[Retro] Flipping Back in Time

Williams' brilliant Star Trek: The Next Generation running on VP9

William

Pinball has always had an odd relationship with its digital cousin – the videogame. While the two existed side by side in arcades the world over throughout the late 70s and 80s, the ever-growing appeal of screen based coin-ops meant the silver ball’s era in the spotlight couldn’t last. So video killed the pinball star, but that doesn’t mean the two worlds haven’t come together since.

Remember Pinball Dreams and its sequels on the Amiga? They may have been simple, scrolling 2D simulations of fairly rudimentary tables, but they bought some of the thrill of pinball to your monitor. Even Sonic got in on the act on the Mega Drive, taking his platforming skills into a purely pinball-based arena with the odd, but loveable Sonic Spinball. Those were by no means the first, or last, takes on the genre either. In 1984 Nintendo released the imaginatively-titled Pinball for the NES, while the VCS had Atari’s own Video Pinball. Even to this day one of the most popular XBox Live Arcade titles is Pinball FX, a multi-table 3D recreation of the bar-room sport.

It’s not just video games that have aped pinball either, the relationship works both ways. In the mid nineties Bally, Williams, Data East and the other big manufacturers turned to ever more complicated audio and visual feedback to help their tables lure punters away from the flashing temptations of Street Fighter II and Ridge Racer cabinets. Dot Matrix screens with animated graphics, digitised speech specially recorded by Hollywood stars and licensed music were all used to give the dying industry a multimedia shot in the arm. By the time the last tables were starting to disappear from arcades and bowling alleys they were almost as complicated digitally as they were mechanically.

It was a move borne out of desperation and, as we now know, one doomed to ultimate failure. By 1997 the industry was on its knees. It’s not without significance that Data East, one of the great table makers of the 1980s was eventually acquired by Sega, a firm best known for its video-gaming output. Two years later Sega too pulled out, selling up to division head Gary Stern, leaving just two pinball makers of note, a number that halved by the turn of the millennium. Now just a few tables are released and sold every year by Illinois Pinball, the descendant of Data East / Sega / Stern, and you’ll do well to find one, let alone a selection to play on.

So it seems a once proud, and much loved industry (heck it even spawned films) is dead and gone. What’s even worse is the fact that tables are so scarce, large and complicated that they cost thousands to buy, and require skill, time and deep pockets to maintain. Could it be that the beauty and wit of some of the genre’s finest creations are to disappear forever from the reach of the common man? Well not if one group of dedicated, digital enthusiasts have anything to do with it.

For years now the teams behind two programs have been toiling away to create a PC-based system that allows classic tables to be digitally simulated, and in the case of the electronics inside them, faithfully emulated. Both PinMAME and Visual Pinball are currently being actively developed, and have thriving online communities dedicated to creating and, more importantly, re-creating tables for them. PinMAME itself is, as the name suggest, an emulator for just about every make of table going. It runs dumps of the original table ROMs, the chips that governed rules, scoring and the displays usually found on the back glass at the rear of the playfield. Obviously, though, without the tables themselves, the ROMs are pretty useless. That’s where Visual Pinball comes in. It’s a a 3D table modelling and simulation programme that allows users to put together perfect recreations of tables, using precise measurements and high quality art scans taken from original machines that have been painstakingly disassembled and examined. The playfields are then combined with the ROM dump using some VBScript programming and a lot of patience, resulting in a playable rendered recreation of the original, complete with exactly the same sounds, display and scoring as you’d have found in your local arcade in decades gone by.

The Visual Pinball edit window

The Visual Pinball edit window

A staggering number of tables are emulated, from simple 1970s machines with calculator style displays and just a few pins to the highly complex, multi-gimmicked machines of the mid 90s with their digitised speech and multi-ball complexity. So much care and attention has been lavished on the best-known tables that they are far more beautiful than any commercial pinball game I’ve ever seen. What’s even better is the way they play.

Visual Pinball itself does a brilliant job of recreating the ball physics of a real table. Playing Williams’ classic Star Trek: The Next Generation (the only table I had regular access to growing up) in VP feels just the same as it did in the Sheffield Mega Bowl – minus the cigarette burns and smell of cheap french fries. Fire up a great table like that or Indiana Jones and its easy to lose a few hours without even realising it. Best of all, for the cack-handed, its fairly easy to use the VP editor to move the flippers a bit closer together or close off a side drain, to make reaching those high scores easier than it ever could in real life.

You might think that with so many man hours going into developing and updating the software and tables it would cost a pretty penny to have a go yourself. Brilliantly that’s not the case, and while the project welcomes donations (and offers speedier and more frequent table downloads to those who hand over a modest sum) you can get up and running completely free of charge.

Lord of the Rings - one of few post-millennium tables

Lord of the Rings - one of few post-millennium tables

It’s not the most user friendly experience. PinMAME must be installed and configured, then Visual Pinball set up to find it. Tables are then downloaded from the project forums, but you’ll need the appropriate ROM dumps too. Fortunately they’re both on the same site, but legal restrictions mean they have to be downloaded separately. In fact, strictly speaking, you’ll need to own the original table to be able to download the ROMs, just like any form of emulation. Complicating matters further is the fact that the latest version of Visual Pinball represented a significant update of the underlying engine. As a result tables creating for VP9 don’t work with the current build, and the vast library of earlier tables are incompatible. It’s not too hard though to install both VP9 and VP8 side by side, and use both apps to launch the different tables.

It takes a bit of jiggery-pokery, and some forum trawling, but honestly its no harder than configuring any other emulator out there. If you can handle MAME, you’ll be ok.

Once you’ve loaded a table in VP and set up your video and sound options, you just have to click Play. A couple of disclaimers later and you’ll be presented with a table like those in the screenshots here. VP renders the table, and PinMAME deals with the digital display. There are keyboard shortcuts for both, and it’s possible to get confused about which part of the process you’re effecting if you’re new to the process. The most important key is F5 which switches the score display between normal and double size, you can also drag it around the screen to find the best location (it depends largely how the table creator has chosen to render the back glass – or not as the case may be).

Like MAME the number keys are used to add coins and start a game. 5 inserts a credit, 1 is the start button. From there things are pretty simple. Enter works like the plunger, firing the ball into the arena, and the two shift keys activate the appropriate flippers. It is, in fact, the exact same control scheme Digital Illusions used in the seminal Pinball Dreams nearly twenty years ago on the Amiga.

High Scores are saved between sessions, and it can become addictive trying to rack up more points each time – tapping in to the just-one more-go score attack psychology that made the tables so popular in the first place.

Its all great fun, something that some emulation projects would do well to remember. Yes it’s important to preserve classic gaming hardware and software for future generations in an easily accessible form, but if the games that are being emulated aren’t any fun to play, then why should anyone care. Thankfully with PinMAME and Visual Pinball entertainment hasn’t been sacrificed at the altar of historical veracity – a fitting tribute to a once great industry if ever there was one.

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