Pinball Then … and Now

How the addictive old-school game evolved

by Josh Smith | Updated 31 Aug 2015 at 5:04 AM

We all have our favorite pinball machine, and it’s easy to remember dumping dozens of quarters into it as adolescents to set a new high score.

What most of us don’t know is that the classic pinball machine, the one we know and love, is a design that evolved over hundreds of years.

Strangely enough, in an age where we’re digitizing everything, the pinball machine is still seeing an evolution — and a boost in competitive events. While the general aesthetic of the table game hasn’t changed significantly, it’s still as popular as ever.

Regardless of whether you’re rocking out with KISS, exploring deep space with "Star Trek" or creeping into the unknown with "The Twilight Zone," the pinball machine basics remains the same: A plunger to fire the ball into play, bumpers that create interesting ricochets and buttons on each side to control at least two flippers.

In fact, the flippers were one of the last innovations added to the machine, introduced in 1947 to add a “skill factor” to the game because pinball machines had been outlawed in many big cities, labeled as gambling machines.

By the 1970s, technology had advanced enough to finally reach pinball when electronics were introduced. Circuit boards allowed digital displays to show high scores, and pinball saw the addition of more advanced rules and objectives. Some tables even allowed for speech, another result of going electronic.

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In the 1980s pinball faced off against video games — and lost. The Nintendo Entertainment System not only started the decline of pinball machines, but the arcade as a whole. There’s no need to pump quarters into a machine to entertain yourself when you can do it at home over and over again. It was Nintendo that also helped introduce a new age in the genre: pinball video games.

Pinball released in 1984, but has been included in other games as an unlockable mini-game and was re-released on Nintendo’s Wii and Wii-U consoles, showing the popularity the game had, partly due to the extra modes. Your normal run-of-the-mill pinball gameplay is included, but also a Breakout-like version that removed monotony and added value to the title.

Five years later, gamers were introduced to Pinball Quest. The basic gameplay of pinball remained, but with a fantasy feel. Instead of what we know pinball to be, we were tasked with hitting a ball-shaped man around a castle in an attempt to destroy monsters or find secret doorways. Upgrades were purchased with gold, allowing another dimension of gameplay and creativity to be used on your way to defeating the boss. Yes, the game had boss battles.

In the early 2000s, it seemed the recipe for digital pinball games was in a funk.

The 1990s saw a bit of resurgence in classic pinball, though it was short-lived. Licensed tables helped bring the hobby back to the attention of enthusiasts and casual players alike. Unfortunately, with the digital age in full-swing, pinball couldn’t recover. By the end of the '90s, only two manufacturers were in business: Stern Pinball and Williams. Stern Pinball left the business in 2000.

Despite the short-lived revival, digital pinball games were thriving. Many of us remember Epic Pinball, released in 1993 on PC by Epic MegaGames . The shareware (aka “trial”) version of the game featured one table, called Android (later Super Android), which is what most of us remember, though purchasing the full title allowed you your pick of 12 different tables.

In 1993, in the midst of the console rivalry between Nintendo and Sega, two new titles released for each, respectively. Nintendo’s Kirby’s Pinball Land and Sega’s Sonic Spinball each took pinball and added beloved characters to wacky gameplay, creating a fun, unique spin on the classic game. For the rest of the decade, top game publishers released games emulating classic pinball, or tried to add interesting twists for players to enjoy, with only modest success.

In the early 2000s, it seemed the recipe for digital pinball games was in a funk. Games were releasing with the same basic philosophy: Make it classic, or add popular characters. Games like Metroid Prime Pinball, Pac-Man Pinball Advance, and The Little Mermaid 2: Pinball Frenzy, among others, released with very little anticipation.

Digital pinball games were at a standstill until 2007 when indie game developer Zen Studios, headquartered out of Budapest, Hungary, released Pinball FX for Xbox 360. The game emulated real pinball physics, and introduced a novel concept in the world of pinball gaming: microtransactions.

Pinball is seeing a resurgence outside of your living room.

Admittedly, microtransactions aren’t a new idea to gaming, especially in today’s market, but Pinball FX could be downloaded with one table for free before you had to decide whether you liked it. The full version of the game released for $10 with three tables to play, a fourth added for free shortly thereafter. For those who enjoyed it, additional tables were eventually available for purchase, and the game sold more than 100,000 copies per year until 2010.

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Because Pinball FX was published by Microsoft, it couldn’t appear on Sony’s Playstation 3, which is why Zen Studios was forced to develop Zen Pinball for the PS3 (and iOS) in 2008. It followed the same structure as its predecessor on Xbox 360, with four tables available initially and others added later as paid content.

Zen Studios continued their reign over digital pinball releasing Pinball FX 2 in 2010 for Xbox 360, and Zen Pinball 2, in 2012 for Playstation 3. Each sequel followed the same design that made them so popular, implementing lifelike physics and wonderfully imaginative tables. The games were so popular that, upon release of the Xbox One and Playstation 4, the games were ported over. Players who had already purchased tables for the games also have those games available to them on the new consoles at no cost.

Zen Studios has done so well with table design, difficulty, and fun that new tables release often with popular series and characters. Odds are if you’re a fan of a particular franchise, Zen Studios has a table for you. (Full table guide here: https://blog.zenstudios.com/?page_id=637)

With popularity soaring on consoles and PC, pinball is seeing a resurgence outside of your living room. Looking at the history of the game though, odds are we’ll see popularity swaying back and forth from digital to classic for years to come.

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