Pinball is a type of arcade game, in which points are scored by a player manipulating one or more metallic balls on a play field inside a glass-covered cabinet called a pinball machine. The primary objective of the game is to score as many points as possible. Many modern pinball machines include a "storyline" where the player must complete certain objectives in a certain fashion to complete the story, usually earning high scores for different methods of completing the game. Different numbers of points are earned when the ball strikes different targets on the play field. A drain is situated at the bottom of the play field, partially protected by player-controlled paddles called flippers. A game ends after all the balls fall into the drain a certain number of times. Secondary objectives are to maximize the time spent playing (by earning "extra balls" and keeping the ball in play as long as possible), and to earn bonus credits by achieving a high enough score or through other means.
The origins of pinball are intertwined with the history of many other games. Games played outdoors by rolling balls or stones on a grass course, such as bocce or bowls, eventually evolved into various local ground billiards games played by hitting the balls with sticks and propelling them at targets, often around obstacles. Croquet, golf and pall-mall eventually derived from ground billiards variants.
The evolution of outdoor games finally led to indoor versions that could be played on a table, such as billiards, or on the floor of a pub, like bowling and shuffleboard. The tabletop versions of these games became the ancestors of modern pinball.
In France, during the long 1643-1715 reign of Louis XIV, billiard tables were narrowed, with wooden pins or skittles at one end of the table, and players would shoot balls with a stick or cue from the other end, in a game inspired as much by bowling as billiards. Pins took too long to reset when knocked down, so they were eventually fixed to the table, and holes in the bed of the table became the targets. Players could ricochet balls off the pins to achieve the harder scorable holes. A standardized version of the game eventually became known as bagatelle.
Somewhere between the 1750s and 1770s, the bagatelle variant Billard japonais, or Japanese billiards in English, was invented in Western Europe, despite its name. It used thin metal pins and 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 toward the scoring targets using this plunger, a device that remains in use in pinball to this day, and the game was also directly ancestral to pachinko.
In 1869, British inventor Montague Redgrave settled in the United States and manufactured bagatelle tables in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1871 Redgrave was granted U.S. Patent #115,357 for his "Improvements in Bagatelle", another name for the spring launcher that was first introduced in Billard japonais. The game also shrank in size to fit atop a bar or counter. The balls became marbles and the wickets became small metal pins. Redgrave's popularization of the spring launcher and innovations in game design are acknowledged as the birth of pinball in its modern form.
By 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 M. Redgrave's plunger device to propel the ball into the upper playfield. In 1931 David Gottlieb's Baffle Ball became the first hit of the coin-operated era. Selling for $17.50, the game dispensed five to seven balls for a penny. The game resonated with people wanting cheap entertainment in the Great Depression-era economy. Most drugstores and taverns in the U.S. operated pinball machines, with many locations quickly recovering the cost of the game. Baffle Ball sold over 50,000 units and established Gottlieb as the first major manufacturer of pinball machines.
In 1932, Gottlieb distributor Raymond 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. Its larger playfield and ten pockets made it more challenging 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 designed to sit on a counter or bar top.
The 1930s saw major advances in pinball design with the introduction of electrification. A company called Pacific Amusements in Los Angeles, California 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. Electric lights soon became a standard feature of all subsequent pinball games, designed to attract players.
By the end of 1932, there were approximately 150 companies manufacturing pinball machines, most of them in Chicago, Illinois. Chicago has been the center of pinball manufacturing ever since. Competition among the companies was strong, and by 1934 there were 14 companies remaining.
During WWII, all of the major manufacturers of coin-operated games turned to the manufacture of equipment for the war effort. Some companies, like Williams, bought old games from operators and refurbished them, adding new artwork with a patriotic theme. At the end of the war, a generation of Americans looked for amusement in bars and malt shops, and pinball saw another golden age. Improvements such as the tilt mechanism and free games (known as replays) appeared.
Gottlieb's Humpty Dumpty, introduced in 1947, was the first game to add player-controlled flippers to keep the ball in play longer, adding a skill factor to the game. The low power flippers required three pairs around the playfield to get the ball to the top.
Triple Action was the first game to feature just two flippers at the bottom of the playfield. Unlike in modern machines, the flippers faced outwards. These flippers were made more powerful by the addition of a DC (direct current) power supply. These innovations were some of many by designer Steve Kordek.
