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Before Action Videogames, There Was Pinball
by Ron Newcomb on 07/14/11 09:43:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I recently attended the Northwest Pinball and Classic Arcade Game Show.  Located near Seattle's Space Needle, this annual event charges a one-time entrance fee to play as much pinball and videogames as desired.  For example, I was able to play the original TRON video game from 1982:  a flightstick paired with an analog knob enabled much gameplay variety for its day, and its black-lit, fluorescent-lined cabinet stood out from the lesser machines that surrounded it.  But as I was mostly well-versed in the videogames of old, I found a sudden interest in the old pinball games.  Specifically, the evolution of pinball from the old days of electromechanics to the modern computer era, and the parallels with action videogames.
For starters, if you play an pinball game from the sixties, the playing field isn't tilted as sharply as a modern one's is, and the various kickers and bumpers don't seem to strike as hard.  It's not unusual to see the ball leisurely move horizontally rather than curving sharply downward toward that gap between the flippers. ("The drain" as it's called in pinball lingo.)  Compared to their modern cousins, these pinballs games move as if in slow-motion, and are almost meditative to play. 

Another common theme was the theming.  There's a heavy influence of billiards and card games on pinball.  Many if not most early pinball games displayed playing cards or billiard balls in some form, usually in combination with another theme such as noire detectives or royal kingdoms.  The connection here is easy to see:  pinball, billiards and cards frequently rubbed shoulders in the same venue, so it stood to reason that a potential pinball player would be familiar with those older forms of game.  One gameplay trope of pinball games is striking all of a collection of targets, and this maps well to collecting all pieces of a set of cards.  Royal flushes (the best and most difficult collection to acquire in poker) received a lot of attention, and sinking a billiard ball into a pocket maps well to shooting the pinball into a particular, possibly lit-up, hole.  I found it difficult to find an older pinball game that didn't reference billiards or cards in some way.

But if it did, then it referenced 70's fantasy instead.  Volumputous princesses, Conan-inspired heroes and alien settings each gave pinball the beginnings of narrative aspirations, sometimes all at once:  Conan visits alien worlds, Conan saves alien princesses, Conan is an alien princess.  The various chutes and pathways for the ball become roads and waterways, and drop targets become killable monsters.  The playing field goes through modes representing (extremely roughly) the Hero's Journey.  Can you destroy the six wizards to get the six gems of power before the world drains away?

Throughout the eighties pinball went computerized and the themes went mainstream, pulling from movies, TV shows, and other bits of pop culture.  But pinball's peak had passed.  Although the early nineties would see the best-selling pinball game of all time -- The Addams Family -- by the turn of the century pinball's core demographic had been overtaken by the videogame, and pinball itself left the mainstream.

So it was with something like wonder that I discovered an "indie" pinball game, Galactic Girl.  Made by one guy over the course of three years, Galactic Girl was retro, a seventies throwback.  First, it was electromechanical, not computerized.  The score readout was an oversized odometer with only four digits. Unlike modern pinball games where you get a million points just for using the plunger, a spinner here would give you one single point per full revolution.  Galactic Girl even sounded different, with loud thumps and meaty ker-chunks replacing the modest clicks of computer-controlled mechanics.  I could see bare wood between the painted streams decorating the playfield.  The titular Girl might even be an alien princess.  In a bikini.

To this lifelong videogamer, the evolution of pinball looks like a blueprint for the ongoing evolution of action videogames.  While high scores, points, and number of "lives" remain popular in both to this day, the progression from game vis-à-vis a game, through adolescent power fantasy, and then (finally?) to the popular movie-licensed titles, is identical.  Only one small company remains that manufactures pinball games, and it debuted its latest in a special corner of the showroom floor.  Gathered around was an audience a bit older than I, a group for whom perhaps videogames came too late to capture their imaginations in youth, a group I wonder will be mirrored in fifteen years' time by my own generation, the NES generation.  

And the new pinball game that had them enthralled was none other than TRON.

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Sam Reese
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I have often reflected back to my early days of gaming and noted the similarity between pinball and the current state of gaming.

Pinball reached it's zenith and then descended into massive point rewards for the player as the board surface became almost indecipherable for the casual player. Gigantic bonuses no longer gave the dopamine release that earlier balanced and manageable machines gave.

Fast forward to today with the FPS industry leader and it's various developers using manic killstreaks to unleash visual rewards that psychologists have likened to the addictive process of dopamine release.

The game is the same now and only the technology has changed.

I have noticed a trend towards the indies and FTP games as the AAA titles have reduced the half life of their games to maximize profits .

Towards the end all pinball machines essentially seemed the same by devolving into excess.

Even on the SP side of the AAA shooters the game has bumped up against the barriers of what it tries to be....Cinema with the player on rails / Or player directed.

In any art for any given era when it is in a state of excess it is deconstructed and rebuilt from it's basic parts.

Justin Speer
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Really interesting concept.

Glenn Sturgeon
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Good article and perspective.

As an avid pinball player for decades, i never realy looked at the similarities beyond the ocassional drawn out pinball quest type concepts implemented into some of the late eighties and early ninties pin ball games. I more or less summed PB up as a much more physical and skill based game that had its own standard of rewards (free games) that video games seldom even came close to touching on.

It was nice to see a realy good machine like The adams family become the best selling pin, beating out the only moderately demanding Terminator.(which beat out Pinbot.. from what i remember)

My favorite machine is still PinbotII Bride of Pinbot, it was such a complex machine and game.

Sam mentioned

"Fast forward to today with the FPS industry leader and it's various developers using manic killstreaks to unleash visual rewards that psychologists have likened to the addictive process of dopamine release."

Great example. I guess that is part of the appeal of games like COD over the more skill based less dramatic Quake MP.

"I found it difficult to find an older pinball game that didn't reference billiards or cards in some way."

I think that had alot to do with the demograph they were trying to appealt to, since PB machines in the pre 70s tended to be mostly in bars and pool halls.

Funny you mentioned the change in the slant angle from older to newer machines growing more steep.

I used to bet one of my last of 2 quarters (or dimes in some cases) to anyone who would bet, that i could roll the score over on machines back in the early to mid 70s. One to show at 8-9 years old i could do it and two for the extra free game i got from the quarter. 1 for beating the free game score & 1 from rolling the 999 mechanical counter over to start again for the quarter i bet. One of my favorite childhood memories.

Thanks for the reminder of the memory and once again Good article.