Pinball Wizards

National Pinball Museum in Baltimore, MD
When most people think of pinball, The song Pinball Wizard from the The Who's "Tommy" springs to mind. Have a discussion about pinball anywhere, and someone is bound to start quoting it:

Ever since I was a young boy
I played the silver ball
From Soho down to Brighton
I must have played them all

The lyrics tell the story of a kid whose pinball prowess can save the world. The Who's Tommy may even believe pinball can be a way to save the world. I won't go that far, but it can teach us about life.

Pinball evokes imagery of iconic flashing lights, bumpers and bells of those old 1950's and 1960's pinball tables. While tables have evolved from wooden and electric relics to loud, glitzy monstrosities, the game itself has retained one core element that keeps people coming back: the fight against gravity.

Gold Rush (1935)

Pinball is looked upon as a distinctly American pastime, and there is certainly evidence to support that. A broad sweep of the history and use of pinball, however, demonstrates a global relevance. The earliest pinball mechanisms were more like deluxe pachinko tables crafted for the amusement of royals in Europe and elsewhere. In fact, up through the first so-called 'modern' pinball unit in the 1930's, most 'pinball' was much like a game of Peggle (without woodland creatures cheering you on).

In the last hundred years, technical enhancements advanced the game. Flippers, clanging bells, illustrated back-glass displays, electronic targets, ramps, tunnels, pits, and dot matrix screens systematically emerged. Despite these complexities, the purpose of the game remained the same: keep the ball from succumbing to gravity. Keep it in the air.

Taken as a metaphorical struggle, a pinball player fights against inevitability. The satisfaction of keeping a ball in the air and preventing it from death is affirmed each time the player manages to make another carefully timed shot. The unpredictable nature of the play field adds an element of chaos to the game. Which direction will the ball spin off to this time? Will I be able to do anything about it? This sense of impending doom and inevitability, coupled with the random chaos of a cluttered play field, makes for an experience that can best be described as a 'life simulator.' It certainly explains the game's universal appeal.

Sea Breeze (1946)

I mostly avoided pinball tables in the arcades. I saw all arcade games as chaotic quarter gobblers, but pinball took the chaos to another level. In the eighties, many of the best tables cost fifty cents. I saw pinball as a futile waste of money. For me, it was an  incredibly tough game of chance entirely at the mercy of gravity and luck, a game where the ball often dropped directly down either side of the play field below the flippers the very moment it entered the play field. I loved the imagination on display - the curvy ramps and neat moving models and cool sound effects, but I didn't trust myself to last more than a few seconds with each play.

The continual downward motion of the ball, punctuated with brief but heroic leaps skyward, requires constant focus and movement, something I did not feel ready for.

Later in life I became energized by the futility of pinball as I grew comfortable with the notion of embracing my own failures. I grew to understand why pinball is important. Life is a series of desperate flicks toward untold heights, and many of those attempts will fail, but that is the point. The point is not to get it right every time, but to learn with each failure what a successful flipper tap feels like. No matter the number of failures, each time you play you get just a little bit better at recognizing the angle to the ramp and getting it right more and more often. In that sense, pinball is like any other game, but the utter simplicity of the struggle played out on a real, tactile, physical space is an experience unlike any other.

Pinbot (1986)
Now, I am obsessed with pinball. I've grown to realize that while luck plays a part, it takes a great deal of skill to master a table. I am no longer a kid counting out a sparse number of tokens in my hand, and I've come to realize it's an gaming experience that possesses a sort of purity. No matter the theme of the table, be it licensed from an action movie, or about aliens, or fishing, or superheroes, each pinball play field gives you a distinct experience that is nevertheless linked spiritually to the experience of any other table on earth. There is a pinball aesthetic that rarely changes. From the simplest, retro-bumper outfit, to a complex play field littered with ramps, pits, jumps, and props, the general physics are the same. The skill and timing in using the left and right flippers is the same. The careful force with which you need to release the plunger for a skill shot is largely the same.