The first game to feature the familiar dual-inward-facing-flipper design was Gottlieb's Just 21 released in January 1950, though the flippers were rather far apart to allow for a turret ball shooter at the bottom center of the playfield. Spot Bowler, also made by Gottlieb and released in October 1950. was the first game with inward-facing flippers placed close together.
The post-war era was dominated by Gottlieb. Game designers Wayne Neyens and Ed Krynski, along with artist Leroy Parker, produced games that collectors consider some of the best classic pinball machines.
The introduction of microprocessors brought pinball into the realm of electronic gaming. 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. The first pinball machine using a microprocessor was Flicker, a prototype made by Bally in 1974. Bally soon followed that up with a solid state version of Bow and Arrow in the same year with a microprocessor board that would be used in eight other machines until 1978 which included Eight Ball, the machine that held the sales record from 1977 to 1993. The first solid-state pinball is believed by some to be Mirco Games' The Spirit of '76 (1976), though the first mainstream solid-state game was Williams' Hot Tip (1977). This new technology led to a boom for Williams and Bally, who attracted more players with games featuring more complex rules, digital sound effects, and speech.
The video game boom of the 1980s signaled the end of the boom for pinball. Arcades replaced rows of pinball machines with video games like 1978's Space Invaders, 1979's Asteroids, 1980's Pac-Man, and 1981's Galaga. These earned significantly greater profits than the pinball machines of the day, while simultaneously requiring less maintenance. Bally, Williams, and Gottlieb continued to make pinball machines, while they also manufactured video games in much higher numbers. Many of the larger companies were acquired by, 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 from then on for about half of their pinball releases.
While the video game craze of the late 1970s and early 1980s dealt a severe blow to pinball revenue, it did spark the creative talents within the industry. All companies involved tried to take advantage of the new solid state technology to improve player appeal of pinball and win back former players from video games. Some of this creativity resulted in landmark designs and features still present today. Some of these include speech, such as Williams' Gorgar; ramps for the ball to travel around, such as Williams' Space Shuttle; "multiball", used on Williams' Firepower; multi-level games like Gottlieb's Black Hole and Williams' Black Knight; and blinking chase lights, as used on Bally's Xenon. Although these novel features did not win back players as the manufacturers had hoped, they changed players' perception of pinball for coming decades.
During the 1980s, pinball manufacturers navigated technology changes while going through changes of ownership and mergers: Gottlieb was sold to Premier Technologies, and Bally merged with Williams. The Video game crash of 1983 made the manufacturers refocus on their pinball sales, and a trend started of pinball becoming increasingly elaborate to use more computing resources, following the example of video games. Games in the later half of the decade such as High Speed started incorporating full soundtracks, elaborate light shows and backbox animations - a radical change from the previous decade's electromechanical games. Although pinball continued to compete with video games in arcades, pinball held a premium niche, since the video games of the time could not reproduce an accurate pinball experience.
By the first years of the 1990s, pinball had made a strong comeback and saw new sales highs. 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 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 revival of interest. Pat Lawlor was a designer, working for Williams until their exit from the industry in 1999. About a year later, Lawlor returned to the industry, starting his own company, working in conjunction with Stern Pinball to produce new games.
The end of the 1990s saw another downturn in the industry, with Gottlieb, Capcom, and Alvin G. closing by the end of 1996. Data East's pinball division was acquired by Sega and became Sega Pinball in 1994. By 1997, there were two companies left: Sega Pinball and Williams. In 1999, Sega sold their pinball division to Gary Stern (President of Sega Pinball at the time) who called his company Stern Pinball. By this time, Williams games rarely sold more than 4,000 units. 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 initially good with Revenge from Mars selling well over 6,000 machines, but short of the 10,000-plus production runs for releases just six years earlier. The next Pinball 2000 game, Star Wars Episode I, sold only a little over 3,500 machines. Williams exited the pinball business to focus on making gaming equipment for casinos, which was more profitable. They licensed the rights to reproduce Bally/Williams parts to Illinois Pinball and the rights to reproduce full-sized machines to The Pinball Factory. Stern Pinball remained the only manufacturer of original pinball machines until 2013, when Jersey Jack Pinball started shipping The Wizard of Oz. Most members of the design teams for Stern Pinball are former employees of Williams.
