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Lights and Noises

By Samuel Stoddard

Pinball is a game that has captured the attention of the American public for decades. What's it all about? We certainly don't know. But in the following chronicle of the game and its history, we'll pretend we do.


Noisy arcades have been a dominant landmark in the tourist-infested coastal regions and the seedy metropolitan areas of the United States for the better part of the twentieth century. Attracting nerds and punks alike, these tiny spotlights of cultural activity are difficult to miss. While the average pedestrian, more concerned about getting to his destination than whether or not he'll be run over by a truck before he gets there, can walk blindly past things like grocery stores (with gigantic advertising posters in the windows with product logos and so-called low prices on them), video rentals (with equally large movie posters featuring dramatic silhouettes and slogans like, "This time it's personal."), and gas stations (with an oily stench and vehicles travelling in and out at 241 miles per hour), he can not walk past a late twentieth century arcade without being violently yanked from his introspection.

The first thing one notices is the noise level, which is somewhat louder than being in the engine of a 747, the owner of which did not pay a lot for its muffler. The type of noise, however, is vastly different. Instead of the monstrous, nerve-wracking roar of airplane engines, arcades emit the monstrous, nerve-wracking clanks and zaps and bonks and schlings of invading aliens and dueling robots.

The second thing one notices is the nauseating exhaust emitted by the fifty or so chain smokers inside, who smoke only the cheapest cigarettes and play only the most expensive games. These people are permanent residents of the arcade, people you wish wore more concealing clothing, people so conditioned by the harsh arcade environment that they have learned to play the various arcade games and catch up on lost sleep at the same time. Some of them can even make high scores while sleeping. They make their living by, once a week, pulling themselves from their natural habitat, retreating to the confines of their apartments, brushing the spiderwebs away from their computers, and hacking into the stock market's mainframes. Once there, they transfer large sums of money to local banks, where they withdraw the full amount in quarters. On the way from the bank back to the arcade, they pick up some pizza and a two liter bottle of coke.

There are other sorts one finds in arcades. One type in particular is the truckers, whose jobs consist of driving large trucks containing anything from live zoo animals to vending machine supplies from Tampa, Florida, to Seattle, Washington, stopping at as many diners, tattoo parlors, and arcades on the way as is humanly possible. Another type is the thirteen year old boys, who burn approximately six thousand calories per minute, consistently gain the high scores on games like Fire Death Duel Warrior Arena, and pass Centipede off in the same manner they would eight track audio tapes and phonographs.


One of the earliest games housed by arcades are pinball games. The word "pinball" comes from the English words "pin" which means "pin," and "ball," which means, roughly, "ball." Of course, pinball has absolutely nothing to do with pins, so naturally one wonders how the now familiar game of pinball got its name. It seems that the unforgettable legendary figure (whose name I forget) who invented pinball lived next door to the unforgettable legendary figure who invented another popular ball game, namely bowling. There had been a feud between them for many years, because the bowling inventor had had the audacity to father a son who grew up to marry the pinball inventor's daughter. At any rate, bowling is a game where the players take these four hundred pound balls and fling them across the room in an attempt to knock what are called "pins" flat. The bowling inventor was originally going to call the name of the game "pinball," since the game involved both balls and pins, but his next door neighbor, in an attempt to exact his revenge, went out and called his own game "pinball" first and patented the name. I made all that up.

The game of pinball itself consists of launching a flawlessly round, silver, metallic ball into play, keeping it in play for as long as possible, and, ideally, having it bonk into the various mechanical obstacles. This sounds like great fun, until one considers the many core design flaws inherent in the game.

First, the game board (called a "table") is not level. This is distractingly inconvenient, for this means that the ball, as soon as it is launched into play, persists in rolling toward the near side of the table. Second, on the near side, right at the bottom of the slope where the ball persists in rolling, is a drop zone, a pinball-eating void. Well, this made pinball a very troublesome game to play, because every time the ball was launched, it rolled into the void, and that was that. But instead of levelling out the game board, which would have made a heck of a lot more sense, "flippers" were added to guard the void. The way it worked was, if the ball rolled next to one of the flippers, a button could be slapped on the side of the table, and the flipper would strike the ball, hurling it up into a mechanical obstacle at approximately the speed stationwagons drive in and out of gas stations (241 miles per hour). Of course, this sounds like a great solution, until one realizes that there is a gap between the flippers wide enough for Moses to lead the tribes of Israel through. The end result is that the ball, sooner or later, figures out that it can zip straight between the flippers, and there isn't a thing anybody can do about it. Some pinball tables make an effort to correct this problem by placing a small post between the flippers, but all this really accomplishes is to provide the ball with something to bonk against on the way down.

