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Pinball for Dummies: Eras of Pinball

By Will Oetting

Eras of Pinball

As pinball machines have progressed through the years, major innovations have separated them into unique eras.  Each era of pinball has its own characteristics that make game play very different.  The great pinball players have been able to change their own playing style to be successful since many tournaments are set up to test a player’s proficiency across every era.  This lesson will attempt to describe each era of pinball and the characteristics that make them unique.

Electro Mechanical (EM) 1947ish-1978ish

During the Electro Mechanical (EM) era, electronics were integrated with mechanical devices to start controlling the ball, as well as automatically keeping score for the player.  Switches, relays, flippers, kickers, jet bumpers, gobble holes, scoring reels, and many more devices were introduced during this era of pinball.  This is the era when those iconic sounds of bells and chimes became so synonymous with pinball.  One of the easiest ways to tell that you are playing on an EM machine is by looking at how the scoring is displayed for the player.  If you see black numbers printed on a white background, then you are most likely playing an EM.  The scoring is tracked with scoring reels which are actually plastic wheels that have numbers printed along the circumference. As the scoring reels turn, they display the score through a window in the backglass.

EM Machine

Due to the shorter ball time, EM machines usually give the player 5 balls to get the best score possible.  Scoring is much lower than what you see in most modern machines.  You are more likely to be rewarded points in 1, 10, and 100 increments to reduce the number of score reels needed in the backbox.  EM machines often have shorter 2 inch flippers instead of the more common 3 inch flippers of today.  All of these differences make the ball a lot more difficult to control.  Some of the flipper techniques that we discuss in the lesson on the basics of flipping become very difficult or near impossible to perform on an EM machine.

When playing an EM machine you might find that you take more of a “just survive” mindset.  In some ways EM machines are nice to play because they often involve less thinking.  You don’t have to remember all of the rules to get to special modes or multiballs that you need to know to get high scores on modern games.  Your job on an EM is just to keep the ball in play long enough to score some points.  One of the best ways to keep the ball in play is to follow the “get it to the top” rule of pinball.  The top of the playfield is the safest place to have the ball since it is far from the flippers and offers more opportunities to score points.  So, when the ball does come back down to the flippers, try to shoot the ball back up to the top.  This will give you a chance to breathe and allows the ball an opportunity to bounce around to its own delight.

Alphanumeric – Early Solid State 1979ish-1989ish

The next big innovation that plunged pinball forward was the addition of microchips and circuit boards which allowed for digital control of mechanisms.  The early solid state pinball machines can be identified by the alphanumeric displays in the backbox that replaced the score reels of the EMs.  With more computational power and being able to store more data, the sound of pinball machines began to change.  Some of the first solid state machines continued to use the bells and chimes, but that didn’t last long as music, sounds, and speech now helped the player determine what to shoot for.  The addition of circuit boards to control the rules also allowed more room under the playfield to add in ramps and multiple levels that guide the ball to new heights.  We also started to see the addition of ball locking and multiballs begin to be an important element of play.

Taxi Pinball
Taxi Pinball by Williams

Solid state machines switched to 3 ball games now that players had more shots to shoot for and multiballs increased the ball time.  The alphanumeric displays allowed for larger scores, so gone were the days of getting awarded single points.  The 3 inch flipper became standard for most games.  The lower bottom section of the pinball playfield became more and more standardized in what is deemed the “Italian bottom.”  This is the layout of outlanes, inlanes, slingshots, and flippers that are seen on most games from this era forward.

With the addition of ramps, there are more shots available to you as a player on solid state machines.  The rules of pinball machines are deeper and more complex during this era but still manageable.  Designers were not able to display all of the instructions on the playfield or instruction cards.  Playing a game well now requires more and more knowledge of the rules on the part of the players.  To give you an example, let’s go back to Taxi by Williams which falls into this era.  The main objective of Taxi is to collect all of the passengers and then hit the Jackpot shot.  That objective is easily identifiable to the player through flashing lights on the playfield, but figuring out how to collect an extra ball is not as obvious.  There is an insert for “Extra Ball” but how do you get it lit so that you can collect it?This is just the start of the complexity of things to come in later eras. 