The ball itself is usually a symbol for something in-game that is never quite explained. It is an intangible sphere, almost like a monolith like symbol. It can be a deep sea diver, a gold prospector, and international playboy, a beach bum, a space explorer, or a superhero. It doesn't have to stand for anything. It can be a proxy for your own hopes, or fears, or aspirations. Is there any other way to explain the profundity of multiball (wherein you must juggle two or more balls in the play field at once)?  

Theater of Magic (1995)
Nowadays, there appears to be a pinball renaissance taking place all over the world. Leading the charge is the push by pinball enthusiasts to re-create rare classic tables digitally, down to every last bumper, sound sample, and illustration.

The Future Pinball community is responsible for the largest, most authentic collection of digitally re-created pinball tables anywhere. As with any geek hobby, the pinball enthusiast community is full of people devoted to emulating the 'pure' tactile experience of a solidly constructed table. To this aim, volunteer developers have begun work-in-progress on tables representing over fifty years of pinball history.

El Dorado (1975)
So, doesn't the very existence of virtual pinball seems to miss the whole point of the experience? It is not without value. Pinball purists may pine for the real thing, but the truth is, the real experience is often expensive and time consuming. The advances made in applying real physical algorithms in virtual spaces, along with advances in creating accurate reflections, movements and textures, have brought us closer to making virtual pinball an authentic experience. Just ten years ago, the tools available to budding pinball enthusiasts weren't up to snuff. Now, it's amazing to see how far we've come.

FunHouse (1990)
Now that physical and virtual tables have begun to form an uneasy alliance, we players have it better than ever. Let's take a closer look at the play fields themselves, and the components found there, for a better understanding of how technically involved a simple game of pinball can actually be.

Early tables were often lined with diagonal rows of bullseye and drop targets. In the center of these tables were large, evenly spaced round bumpers. Occasionally, a center kicker (usually tough to reach) would keep the ball stationary for a moment, and then kick it out back onto the field. On the whole, though, the even placement of targets robbed the player of a specific strategy other than hoping the ball didn't drop too far to the left or right.

These simple bell and bumper tables were actually the least forgiving. The flippers on these clicking, mechanical tables were spread further apart than on modern tables. The lower left and right pitfalls are usually very easy for the ball to fall into, and elements of chance abound. Still, they are amazingly fun to play, and the sounds they emit - clanging bells, clicking point counters - are charming and evocative.

Space Shuttle (1984)
Next, there are tables that began to incorporate electric and electronic elements, as well as added complexity in the play field. For the most part, these tables retained the simplicity of the earliest tables, but the lighting effects and rudimentary novelties underlining game play were all spruced up. Tables like Black Hole even housed recessed play fields underneath the primary one which lit up when the ball entered. Other tables incorporated magnets, pits, and unpredictable spinning surfaces. The overall pinball experience in the modern age was more controlled, more deliberately directed, and less chaotic, than early machines. This increased the opportunity for the player to employ strategy, and arguably made pinball easier and more fun to play.

For my money, the glut of tables that emerged in the 1980s and 90's represent a kind of golden era for pinball. Many of these tables were licensed from movies (Indiana Jones, Addams Family) or were sequels to established tables (Bride of Pinbot). Other tables were just downright strange (Funhouse and Big Bang Bar are both utterly bizarre and delightful). Many tables displayed animated dot matrix screens playing out animated sequences as the player met certain conditions on the play field. Other tables took it a step further and forced the player to use the flipper buttons to control a character on the video screen for a short time, transforming the strictly physical experience on a real life table into a virtual one.

Addams Family (1992)
Modern tables are equally as predictable but much more interesting and involved. Starting the the top of the play field: there is usually a cluster of three or more bumpers sitting just below three or four rollover lanes. Ideally, the ball can continue to knock against the vibrating bumper, and sail up through the rollover switches until it hits all the lanes and increases the multiplier.

Moving to the bottom of the play area: there are often slingshot bumper edges just above the flippers. They often quickly kick the ball left and right. A ball in the thrall of a lower slingshot bumper is often seconds away from a quick death. Just above this danger zone, you'll often find round targets positioned at various angles to the bottom of the table. Modern tables have jettisoned the square bullseye targets in favor for electronic sensors. This way, as you strategically flick the bumper, you can, with the right timing, hit these targets dead-on, triggering sounds and even animations on the back glass screen.

