Almost exactly a year ago, I began playing pinball at my friend Noah’s house. I didn’t understand how he could be so interested in Pinball that he bought two machines, but since I was staying there I figured I should play.
Playing pinball in a private home is a very different experience than playing it in the arcade. You don’t care quite as much about just staying alive, so you try different strategies in different games. With no background music it’s easier to hear the call-outs that tell you what you should be doing next. More than anything, you have the time and space to go deep enough that you realize that there’s more to pinball than just mashing the flipper buttons to keep from draining the ball.
Shortly after playing at Noah’s house, I built a virtual pinball machine. Unless you have played virtual pinball, it is impossible for you to realize just how good and realistic it is. A well built machine with all of the bells and whistles is such a tactile experience that you can feel where the ball is at any time. It doesn’t have the depth of a real pinball machine, but besides that it is better in most ways. I’m fortunate enough to live near the biggest publicly accessible pinball arcade (Pinball Hall of Fame), but I’d often play a game there and then play it back home on the virtual machine and prefer that experience.
I designed my first pinball machine to fold up into the guest room closet when not in use. My specific reason for making it fold was that I figured that a few guests, like my mom, wouldn’t be into pinball and wouldn’t want a machine jutting into the room they’re staying in. My mom turned out to be one of the most enthusiastic pinball players.
A key part of pinball is nudging the table. People think it’s cheating, but it’s actually a big part of the game. Tables are designed for it and are also designed to catch you if you tilt too much. You generally get two warnings before the machine freezes and causes you to lose your ball (and any expected end-of-ball bonus), and people use those warnings strategically. As my wife and I became better at pinball it was clear that our next frontier was learning to nudge, but although it could accurately detect it, I was hesitant to nudge the virtual machine because of the way it was attached to the wall.
My tea room, half of a converted garage attached to our house, was an awkward shape, maybe 12 feet wide by 25 feet long. What if I built a wall cutting it in half and built a pinball room in the resulting new room? Then I could rebuild my machine to be freestanding so that I could nudge it. I’d get a couple real pinball machines, too, just to fill out the room…
As you can imagine, I’m now fully obsessed with pinball. I have three real machines, I’m working on getting a fourth, and my next big project is to rebuild my virtual machine to match the physical machines. Having machines at home has given me the chance to practice enough to become good enough to be in the 100th score percentile on the two games I have that track that on the internet.
Pinball (like living in Vegas!) isn’t for everyone, but could certainly be enjoyed by far more people than enjoy it now. I’ve gotten most of my friends into playing pinball now, and I think if I share a few key things about it, you may get into it as well.
Don’t Just Stay Alive
Early pinballs had almost no real point other than to stay alive and hit some targets. If you look at early machines from the 30s and 40s they actually have the points printed on the bumpers and targets. In the 70s and 80s pinballs started to become more complex to the point that newer ones might take months to understand and some special modes and battles will only ever be seen by fewer 1% of players. What makes pinball really fun is understanding the goals in the table and reaching them.
For example, in Stern’s Deadpool, one of your main objectives is to defeat three bad guys. To do that you have to shoot the scoop, which is a relatively easy shot. The scoop is like an inverted ramp that puts the ball inside the table to be held while you choose your enemy on the screen. Each enemy requires different shots to be hit, so you might choose the enemy whose shots you find easiest.
If you aren’t exactly sure what to do, listen for the game to call out suggestions, and aim for things with flashing lights on them. If you plan on playing a game a few times it’s worth reading the rule sheets.
Multiball is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of batting one ball around, you have three or more (Apollo 13 has up to 13!). In general it is harder to control multiple balls, but you have several balls that may accidentally hit targets that you need. Multiball is one of the most fun things to do as a new player.
There are usually several multiballs in a game, including one fairly easy one. For example, in Avengers Infinity Quest, just hitting the Thor target 3 times will get you a multiball. If you play as Donatello on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you can get multiball the first time you hit the right ramp.
Once you are more strategic, use your multiballs to go for shots that are more likely to send a rebound straight down the drain.
If you watch a pro play, nearly every shot is taken from a stationary ball that has been cradled in one of the flippers. There are a variety ways of catching the ball, but they’re hard to explain to someone who isn’t playing. Don’t worry about it too much at first, but once you start trying to get better at pinball, make sure that you are trapping and choosing each shot.
Which Games To Play
Three friends and I played in a pinball arcade yesterday, and all three of us had totally different favorite games, with one person’s favorite being another’s least favorite. Almost any pinball machine that is in good shape (works properly and has powerful flippers) will be a lot of fun. When in doubt, go for a newer Stern game. These can be identified by the small LCD screen on the backbox. They are some of the best games ever made, and they’re all new enough that they should be in good shape.
Some of the best classic games for new people are Medieval Madness, Attack From Mars, and Monster Bash. All three of these also have modern clones that play very well.
If you are going to buy a game for home, just about anything from the 1990s on will be good enough for you to practice and for you to learn the game, but my top recommendation would be a very complicated Stern game. The best choice would be Godzilla Premium (currently the #1 rated game of all time). Avengers: Infinity Quest is similarly complicated and fun, but not quite as good for beginners as it is maybe the most complicated game out there.
When buying a Stern game, read a lot of opinions on whether you need to buy the Premium version or if you can get away with Pro. The two versions will look similar but may have radically different playing features. I love Godzilla Premium, but don’t care for Pro. On the other hand, Deadpool and TMNT are functionally almost exactly the same between the two versions.
Building a virtual pinball machine is also a great choice as you get to learn the rules and nuances of many different games. The first time I played a real life Medieval Madness I got a high enough score to get a free game, only because I’d played it so much virtually and had figured out some decent strategies.
To find a game to play in the wild, go to Pinball Map. Be sure to read the notes about how well the machine is maintained. Playing a machine where the ball gets stuck or the flippers aren’t powerful enough to make all of the shots is infuriating. If you post the city you are in, I will tell you which arcade to go to.
How To Play
When you are first starting, find someone to play with and play multi-player on the same machine. When it’s the other person’s turn, watch them and see if you can learn about what they should be doing. It seems to go by a lot faster when you’re the one playing and you don’t always have time to read the screen and see what it wants you to do. Once you find a machine you like, play multiple times on it to go deeper. If you have a friend who has a pinball machine, see if you can play it with them (or solo) for an hour to get to know one machine really well without the stress of spending quarters.
Photo is my arcade-in-progress in Vegas. I thought I had better photos than this, but it turns out I don’t. The thing on the floor between the machines is the carcass of my old virtual one. I need to rebuild it.
I’m on a cruise and would love to write more posts while I have a good writing environment. Anything you want to hear about? Write ideas at tynan dot net.