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Why I miss pinball machines

I’m just back from Microsoft’s BUILD conference in Anaheim, California, where I had little time to do much other than attend sessions, write, eat and sleep (a little).

I did have a quick look round the exhibition though, and was pleased to find four pinball machines. Unfortunately I never got a go, except on one that proved to be slightly broken. Another was so broken that it was switched off.

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That’s one of the reasons you don’t see many pinball machines these days. They are high-maintenance, with many moving parts that get pounded constantly by one or more heavy silver balls, plus the occasional thump from the player as he bangs or shifts the machine just enough to affect the ball’s motion without causing, he hopes, a tilt.

Another reason for the game’s decline is that a good player can play for ages on a single quarter – or 50c, which seems to be the going rate now. It is a game of skill where accurate shooting gets you both long games and frequent extra balls and replays.

Neither of these characteristics is good for arcades, which like high income and low maintenance.

I love the game though. It offers tactile, physical pleasure that will never be captured by video simulations. The machines themselves are pure delight, every one different, often with gorgeous artwork and amazing gameplay with loops and tunnels and mini-play areas and fantastic contraptions that enable themselves if you get the right sequence of targets.

Most latter-day machines have a multi-ball mode, which is a lot of fun and surprisingly difficult. Watching several balls at once is a great deal harder than keeping your eye on just one.

I am not sure that pinball machines are made any more, though enthusiasts seem to be able to keep the old ones going. Sadly a lot of the machines you encounter in dusty corners of cafés and arcades are not in good order, the bumpers do not bump as they should, some features do not quite work, and they are disappointing.

The best one at BUILD was called Pirates of the Caribbean and seemed pretty good, though I never got a game.

Most of the time I have to make do with computer simulations. The best I have come across are the Pro Pinball series for the PC (don’t get the Xbox version which is a poor port). I was on a forum once with one of the developers, who explained how he hated scrolling on pinball simulations. I agree – how you can shoot accurately with the play area is scrolling all time? There is also an amazing open source project which lets you load actual machine ROMs for authentic simulation, though this is of uncertain legality.

I am more interested in simulations than pinball-ish games that you could never build. One of the great features of Pro Pinball is that you can go into a maintenance mode and tune it as you would a real machine.

Unfortunately none of these are anything like as much fun as the real thing, though they do save on quarters or your local equivalent.

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