Pinball is a type of coin-operated arcade game in which a player attempts to score points by manipulating one or more metal balls on a playfield inside a glass case. The primary objective of the game is to score as many points as possible. Secondary objectives are to maximise the time spent playing (by earning extra balls and keeping balls in play as long as possible) and to earn free games (known as replays).
Basic attributes of a pinball game
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. The ball is put into play by use of the plunger, a spring-loaded rod that strikes the ball as it rests in the trough, or, 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).
The game ends when a specified number of balls have been lost off the bottom of the playfield, or drained.
The number of balls played was up to ten in very old machines, usually five in games of the 1940s through 1970s, and typically became three balls in the late 1970s or early 1980s. In more modern games, it can be either three or five, at the operator's discretion.
NB.: This number is per player. So in a two-player game, each player gets three balls to play. Score is kept separately for each player.
In games with more than one player, players alternate turns playing, one ball per turn. (Exception: during the course of play, a player can sometimes earn extra balls, and in those cases, the extra balls are played immediately.)
The plunger is a spring-loaded rob 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 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 was standard.
The backglass is a vertical panel mounted at the back of the machine. This area features the scoring display and eye-catching graphics including the name of the machine. Games are generally built around a particular theme, such as a sport or character. 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 (some would say gaudy) as possible; every possible space is filled with graphics, blinking lights, and themed objects.
Contact with or manipulation of scoring elements 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.
Features and functions
The 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 include:
- Bumpers: These are round knobs that, when hit, will actively push the ball away. There's also an older kind of bumper (known as a dead 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"). 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... just ramps. 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 you succeed, you have made a "ramp shot". Ramps usually end in such a way that the ball goes to a flipper so you 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.
- (Ordinary) Targets: These are static targets that simply record when a ball strikes them. These are generally the simplest playfield elements.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Pinball designers also entice players with the chance to win an extra game or replay. Ways to get a replay might include:
- Replay Score: Beat a specified score to get an extra 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. 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.
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 with a rod, known as a knocker, or less commonly with loudspeakers.
The primary skill of pinball involves application of the proper timing and technique to the operation of the flippers. A skilled player can quickly "learn the angles" and gain a high level of control of ball motion.
Skillful players can influence the movement of the ball by nudging or bumping the pinball machine. The tilt mechanisms 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; and 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. When this happens, the game registers a "tilt" and locks out, disabling all scoring switches and solenoids so that the ball can do nothing other than rolling all the way down the playfield to the drain. Newer machines typically also make some loud noise on a tilt, presumably so as to draw negative attention to the player who is abusing the machine. Older games, especially one-player games, would end the whole game on a tilt; modern games sacrifice only the ball in play. 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. This has apparently recently been obsoleted. 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 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 calls the ball to slowly roll downward against the flipper. The player then chooses the moment when they want to hit the flipper again, timing the shot as the ball slides slowly against the flipper.
Multi-ball games reward advanced techniques including using one flipper to hold one or more balls out of play while using the other flipper to score with the remaining balls.
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 through specials. In such cases, a player may even walk away from a machine with several games left on it.
Pinball has long been associated with various disreputable activities. 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. 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. Nevertheless, on occasion pinball games have been regulated or banned, notably in New York City beginning in the 1940s and continuing until 1976.
Most recent games are clearly labeled "FOR AMUSEMENT ONLY" so that the manufacturer can emphasize their legitimate, legal nature.
Relationship to pachinko
Pachinko is a gambling game that is a cousin of pinball 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.
Pinball scoring is peculiar and very arbitrary. Game scores on older games were in the hundreds or thousands with mechanical advancement of ones, tens, and hundreds digits; in the 1970s, with the advent of electronic displays, scores began to inflate into the thousands or tens of thousands. This "score inflation" continued until, at one period in the mid 1990s, several games required scores of over a billion points for a free game. More recently, scoring ranges have returned to more reasonable numbers of digits.
One recent curiosity is the game "NBA Fastbreak", which true to its theme awards points as in real basketball: Each single shot can give from zero to three points, and getting a hundred points by the end of a game is actually pretty good.
