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Pinball Primer

by fastbilly1 Mon Aug 03, 2015 11:20 am

This is an article that is not quite ready for the main site, but might help some people here understand pinball alittle better. Also you get a "rare look" at something that we bat around in the back of the house.

In 1969 The Who released a song on their album Tommy called Pinball Wizard, since then, whenever anyone mentions pinball that is normally the first thing that comes to mind. And while that is fine, there is an entire world of gaming that the vast majority of the gaming community has overlooked. Whenever you mention Street Fighter, instantly gamers know what you are talking about, but when you mention Theater of Magic most do not. This is something we are going to try and change with these articles.

Personally my experience with pinball was limited growing up. My family was never big on arcades, and when we got to go to one, pinballs were too difficult to justify with my meager change. I played a few, mostly EM tables (Electro-Mechanical) but they were few and far between. When we would go on vacation there was an Indiana Jones Pinball that was almost always broken, or one of my oldest cousins would hog. But one summer I went on a trip to go whitewater rafting with the Boy Scouts and beside the campground we were staying at there was a convenience store with a small arcade. In it were Ikari Warriors, a Street Fighter 2 – missing buttons, and a 1959 Midway Race Way. Since it was only a dime to play, and actually worked, most of us played the pinball. Race Way is a very odd pinball table in that it has a very basic playing field; no pop bumpers, two flippers, and a handful of targets. However it has in the back glass a race track. And as you play, you advance the cars on the track. The score counter is laps for each car up to 99. After a few runs, most of the other kids got bored of the game, but I had two dollars and ended up playing that game all night. Though pinball was not cemented in my gaming until college, which had Addams Family and the Getaway on free play in the arcade.

Before we get any further, let me make some declarations here:
1. This is a primer to get people to know more about pinball and to hopefully give it a chance
2. Digital Pinball will not replace real pinball for purist. Much like how emulation does not replace real games for some retrogamers
3. We are only going to cover a couple ways people play digital pinball, there are many ways.
4. Like the MAME article, some sections will get into a grey area, once I get a pinball machine we will do a article on setting up that table in these systems.
5. Again, real pinball is superior, but not really practical for most people

History of Pinball:
What many people do not realize is how old of a hobby Pinball is. The first tables known to exist were built in the 1700s. But we are going to take a slightly further step back to the 1500s to the Château Bagatelle in France. At the Château, there was a fierce love of the game Trucco, which was a game they played in the lawn that consistent of mallets, balls, and circles drawn in the ground. They pounded the balls with the mallets to hopefully get them near the circles. Sometimes Trucco was played with Rings and Stakes and eventually became Croquet, or it was played without the mallets and it eventually became Bocce. At Chateau Bagatelle, they wanted to play a version of Trucco indoors during bad weather. The game was played on a table with cues and had a pocket you try to land the ball into. This new game, Bagatelle, eventually became two distinct forms of game. A full size table of Bagatelle is 11-12 feet long, so many people of the time opted for a much smaller version that had metal pins and strategically placed holes. As you can imagine the full size Bagatelle developed into Billiards, though Bagatelle itself developed into a very interesting table game on its own. But what we care about is this smaller version of Bagatelle.

Over the years, this smaller version became more complicated. In the mid 1700s the cue for shooting the balls was starting to be replaced with a coiled spring plunger, and tables started to have a slight angle to the playfield. Again Bagatelle began to split into multiple other games. You may have played a child’s bagatelle game made out of plastic or wood with a small spring launcher and tiny metal balls, this is one of the routes that the game went. When this version of Bagatelle ended up in the Orient they took it completely vertically and it eventually became Pachinko. And in the USA in 1871, improvements to Bagatelle were patented and we started to see the spring launcher as standard. In the early 1930s, Bagatelle became coinoperated and the race was on.