If that wasn't enough, many pinball tables have what is known as "drop lanes," which are small corridors on the edges of the table that provide the ball safe passage from the middle of the table to the pinball void, without any possibility of flipper intervention.

All these obvious problems would be more excusable if it weren't for the foremost design flaw of all, namely that the pinball table is covered with a thin sheet of plastic glass, preventing people from picking up the stupid ball and whacking it into the mechanical obstacles by hand. To make matters worse, pinball machines can detect when they are being tipped on end, so that possibility is ruled out, too.


Back in the fifties, pinball was played by male teenagers with fifties style haircuts and fifties style grease with fifties style female teenagers sitting on the edges of the machines. The early tables consisted mainly of "pop bumpers," sometimes called "jet bumpers," which are fat cylindrical obstacles placed randomly about. When the ball hit these, they would hit the ball back, thousands of times harder, hurling it into some other obstacle, which would knock it into another at still greater speed, and so on. The end result would be that the ball would become a jagged, silver streak, and the player would have to hit the flipper buttons if the streak got anywhere near the flippers. Of course, by the time his reflexes kicked in, the ball would be long gone. This is a pinball tradition that is still very much alive today.

There's another kind of bumper, which has been, and still is, present in every single pinball table ever made to date. These bumpers are called slingback bumpers and are positioned just above and to the outside of the two main flippers. These are very important, because it makes it possible, should the ball hit one, for the two slingback bumpers to play tennis with each other, allowing you, the player, a moment to rest. When the slingback bumpers are done with the ball, they'll shoot it into the drop lane by themselves, so once they start playing tennis, no player intervention is required until the next ball is ready to be launched.

The second most prominent feature of fifties pinball tables is what is known as "targets." A bank of targets is a line of usually three or four spots along the table's walls. When the ball hits one of the targets, it drops. When the ball drops all of the targets in the bank, he is awarded some form of bonus, and -- this is very discouraging -- all the targets pop back up again. Some tables refer to "targets" as "drop targets," furthering the pinball tradition of prefixing the word "drop" before every term.

Bumpers and targets were about all there was to the old fifties style pinball tables. This is in stark contrast to the modern pinball tables of the nineties, which are miniaturized theme park and resort complexes. The ball is analogous to a tourist, and the object is to run the tourist, using the flippers, through as many of the theme park attractions as is conceivably possible, as many times. Some of the more common attractions are roller coasters (in pinball terminology, "ramps"), human cannonballs ("sinkholes"), and bumper cars ("everything else"). And, of course, what nineties pinball machine would be complete without suggestive cartoon-like artwork, and a dazzling on-screen display? On-screen displays are very important, because it gives the people standing nearby something else to look at besides the ball flying around the table. Of course, the pinball player himself can't look at the on-screen display for even an instant, or the ball will instantly materialize right on his flippers and roll into the drop zone.

Of course, the biggest difference between fifties and nineties pinball tables is the inclusion of a plot. Yes, in spite of the fact that pinball is still, essentially, a ball rolling around bonking into things, modern pinball tables actually have long and drawn out story lines, especially the ones fashioned after major motion pictures (i.e., all of them). While the object of a fifties pinball table is usually to "get points," the object of a nineties pinball table might be "to complete seven training courses in armed combat, journey through the monster-infested forestlands, climb up the monster-infested mountains, break through the fortress gates, kill the guards, win an apocalyptic battle with an evil enchantress, rescue the fair princess, revive her strength, return her to the people's village, marry her, have kids, and train them in armed combat." And all without taking your fingers off the flipper buttons, even to scratch a particularly distracting itch on the tip of your nose. Of course, it is absolutely impossible to complete even half of this storyline before you lose your last ball. Not even expert players can get past the monster-ridden mountain stage, let alone rescue the princess. The average veteran pinball player will only be able to complete the fifth training course.


Scoring is quite unique in pinball; the game is notorious for being generous with "points," a unit of measurement analogous to the haypenny, the microsecond, and the nanometer -- they are all units of measurement that are too utterly small to be of any use whatsoever. Therefore, scoring in pinball is primarily expressed in "kilopoints" and "megapoints," one thousand and one million points respectively, abbreviated "K" and "M." For being sober enough to launch the ball correctly, you are typically awarded something on the order of one million (1M) points. You gain around two thousand (2K) points whenever the ball bonks into a bumper, even though it undoubtedly did so through no fault of your own. Falling in a sinkhole can award you anywhere from 100K to 10M points and doing so repetitively can earn you enough points so that, if each point were worth a nickel, you could purchase a major world power such as Japan or Russia or Microsoft. Some pinball tables award you, as a consolation prize, 50K for losing the ball via a drop lane as opposed to between your flippers. This is a nice gesture, but 50K, in a typical pinball game, is equivalent to one point in bowling, three points in bridge, or "first date" in tennis. Basically it's like treating Michael Eisner to a dinner at Wendy's.