Big Bang Bar (1996)
Hitting targets often results in opening up new pathways and ramps, or at very least, increasing your score. The ramps are absolutely integral to the modern pinball experience. Hitting a ball 'just right' from the correct edge of your flipper, and with the correct force, can send the ball gliding up a ramp. From there, it follows a fixed, graceful path across the play field, one that often curves it back around and down toward the flippers.

This ramp-path-to-flipper journey is perhaps the most satisfying of pinball maneuvers. A table with several right and left angled ramps provide a skilled player with the opportunity to engage in a kind of rhythmic ramping. Here, each ramp leads the ball back along to the lower field, at which point the ball sails upward again from a flicked flipper and hits another ramp, and the process continues indefinitely.

The Machine: Bride of Pinbot (1991)
Other modern pinball features are electromagnetic surfaces and interactive toys. Magnetic forces allow the ball to be held in place, or even spun, in a very specific way, without the aid of bumpers or switches. Toys are usually plastic models with magnetic metal parts that can pick up the ball and carry it on a set path, or send it flying from the top of the table.

Taken together, all of pinball's physical accouterments are given real personality by the aesthetic design of the table, and the amazing sound design that accompanies a game. This holds true for both real tables and the higher fidelity of so-called 'fantasy' tables.

Skilled developers and aficionados are crafting all sorts of wild, outlandish fantasy tables, but they are also committed to re-creating the tables of old, giving us a way to interact with tables past without the need to journey to one of the world's dwindling number of pinball arcades, or having to plunk down thousands of dollars for a single table. Put simply, virtual pinball will never replace the tactile experience of a real table, but it's the closest we have.

Moon Knight (Zen Studios)
One of the most difficult effects to simulate in a virtual pinball game is the physical effect of gravity on the ball, along with the ball's exact weight. Many developers get this wrong. Farsight Studios, known for their meticulous recreations of Stern, Williams, Bally and Gottlieb tables, is in the process of rolling out 'The Pinball Arcade,' a multi-platform video game committed to re-releasing old tables in the digital space over the next several years. While Farsight's devotion to this cause is commendable, they do need to work on the accuracy of the physical movement and gravity of the ball.

Farsight's physics engine tend to float the ball around the table with a kind of slow-mo ease. The unforgiving forces of gravity should be giving the player a sense of real weight, danger and unpredictability, a sense that the flippers are struggling with a downward pull, and a real feeling of accomplishment when they are able to flick the ball directly into an upper target. Instead, Farsight has made the path of the ball easier to control in order to fight some of the chaos inherent in real pinball and appeal to more players.

Zen Studios creates outlandish fantasy tables that could never exist in real life. Oddly enough, it is Zen that has about perfected physical ball movements in the digital space. There are roughly twenty Zen tables currently available (10 Marvel Superhero tables, and over 10 Fantasy tables), and each one is a delight to play. I feel a true sense of gravity, weight, and physicality to each of the tables. The ball performs like a physical object subject to external forces rather than a moving sprite. This is a remarkably tough thing to simulate, but Zen gets it right.

Sorcerer's Lair (Zen Studios)
Of course, no discussion of the game can go without name-dropping the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda. It has one of the best assembled collection of vintage and modern pinball tables in my area. My collection of re-created and fantasy tables only comprises a mere sliver of what is displayed at any one of these historical sites. There are several throughout the country. Tables from each decade provide us with an accurate slice of pop culture from that era. They range from quaint to kitschy, from unintentionally hilarious to awe-inspiring. It is utterly staggering to assess the cultural impact these tables had on multiple generations growing up in the twentieth century.

My only hope is that pinball, with all of it's chaos and futility and lessons of inevitability, can reach the newest generation. Even in a virtual space, pinball is leagues removed from the jingoistic warmongering and weapon porn so prevalent in modern gaming. Insofar as gaming can ever be considered a 'pure' experience, pinball is probably the closest we'll get... and it may even teach us a thing or two about life.


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