Soon you had several companies making coin operated Bagatelles. The depression was in full force and people wanted cheap entertainment, Bagatelle was a perfect fit. At this time they were bartop sized and could be fit into almost any bar or drugstore. Dave Gottlieb released a table called Baffle Ball, and it was an instant hit with over 50,000 sold. Gottlieb continued to make pinball tables until 1996. One of Gottlieb’s distributors, Ray Moloney, got fed up with selling out of Baffle Ball tables and made his own and named it Ballyhoo, based on a popular comic of the time. Ballyhoo also went on to selling over 50,000 units and Moloney continued to make bagatelle tables under the company name of Bally. By now there were dozens of companies releasing Bagatelle tables. The issue was that all of these units played similarly. It was not until 1933 when Pacific Amusements (PAMCO) changed the entire industry. On their title Contact, PAMCO put three components from other tables together: bumpers, kickout solenoids, and bells. Other games had some of these components, but none put them together in a way that it was an instant classic. The creator of Contact was a man named Harry Williams, who in 1943 founded a company called Williams Manufacturing Company, or Williams.

1947 was the next big advancement in Pinball, with the inclusion of flippers to Humpty Dumpty. Utilizing 4 flippers that activated on a button press, Humpty Dumpty allowed players to aim the ball into specific holes so they could win more points. And Pinball as we know it was born. This era of pinball is known as the Electro-Mechanical era. These machines, often called EM machines, were where the majority of what we view as a pinball table became common place.

In 1976, The Spirit of 76 game was released under a new format, Solid State. Abbreviated to SS, Solid State machines feature a processing unit and can utilize more complicated playfields and scoring. Solid State machines quickly overcame EM tables as the standard and Pinball took off to another age. Pinball hit a second golden age in the 90s with the influx of master crafted tables, with deep goal sheets, amazing artwork, and a new level of interactivity.

Sadly the 2000s saw pinball fade out of the public eye. Many manufacturers closed their doors or changed their focus. Now we only have a few companies putting out new tables. Pinball however is growing in popularity now for the first time in over a decade thanks to the ease of access of pinball simulators. Technology has finally gotten to the point where simulators are getting most aspects of pinball correct. From rom quirks to the physics, simulators have started a revival of sorts to the pinball world.

Pinball can be enjoyed with no understanding of the tables whatsoever, but knowing the basic terminology will make the game infinitely more fun (and easier to read about). We are going to break down the terminology into sections that may be helpful. This is by no means exhaustive, check out Internet Pinball Database ( for more information.

Machines terms:
Playfield – where the ball is rolling.
Backbox – the raised back part of the table with the artwork and sometimes a DMD, this is where high scores are located.
Back Glass – the artwork in the backbox
DMD – Dot Matrix Display – the small screen on some tables that shows the score or animations.
Alphanumeric Display – A score display that shows letters and numbers – think of it like a calculator screen.
Legs – the wooden or metal legs that hold the machine up
Plunger – the rod you pull back to shoot a ball into the playfield – sometimes it is a button, sometimes it is a novelty item like a revolver or raygun.
Standard body/Widebody – Refers to playfield width of the machine. A Widebody is almost the same width as the backbox, while a standard body is slimmer.
Wedgehead – a style of wooden cabinets with the backbox being in a wedge instead of a box.
Apron – The area closest to the player that has the rules and goals on the table. Not part of the playing field.
Woodrail – Pre 1960s tables that have wooden rails to frame the glass instead of metal.
Glass – the typically 3/16 inch glass that covers the playfield. It is not uncommon for the glass to stop pinballs from flying off the table, so it is not advised to play a table without the glass.

Playfield terms:
Autosave – On some SS machines, if you do not score enough points and lose the ball, it will give you a second chance. Typically this is on machines that can have unfair exits from the plunger lane.
Flipper – the small plastic arms that move when you hit the buttons on the side of the cabinet
Mushroom Bumper – Round devices on the table that the pinball bounces off of to score points, often found at the top of the machine.
Slingshot Bumper – Usually triangle shaped devices that if the ball hits the side will be bounced across the board.
Target – Something you hit to score points, often found in a variety of shapes – round is very common.
Underroller – An item or gate that the ball can roll under to score points and possibly activate something on the table.
Overroller – A small metal protrusion on the board that the ball can roll over to score points and possibly activate something else.
Toy – an item on the playfield you can interact with them – like the Magic Lamp in Tales of Arabian Night.
Spinner – a device that spins when hit, more common on EM tables and Pachinko Machines.
Ramp – a gradient section of the playfield that leads to a different section of the playfield. Often these lead to inlanes, sometimes to sub playfields. Some tables, like Haunted Mansion, will have multiple Up and Down ramps, to multiple playfields.
Inlane – an area typically the width of the ball that rolls down to the flippers. Commonly found between the Slingshot bumpers and outlanes.
Outlane – an area typically the width of the ball that rolls the balls out of play.
Bounce Back Pin – A pin that is between the flippers so a Straight Down the Middle is less likely. To fully utilize bounce back pins you need to not move your flippers, or else it will likely bounce off the bottom of your flippers.
Tilt Sensor – a device inside the pinball machine that detects the movement done to the device. It will activate once a certain threshold is hit and end the ball in play.

