Tuesday, October 30, 2007

How to Enjoy a Great Round on a Pinball Machine

Anybody can start up a round of pinball, fire off a ball, and connect with a few arbitrary shots. Along the way, even a first time player will interact with a couple of the game's features, maybe even something big like multiball, without giving any thought to the bigger picture the designers had in mind. But there is another of level of play that is uncovered when the player takes the time to learn a few of the goals and shots to aim for. Right from the start, most modern pinball machines have some variety of skill shot based off the plunger - the particulars of which will be on the instructions card under the playfield glass on the lower right hand side.

So the instructions card is not a bad place to begin for any first round with a new pinball machine. It will tell you the overall objectives and key areas of the playfield, as well as offer some interesting tips on how to rack up and collect on bonus points. Some more advanced playfield features may require a series of steps to be completed before you can really get things humming and those particulars will be on the card as well. Granted, the tiny card has it limits and to really get to know a pinball machine you can either play it for hours on end or you can look up it's rule sheet online... A detailed multi-page set of instructions that contains every known element in a game including any hidden surprises the designers tucked away for the truly dedicated player.

On a modern digital pinball machine, I always check the instructions card to learn how to launch the bonus modes. The bonus modes are where all the big points are usually hidden and if there's a big motorized and dramatically themed playfield feature to figure out, there's usually a bonus mode tied to it. Bonus modes are also where Multi-Ball can be found, if you are playing in competition, having several balls on the playfield can really give you an edge. Bonus modes will usually have a progression to the them that terminates in an all out scoring fiesta where certain targets on the playfield will count for Jackpots and Super Jackpots and again Multiball tends to come into play as well.

And this is the state I generally shoot for in a great round of pinball, with the playfield objectives met and top scoring features activated, landing critical shots off the tips of flippers or in rebound off a jet-bumper. Specialty features like robotic hands, ball cannons, or playfield magnets at my control. Intense music and sound effects hyping the excitement and well placed shots... Not to mention a flurry of balls whipping around. Somewhere around here I might take notice of the amount of fun I'm having but to be sure I'm too busy to account for just how much of myself I've forgotten and all told isn't that what recreation is all about?

If I am demoing a pinball machine for a new player, I will encourage them to play at least three rounds on the same game so they can open up some bonus modes and perhaps get a taste of multi-ball. Three rounds may not be enough for the casual player to land a Super Jackpot but it's usually enough to get a sense of the caliber of the machine. Every once and a while a new player will surprise me and have a seemingly endless ball as I watch a connection being made. All it takes is one great round for someone new to fall in love with pinball.

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Theatre of Magic - Modern Digital Pinball Machine

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Three Types of Pinball Machines

While it's easy to understand why you should own a pinball machine, it may not be so easy to figure out which pinball title to buy or even which type of pinball machine to buy. Of course you will want to limit your search to 'real' pinball machines, the coin-operated variety, and you will want to research titles and features to find a game that really works with you and your home. Most importantly, you will want to have an understanding of the three main types of flipper pinball: electro-mechanical, early digital, and modern digital. With a little information on your side, starting your pinball collection can be as fun as well - playing a round of pinball.

'Wood Rails' of the 1950's, are the first pinball machine type to establish the modern use of flippers at the base of the playfield and were named for the wooden rails that flank and retain the playfield glass. While the wood rails would be replaced in favor of steel by the end of the decade, the common underlying electro-mechanical(EM) technology of score reels, whirring motors, and clicking relays would remain the standard until the end of the 1970's. These EM machines have a magical charm about them due to their funky old world operations and are every bit as fun to play as modern pinball machines - some even boasting features like 4 player scoring, bonus counters, extra ball, and even multi-ball (Fireball). Players of all ages enjoy the EM pinball for the face value objectives, period artwork, and simplicity of design. Surprisingly, the technology evolved over so many years that a properly reconditioned EM pinball can be a very reliable performer in the home - even the ones old enough to be in a museum.

