electronically-controlled launcher is sometimes substituted for the plunger.
FlippersThe flippers are one or more small mechanically or electromechanically-controlled levers, roughly 3 to 7 cm in length, used for redirecting the ball up the playfield. They are the main control that the player has over the ball. Careful timing and positional control allows the player to intentionally direct the ball in a range of directions with various levels of velocity. With the flippers, the player attempts to move the ball to hit various types of scoring targets, and to keep the ball from disappearing off the bottom of the playfield. The very first pinball games appeared in the early 1930s and did not have flippers; after launch the ball simply proceeded down the playfield, directed by static nails (or "pins") to one of several scoring areas. (These pins gave the game its name). In 1947, the first mechanical flippers appeared on Gottlieb's Humpty Dumpty and by the early 1950s, the familiar two-flipper configuration, with the flippers at the bottom of the playfield above the center drain, had become standard.
The new flipper ushered in the "golden age" of pinball, where the fierce competition between the various pinball manufacturers led to constant innovation in the field. Various types of stationary and moving targets were added, spinning scoring reels replaced games featuring static scores lit from behind. Multiplayer scores were added soon after, and then bells and other noise-makers, all of which began to make pinball less a game and more of an experience.
The flippers have loaned pinball its common name in many languages, where the game is known mainly as "flipper".
BackglassThe backglass is a vertical graphic panel mounted on the front of the backbox, which is the upright box at the top back of the machine. The backglass contains the name of the machine, eye-catching graphics, (usually) the score displays (lights, mechanical wheels, digital displays, or a dot matrix display depending on the era), and sometimes a mechanical device tied to game play, for example, elevator doors that opened on an image or a woman swatting a cat with a broom such as on Williams' 1989 "Bad Cats". For older games, the backglass image is painted in layers on the reverse side of a piece of glass; in more recent games, the image is imprinted into a transluscent piece of plastic-like material called a translite which is mounted behind a piece of glass and which is easily removable. The earliest games did not have backglasses or backboxes and were little more than playfields in boxes. Games are generally built around a particular theme, such as a sport or character and the backglass art reflects this theme to attempt the attention of players. Recent machines are typically "tied-in" to other enterprises such as a popular film series, toy, or brand name. The entire machine is designed to be as eye-catching as possible to attract players and their quarters; every possible space is filled with colorful graphics, blinking lights, and themed objects, and the backglass is usually the first artwork the players see from a distance. Since the artistic value of the backglass may be quite impressive, it is not uncommon for enthusiasts to use a deep frame around a backglass (with a light behind it) and hang it on a wall after the rest of the game is discarded.
Scoring pointsContact with or manipulation of scoring elements (such as targets or ramps) scores points for the player. Electrical switches embedded in the scoring elements detect contact and relay this information to the scoring mechanism. Older pinball machines used an electromechanical system for scoring wherein a pulse from a switch would cause a complex mechanism composed of relays to ratchet up the score. In later games these tasks have been taken over by semiconductor chips and displays are made on electronic segmented or dot matrix displays.
Pinball scoring can be peculiar and varies greatly from machine to machine. During the 1930s and the 1940s, lights mounted behind the painted backglasses were used for scoring purposes, making the scoring somewhat arbitrary. (Frequently the lights represented scores in the hundreds of thousands.) Then later, during the 1950s and 1960s when the scoring mechanism was limited to mechanical wheels, high scores were frequently only in the hundreds or thousands. (Although, in an effort to keep with the traditional high scores attained with the painted backglass games, the first pinball machines to use mechanical wheels for scoring, such as Army Navy, allowed the score to reach into the millions by adding a number of permanent zeros to the end of the score.) The average score changed again in the 1970s with the advent of electronic displays. Average scores soon began to commonly increase back into tens or hundreds of thousands. Since then, there has been a trend of scoring inflation, with modern machines often requiring scores of over a billion points to win a free game. At the peak of this trend, two machines, Johnny Mnenomic and Attack From Mars, have been played into the trillions. In 1990, the Bally pinball machine Dr. Dude made fun of this trend, offering the player a chance to score a "Gazillion" point jackpot. Another recent curiosity is the 1997 Bally game NBA Fastbreak which, true to its theme, awards points in terms of a real basketball score: Each successful shot can give from one to three points. Getting a hundred points by the end of a game is considered respectable, which makes it one of the lowest scoring pinball machines of all time. The "scoring inflation" trend continued until the 1996 release of Tales of the Arabian Nights, where all points would shrink over 100-fold. For example, replay scores that used to be in the billions have now shrunk to usually no more than 30 million. The inflated scores are the source of one of the Spanish-language names of pinball machines, máquina del millón ("million machine").