Gameplay terms:
Nudge – physically hitting the cabinet to cause the ball to move in a direction.
Tilt – What happens when you nudge a machine too hard, you lose the ball, possibly your credits.
Slam – physically hitting the cabinet with a substantial amount of force, often to bring a ball back from an out lane.
Catch/Hold – When you cradle the pinball in a flipper, so you can line up a shot or hold onto the extra balls from a multiball. This is often the first technique people learn.
Skill shot – A goal that is achieved solely by plunger skill. In Tales of Arabian Nights this is the snake game on the DMD.
Standard Goal – A standard goal to achieve on the table. These are usually the ones you can figure out by looking at the table, or are explained on the paperwork in the apron.
Wizard Goal – Master level goals for a table. These are often very difficult to achieve for new players, since they require multiple steps that are not always obvious but lead to large point rewards.
Straight Down the Middle (SDTM) – when a ball rolls down the gap in between the flippers so you cannot save it without nudging or slamming.
Alley Pass – hitting the ball at the last possible second to roll it under the other flipper and out an inlane. This is a very high level technique but required for high scores on some tables.
Seal/Chimp – Hitting both flippers in rhythm, like a seal clapping. This is an earmark of a novice, and a very bad habit to develop.
Pass – moving the ball from one flipper to another
Dead flipper pass – Passing the pinball from one flipper to another without moving the first flipper. This is often the second technique people learn.
Multiball – when you have accomplished a specific goal on the table and awarded with multiple balls at once.
Magna Save – A special magnet save on some Williams Tables – Made famous by Black Knight

Now that we have an understanding of the history and terminology, how do we play these tables? Well there are a handful of primary ways people play pinball digitally.

Pinball Arcade
Out of all the ways you can play digital pinball nowadays, Pinball Arcade is probably the most ubiquitous. I mean, it has been ported to every modern platform and is constantly making the news for preserving an interesting part of gaming history. Created by Farsight Studios in 2012, Pinball Arcade features dozens of real tables rendered in 3d. Now each version has its quirks, but we are going to keep this high level.

On the PC, Pinball Arcade is sold via Steam. The base game is free and comes with the 1996 table Tales of Arabian Nights (TOTAN). This is free like beer. You have the option to buy more tables, but you can download the program and play Tales of Arabian Nights right now at no cost but time. However if you want to buy a table you have four ways to do it in game:
Buy a table pack
Buy a Season
Buy a Pro version table pack
Buy a Pro Season

Now let’s break those down because it is confusing.
Buy a table pack - These packs consist of one or two tables, typically based licensing fees for the tables. So one table pack may be Twilight Zone, while another may be Space Shuttle and White Water. Table Packs are typically priced at $4.99 but they go on sale randomly throughout the year.

Buy a Season - Every 10 table packs released becomes a season. Some Seasons have more tables than others, based on how many tables are in each table pack. For example, Season 1 contains twenty one tables, while Season 3 contains ten.

3&4. Pro Versions - Pro versions of tables come in at a much higher price point, but allow you to tinker with the settings of the tables. These allow you to change how many points to get another play, or to enable the more lewd comments on an Elvira machine. Most people will buy specific tables in pro version over a season pass. Mostly since Pro versions rarely go on sale.

The biggest downside for Pinball Arcade is that the purchases are not cross compatible. If you buy all the tables on Steam, you have to buy them again on Android then again on iOS. Sure you can buy them when they are on sale, or just play the free table each month, but it is a burden. The exception is that there is cross buy between Vita and PS3.

