Pinball


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A row of pinball machines at the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Pinball Basics

Pinball is a type of arcade game, usually coin-operated, in which points are scored by a player manipulating one or more steel balls on a play field inside a glass-covered cabinet called a pinball machine. The primary objective of the game is to score as many points as possible. Points are earned when the ball strikes different targets on the play field. A drain is situated at the bottom of the play field protected by player-controlled plastic bats, called flippers. A game ends after all the balls fall into the drain. Secondary objectives are to maximize the time spent playing (by earning “extra balls” and keeping the ball in play as long as possible) and to earn free games (known as “replays”).
1970s: Solid-state electronics and digital displays introduced
The advent of the microprocessor brought another new age for pinball as it entered the realm of electronic gaming. The electromechanical relays and scoring reels that drove games in the 1950s and 1960s were replaced in the 1970s with circuit boards and digital displays. Williams introduced their first solid-state electronic game, Hot Tip, in 1977,[6] and because of this new technology, they and Bally thrived in this era as they both sold large numbers of games with fancy sound effects, speech, and game features that only a computer could make possible.
The video game boom of the 1980s, however, signaled the end of the boom for pinball. Arcades quickly replaced rows of pinball machines with games like 1978’s Space Invaders, 1979’s Asteroids, 1980’s Pac-Man, and 1981’s Galaga. The video games earned significantly greater profits than the pinball machines of the day. Bally, Williams, and Gottlieb continued to quietly make pinball machines while they also manufactured video games in much higher numbers. Many of the larger companies were acquired by, or merged with, other companies. Chicago Coin was purchased by the Stern family who brought the company into the digital era as Stern Enterprises, which closed its doors in the mid-1980s. Bally exited the pinball business in 1988 and sold their assets to Williams, who subsequently used the Bally trademark from then on for about half of their pinball releases.
While the video game craze of the late ’70s and early ’80s dealt a severe blow to pinball revenue, it did spark the creative talents within the industry. All companies involved tried to take advantage of the new solid state technology to improve player appeal of pinball and win back former players from the video games. Some of this creativity resulted in landmark designs and features still present today. Some of these include Speech like on Williams’ “Gorgar”, ramps for the ball to travel around such as Williams “Space Shuttle”, “multiball” used on William’s “Firepower”, multi-level games like Gottlieb’s “Black Hole” and Williams’ “Black Knight”, and blinking chase lights as used on Bally’s “Xenon”. Although these novel features did not entirely win back players as the manufacturers had hoped, they did change the way pinball would be perceived by players for decades to come.

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