Machine layoutThe key attribute of a successful pinball game is an interesting and challenging layout of scoring opportunities. Many types of targets and features have been developed over the years.
Common scoring targets and other playfield features include:
- Bumpers: These are round knobs that, when hit, will actively push the ball away. There is also an earlier variety of bumper (known as a dead bumper or passive bumper) that doesn't propel the ball away; most bumpers on machines built since the 1960s are active bumpers, variously called "pop bumpers", "thumper bumpers", "jet bumpers", or "turbo bumpers". Most recent games include a set of pop bumpers, usually three, sometimes more or less depending on the designer's goals. Bumpers predate flippers, and active bumpers added a great deal of spice to older games.
- Kickers and slingshots: These are targets which propel the ball away upon impact, like bumpers, but are usually a horizontal side of a wall. Every recent pinball machine includes slingshots to the upper left and upper right of the lowest set of flippers; older games used more experimental arrangements.
- Ramps: Ramps are, as the name may imply, inclined planes, with a gentle enough slope that the ball may travel along it. The player attempts to direct the ball with enough force to make it to the top of the ramp and down the other side. If the player succeeds, he has made a "ramp shot". Ramps frequently end in such a way that the ball goes to a flipper so one can make several ramp shots in a row. Often, the number of ramp shots scored in a game is tallied, and reaching certain numbers may lead to various game features. At other times, the ramps will go to smaller "mini-playfields" (small playfields, usually raised above the main game surface, with special goals or scoring).
- Stationary Targets: These are static targets that simply record when a ball strikes them. These are generally the simplest playfield elements.
- Bullseye Targets: These are static targets that have two concentric elements, similar to a stationary target. Hitting the outer ring usually scores lower than hitting the center bull's eye. Found mostly on older electro-mechanical games.
- Drop targets: These are targets that drop below the playfield when hit. Eliminating an entire row in this manner may lead to any of various features. Once an entire bank of drop targets is hit, the bank may reset or pop back up. Alternately, the drop targets can be placed in front of other targets, requiring the drop target to be knocked down before the targets behind can be hit, or the drop target may only pop up at specific times to deny the player the ability to shoot the ball into whatever is behind it. If used in the latter way, the target is usually blocking a lane or ramp.
- Kicking Target: Used only by Gottlieb, these targets look like stationary targets, but when hit they kick the ball away in the opposite direction much like a slingshot or bumper.
- Vari-Target: Used only by Gottlieb, these targets reward a different amount of points depending on how hard the target was hit. It is a metal arm that pivots under the playfield. When a ball hits it, it ratchets back sometimes, resetting immediately or resetting only after it is hit all the way back. A large sum of points is usually rewarded when the target is hit back all the way with one strike of the ball.
Holes and saucers
- Holes: The player directs the ball into a hole. On modern games, there are both vertical and horizontal holes (also called scoops), and the game may include mechanisms to move the ball between them. On older games, there is a peculiar thing called a "gobble hole": this takes the ball, awards a large number of points or a free game, but doesn't give the ball back.
- Saucers: A type of shallow hole that still keeps the ball visible above the table. Once the ball is directed into the recess, it will be ejected back towards the direction it came from, or sometimes at a right angle to its entry point instead. On recent tables, a saucer shot usually awards a random prize or a "video mode" on dot-matrix display machines.
Spinners and rollovers
- Spinners: a ball can push through a flat surface that is hinged in the middle, causing it to spin; each rotation adds points.
