Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

MGC 2015: Pinball’s Future is Emulation

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pinball1Depending on who you ask, perhaps pinball shouldn’t even be on this site.  It’s not a video game at all and in truth the only thing pinball even has in common to video games is that they both tended to occupy one another in arcades, bowling alleys, bars, and various other popular locations of the 70s, 80s, and 90s.  This doesn’t mean that you can’t appreciate both and thanks to some great physics engines and crafty programming games like Zen Pinball/Pinball FX and Pinball Arcade exist and do a nice job of bringing that thrill home.  But it isn’t pinball.  No friends, those of us who love pinball and played the games growing up would not consider T2 on Pinball Arcade to be the same as sitting in front of the cold steel original pinball machine with the gun handle for a launcher.  At the same time a T2 pinball machine runs you around $2,000-$3,000 and that doesn’t even factor in getting to and into your place of residence, so the relatively cheap $10 price for the table on console is a better option for most of us.  If you buy the actual pinball machine you’ll probably enjoy the game for less than six months before it needs service of some kind – assuming it was in perfect working order when you purchased it, which is almost never the case.  Even if you have a pristine new Stern pinball machine that gets professionally set up, routine maintenance and cleaning is part of the role that any pinball owner has, whether it’s handled by the owner personally or they have a professional come out for routine service.  That’s why pinball is a much larger investment than arcade machines: you have to know how to care for an afford to maintain it.  Not only that, but the machines are specific so you can’t just drop a T2′s guts into a Funhouse machine without a lot of time, effort, and basically rebuilding it.  All of these factors are why pinball emulation may be the best option for the average pinball enthusiast that’s ready to pony up that initial investment, but doesn’t want all the hassle of actually owning a pinball machine.

pinball2I was surprised at how well it holds up.  The machine is comprised of a basic pinball frame, sizes vary just as they do in real machines, and from there the machine is custom built thanks to a few LEDs and the new fantastic world of pinball emulation.  I haven’t done much work in getting my hands on the emulators or games themselves, but just like MAME all your favorites have been faithfully re-created and function just like the original machine.  This means that the sounds are the same, the lights are the same, the ramps are the same, you can adjust the physics and incline, and provided you have the right display you can even have the LCD dot matrix displays and scoreboards re-created as well.  That’s why VP Cabs and other companies like them started making custom emulated pinball machines ready for your enjoyment – and of course the handy people of the world can build these machines for a fraction of the cost of a custom machine.  At MGC VP Cabs had out a couple of emulation cabs and a couple of Pinball FX cabs as well, although I do believe either machine could run both if you so desired.  I was impressed by how closely it resembled the real thing, which is as much a testament to the emulation scene as it is to builders, but also that it just felt right.  My favorite machines – Guns’N Roses, Elvira, and Twilight Zone – did not end up in the arcade/pinball area at this year’s MGC, much to my dismay.  Most likely this is because these highly sought after pinball machines are safely in the right owners collection that there just aren’t any to sell or perhaps that in the Midwest there just weren’t that many, but either way I was sad to see that the machines weren’t there to play and no one would be buying and taking home one of my favorite games.  Fortunately I got to enjoy all these classics on the VP Cabs emulated machine and, yep, it turns out I still suck at Guns’N Roses, so I’m going to go on record and say it’s a faithful recreation.  I don’t have the time or money to sink into an emulated pinball right now, but since the resources that make up these machines are abundant I don’t think I’ll have a problem when I finally decide to pull the trigger.  I hate to say it, but for the dying art that is pinball, unless you’re a heavy enthusiast of maintaining as well as owning a pinball, the future seems to lead to emulation.

Written by Fred Rojas

April 15, 2015 at 5:30 pm

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