Mechanical Marvels, those Pinball machines are, both old and new. We’ve had a very entertaining evening in the local Jenever museum. Jenever, apparently also known as Holland gin, is a locally distilled specialty, of which Hasselt is well-known for. What do strong spirits have to do with pinball machines? Well… nothing, besides the fact that most machines are to be found in cafés? The museum holds a “Pinball Mania Expo": a dozen free to play pinball machines are placed throughout the museum premises, for you and your friends to privately enjoy, provided you make the necessary reservations of course. Shooting a ball or two combined with the whole museum at your disposal: win-win. At least one of the machines told me I “won” with a score of
30.000.956. Or was it
I had never ever played on one of those machines before. Can you believe that? These things have been around since the nineteen-fifties! The expo did a great job at giving us a taste of the evolution of the game: we played on both very old—but still enjoyable—and more recent machines, ranging from the fifties (four bumpers that rattle like hell), to the eighties (Black Knight , with stiff flippers and a serious case of whoops-ball-got-out-of-play), the nineties (Terminator 2’s I’ll Be Back!) and a 2006 Pirates of the Caribbean one that had me sinking a ship and, of course, releasing the Kraken.
It was a birthday present for my father-in-law, who told me a while ago he was planning on building a pinball machine from scratch. As a mechanical and electrical engineer, the required skill set is present, but we figured a bit of design inspiration wouldn’t hurt. There are a slew of fascinating and equally retro-looking websites on flipper machines out there that dictate a playfield angle of exactly six degrees to provide an optimal play experience. But strategic bumper and bonus trigger placement is something you’d have to guess and iterate on with countless hours of playtesting. Or, you simply base your design on a tried existing one. The ancient relays from the fifties will probably be replaced by an Arduino or two to control the whole thing.
Some machines were awfully quiet, while others almost unbearably loud. I wasn’t impressed by the Star Trek one I tried as you can see in the photo: compared to the one next to it, the playfield felt barren and the score ticker didn’t increase rapidly enough to give me that rush to keep on playing, like it did on the nineties machines. Schwarzenegger’s sudden and deep Direct Hit! voice gave me a YES! vibe, increasing my engagement with the game. I was glad it was free to play, otherwise that particular machine would have gobbled up a lot of coins.
One particular nineties (a recurring theme) machine—Indianapolis 500—even contained a mini-game my wife managed to unlock: at one point she was suddenly maneuvering a car with her flippers on a P10 red LED screen. You have to pay attention to so many things! I managed to unlock a second ball on the Pirates machine, but my reaction speed wasn’t up to it.
What I did play when I was little—I almost wrote young. How awful!—was Digital Illusion’s amazing Pinball Dreams DOS games. I know Epic Pinball is the more popular one, especially with the right Sound Blaster upgrade, but I hold high those sweet childhood memories: keeping that ball up in the virtual air together with my dad. You could choose between different machines, and we played both the original (1992) as its successor (1994), yet I can’t remember which theme we liked the most. Pick your poison:
I still have to reinstall the Pinball games on my 486 machine. It’s starting to itch.
A few months ago, I even encountered (and of course, bought) Kirby’s Pinball for Game Boy on a flea market. As a Kirby fanboy, I feel ashamed to admit I somehow never played that one.
Maybe now is the time to dust off that cartridge, toss up a (kirby-)ball or two, and try to break the high scores!