One of the intricacies in scoring bonuses and jackpots in pinball is that it frequently involves some familiarity with higher math, such as multiplication. Many pinball tables have what's called a "multiplier," set to one at the beginning of the game but which will hopefully increase as you play. When you gain certain bonuses, the score you gain is the flat rate for the bonus, times the current multiplier. So, as those of you familiar with the basics of multiplication can see, it is highly desirable to have as high a multiplier as you can get. Unfortunately, increasing the multiplier on any given table is effectively impossible. One table may require you to hit a certain sinkhole twelve times, then shoot all the ramps, in order, left to right. Another table may require you to hit sequence of targets located in the drop lane, so that, to hit them, you must sacrifice your ball. Still another table, may, heaven forbid, require you to spell a three to five letter word.


Spelling elementary school words, like "dog" and "burn" and "crash," has long been one of the primary objectives of pinball, and it is this that lends the game its educational value. Sometimes a line of targets will have letters written on them that, taken together, form a small word -- the object being to "spell" the word by hitting all the targets. Most of the time, however, you spell words by routing the ball through all of several parallel lanes. For instance, above a cluster of pop bumpers, there may be five short lanes, labelled "c," "a," "n," "d," and "y." The ball might roll down the "d" lane, so the letter "d" would light up. Then it might hit the bumpers several dozens of times, then fly up the "a" lane, thus lighting the letter "a." (Note: this example assumes that the pinball table has a junk food theme to it.) Once you have lit up all the letters, you typically either gain a large bonus or increase your multiplier. Or it might just highlight some sinkhole on the other side of the table, telling you to shoot for that next.

Unfortunately, many modern pinball tables have corrupted the educational value of the spelling aspect of the games. Before long, it was apparent that many pinball players did not know the first thing about spelling, and so it was decided that a feature should be added that would make the spelling bonuses easier to obtain. Let's use our "candy" example above, and suppose, like before, that the "a" and "d" letters are lit up. The flipper buttons could be used to rotate the lit letters. So suppose a flipper button was hit -- then the "a" and "d" letters would turn off, and the "n" and "y" letters would light up. This would be useful if the player saw the ball heading for a lane with a letter already lit up -- he could hit the flipper buttons until the letter went dark, so the ball could light it up again. In effect, one doesn't end up spelling "candy" at all -- instead, one spells words like "ccany" and "ndddd."

There is, however, an aspect of the game, uncorrupted over time, that develops one's ability to make judgments and accurate estimations. This feature of the game comes in the form of the "skill shot," so named because it is the only part of the game that requires any actual skill beyond inserting the correct denomination of coin into the correct slot on the front. Each time you are given a new ball, you are required to launch it, usually by pulling a spring out and letting it fly. Many pinball tables have a mechanism wherein, if the ball is launched at a precise force, it will be routed differently than it would if the ball were launched faster or slower. If, by some miracle, you are able to approximate and attain this specific force, by estimating how far out you should pull the launch spring, you will be awarded a bonus. Of course, you can never get this except by accident, because the spring mechanism is set never to hit the ball with the same amount of force twice, even if you always pull the spring out the exact same distance, to the nanometer. Many modern pinball tables have a skill shot system that does not involve the ball itself, but which actually utilize the on-screen display. This is done for a couple of reasons. One, the on-screen display ought to be used for something, and two, this makes it much easier to rig it so you always miss.

Some tables have, to give the players a false sense of security, more than just the two main flippers. Some tables have a third, sometimes even a fourth, flipper up toward the middle of the table. It is invariably the case that these extra flippers are completely useless. Either they are so short they look like revolving oblong posts, or they only move a fraction of an inch back and forth. In either case, they won't re-route the ball in any significant or useful manner. The extra flippers do, however, create more noise each time the buttons are pressed, so they have their redeeming qualities.

Perhaps the most inexplicably rewarding moments in pinball are when a player successfully starts a mode called "multiball" wherein you have to keep track of not one but two or three or possibly four balls in play at the same time -- as if keeping track of one ball at a time wasn't hard enough. Multiball mode has the uncanny ability to turn even the best pinball players' minds to mush. One might be very skilled at pinball, keeping a single ball alive for decades straight, but once multiball mode starts, he'll generally lose every last ball in a matter of seconds.

