Until the 1970s, no pinball machine had any sort of computerization. Instead, the electromechanical games ran on a precarious balance of moving parts, with their guts resembling giant Rube Goldberg machines.
But beginning in 1977, manufacturers began running their games off of computer chips, and the machines became far less prone to mechanical failure. (Engineers could also take advantage of the chips to put in more intelligent and complex features.) Oddly, when the first so-called solid-state pinball machines came out, Williams was worried that customers used to the familiar feel of churning gears and ringing bells would be scared away by the high-tech new machines. To protect against this, the company filled the games with spinning gears that did nothing except make familiar noise.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly identified Hot Tip as the first solid-state pinball machine. It was the first solid-state machine manufactured by Williams, but not the first in the industry.
First Dot-Matrix Display
Checkpoint /// 1991 /// Data East
In many ways, the early 90s were the last and greatest golden age of pinball. Even though video games were wildly popular by that point, pinball machines saw their best sales ever–and some of their best and most creative incarnations. This was the direct result of a single innovation: the dot-matrix display.
Before the dot-matrix display, pinball machines showed their scores on spinning reels and, later, simple digital displays. But the dot-matrix display was flexible enough to show more than mere numbers–they could display animations. As a result, programmers could add an unparalleled number of new features and new game modes (such as mini video games that took place entirely on the tiny screens), and even immerse the player in a narrative of sorts.
Checkpoint used a so-called “half-height” dot-matrix display, as opposed to the full-size one used in later machines. It was also the first game to allow a player to select the music they wanted to listen to during their game, with six different musical genres on the menu.
The Addams Family /// 1992 /// Bally
After the advent of dot-matrix display, pinball saw a rush of now classic games. But The Addams Family is perhaps the era’s most iconic. It also sold more than 20,000 units, making it the best-selling pinball game of all time.
The game featured plenty of next-gen features, such as a moving mechanical hand (Thing) that picked up balls, an enormous number of scoring modes and new dialogue recorded by the film’s stars specifically for the game. But the real reason for its success was that it had great game play. With well-placed ramps and shots leading into each other naturally, The Addams Family avoided some of the all-too-common pratfalls of the pinball machine. This game nailed the simple things, and virtually every game since has taken design cues from it.
The Twilight Zone /// 1993 /// Bally
Following the success of The Addams Family, designer Pat Lawlor was given carte blanche to make the game of his dreams. The result: The Twilight Zone, a messy, complex, frustrating and immensely enjoyable machine. Never before had a designer attempted to stuff so many toys and features into a single game. Some of Twilight‘s wilder features included a working gum-ball machine that would spit balls onto the playing field, a miniature upper play field with invisible magnetic flippers, and a working clock that would count down the time of different game modes. The game was so ambitious that it had to be built as a “wide-body” machine in order to fit all its features onto the playing field.
But because the machine was so mechanically complex and filled with so many moving parts, it was also extremely prone to mechanical problems. The clock, in particular, would frequently break down, and machines still in perfect working order are very rare and remain sought after by collectors.
Recently, The Twilight Zone has developed a reputation as the most-modded machine, with collectors using the Internet to buy and sell even more toys for the game’s already crowded playing field. Common mods include filling the gum-ball machine with colorful plastic gum balls, hacking the game to play updated firmware that adds more game features, and even surgically installing magnets to the playing field to make game play more exciting.
Revenge From Mars /// 1999 /// Bally
Williams Electronics was perhaps history’s most legendary pinball manufacturer. By the late 1990s, it had gobbled up the pinball operations of Bally and Midway to make itself one of only two pinball companies left on the planet (and by far the larger of the two, accounting for more than 80 percent of the market). But Williams’s pinball operation was also just one small division of what was then a large, publicly traded corporation, WMS Gaming, that saw greater profits from slot-machine sales than from complex, low-volume pinball games. The company had made moves to shut down the pinball operation, but not before giving its engineers one last-ditch effort to redefine the game for a new millennium–and save their jobs.
The result: Pinball 2000, a high-tech pinball/video-game hybrid in which players would aim the ball at projected holographic targets (click here to see the game in action). Because much of the playing field was built from projected video, the games for Pinball 2000 were designed to be easily converted between themes as future games were released. But that never happened. Only two Pinball 2000 games were ever produced: Revenge From Mars and the not-quite-as-fun Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. Although the new games sold moderately well, it wasn’t enough for WMS, which closed the door on its entire pinball operation in 1999, leaving the much-smaller Stern Pinball as the world’s sole manufacturer of pinball machines.
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