In the midst of the 1990s closures, virtual pinball simulations, marketed on computers and home consoles, had become high enough in quality for serious players to take notice: these video versions of pinball such as Epic Pinball, Full Tilt! Pinball and the Pro Pinball series found marketplace success and lasting fan interest, starting a new trend for realistic pinball simulation. This market existed largely independently from the physical pinball manufacturers, and relied upon original designs instead of licenses until the 2000s.
After the closure of most of the pinball manufacturers in the 1990s, smaller independent manufacturers started appearing in the early 2000s.
In November 2005, The Pinball Factory (TPF) in Melbourne, Australia, announced that they would be producing a new Crocodile Hunter-themed pinball machine under the Bally label. With the death of Steve Irwin, it was announced that the future of this game was uncertain. In 2006, TPF announced that they would be reproducing two popular 1990s era Williams machines, Medieval Madness and Cactus Canyon. TPF however was unable to make good on its promises to produce new machines, and in October 2010 transferred its Williams Electronics Games licenses as well as its pinball spare parts manufacturing and distribution business to Planetary Pinball Supply Inc, a California distributor of pinball replacement parts.
In 2013, Jersey Jack Pinball released The Wizard of Oz pinball machine, based on the 1939 film. It is the first pinball machine manufactured in the US with a large color display (LCD) in the backbox, the first widebody pinball machine since 1994 and the first new US pinball machine not made by Stern Pinball since 2001. This game was followed by The Hobbit in 2016 (based on The Hobbit film series), Dialed In! in 2017 (an original theme designed by Pat Lawlor which included bluetooth technology that enabled flipper control from a smart phone and a camera built into the backbox for taking selfies), Pirates of the Caribbean (based on the Pirates of the Caribbean film series) in 2018 and Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (based on the movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory from 1971) in 2019.
In 2013, the Chicago Gaming Company announced the creation of a remake of Medieval Madness. This was later followed by a 2017 release of a remake of Attack from Mars, and a 2018 release of a remake of Monster Bash.
In 2015, the new British pinball manufacturer Heighway Pinball released the racing themed pinball machine Full Throttle. The game has an LCD screen for scores, info, and animations located in the playfield surface at player's eye view. The game was designed with modularity in mind so that the playfield and artwork could be swapped out for future game titles. Heighway Pinball's second title, Alien, was released in 2017 and was based on the Alien and Aliens films. Unfortunately, due to internal company issues, Heighway Pinball ceased manufacturing operations and closed its doors in April 2018.
In 2017, Multimorphic began shipping their pinball machine platform after several years of development. It is a modular design where different games can be swapped into the cabinet. It also has a large interactive display as the playfield surface, which is different from all prior pinball machines that were traditionally made of plywood and embedded with translucent plastic inserts for lighting.
Pinball 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 with spaces corresponding to targets or holes on the playfield. Free games could be won if the player was able to get the balls to land in a winning pattern; however, doing this was nearly random, and a common use for such machines was for gambling. Other machines allowed a player to win and accumulate large numbers of "free games" which could then be cashed out for money with the location owner. Later, this type of feature was discontinued in an effort to legitimize the machines, and to avoid legal problems in areas where awarding free games was considered illegal, some games, called Add-A-Ball, did away with the free game feature, instead giving players extra balls to play (between 5 and 25 in most cases). These extra balls were indicated via lighted graphics in the backglass or by a ball count wheel, but in some areas that was disallowed, and some games were shipped with a sticker to cover the counters.
Pinball was banned beginning in the early 1940s until 1976 in New York City. New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia was responsible for the ban, believing that it robbed school children of their hard earned nickels and dimes. La Guardia spearheaded major raids throughout the city, collecting thousands of machines. The mayor participated with police in destroying machines with sledgehammers before dumping the remnants into the city's rivers.
The ban ended when Roger Sharpe (a star witness for the AMOA - Amusement and Music Operators Association) testified in April 1976 before a committee in a Manhattan courtroom that pinball games had become games of skill and were not games of chance (which are more closely associated with gambling). He 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 so. Astonished committee members reportedly voted to remove the ban, which was followed in other cities. (Sharpe reportedly acknowledges, in a self-deprecating manner, his courtroom shot was by sheer luck although there was admittedly skill involved in what he did.)
