Pinball Machines: Dawn of The Modern Flipper Part 2

Posted by Scott 28 APRIL 2015

This is the 2nd installment of 3 of our pinball history series. Read part 1 here

Since their beginnings in the early 1900s, “modern” pinball machines had always been mechanical machines. All of their parts—the flippers, the score reels, and modes of play—were governed by ingeniously-designed mechanical engineering.

However, all of that changed in the late 1970s when pinball entered the Digital Age.

It’s not for certain which table made the switch first—Mirco Games’ Spirit of 76 or Allied Leisure’s Rock On. Both were released in 1975 in limited production. But the first mainstream table to go electronic was Williams’ Hot Tip, released at the end of 1977.

There is a clear distinction between the two types of pinball. Electro-mechanical tables (EM) rely on a single mode of play; that is, the table remains static with only certain parts—such as drop targets and score reels—changing in order to communicate a sense of progression to the player. Solid-state tables (SS), on the other hand, have integrated circuits, computer-controlled audio boards, and many other electronic components. Because of these new building blocks, pinball designers were able to take the game places it had never gone before.

EM pinball focuses on finesse and learning how to dominate the playing field for massive points. SS pinball did the same for awhile, but as SS tables continued to evolve, they left the “static” gameplay behind. 

Tables began featuring multiple gimmicks and “toys,” as well as more complicated rules and storylines. Players could activate different modes of play that were far more intricate than just the familiar “multiball mode.” And perhaps most importantly, pinball machines interacted with players on audio and visual levels never experienced before.

Animated backboards, video mini-games, and computer-controlled flashing lights are just some of the visual inventions made possible by SS tables. Audio innovations were more subtle but just as effective. Now tables could call out to passersby with inviting music, they mocked and congratulated players during gameplay, and they no longer had to rely on simple bings and pings for audio cues because there was an infinite amount of digital sound at their disposal, including audio samples from movies and other sources of pop culture.

It is no wonder, then, that the birth of the SS table caused pinball’s popularity to rise once again. Throughout the late 70s and all through the 80s, the design and gameplay of SS pinball continued to change and redefine themselves until pinball’s second golden age arose.

This second “heyday” of pinball took place throughout the entire decade of the 90s. Some of the greatest games in the history of pinball are from this time period. The top-selling table of all time, Bally’s Addams Family, came out in 1992 and has since sold 20, 270 units. But it wasn’t the only big title that came out of the 90s; classic after classic was released throughout the decade, including Bally’s Twilight Zone (1993), Williams’ The Machine: Bride of Pin-bot (1991), Bally’s Theatre of Magic (1995), and many others. Williams’ Medieval Madness, which is arguably the best pinball table of all time, also came out during this golden age in 1997.

But the electronic transition should not negate the importance of the EM machines. No matter how far back in the 20th century one goes, there are great pin games to discover. The fun factor is still there regardless of the era the table came from. To this day, there are fans who swear by the EM pinball experience, and there is even a brand new table released by Stern called Whoa Nellie! that pays homage to the electro-magnetic days of pinball. 

So whether it’s electro-magnetic or solid-state, it’s still pinball, and that’s what matters most.

Read the 3rd and final part of our mini-series here

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