FarSight releases new tables on a monthly basis, and as of right now you can play many of the highest rated tables of all time. Out of the top 10 SS machines on IPDB, you can play 9 – the missing table is Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure which they have been trying to get for the last few years.

To keep this focused on the PC, Pinball Arcade is installed and configured through Steam. It is as easy as opening the Steam store, clicking on it, and downloading. It is about 5 gigs. Once it is installed, open it, play with your configuration if you have to, and you should be off and running. It should not take more than an hour or two, depending on your internet connection. The big difference between the PC and say the iOS and Android versions is that on PC all tables are downloaded at once, since drive space is so cheap now. The advantage of this is that you can play a demo of any table at any time.

There are a couple downsides to Pinball Arcade. Yes, they are releasing new tables every month, but they are slow to fix bugs. They also do not have cabinet support, are not on the Wiiu yet (despite advertising it for the last few years), and focus more on SS machines over EM.

Pinball FX/Zen Pinball
Pinball FX and Zen Pinball are two game series by Zen Studios. They contain pinball tables that could not exist in the real world and are based on a variety of intellectual properties. So yes, you can get that Ninja Gaiden, Plants vs. Zombies, or Marvel Guardians of the Galaxy table you never knew existed on your pc, console, or smart device. Now why do I say they could not exist in the real world? Well many of these tables have features that would not be cost effective to implement and extensive minigames. But this is also what makes them special. Since these tables are not burdened by development cost that real tables had (like for Pinball Arcade), they do not have to worry if the table will alienate a subsection of the audience, and they can implement crazy concepts like the Portal table, based on the puzzle game of the same name.

Zen Pinball 2 is on most digital distribution platforms (ie Steam and App Stores), with simply labeled table packs and is very easy to get up and running in a few minutes.
[add more]

Future Pinball
Best described as a 3d pinball developing suite. Future Pinball (FP) is where people make their own tables (based on original properties or existing) completely from scratch. The FP group does not allow for commercial roms to be used in tables that they host, so while you may find an Indiana Jones table, it will not be the Williams 1993 table. This is ofcourse only on their site, if you go to other sites, you can find real tables replicated in FP at a very high level of accuracy and in 3d. FP is a very easy to setup and get running, it can easily be done in less than ten minutes.

There are some really neat tables on available in FP and some that are just beautiful, but like all digital pinball it has its share of problems. Many users find the flippers to be less responsive than other emulators (there are theory’s on this that we will not get into here), others find the physics on a whole to be off. It has compatibility with lots of third party programs and interfaces (track IR for example), which also can lead to problems. But even with its issues, Future Pinball is infinitely easier to setup than Visual Pinball.

Visual Pinball
Visual Pinball (VP) is where this all gets complicated. On a highlevel, VP is a pinball emulator, kinda like MAME for pinball. It lets fans recreate tables and tweak them if they want. There are thousands of tables out there if you want to give it a go, many that will NEVER get picked up for digitizing – like Gottlieb’s Asteroid Annie and the Aliens or Spinball’s Verne’s World, but it has a steep learning curve to setup and not all tables are made equally. There are lots of versions, lots of options, and a high count of easy mistakes to make. But if you can get it setup, you can play most any table you can think of.

VP interfaces with Visual PinMAME and other programs to make it work. This is gets confusing really fast, so read all the instructions on the VP forums, watch a couple install videos, and follow them as close as you can. There is a chance that even if you do that, it will not work*. Just have patience, and tinker around with it.

VP and Pinmame are what do the work, there are pretty interfaces like Hyperpin and Pinball X that are installed afterwards for picking tables. You have to have compatible versions of VP and PinMAME installed, then you have to find tables that are compatible with the versions of VP and PinMAME you just installed. But if you want to play tables you might never get a chance to play elsewhere, Visual Pinball is worth the hours it takes to install and configure properly. After you get the tables installed and working, THEN you can install Hyperpin or PinballX

*Despite doing that the first two days I tinkered with VP I still could not get it to work. But after a few days I finally got it to load the Doctor Who pinball machine, and I could easily load up most any other table I wanted. Occasionally I still come across tables I want to play, that just do not work on my setup. Despite how great VP is, it is complicated setup is intimidating.