Like New York, Los Angeles banned pinball machines in 1939. The ban was overturned by the Supreme Court of California in 1974 because (1) if pinball machines were games of chance, the ordinance was preempted by state law governing games of chance in general, and (2) if they were games of skill, the ordinance was unconstitutional as a denial of the equal protection of the laws. Although it was rarely enforced, Chicago's ban on pinball lasted three decades and ended in 1976. Philadelphia and Salt Lake City also had similar bans. Regardless of these events, some towns in America still have such bans on their books; the town of Kokomo, Indiana lifted its ordinance banning pinball in December 2016.
Another close relative of pinball is pachinko, a gambling game played in Japan. Although they share a common ancestry, the games are very different, in that pachinko involves shooting many small balls repeatedly into a nearly vertical playfield, while pinball is about the manipulation of the small number of balls currently in play on a near-horizontal playfield.
The key attribute of a successful pinball game is an interesting and challenging layout of scoring opportunities on the playfield. Many types of targets and features have been developed over the years.
The 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 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 to 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.
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, due to 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 various tricks, such as "nudging". 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). This penalty was instituted because nudging the machine too much may damage it. 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.
The 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. The shape of the ball launch button that replaces the plunger may be modified to fit the aesthetics of a particular game's theme, such as being made to look like the trigger of a gun in a game with a military or action-hero theme.
The flippers are one or more small mechanically or electromechanically controlled levers, roughly 3 to 7 cm ( to in) 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. Some machines also added a third or fourth flipper midway up the playfield.
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".
Bumpers 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 fewer depending on the designer's goals. Bumpers predate flippers, and active bumpers added a great deal of spice to older games.
Pop bumpers are operated by a switch connected to a ring surrounding the bottom circumference of the bumper that is suspended several millimeters above the playfield surface. When the ball rolls over this ring and forces one side of it down, a switch is closed that activates the bumper's solenoid. This pulls down a tapered ring surrounding the central post of the bumper that pushes downward and outward on the ball, propelling it away.
Kickers and slingshots are rubber pads 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. They operate similarly to pop bumpers, with a switch on each side of a solenoid-operated lever arm in a typical arrangement. The switches are closed by ball contact with the rubber on the face of the kicker and this activates the solenoid.
Early pinball machines typically had full solenoid current passing through trigger switches for all types of solenoids, from kickers to pop bumpers to the flippers themselves. This caused arcing across switch contacts and rapid contact fouling and failure. As electronics were gradually implemented in pinball design, solenoids began to be switched by power transistors under software control to lower switch voltage and current, vastly extend switch service lifetime, and add flexibility to game design.
As an example, some later machines had flippers that could be operated independently of the flipper button by the machine's software. The upper-left flipper during "Thing Flips" on The Addams Family pinball machine triggers automatically a brief moment after the ball passes an optical sensor just above the flipper.
The smaller, lower-powered solenoids were first to be transistorized, followed later by the higher-current solenoids as the price, performance, and reliability of power transistors improved over the years.
Originally holes and saucers worked by using tubes behind the playing field, with a pin at the top to hold the ball for later drops. Another version of the tube uses two spinning wheels to transfer the ball from hole to hole. Newer versions use an electronic track with a carriage or an electromagnet to pull the ball between holes.
Ramps are 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, a "ramp shot" has been made. 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).
There 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. Players seeking highest scores would be well-advised to study the placard (usually found in the lower-left corner of the playfield) to learn each game's specific patterns required for these advanced features and scoring.
Common features in modern pinball games include the following:
In the 1990s, game designers often put hidden, recurring images or references in their games, which became known as easter eggs. 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 "Matrix" Slomiany. DOHO was popularly thought to be an acronym for Documented Occurrence of a Hidden Object until its true meaning was revealed in a PinGame Journal article on the subject. 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 had been accomplished during the game.
The 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 and eye-catching graphics; in games up to the 1980s the artwork would often portray large-breasted women in skimpy clothing. The score displays (lights, mechanical wheels, an LED display, or a dot-matrix display depending on the era) would be on the backglass, and sometimes also 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 screen printed in layers on the reverse side of a piece of glass; in more recent games, the image is imprinted into a translucent 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 attract the attention of players. Recent machines are typically tied into 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 money; 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 (lighted from behind) and hang it as art after the remainder of the game is discarded.