- Rollovers: these are targets activated when a ball rolls over them. Often a series of rollover targets are placed side-by-side and with dividers between them forming "lanes"; the player must guide the ball to particular lanes (or to all lanes) in order to complete an objective. Such lanes are frequently placed at the bottom sides of the table: "inlanes" feed the ball back to the flippers, "outlanes" cause the ball to immediately drain. On many tables, outlanes can have extra balls or "specials" lit to act in the same role as the older gobble holes.
Switches and one way doors
- Switches: an area that is blocked off after the ball passes through it once. An example of this is the initial firing lane: as a ball passes through the firing lane, it hits a switch and cannot reenter that chute.
- One Way Door: This is a block that will allow balls to come through one way but will block the ball if it is going the other way.
Toys, magnets and captive balls
- Toys: various items on, above, or beneath the playfield (items beneath the playfield visible through windows) or attached to the cabinet (usually to the backbox). Usually, each toy is unique to the machine it was made for, and reflects the theme of the game. They may be visual only, and have no effect on game play; they may be alternate ways of performing common game functions (for example, instead of using a drop hole to hold the ball, a hand or dinosaur might reach out, grab the ball, and capture it that way); or they may be an integral part of the game rules and play (for instance, having a smaller playfield over the main playfield that can be tilted right and left by the player, using the flipper buttons).
- Electromagnets: some tables feature electrically operated magnets below the playfield to affect the ball's speed and/or trajectory according to the current state of game play. This may be done to make the ball's movement unpredictable, to temporarily halt the ball (as a "ball saver", for example), or to otherwise control the ball by non-mechanical means. Electromagnets may also be used in above-playfield elements (often as part of the playfield "toys") to grab the ball and move it elsewhere (up onto a mini-playfield, for example). The Williams machine The Twilight Zone, featured a mini-playfield that used electromagnets controlled by the flipper buttons, allowing the player to "flip" the ball on the mini-playfield, essentially working as invisible flippers. Contrary to popular myth, there are no professionally produced pinball machines known to contain permanent magnets under the playfield with the intent of making game play harder or to increase ball losses.
- Captive Balls: a ball that remains on the playfield and is allowed to move around only within a confined area. A typical application of this is having a short lane on the playfield with a narrow opening, inside which a captive ball is held. The player can strike this captive ball with the ball in play, pushing it along the lane to activate a rollover switch or target.
FeaturesThere are other idiosyncratic features on many pinball playfields. Pinball games have become increasingly complex and multiple play modes, multi-level playfields, and even progression through a rudimentary "plot" have become common features on recent games. Pinball scoring objectives can be quite complex and require a series of targets to be hit in a particular order. Recent pinball games are distinguished by increasingly complex rule sets that require a measure of strategy and planning by the player for maximum scoring.
Common features in modern pinball games include the following:
- Ball lock: Try to get two (or three or however many) balls into a specific hole or target. Each time a ball goes in there, it is "locked" and a new ball appears at the plunger. When you have locked the required number of balls, a multiball starts. On some games, the balls are physically locked in place by solenoid-actuated gates, but many newer machines use "virtual" ball locks instead, in which the game merely keeps count of the number of locked balls and then auto-launches them from the main ball trough when it is time for them to be released.
- Multiball: More than one ball in play at a time. Difficult to handle. Usually includes some kind of "jackpot" scoring. Multiball ends when all but one ball is lost down the bottom of the playfield, when regular play resumes.
- Jackpot: Some targets on the playfield increase the scoring value of something else. This "something else" could be as simple as hitting a ramp, or it could be a complicated sequence of targets. Upon their inception, the Jackpot was the main goal of most pinballs in the 80s. Jackpots would often range from 1-4 million (back when it was a significant addition to the score), and their value would accrue between games until it was scored. Scoring it was usually a complicated task. Modern games often dilute the meaning of a jackpot. Modern games give off several "Jackpots" in each multiball mode, which is usually quite easy to attain, and the value of today's "Jackpots" is far less significant.