There are thousands of standalone pinball titles and dozens of other simulators. From the Pro Pinball series on PC, to Zaccaria Pinball on smart devices (and soon to PC), to Pinball on the NES. We just chose the primary ones people are going to be looking into while we do Together Retro this month.

No matter what way you choose to play, pinball can provide you with hours of enjoyment and a lifetime of trying to get one more shot. If you want to learn more on the subject, please look up IPDB. IPDB is a treasure trove of pinball knowledge. I also highly recommend the documentary Special When Lit, available for free on Hulu for all USA based readers:

And on DVD: ... B004G6P5VI
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Re: Pinball Primer

by ExedExes Mon Aug 03, 2015 12:43 pm

If I was ever called to make a true history of pinball article, I would have done this the same way. Much like you felt my TPA draft was just like as you'd make it. I hope this will get on the main page soon.

I never got the chance to play many real life EMs. I've only played Smart Set (Williams 1969) and Sure Shot (Gottlieb 1976) for free at the local rec center growing up. Sure Shot had a messed up right flipper that shaked uncontrollably when the button was pressed.

AFAIK, there's 2 games called Spirit of 76. One was solid state by a company called Mirco, and Gottlieb's was EM and appears on Microsoft Pinball Arcade in that form. But I also read that many games in the mid 70s had EM and SS versions such as Bally's Freedom.
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Re: Pinball Primer

by fastbilly1 Mon Aug 03, 2015 1:01 pm

You are correct on all counts. Last weekend I was going to pick up a Gottlieb Cleopatra, which was released in EM and SS forms. On top of that, many of the games from that transition era also had 2 and 4 player releases, for example 4 player Cleopatra was released as 2 player Pyramid. As a tinkerer, I love EM tables since I can fix most of their issues (just like vintage pachinkos), but when it comes to reading waves on the oscilloscope as you probe it stops being as fun for me.

It can all get confusing quickly, but it is still easier than installing Visual Pinball...
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Re: Pinball Primer

by retrosportsgamer Mon Aug 03, 2015 1:54 pm

Great primer.

The stark differences in Pinball Arcade and Pinball Fx2 (Zen) make it easy to support both as there is no overlap. I prefer the physics and gameplay in Pinball Arcade, but Fx2 has fun original tables and missions with a lot of stuff from Marvel and Star Wars (and South Park!).

Re: Pinball Primer

by mjmjr25 Mon Aug 03, 2015 5:35 pm

wowza, bookmarked and will read in more detail once home.
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Re: Pinball Primer

by ExedExes Mon Aug 03, 2015 5:39 pm

fastbilly1 wrote:It can all get confusing quickly, but it is still easier than installing Visual Pinball...

I dabbled in VP years ago. So glad I don't have to anymore.
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Re: Pinball Primer

by KalessinDB Mon Aug 03, 2015 6:29 pm

Love it. Buying or building a HyperPin setup is way down my list for my home arcade, but it's on there, and this has answers to questions I've had for a while. Thanks!
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Re: Pinball Primer

by Ivo Tue Aug 04, 2015 6:59 am

Good article.

I would really like to spend more time playing pinball games, I really like some of the virtual tables that aren't based on real ones.

I haven't really tried many based on real tables. I will see if I can have a go at the Arabian Nights table this month.
I'm probably in the minority in that I actually didn't like playing on real machines that much the few times I tried.
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Re: Pinball Primer

by chupon Tue Aug 04, 2015 12:33 pm

Thanks for this! Great work. As a real pinball enthusiast I appreciate this contribution. Hopefully it will spur others to join the ranks of real pinball lovers.

Personal anecdotes and stories go a long way to help others discover pinball. I'll have to share mine later tonight.

This thread needs more pictures!
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Re: Pinball Primer

by fastbilly1 Tue Aug 04, 2015 12:49 pm

I was hoping to buy a table last weekend and take all the pictures for this article before it went live.

If anyone has a table and a reasonable eye for photography and wants to take pictures of the elements that would help alot.
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