Still another feature of many pinball tables are "timers." The player has to fulfill some requirements to activate it, like run up all the ramps or complete a couple of target banks. Once activated, the counter counts from, say, fifteen seconds, down to zero. Before the timer is up, every, say, pop bumper, is worth a large amount of points, say, 500K each. During these fifteen seconds, when you are trying harder than ever to get the ball to hit those bumpers, you will encounter a phenomenon whose only rational explanation is that the ball is an intelligent life form. The ball, which had previously been magnetized toward the pop bumpers and hurdled itself into them so frequently and for so long that you had to jostle the table just to extract it, will not go near them until the fifteen seconds are up. Instead, it will be busy flying up ramps and into sinkholes that you have never, in the history of the game, been able to hit.


Despite first appearances, there is actually a great deal of skill required to score high in the game of pinball. The author of this article has not seen any evidence of this personally, but this is what all the expert pinball players tell him. One can discern the ability of a pinball player quite readily, by observing his technique. Pinball players come in three basic categories:

There are several tricks that veteran pinball players have learned over the years. For instance, if the ball is coming down the side and is about to roll onto a flipper, you can hit the flipper just as the ball touches it. This will make the ball shoot back the way it came and fall into the drop lane. Alternately, you can wait for the ball to reach the very tip of the flipper before hitting it. This will cause the ball to fly across to the other side of the table and go down the other drop lane. So as you can see, proper timing is very important.

But the basic rule of strategy that expert pinball players have developed, over many years of experience, is to shoot for anything that's lit up. Pinball tables are required by law to consume more electricity in lighting than the rest of your town uses for hot water heating. The average table contains upwards of 5K lights, which either (1) stay lit throughout the life of the table, (2) blink throughout the life of the table, (3) are located near a ramp or sinkhole and light up only when you're supposed to shoot for it, or (4) are located near a ramp or sinkhole but have a completely unrelated function. The trick, as you may have surmised, are to discern the lights which are telling you useful information (such as "shoot this ramp"), from the lights which are telling you useless information (such as "the power is on"), from the lights are outright lying to you (such as "go down the drop lane for 15M"). However, the daunting task of deciphering the lighting system should not worry you -- unless you are an expert pinball player, you can't aim the ball anyway.


In an attempt to make some form of pinball available to members of the public who do not routinely ask for their paychecks to be cashed in quarters, many game software companies have created pinball simulator games that run on a home computer. So instead of spending thousands of dollars on an actual pinball table, you can spend thousands of dollars on a home computer and accompanying pinball software.

The primary difficulty with translating pinball to a home computer is that the size and shape of a computer screen in no way resembles the size and shape of a pinball table. A physical pinball table is usually around five feet deep by two feet wide. The standard computer screen is around eight inches tall and ten and a half inches wide -- hardly proportionate. Pinball game programmers have gotten around this problem using two different methods: the letterbox method and the pan-n-scan method. The letterboxing method means that only about half of the screen's width is used to display the table. The other half is either thrown away, or used, as a filler, for the on-screen display. The pan-n-scan method uses all of the available screen, but only shows about half of the table at a time. The screen "scrolls," or "pans," with the ball, showing you only the part of the table that the ball is rolling in. This latter method becomes quite amusing during multiball play, when different balls can be rolling in different parts of the table at once. Most programmers solve this problem by tracking the ball that is closest to the flippers, so the other balls can rack up as many points as they please in other areas. At least that's the theory. In practice, multiball only lasts long enough for you to lose all the balls.

One great disadvantage with using computer pinball simulators is that gameplay is subject to bugs in the software. For instance, your ball might, at times, roll through the flipper. Other times, when rolling underneath a ramp, it might spontaneously appear on top of it. Still other times, the ball might bounce off the table and into the on-screen display. And of course there's a particular favorite of many pinball enthusiasts -- the computer forgets to give an extra ball that was supposedly awarded for spelling "extra" seven times in a row. These intricacies add to the unique and mystifying experience that computer pinball provides.


There is no substitute, however, for the real thing. A real pinball game, for instance, is probably owned by an arcade rather than yourself, meaning that you would not feel guilty whaling the heck out of it if you get mad at it. In addition, a real pinball table eliminates the need for any other method of lighting, such as light bulbs. Finally, hanging out in the arcades is a great way to meet people with whom you would not otherwise have any association.

So the next time you walk by an arcade and become immediately intimidated by the sounds of invading aliens and pot-bellied, tattoed, chain smoking truck driving thirteen year olds with arms full of pizza and coke, reassure yourself -- arcades aren't as bad as they may first seem. And, if you are feeling particularly adventurous, and are in possession of at least $51.75 in quarters, you might step inside and play a game or two of pinball. Of course, you'll have to wait 63 years for the guy ahead of you to finish his marathon pinball session first, and your game will undoubtedly last an average of three and a half seconds per ball, most of which will be spent aiming for the skill shot. But at least it's a great way to get rid of spare change, which would have otherwise fallen in the cracks of your sofa, never to see the light of day again.

And besides, it's educational.