- End-of-ball bonus: After each ball is played, the player scores bonus points depending on how many times certain features have been activated, or the amounts of items that the player may obtain. Some games award a seemingly arbitrary amount of points that depend on the number of times any switch has been hit. Virtually all games have the ability to assign a multiplier to the bonus. Most games cap the bonus multiplier at 5x or 10x, although more modern games apparently have no limit.
- Extra ball: If a player has earned this, when they lose a ball, they get another one to play immediately afterward, and the machine does not count the lost ball towards the limit of balls for that game. For example, if you were on Ball 2, and you have an extra ball, the next ball (the extra one) will also be Ball 2 (it will not be Ball 3).
- When a machine says "SHOOT AGAIN" on the scoreboard, it means that you have an extra ball to shoot. In a multiplayer game, the player who just lost his ball is the same one to shoot again.
- Various timed rounds (modes): For example, if you hit a specific target three times within the next 20 seconds, you might score several tens of millions of points for it. There are many and various time-related features in pinball. Progression through each mode is frequently accompanied by DMD animations and sound.
- Stackability: To "stack" means that you can run one play mode while another mode is in progress. This strategy usually yields higher scores. A noted example of this is Williams' Bram Stoker's Dracula, with its Multi-Multiball feature.
- Wizard Mode: A special scoring mode, which is reached after meeting certain prerequisites to access this mode (e.g., finishing all modes). This is the pinball equivalent of the final boss fight in video games. Classic examples of this include Williams' Black Knight 2000 (The King's Ransom) and Midway's Twilight Zone (Lost in the Zone). Named after The Who's song Pinball Wizard. Wizard modes come in two varieties: goal-oriented types where the player receives a huge amount of points after completing a specific task, or multiball modes with 4-6 balls in play, and virtually every feature active. Some games offer both and award the latter as a condition for completing the former.
- High score lists: if a player attains one of the highest scores ever (or the highest score on a given day) he is invited to add his initials to a displayed list of high-scorers on that particular machine. "Bragging rights" associated with being on the high-score list are a powerful incentive for experienced players to master a new machine.
- Replay Score: Beat a specified score to get an extra game. Some machines allow the operator to set this score to increase with each consecutive game in which the replay score is achieved, in order to prevent a skilled player from gaining virtually unlimited play on one credit by simply achieving the same replay score in every game.
- Special: A mechanism to get an extra game during play is usually called a "special". Typically, some hard-to-get feature of the game will light the outlanes (the areas to the extreme left and right of the flippers) for special. Since the outlanes always lose the ball, having "special" there makes it worth shooting for them (and is pretty much the only time this is the case).
- Match: At the end of the game, if the last two digits of your score match a random digit followed by zero, you get an extra game. As pinball scores on modern machines nearly always end in zero, the chances of this happening appear to be 1 in 10, but the operator can alter this probability -- it is usually around 7%. Other non-numeric methods are sometimes used to award a match. In earlier machines, before a phenomenon often referred to as score inflation, had happened (causing almost all scores to end in 0) and scores could end in any integer, the match function was often a random integer from 0 to 9 that had to match the last digit in the score.
- High Score: Most machines award 1-3 free games if a player gets on the high score list. Typically, one or two credits are awarded for a 1st-4th place listing, and three for the Grand Champion.
When an extra game is won, the machine typically makes a single loud bang, most often with a solenoid that strikes a piece of metal, or the side of the cabinet, with a rod, known as a knocker, or less commonly with loudspeakers. Solenoids (or coils as they're sometimes called) are found in every modern pinball machine since the flipper age. These are usually hidden under the playfield, or covered by playfield components. By applying power to the coil, the magnetic field created by electromagnetism causes a metal object (usually called a plunger) to move. The plunger is then connected to a feature or accessory on the playfield. The most common example of where solenoids are used are the flippers, which actually contain two coil windings in one package; a power-winding to give the flipper its initial thrust up, and a hold winding that uses lower power and essentially just holds the flipper up allowing the player to capture the ball in the inlane for more precise aiming. In older machines this is mechanically controlled using switches mounted next to the flipper hardware. Modern machines use computers to control this, making the switch almost unnecessary as the computer can change the power based on timing; however, machines still include these. Solenoids also control such things as pop-bumpers, kickbacks, droptargets, and many other features on the machine.
