What are the Different Types of Pinball Machines?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

In these times of high-tech video game systems, pinball machines may seem to be the last remnants of a bygone era. But Generation Nexters continue to feed quarters into a new breed of pinball machines which feature video elements and other innovations. Pinball machines from the 1970s through 1990s can still be purchased through online auctions or private collectors. Even vintage pinball machines can be enjoyed at older amusement parks and retro arcades.

Man with a backpack
Man with a backpack

The first pinball machines appeared in America in the 1930s. David Gottlieb, a pioneer in the arcade field, designed a game in which players launched marbles with a plunger into a playing surface studded with pins. As the balls careened through the pins, they would either fall into high-scoring pockets or low-scoring slots at the bottom of the field. The players had little control over the outcome, except for the plunger speed and a little body English. A more elaborate version of this original pinball design, called Pachinko, is still popular in Japanese arcades. Players are often rewarded with additional balls for high scores.

Pinball machines continued to evolve during the 1940s and early 1950s, adding such elements as player-controlled flippers and solenoid bumpers. These additions allowed the balls to remain in the playing field longer, making the player feel more in control of the outcome. The first flippers were not located on the bottom, but rather in a series along the sides. Pinball machines of this era are rarely seen today because they were deemed 'gambling devices' and largely destroyed by law enforcement agents.

The type of pinball machines most adults remember first appeared in the mid-1950s. In order to qualify as games of skill, these new pinball machines featured two player-controlled flippers at the bottom of the playing field. Advanced bumpers and drop targets gave players additional chances to earn higher points through skill rather than luck. Pinball machines manufactured by companies such as Bally and Gottlieb from the 1950s through 1990s often featured lurid artwork on the backboard to attract customers. The features on the playing field were all driven by electrical relays and solenoids. Players might activate an elecromagnetic 'save' button or receive multiple balls, but the play essentially remained the same as the machines of the 1950s.

The rise in popularity of advanced video games almost spelled the end for traditional pinball machines in the 1990s. However, pinball companies decided to add video elements and other advanced electronics to their newest machines. Older players enjoy the retro feel of mechanical pinball machines, while younger players have the chance to play video games while experiencing a physical connection to the gameplay. Modern pinball machines feature ramps, video screens, special targets and the chance to play as many as five balls at one time. The look and basic gameplay of a modern pinball machine may hearken back to an earlier area, but the features and elements are definitely 21st century.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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