Vol. 08: Pinball

Pinball, Resurrected by Bill Bumgarner (pg. 66)

Restoring a crusty, beat-up Cyclone.

Pinheads in Oddball Places by Dale Dougherty (pg. 74)

Inside the electromechanical underground, with Lucky Ju Ju and the Pinball Hall of Fame.



+ Downloads & Extras:



Pinheads in Oddball Places

Click here to listen to an audio tour of Lucky Ju Ju Pinball Arcadium.



Pinball, Resurrected; Additional Resources

Solid-State Pinball Machines

In pinball machines from the 50s, 60s, and most of the 70s, game state was entirely maintained through a series of relays and switches. The main cabinet of the machine contained dozens of relays to control lights and other features. Stepper units rotated discs with posts that actuated nests of switches in order to change modes of play as the game advanced. Meanwhile, a scoring motor ran the scoring reels in the backglass.

These fully electro-mechanical, pre-digital games were very sophisticated. When powered up, many even went through a self-test "boot sequence," transitioning through multiple states and confirming correct operation of each before they were ready to play.

Then came the microprocessor. In 1974 Bally investigated using the Intel 4004, the first industrial microprocessor, for its pinball machines. But it was Williams that released the first solid-state control pinball machine, Hot Tip, in 1977. While Hot Tip had reasonable success in the market, it initiated a wave of change in pinball design; the last fully electro-mechanical game, Gottlieb's Space Walk, came out less than three years later.

In solid-state machines, the MPU and its software eliminated the need for the scoring motor, game motor and many of the relays found in electro-mechanical machines. They're essentially computer games, but instead of the input device being a joystick, it's a big machine with a steel ball, flippers, and dozens of momentary switches. Because solid-state games were driven by software, they developed more complex rules with more detailed paths to attaining high scores. They also evolved to incorporate digital sound effects and music, voice synthesis, and eventually fully interactive graphics, on screens embedded in or reflected off of the playfield.

"On Location" Machines

Pinball machines that have worked "on location," as opposed to home use only, are frequently seriously neglected, or even abused. Rarely will a pinball machine from a bar or all but the best arcades work fully. The goal of most route operators who managed these machines was to keep them working well enough to take the customer's money while minimizing maintenance expense. It's expensive to take any machine off location for repairs, so many repairs are completely ad-hoc using whatever parts are available.

In my experience restoring pinballs, I have seen the following "repairs," which any prospective buyer should watch out for:

  • Screws driven into the playfield to prevent the ball from going somewhere, often into a major feature of the game.
  • Paper stuffed in holes or gaps, indicating a more serious problem that has been ignored.
  • Wrong parts used to "repair" flippers, thus damaging the playfield or burning out transistors.
  • Switches shorted out or removed entirely.
  • Parts broken off entirely.
  • Wires cut to motors to prevent certain items from moving.
  • Machines "cleaned" with solvents that dissolve plastic.

But the worst of offense of all is the use of WD-40 or any other spray lubricant. There are very few spots in any given game that need lubricant. Coils are not one of them. If you find coils soaked in lubricant, they will have to be replaced and they are fire hazards.

Be prepared to have to clean up and repair years of incompetent "maintenance" when buying a machine that has seen on-route or arcade use.

Parts Dealers

  • Steve Young of the Pinball Resource knows more about pinball machines and pinball parts than just about anyone.
  • Bay Area Amusements has an excellent inventory of hard to find and/or unique parts.
  • For common parts for later model machines, any arcade parts supply company should have what you need. Happ Controls and Marco Specialties are both good sources for many parts.

There are always lots of pinball parts and machine listings on Ebay. As well, a post to rec.games.pinball (see below) looking for parts will usually turn up a number of useful responses.

Resources

  • For reference material, Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum maintains an incredible set of articles covering pinball maintenance and restoration.
  • For any questions or discussions, the rec.games.pinball group is typically very responsive (though, like all internet groups, you'll have to take any answer with a grain of salt).
  • For a thorough study in the history of pinball, The Pennyarcade Site offers a great set of articles with lots of pictures.
  • If you need information on a specific machine, The Internet Pinball Database contains individual entries on each machine, noting features and game play.
  • Mr. Pinball Classifieds is a good place for buying and selling (but also check craigslist, Ebay, and local newspaper listings).
  • Pinball News gathers information about upcoming shows, industry news, and also has maintenance tips and lots of other information.
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