Playing techniquesThe primary skill of pinball involves application of the proper timing and technique to the operation of the flippers, nudging the playfield when appropriate without tilting, and choosing targets for scores or features. A skilled player can quickly "learn the angles" and gain a high level of control of ball motion, even on a table they've never played.
A placard is usually placed in a lower corner of the playfield. It may simply show pricing information, but should also show critical details about special scoring techniques. This information is vital to achieving higher scores; it typically describes a series of events that must take place (e.g., shoot right ramp and left drop targets to light 'extra ball' rollover). Learning these details makes the game more fun and challenging. With practice -- and a table in good operating condition -- a player can often achieve specific targets and higher scores as well as trigger exciting events.
NudgingSkillful players can influence the movement of the ball by nudging or bumping the pinball machine, a technique known as "nudging." There are tilt mechanisms which guard against excessive manipulation of this sort. The mechanisms generally include:
- a grounded plumb bob centered in an electrified steel ring - when the machine is jostled too far or too hard, the bob bumps up against the ring, completing a circuit. The bob is usually cone-shaped allowing the operator to slide it up or down, controlling the sensitivity of the bob;
- an electrified ball on a slight ramp with a grounded post at the top of the ramp - when the front of the machine is lifted (literally, tilted) too high, the ball rolls to the top of the ramp and completes the circuit; and
- an impact sensor – usually located on the coin door, the playfield and/or the cabinet itself.
When one of these sensors is activated, the game registers a "tilt" and locks out, disabling solenoids for the flippers and other playfield systems so that the ball can do nothing other than roll all the way down the playfield to the drain. A tilt will usually also result in the loss of any bonus points earned by the player during that ball. Older games would immediately end the ball in play on a tilt. Modern games give tilt warnings before sacrificing the ball in play. The number of tilt warnings can be adjusted by the operator/owner of the machine. Until recently most games also had a "slam tilt" switch which guarded against kicking or slamming the coin mechanism, which could give a false indication that a coin had been inserted, thereby giving a "free" game or credit. Apparently, this feature was recently taken out by default in new Stern S.A.M System games. However, it can be added as an option. A slam tilt will typically end the current game for all players.
TrappingSkilled players can also hold a ball in place with the flipper, giving them more control over where they want to place the ball when they shoot it forward. This is known as "trapping". This technique involves catching the ball in the corner between the base of the flipper and the wall to its side, just as the ball falls towards the flipper; the flipper is then released, which allows the ball to roll slowly downward against the flipper. The player then chooses the moment to hit the flipper again, timing the shot as the ball slides slowly against the flipper. Multi-ball games, in particular, reward trapping techniques. Usually this is done by trapping one or more balls out of play with one flipper, then using the other flipper to score points with the remaining ball or balls.
Once a player has successfully trapped a ball, they may then attempt to "juggle" the ball to the other flipper. This is done by tapping the flipper button quickly enough so that the trapped ball is knocked back at an angle of less than 90 degrees into the bottom of the nearest slingshot. The ball will then often bounce across the table to the other flipper, where the ball may then be hit (or trapped) by the opposite flipper.
Occasionally a pinball machine will have a pin or post placed directly between the two bottom flippers. When this feature is present, the advanced player may then attempt to perform a "chill maneuver" when the ball is heading directly toward the pin by opting not to hit a flipper. If successful, this will cause the ball to bounce up and back into play.
A related move, the "dead flipper pass," is performed by not flipping when a ball is heading toward a flipper. If done properly, the ball will bounce off the "dead" flipper, across to the other flipper, where it may be trapped and controlled.
One controversial technique for saving the ball is called a "death save" or "bangback". Very few pinball players can successfully perform this advanced technique. The death save may only be performed when a ball has dropped through an outlane and is heading down toward the drain. If the timing is exactly correct, a player may hold a flipper up and then nudge the machine hard enough (but not so hard as to tilt the machine) to pop the ball back up into play on to the opposite flipper. Usually the death save is performed by kicking one of the legs of the machine with great force, which is why the move is unpopular with many players, and is often strongly frowned upon by less-experienced arcade operators. More recent machines have recognized this maneuver as a legitimate one though, even going so far as to grant the player a point reward for a successful death save.