In 1979, the very first early digital solid state pinball machines appeared. These games launched a new era with fantastic blue scoring displays, high score and feature status memory, and thrilling new sound effects. Beyond that however, these games were very similar to the EM games that preceded them, in fact it's possible to find pinball titles like Night Rider and Sinbad in both Solid State and EM versions. Yet in 1979, Gorgor was talking and the early digital was on it's way to more advanced features like stereo sound, complex scoring objectives, and ramp arrays... even secondary playfields like Haunted House. These early digital machines are great fun to play for more than just their silverball action, at the dawn of the digital age it was really something to be walking past a boardwalk arcade and be immersed in all that sound and energy, pinball from this era is more than just a sign of the times, it is a celebration.

Today's modern digital pinball machines operate on the same, albeit vastly more advanced, digital technology that has it's roots in those late 1970s machines. Something really amazing happened in the early 1990's, pinball machines embraced the Bonus Mode. When Dot Matrix screens appeared in the late 1980s with leader board scoring and animations, the time was right to step things up a notch and bonus modes started appearing in just about every machine. A Bonus Mode converts the entire playfield in to a theme specific mini game, complete with unique lighting, sounds and music - often times centered around a major playfield feature like the file cabinet in X-Files or the ball cannons on Star Trek TNG. Activate a bonus mode and the entire atmosphere and feel changes. A modern digital might have 12 or more such modes, enough to elevate a good round to something much more of an experience. Some of the modern digitals are so popular among collectors that they command twice the price of what they did when new. It's possible to play a modern digital for hours and not see everything the designers have packed in, the rule sheets are sometimes several pages long and there are even hidden features to uncover for the more dedicated player. For a lot of families, the modern digital is the single machine that represents the entirety of pinballs history.

Now one could argue that Haunted House had a bonus mode way back in 1982 with the unique lighting, sound, and scoring that activates when you enter the lower playfield so for simplicity sake, assume that these designations of the the machine types are informal. And the question remains, which machine is right for you. Electro-Mechanical games are great for young kids as the pace is slower, the objectives are easy to understand, and the game play is thick with nostalgia. If you have teens in the house, consider a modern digital as they pack in the most intense experience. But for all pinball shoppers, my advice would be to find a modern digital in your area that is set-up properly and play it until you've sampled a few bonus modes and at the very least some Multiball action. See if you can develop a taste for the intensity and depth - attributes that will serve your family well over the long run. Remember that it is hard to go wrong with having a pinball in the house and that if you really want to go big, the best thing to do is start a collection with one or more titles from each machine type.


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- Online Pinball Database

Indiana Jones Pinball Machine -
Favorite Modern Digital (one of many)

Thursday, October 4, 2007

You should own a Pinball Machine

Pinball Fits Active Lifestyles

I believe every household should have a least one pinball machine - especially if you have kids. I am a little biased because I grew up with pinball and I have always known the joys of pinball's simple competition, family interaction, and general social benefits. There are skill sets to acquire and refine and just like golf, it's never the same game twice. But most of all, I believe having a pinball machine around is a fantastic way for any busy family to enjoy some intense R&R at a pace that fits this modern life of ours.

The other day, a neighbor friend of ours and his young son, Jude, were over for dinner and what turned out to be a special event - Jude's first ever round of pinball. It's easy enough to underestimate the range of emotion a child encounters when in control of such a fantastic device... Lights and motion, mechanical sounds, bells; Pinball is after all a carnival in a box. I'm pretty sure that even though Jude may not be old enough to tie his own shoes, he's going to remember playing that pinball for a long time to come.

Now Jude did master the reset button and gave the flippers quite a workout but it will be some time before he's able to match his dad in a round. Taking on Dad is something every kid can enjoy and when that auspicious first win does come, father and son (or daughter) will be able to enjoy a level playing field (pun intended) that few other activities provide. Modern pinball with memory and score boards will even enable competition when everyone is not home at the same time... Let's see golf or badminton do that.

And yet just like lawn sports, Pinball can become a beneficial recreational activity. Spirited play dispels stress quickly and effectively and a great round of pinball can happen in 5 minutes or 20 or over several hours of competitive play. That's quite a lot of therapy for life's little time windows like when you have 15 minutes before dinner or practice or perhaps an entire Friday night.

Take a few minutes and begin the process with a little research. See if you can find the game you played in college or at a friends growing up or reach out and ask for some recommendations... There are some amazing pinballs out there for you and your family to enjoy.

Have a look at what is available:

Gameroomwarehouse.com - [Sponsor]

Internet Pinball Database - [Resource]

Buckaroo - [Pinball I played as a Kid]