Contact 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 (DMD). The first DMD on a pinball machine was used by Checkpoint and features also video mode minigames. MarsaPlay in Spain manufactured a remake of Inder's original Canasta titled New Canasta, with an LCD screen in the backbox in 2010. The Wizard of Oz is the first US pinball machine that used a LCD in the back box. It is not only used for scoring and mini-games but also to display full color videos. Other display innovations on pinball machines include pinball video game hybrids like Baby Pac-Man in 1982 and Granny and the Gators in 1984 and the use of a small color video monitor for scoring and minigames in the backbox of the pinball machine Dakar from manufacturer Mr. Game in 1988 and CGA color monitors in Pinball 2000 in 1999 that utilizes a Pepper's ghost technique to reflect the monitor in the head of the as well as modifications by the use of ColorDMD that is used to replace the standard mono color DMDs.
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, Williams No Fear: Dangerous Sports and Jack-Bot have been played into ten billions and Williams Johnny Mnemonic and Miday/Bally Attack from Mars, have been played into one hundred billion. 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 inflated scores are the source of one of the Spanish-language names of pinball machines, máquina del millón ("million machine").
Pinball designers also entice players with the chance to win an extra game or replay. Ways to get a replay might include the following:
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. "Knocking" is the act of winning an extra game when the knocker makes the loud and distinctive noise.
The 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 machine they have never played. 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 known as "specials."
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 machine in good operating condition -- a player can often achieve specific targets and higher scores and trigger exciting events.
Players can influence the movement of the ball by moving or bumping the pinball machine, a technique known as "nudging" or "shaking." After some experience in playing a certain machine, a skillful player is able to nudge the machine to make the ball bounce harder from a bumper or go in a certain direction. A very skillful player can shake the machine and cause the ball to bounce back and forth and prevent it from "draining."
There are tilt mechanisms which guard against excessive manipulation of this sort. The mechanisms generally include:
When any of these sensors is activated, the game registers a "tilt" and the lights go out, solenoids for the flippers no longer work, and other playfield systems become inoperative so that the ball can do nothing other than roll down the playfield directly to the drain. A tilt will usually result in loss of bonus points earned by the player during that ball; the game ends if it's the last ball and the player has no extra 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 of the machine. Until recently most games also had a "slam tilt" switch which guarded against kicking or slamming the coin mechanism, or for overly aggressive behavior with the machine, which could give a false indication that a coin had been inserted, thereby giving a free game or credit. This feature was recently taken out by default in new Stern S.A.M System games, but can be added as an option. A slam tilt will typically end the current game for all players.
Skilled 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 playfield 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.
Two Pinball World Championships were held in the Washington, D.C. area in 1972 and 1973 under the auspices of the World Pinball Association which also published a newsletter carrying results of regional tournaments.
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. They asked two other schools to participate. St. Peter's College took up the challenge, while the other school did not.
Many pinball leagues have formed, with varying levels of competitiveness, formality and structure. These leagues exist everywhere from the Free State Pinball Association (FSPA) in the Washington, D.C. area to the Tokyo Pinball Organization (TPO) in Japan. In the late 1990s, game manufacturers added messages to some games encouraging players to join a local league, providing website addresses for prospective league players to investigate.
Competitive pinball has become increasingly popular in recent years, with the relaunch of both the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association (PAPA) and the International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA).
Two different systems for ranking pinball players exist. The World Pinball Player Rankings (WPPR) was created by the IFPA. The WPPR formula takes into account the quantity and quality of the players in the field, and awards points based on that calculation for the nearly 200 IFPA endorsed events worldwide. PAPA manages a ranking system known as the PAPA Advanced Rating System (PARS), which uses the Glicko Rating System to mathematically analyze the results of more than 100,000 competitive matches. Since 2008 the IFPA has held a World Championship tournament, inviting the top-ranked WPPR players to compete; the current title holder is Johannes Ostermeier of Germany.
PAPA also designates the winner of the A Division in the annual PAPA World Pinball Championships as the World Pinball Champion; the current holder of this title is Keith Elwin from the USA. Current Junior (16 and under) and Senior (50 and over) World Champions are Joshua Henderson and Paul McGlone, respectively. Samuel Ogden has become one of the most memorable champions in the PAPA tournaments, winning four straight competitions from 2004 to 2008 in the 50 and over category.