Skilled players can often play on a machine for long periods of time on a single coin. By earning extra balls, a single game can be stretched out for a long period, and if the player is playing well he or she can earn replays by points and possibly also free games, known as "specials".
CheatingOccasionally, a player may try to obtain free games by attaching a piece of string to a coin and lowering it to the counter switch, then raise and lower it to obtain free credits. This is actually quite difficult to do, since a coin acceptor mechanism is designed to reject anything other than a true coin, and uses thickness, diameter, weight and inertia as tests. A slow-moving coin on a string is simply treated as a slug and rejected. Even if it works, a savvy operator will compare the coins to the credits counter and install an inexpensive 'string cutter' razor, so the cheater's victory is short-lived. If discovered in an attempt, the offender will likely be banned from the establishment.
Slugs made from hammered metal pieces or foreign coins are sometimes tried. As soon as the operator finds them in the coin box, multiple adjustments on the acceptor mechanism will be fine-tuned to be less forgiving, stopping that activity.
Electromechanical pinball machines manufactured by Williams (until approximately 1973) had a wiring anomaly which could be exploited with one or more credits remaining on the game reel. By depositing a single coin and pressing the reset button one-quarter to one-half second later, up to five games could be obtained.
Some early (late '70s) computerized games could be fooled into giving free credits by switching the power off and on quickly, or applying a static shock to the coin door. These issues were quickly fixed, and today, may cause existing credits to be removed.
Sometimes, a faulty playfield item will bounce or switch to rack up extra points that are not earned. While initially exciting to get something for nothing, the result is that a solenoid may be destroyed in the process of constant triggering, taking the game out of service.
Unique pinball features
- Easter Eggs: In the '90s, game designers often put hidden, recurring images or references in their games, similar to how easter eggs are placed in video games and other PC software. For example, Williams' designers hid cows in the video displays of the games, and Pat Lawlor would place a red button in the artwork of games he developed. The methods used to find the hidden items usually involved pressing the flipper buttons in a certain order or during specific events. Designers also included hidden messages or in-jokes; one example of this is the phrase "DOHO" sometimes seen quickly displayed on the dot matrix displays, a reference to Dorris Ho, the wife of then-Williams display artist Scott Slomiany [AKA Scott Matrix]. (DOHO has also taken on the meaning of a Documented Occurance of a Hidden Object due to the history of the Dorris Ho explanation not being generally known until recently.) The game Star Trek:The Next Generation went so far as to embed a hidden Breakout-like game available only after a complex sequence of events was accomplished during the game.
Computer pinball simulation
Pinball on a personal computerSimulating a pinball machine has also been a popular theme of computer games, most famously when Bill Budge wrote Pinball Construction Set for the Apple II in 1983. While there had been earlier pinball video games, such as Video Pinball for the Atari 2600, Pinball Construction Set was the first program that allowed the user to create his own simulated pinball machine and then play it.
Most early simulations were top-down 2D. As processor and graphics capabilities have improved, more accurate ball physics and 3D pinball simulations have become possible (though a truly convincing model of pinball physics and control has remained elusive). Tilting has also been simulated, which can be activated using one or more keys (sometimes the space bar) for "moving" the table. Flipper button computer peripherals were also released, allowing pinball fans to add an accurate feel to their game play instead of using the keyboard or mouse.
Today, video game players and computer users can find pinball simulators for practically every platform and operating system.
Pinball simulatorsThere have been pinball programs released for all major home video game and computer systems. While not every simulator made will be listed here, the following simulators are notable:
- 1982's David's Midnight Magic for the Apple II, Commodore 64, and Atari 8-bit computer series was notable as being the first commercial simulation of an existing pinball machine, namely Williams' Black Knight.
- Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 brought the computerized pinball game into the workplace, by including 3D Pinball: Space Cadet with the operating system alongside the popular Solitaire card game. Space Cadet was licensed to Microsoft from Maxis' pinball software collection Full Tilt! Pinball.
- While most pinball simulators feature tables created specifically for the computer, fans of real tables were rewarded for their patience when Microsoft released a collection of simulated Gottlieb tables for the PC. A different collection of simulated Gottlieb games was released for the PlayStation 2, Xbox (both in 2004), the PSP in 2006 and the Nintendo Wii in 2007. Both the PC and video game compilations had tables representing various time periods in Gottlieb's history.
- Visual Pinball, released by Randy Davis in 2001, is a simulation tool that not only allows a user to play simulations of popular real-world machines, but also allows them to create new tables (playfields). Visual PinMAME is an ongoing project that combines the Visual Pinball program with an emulator that uses ROM images from electronic pinball machines to both control the behavior of the simulation in Visual Pinball and to reproduce the sounds and score displays of the actual tables.
- First commercially successful: Gottlieb's Baffle Ball (1931)
- First tilt mechanism: Williams' Advance (1932)
- First bumper: Bally's Bumper (1936)
- First full-sized backglass: Dux (1937)
- First use of flippers: Humpty Dumpty (1947)
- First use of "jet bumpers": Williams' Saratoga (1948)
- First use of score wheels: Williams' Army Navy (1953)
- First use of ramp on playfield: Williams' Nine Sisters] (1953)
- First machine that scored for four players: Gottlieb's Super Jumbo (1954)
- First use of multiball: Bally's Balls-a-Poppin' (1956)
- First use of moving target: Williams' Magic Clock (1960)
- First award of an extra ball: Gottlieb's Flipper (1960)
- First use of drop targets: Williams' Vagabond (1962)
- First use of an up post: Williams' Cabaret (1968)
- First machine theme to be licensed from a movie: Bally's WIZARD (1975)
- First to use a microprocessor: Mirco Games' Spirit of 76 (1975)
- First pinball machine that spoke (a seven-word vocabulary): Williams' Gorgar (1979)
- First use of "lane advance" (player control of top rollover lane lights): Williams' Firepower (1980)
- First appearance of multi-level playfield: Williams' Black Knight (1980)
- First use of with Magna-Save (player-controlled magnet to prevent outlane drains): Williams' Black Knight (1980)
- First combination of mechanical pinball with a video game: Gottlieb's Caveman (1982)
- First alpha-numeric display: Gottlieb's Chicago Cubs: Triple Play (1985)
- First machine to auto-adjust replay scores based on game history: Williams' High Speed (1986)
- First use of complete song/soundtrack: Williams' High Speed (1986)
- First jackpot that carried over between games: Williams' High Speed (1986)
- First automatic ball save: F-14 Tomcat (1987)
- First video monitor scoring display: Mr. Game's Dakar (1988)
- First appearance of wizard mode (high-scoring mode): Williams' Black Knight 2000 (1989)
- First known celebrity voice (Cassandra Peterson - Elvira) especially recorded for the machine: Bally's Elvira and the Party Monsters (1989)
- First dot matrix scoring display: Data East's Checkpoint (1991)
- First pinball machine to feature a choice of alternate soundtracks (selected by the player): Data East's Checkpoint (1991)
- First pinball machine with a cannon-launcher (player "shoots" captured pinball at targets): Williams' Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
- First pinball machine with a video mode: Williams' Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Footnotesnote Elektra Bally's 1981 Elektra also had three playfields, and predated Haunted House. However, Elektra's lower playfield was a self-contained area that used its own captive ball for scoring. Haunted House's lower playfield was accessible during regular gameplay from both the main and upper play areas.
- Internet Pinball Database World's largest online searchable database of pinball machines covering over 100 years of manufacturing, with over 30,000 images of games, game related documents, ratings, comments, and links to additional resources.
- Pinside.com, Home of a Solid State Pinball Database and a World Pinball Top 100
- PinballHQ.com Pinball restoration and repair guides.
- Pinball.org Rule sheets for most modern titles
- Pinballrankings.com Official rankings system of pinball players throughout the world
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