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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 the maximum possible number of points. 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).

Table of contents
1 Basic Attributes of a Pinball Game
2 Features and functions
3 Playing Techniques
4 Dark History
5 Relationship to Pachinko
6 Scoring
7 Maintenance and Repair
8 The Business of Pinball
9 Pinball in Popular Culture
10 See also
11 External links

Basic Attributes of a Pinball Game

The playfield is a planar surface inclined upward from three to six 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 controls a solenoid attached to a piece of metal 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, nudging is considered cheating by some, and excessive nudging is penalized by loss of control or game (known as tilting).

The game ends when a specified number of balls have been lost off the bottom of the playfield. This number of balls played was up to ten in very old machines, usually 5 in games of the 1940s through 1970s, and typically became 3 balls in the late 1970s or early 1980s. In more modern games, it can be either 3 or 5, at the operator's discretion.
NB.: This number is per player. So in a 2-player game, each player gets 3 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 pin used to propel the ball into the playfield. The player can control the amount of force used for launching by pulling the plunger a different 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 the mid-1940s the first mechanical flippers appeared 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 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:

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:

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.
Pinball designers also entice players with the chance to win an extra game or replay. Ways to get a replay might include: When an extra game is won, the machine typically makes a single loud bang.

Playing Techniques

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 mechanism guards against excessive manipulation of this sort. The mechanism is 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. When this happens, the game registers a "tilt" and locks out. 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.

Dark History

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). 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 cousin of pinball, but 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 electromechanical devices, with numerous opportnities 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 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, and Williams competed between 1950 and 1990 to produce the most complex and appealing games. Beginning in the late 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 around 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:

See also

External links