Even on a particular game scores are very non-linear as completion of one task opens up additional cascading scoring opportunities. Add to this the difficult physics of a moving ball, it is common for pinball scores to be distributed over quite a wide range. With modern games, it is no surprise if even a skillful player's "high" scores are five times as great as their typical scores.
Maintenance and repair
Modern pinball games are exceedingly complex devices, with numerous opportunities for mechanical and electrical failures. This is largely because of damage caused to the machine by the balls themselves; a ball in a modern machine may reach speeds as high as 40 meters per second, and will thus strike playfield elements with a great deal of force. As such, the development, maintenance and repair expenses are high compared to relatively simple video games. Partly for this reason, much of the focus has shifted away from arcades and towards enthusiasts who keep one or more machines at home, and do their own maintenance and repair (or hire outside technicians to do it). Using a pinball playfield cleaner, such as Novus #2 or Wildcat #125, a pinball machine owner can clean and prevent future damage to the pinball playfield.
The business of pinball
The city of Chicago was the longtime home of pinball. Chicago companies Gottlieb, Bally, Williams, and Chicago Coin competed between the 1950s through the 1970s to produce the most complex and appealing games. Beginning in the 1980s, competetive pressure from video games and other entertainment entities led to a downturn in the pinball industry and a series of mergers and consolidations occurred. The only company currently producing pinball machines is Stern Pinball, Inc., of Illinois, USA.
Pinball in popular culture
Pinball games have often been featured in popular culture, often as a symbol of rebellion or toughness. Perhaps the most famous instance is the rock opera album Tommy by British band The Who (1969), 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.
Other examples of pinball in pop culture include:
- 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 Al's Diner
- First commercially successful game: Gottlieb's Baffle Ball (1931)
- First use of a tilt mechanism: Williams' Advance (1932)
- First use of a bumper: Bally's Bumper (1936)
- First full-size backglass on game: Dux (1937)
- First pinball game to use flippers: Humpty Dumpty (1947)
- First pinball game to use "jet bumpers" and locate the flippers at lower end of playfield: Williams' Saratoga (1948)
- First pinball game with score wheels: Williams' Army Navy (1953)
- First pinball game to use a ramp on playfield: Williams' Nine Sisters (1953)
- First four-player machine: Gottlieb's Super Jumbo (1954)
- First multiball machine: Bally's Balls-a-Poppin' (1956)
- First pinball game with a moving target: Williams' Magic Clock (1960)
- First pinball game to award an extra ball: Gottlieb's Flipper (1960)
- First pinball game to use drop targets: Williams' Vagabond (1962)
- First pinball game to use a microprocessor: Micro Games' Spirit of 76 (1975)
- First talking pinball game: Williams' Gorgar (1979)
- First solid-state electronics pinball game: Williams' Firepower (1980)
- First three-level playfield: Gottlieb's Haunted House (1981)
- First dot matrix scoring display: Data East's Checkpoint (1990)
Simulating 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. Pinball Construction Set allowed the user to create a simulated pinball machine and then play it. A basic pinball simulation is even included with some versions of Microsoft Windows. Other early pinball simulations of note include 1982's David's Midnight Magic for the Apple II, Commodore 64, and Atari 8-bit computer series and Pinball, one of the first American games available for the Nintendo Entertainment System (and recently released on card for the Game Boy Advance e-Reader peripheral). Most earlier simulations were top-down 2D. A good example for this is the game Slamtilt for the Amiga computer. As processor and graphics capabilities have improved, more accurate & 3D pinball simulations have become possible (though a truly convincing model of pinball physics and control has remained elusive). A few commercial 'pinsims' for the PC have gained a following, most notably the Pro-Pinball series of simulations, which includes Pro-Pinball: The Web (1995), Pro-Pinball: Timeshock! (1998), Pro-Pinball: Big Race U.S.A. (1998), and Pro-Pinball: Fantastic Journey (1999). Visual Pinball, released by Randy Davis in 2001, is a newer 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).