Pinball Addict - What Makes Your Bumper Thump?

Posted by Abi 10 APRIL 2014
cool stuff

Pinball Addict - What Makes Your Bumper Thump?
As a relatively new pinball fanatic, people ask me how I got hooked to the game. What’s so good about it? “It’s only got two buttons”. As I stammered through explanations, trying to keep my anger at their ignorance at bay, I realised that I didn’t really know. I just knew I was addicted. I decided to dig deep, trying to pin down one key reason to unlock the logic behind the magic of playing pinball machines.

I started by trying to think of similar games and pastimes that I could compare it to, that were neither sport, nor video game. A one-player game in which the player physically controls a real object in order to achieve objectives, levels and modes, but I was stumped stumped. The only thing I could even get near to comparing it to were crazy gaming controls and peripherals, trying to make a video game more ‘real’ but generally never catching on.

(N.B. See HLD’s very own gaming writer’s articles, namely Ten Weird Arcade Games That You’ve (Probably) Never Played, which includes ‘Boong-Ga Boong-Ga’ that I wish I could un-see)

So, I decided that pinball was unique in its style of gameplay (please let me know if you can prove otherwise) and I also decided that I couldn’t settle on one final answer to why I love pinball so much. There are many different elements involved, and when they all tie in together, that is when you can truly lose yourself in the game.

There are also other complications in that different pinball games are loved for different reasons and that after all, it is all a question of personal preference.

Eventually I decided to whittle it down to 5 general points, picking out certain machines as an example. I hope I’ve included some of your favourite aspects of the game, and I’d love to hear what it is about pinball that makes you tick in your comments below.

1.) Gravity

I think this is a major point in pinball. Flipping the ball around the playfield, hitting all the targets you can manage and totting up as many points as possible before the ball drains is obviously the aim of the game. Trying to keep track of the ball moving at high speed around the board and reacting at lightning speed before you lose the ball is enough to get your heart pumping.

But the real beauty of it is that, unlike a computer game, no matter how practiced you are, there is always gravity. A computer doesn't have the capability to simulate the unpredictability of the reality of a metal ball being flung in all directions by thumper bumpers, slingshots, flippers, magnets, human generated nudges and anything else the game offers, and that is exactly what makes it so exciting. Even for the most accurate player, two games will never be the same and you never know what is going to happen when you first plunge that ball.

(Bad, but amusing example of the reality of the game!)

2.) Skill

After being proved a game of skill in 1976, by the legendary Roger Sharpe, pinball games rapidly began to evolve along with their popularity. Players demanded more complex gameplay, a variety of tasks levels and even Wizard Modes by the 1990s. This resulted in the pinball games we play today, with layers of levels and tasks of a huge variety.

As a beginner, once you realise that hitting the ball with a certain part of the flipper can get you a certain shot, a whole world of possibilities opens up. You start to make skill shots,  learning the rules and targets, exploring the dangerous shots and what gets you the most points. You come to really enjoy improving your skills and working your way through a game, beating your high score and trying to get further in the game than last time. And when the ball drains, you want to do it all again, convincing yourself that you can make that shot this time.

3.) Characters
Well developed characters can really make a game. They can be helping you through the game, showing you where to shoot and praising you for skill shots, or they can be against you, taunting you, trying to wind you up and put you off.

It feels good to be encouraged by the ‘goodies’ and makes you pleased when they call a great shot you’ve made and I’ve noticed players, myself included, taking a lot of satisfaction in smacking the silver ball into face-shaped bash toys such Rudy in Fun House, or the Ring Master in Cirqus Voltaire. I’m sure a psychologist would have some interesting things to say about this, but a-side from that, their characters are what can really make a game interesting. Their comments and phrases can make you laugh, making you want to do it again, or they can make you aggravated, making you want to prove them wrong.

These characters are interactive; they respond to the shots you make and, whatever the emotional effect of that, this interaction is an important part of the game.

4.) Sounds Effects and Lighting

Sound effects and lighting are a really important aspect of the game to build tension and excitement. Even from that first touch of the start button, good sound effects and lighting can excite a player to plunge the ball and throw themselves into the game.

They are particularly enthralling in response to skill shots, or on the cusp of starting multi-ball mode. This builds a sense of triumph for getting a great shot and excitement in anticipation for a different mode.

A prime example of lighting and sound effects used in this way is the Addams Family mulit-ball build up:

5.) Design

Obviously the designers of the game have the biggest part to play in getting all of the above points and many other details right. They need to weave all of these elements together to create a fantastic game that players can really lose themselves in. The designer has to really care about the game, be a pinball fanatic themselves and be inventive in their designs, coming up with ideas that no one else has tried. If it is a licensed theme, they really have to know the theme well and explore interesting ways to make it work in a pinball format, so that both pinball fans and fans of the license alike can enjoy it.

The Answer?

This blog is by no means an exhaustive explanation to why players really love pinball, but an attempt to reduce it down so I have an answer for the next person who asks me "what’s so good about pinball?". I was hoping to find one definitive answer, one sentence, a formula to describe it in an accurate and eloquent way. (Please let me know if you have one!)

Although really, I guess it could be condensed down to one word - ‘fun’. It’s a bit of a dirty word for adults, because you’re not supposed to have fun, you’re supposed to be serious and sensible. But ultimately, with a pinball machine, I can escape from reality and within this bright and dazzling playfield have some uninhibited, crazy, high-speed fun.

Maybe that’s why I’ve been lost for words, because the one word that sums it up is almost too shameful to say and too simple. So there it is. Why do I like pinball? Because it’s fun!

Written By: Abi Ponton

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