*To get Extra Ball lit on Taxi you must complete the top lanes 4 times to get 4x bonus (depending on settings).  You can also get an Extra Ball through the Joyride mystery award.

Dot Matrix Display (DMD) 1990ish-2012ish

The Dot Matrix Display or DMD era was really just the continuation of solid state machines with the addition of a new screen type.  The DMD display consists of rows and columns of lights that can be programmed to display pictures and animations.  The dots can only be lit in one color so the animations didn’t have the definition, contrast, or clarity of the LCD that came years later, but it was a big leap forward from the limits of the alphanumeric displays.  Ramps advanced quite a bit during the DMD era with vacuum formed plastics allowing them to take many shapes, even taking the ball behind the back panel of the playfield.  Bash toys, interactive mechanisms, and higher quality music and sounds created more of an immersive “world under glass” environment with each game.

Fish Tales Pinball
Fish Tales Pinball by Williams

When alphanumeric games included multiball play there was usually just one way to get balls locked and start the multiball.  With DMD games we saw the addition of several different ways to lock balls and start multiballs all in the same game.  The additional processing power of microchips now allowed for games to have modes.  If a player starts a mode they are usually given lit shots around the playfield that they must hit to complete it.  To help compete with arcade games, video modes were introduced which are played out only on the DMD display while the ball is held somewhere on the playfield.  Once you completed enough modes or objectives, you would be allowed to play special wizard modes. Rule complexity continued to tick up another notch during this era too.  Some rulesets become so deep and difficult to complete that most players will never reach the wizard modes.

If you haven’t had a chance to spend quite a bit of time on a DMD machine, then you likely won’t get to see all of the features of the game.  That doesn’t mean you can’t accumulate some big scores though.  There are some basic strategies that you can use even if you don’t know all of the rules.  First of those strategies, get to multiball as often as possible.  Having multiple balls means you have a higher chance to keep at least one of them from draining.  There is also usually a short period of time at the start of multiball when the ball save is on and any drained balls will get returned to you.  That is the perfect time to get as many points as possible without any concern.  Make sure to flip the balls back up to scoring areas while the ball save is on.  Once multiball is over and you are down to one ball play again, start working on getting to that next multiball to start the rampage of scoring once more.

Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) 2013ish-current

We are at the dawn of the LCD era of pinball.  The displays on a pinball machine can now display multi-colored animations and video content.  Manufacturers and game designers can add any scoring and rules information on the LCD display that they want, giving even more opportunities to help players keep track of their progress.  Mechanisms and playfield design, at this point during this era, has yet to introduce any major variations over the DMD era.

Since there hasn’t been many playfield changes, game play is very similar to the DMD era.  The same “stay in multiball” strategy will continue to work and help you get more points, though some games do put more scoring emphasis on single ball play.  If you want to try another strategy in addition to multiballs, try starting modes and then add in a multiball to help you complete the modes with the safety of ball save and having multiple balls in play.

Extra Credit: Future Eras

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Keywords:  Pinball 101, Pinball for Dummies, Pinball for Beginners, Beginner’s Guide to Pinball, Intro to Pinball, Pinball for Newbies, Basics of Pinball

Full Glossary of Pinball Terms

About the Author: Will Oetting

I helped my father-in-law buy his first game, Bounty Hunter, and then instantly missed it when it left the house.  That drew me to the community and I was lovestruck pretty hard.  I have been working with Jeff behind the scenes of TWIP to help make sure that the website is running at its best.  I am also on the TWIPY committee where I help setup the surveys and collect the data for the awards.  My current favorite machine is Taxi but I also enjoy games of all types.

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