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The first part of a pinball machine's construction involves the wiring for the game's electronic system. A color-coded wiring arrangement is wrapped around pins and connectors on a circuit board. Technicians then follow through using a meticulous set of instructions to ensure that the almost-half mile of wire is engineered properly. During this time the playing field is set onto foam strips and a bed of nails. The nails are then pressed in the playing board as the bed raises and compresses them against the header. Afterward anchors come and are hammered into place. The anchors help secure a metal railing that keeps the balls from exiting the playing field.
After the main construction is processed, it then comes down to fitting a few lampposts, some plastic bumpers, and flashing lights. All of the wiring is permanently fastened and speakers are bolted into the cabinet. Along with this comes the most crucial tool, the spring power plunger, which is set into place.
Finally, a few other toys and gimmicks are added, such as toy villains and other small themed characters. Once everything is tested and seems to be running alright, the playfield is set on top of the lower box. The lower box on computerized games is essentially empty. On older electromechanical games, the entire floor of the lower box was used to mount custom relays and special scoring switches, making older games much heavier. To protect the top of the playfield, a tempered glass window is installed, secured by a metal bar that is locked into place. The expensive, unique, painted vertical backglass is fragile. The backglass covers the custom microprocessor boards on newer games, or electromechanical scoring wheels on older games. On older games, a broken backglass might be impossible to replace, ruining the game's appeal.
Flipper solenoids contain two coil windings in one package; a short, heavy gage 'power' winding to give the flipper its initial thrust up, and a long, light gage 'hold' winding that uses lower power (and creates far less heat) and essentially just holds the flipper up allowing the player to capture the ball in the inlane for more precise aiming. As the flipper nears the end of its upward travel, a switch under the flipper disconnects the power-winding and leaves only the second sustain winding to hold the flipper up in place. If this switch fails 'open' the flipper will be too weak to be usable, since only the weak winding is available. If it fails 'closed' the coil will overheat and destroy itself, since both windings will hold the flipper at the top of its stroke.
Solenoids also control pop-bumpers, kickbacks, drop target resets, and many other features on the machine. These solenoid coils contain a single coil winding. The plunger size and wire gage & length are matched to the strength required for each coil to do its work, so some types are repeated throughout the game, some are not.
All solenoids and coils used on microprocessor games include a special reverse-biased diode to eliminate a high-voltage pulse of reverse EMF (electromotive force). Without this diode, when the solenoid is de-energized, the magnetic field that was built up in the coil collapses and generates a brief, high-voltage pulse backward into the wiring, capable of destroying the solid-state components used to control the solenoid. Proper wiring polarity must be retained during coil replacement or this diode will act as a dead short, immediately destroying electronic switches. Older electromechanical AC game solenoids do not require this diode, since they were controlled with mechanical switches. However, electromechanical games running on DC do require diodes to protect the rectifier.
All but very old games use low DC voltages to power the solenoids and electronics (or relays). Some microprocessor games use high voltages (potentially hazardous) for the score displays. Very early games used low-voltage AC power for solenoids, requiring fewer components, but AC is less efficient for powering solenoids, causing heavier wiring and slower performance. For locations that suffer from low AC wall outlet voltage, additional taps may be provided on the AC transformer in electromechanical games to permit raising the game's DC voltage levels, thus strengthening the solenoids. Microprocessor games have electronic power supplies that automatically compensate for inaccurate AC supply voltages.
Historically, pinball machines have employed a central fixed I/O board connected to the primary CPU controlled by a custom microcontroller platform running an in-house operating system. For a variety of reasons that include thermal flow, reliability, vibration reduction and serviceability, I/O electronics have been located in the upper backbox of the game, requiring significant custom wiring harnesses to connect the central I/O board to the playfield devices.
A typical pinball machine I/O mix includes 16 to 24 outputs for driving solenoids, motors, electromagnets and other mechanical devices in the game. These devices can draw up to 500 W momentarily and operate at voltages up to 50 Vdc. There is also individually controlled lighting that consists of 64 to 96 individually addressable lights. Recently developed games have switched from incandescent bulbs to LEDs. And there is general illumination lighting that comprises two or more higher-power light strings connected and controlled in parallel for providing broad illumination to the playfield and backbox artwork. Additionally, 12 to 24 high-impulse lighting outputs, traditionally incandescent but now LED, provide flash effects within the game. Traditionally, these were often controlled by solenoid-level drivers.
A game typically includes 64 to 96 TTL-level inputs from a variety of sensors such as mechanical leaf switches, optical sensors and electromagnetic sensors. Occasionally extra signal conditioning is necessary to adapt custom sensors, such as eddy sensors, to the system TTL inputs.
Recently, some pinball manufacturers have replaced some of the discrete control wiring with standard communication buses. In one case, the pinball control system might include a custom embedded network node bus, a custom embedded Linux-based software stack, and a 48-V embedded power distribution system.
Simulating a pinball machine has also been a popular theme of video games. Early pinball video games include Toru Iwatani's Namco arcade games Gee Bee (1978), Bomb Bee (1979), and Cutie Q (1979), the Atari 2600 game Video Pinball (1980), and David's Midnight Magic (1982). Most famous on home computers was Bill Budge's Pinball Construction Set, released for the Apple II in 1983. Pinball Construction Set was the first program that allowed the user to create their 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. Tilting has also been simulated, which can be activated using one or more keys (sometimes the space bar) for "moving" the machine. 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. Modern pinball video games are often based around established franchises such as Metroid Prime Pinball, Super Mario Ball, Pokémon Pinball, Kirby's Pinball Land, and Sonic Spinball.
Popular pinball games of the 1990s include Pinball Dreams, Pro Pinball and 3D Pinball: Space Cadet that was included in Windows ME and Windows XP. More recent examples include Pinball FX, Pinball FX 2, and Pinball FX 3.
There have been pinball programs released for all major home video game and computer systems, tablet computers and smart phones. Pinball video game engines and editors for creation and recreation of pinball machines include for instance Visual Pinball, Future Pinball and Unit3D Pinball.
A BBC News article described virtual pinball games e.g. Zen Pinball and The Pinball Arcade as a way to preserve pinball culture and bring it to new audiences. Another example of preserving historic pinball machines is Zaccaria Pinball that consists of digital recreations of classic Zaccaria pinball machines.
Some hobbyists and small companies modify existing pinball machines or create their own custom pinball machines. Some want, for example, a game with a specific subject or theme that cannot be bought in this form or was never built at all. Some custom games are built by using the programmable P-ROC controller board. Modifications include the use of ColorDMD that is used to replace the standard mono color dot-matrix displays or the addition of features, e.g. figures or other toys.
Data East was one of the few regular pinball companies that manufactured custom pinball games (e.g. for Aaron Spelling, Michael Jordan and the movie Richie Rich), though these were basically mods of existing or soon to be released pinball machines (e.g. Lethal Weapon 3 or The Who's Tommy Pinball Wizard).
Pinball 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 The Who, which centers on the title character, a "deaf, dumb, and blind kid", who 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 musical.) Wizard has since moved into popular usage as a term for an expert pinball player. Things came full circle in 1975 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 1976, Bally released Capt.Fantastic, which had an image of Elton John on the backglass, playing pinball in a similar costume as used in the movie Tommy. Data East produced The Who's Tommy Pinball Wizard in 1994, based on the rock musical The Who's Tommy. This game is notable in its use of The Who's iconic songs, including "Pinball Wizard", sung by original Broadway cast members.
In the late 1970s the children's television series Sesame Street began airing a series of short animated segments, called the "Pinball Number Count". Each segment was different, and involved the ball rolling in different themed areas of a pinball machine depending on which number (from 2-12, no segment was produced for the number 1) was being featured. The animations were directed by Jeff Hale and featured music by Walt Kraemer and vocal work by The Pointer Sisters.
In 1975-76 there was a brief TV game show based on pinball called The Magnificent Marble Machine.
Nickelodeon used the pinball as their logo in the early 1980s. The words "Nickelodeon" were in rainbow colors against a huge pinball. This logo was used until 1984, when the orange splat logo took its place.
Canadian Football League running back Michael "Pinball" Clemons got his nickname due to his running style; his diminutive size and extraordinary balance allowed him to bounce between defensive players much like a pinball inside a pinball machine.