It was banned in New York until 1976. It was at the center of an impressive Toronto-based police raid in 1975. And, many felt it was secretly being used to lure children into the corrupt and immoral world of gambling. I’m of course referring to pinball.   

And yet, despite all the odds being stacked against it, views eventually changed and pinball would go on to become one of the most popular arcade games the world over!

It successfully merged with the changing technologies of the digital age, survived the video game crash of 1983, and continues to be a staple of modern entertainment more than 200 years since its original conception! 

Yes, pinball is a survivor in every sense of the word. Constantly changing with the times, this beloved game of skill continues to reinvent itself – feeling fresh and new with each passing year, while still holding true to the basic fundamentals that made it such a smash hit even during the most confusing of days.

In recent years, the game has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. One that has seen an entirely new class of gamers embrace every last blink and bell ring. However, it is not to dimly lit arcades or popcorn-scented midways that this new generation flocks – but to their nearest basement or living room sofa!  

Welcome to the fun-filled world of Virtual Pinball!

What Is Virtual Pinball?

Virtual pinball a the digitally simulated version of the traditional pinball experience. Oftentimes played on a machine that is similar in shape and size to a real pinball table, virtual pinball digitally replicates the playfields, sounds, and ball movements of its classic counterpart.

In similar fashion to regular pinball, players look to rack up as many points as possible by hitting a number of simulated balls off of the various bumpers, ramps, and targets spread throughout the rendered environment before them.

At the same time, they must try to keep these balls within the field of play for as long as possible by controlling a pair of digital flippers that appear on screen.

Virtual, or visual, pinball can also be experienced by means of a computer, game console, or any number of different smartphones. Interestingly enough, It is a concept that has actually been explored since the mid-70s amidst the first video game boom.

Virtual Pinball Flippers

Gottcha! So, What’s A Virtual Pinball Machine?  

A virtual pinball machine is built and programmed to replicate a real pinball machine – albeit, through digital means. Virtual pinball more closely resembles a video game in its execution rather than physical pinball.

Utilizing the latest technological advancements, they are much smaller and lighter than their classically cumbersome counterparts. In addition, many of these far more convenient machines are customizable and capable of holding hundreds of different tables!

New titles can easily be installed on your machine through numerous platforms.

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Ok, How Does It Work?

These virtual pinball machines operate by running off of a gaming computer with dedicated pinball software installed on it. Players will then control the game by using buttons that are programmed to respond to certain actions – such as controlling the flippers and plunger.

While VPX has become a favorite software of virtual pinball players in recent years and has a growing community, Steam has also become a popular platform to use within the hobby. This is due largely in part to the fact that it features a rather simple means by which to install new games on your machine.

When it comes to hardware, the majority of these machines utilize a flat-screen TV, while an additional screen sourced from either a computer or TV is used as a backglass to display player scores during gameplay. 

Interestingly, depending on the software you decide to use, you can also set up a machine to play videos. In researching for this part, I came across some great examples that ran scenes from such beloved properties as Jurassic Park, Star Trek, Stranger Things, and Terminator to name but a few!

And, I’ve got to say, when paired with a strong set of stereo speakers, the whole thing really seems to meld together into a truly immersive experience that is leaps and bounds above what we were getting back at Wally B. World back in the day!      

So, You’re Saying I Can Build My Own?

Oh yes, you certainly can.

What’s great about this is that you get to choose the overall size, look and feel of the cabinet as you see fit. It also won’t cost you as much as buying a machine through a retailer.

Should you have some basic tech skills, making your own virtual pinball cabinet can be quite fun and more than a little rewarding. However, that doesn’t mean you’re simply going to be able to hammer out your own machine over the course of a Saturday afternoon.

Many hours will be put into this project, especially with it being done all by hand. 

However, being able to fully customize your machine with the graphics, speakers, tables, and software of your choosing is definitely an upside to this hobby. And, as if that’s not enough, you even have the option to design your own pinball creations should you be so brave. 

That Sounds Great! What Does a Virtual Pinball Machine Cost?

Virtual pinball machines are not cheap. While they are much more convenient than traditional machines and offer almost unlimited hours of play due to being able to hold hundreds of different pinball games, they can be quite expensive and range from anywhere between $5,000 – $10,000. Some can even fetch between $11,000 – $14,000 depending on included software and overall construction.

If that is more than you’re looking to spend, there are a handful of companies that produce scaled-down machines that range between $3,500 – $7,000. Companies such as Arcade1Up also offer a range of virtual pinball games for under $1,000 that feature such popular brands as Marvel Comics, Star Wars, and Attack From Mars.

Working closely with such studios as Disney and Zen, this range of machines come in at 3/4 scale and have been programmed in such a way to ensure that consumers will get the most authentic pinball experience possible. 

Granted, with such cabinets exceeding the price tag of even the most advanced of today’s home video game consoles, there is no denying that many a modern-era Pinhead may wish to look elsewhere for their biffs and backboxes.

And fortunately, you can decide to go that route as well.

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Where Else Can You Look?

As mentioned, there are many different ways to experience realistic pinball simulation today, and many different titles to choose from. Most of these are done through the use of computers, gaming consoles, and smart devices and feature some of the most beloved pinball titles to ever grace retailers.

Some examples of the game outside of a virtual machine include the Video Pinball series of consoles first introduced by Atari back in 1978, as well as EA’s Virtual Pinball game which was released on the SEGA Genesis back in 1993. That same year, Sonic Spinball gave gamers a novelty take on virtual pinball that was praised by critics and fans alike for everything from graphics and sound to its overall playability. 

Perhaps the most famous example of virtual pinball however is the Space Cadet 3D game that came installed with Windows computers beginning in 1995. It featured pre-rendered 3D graphics and sees players navigating a digital ball across a futuristic sci-fi tabletop. For many a gamer that grew up before the days of the Internet, this was their first official experience with virtual pinball – and one that no doubt still holds a place in their hearts even now!

These versions of virtual pinball are readily available and won’t break the bank upon purchase. For instance, a lightly used copy of Sonic Spinball with its case and all included paperwork can be yours for as little as $12 USD. At the same time, solid copies of Virtual Pinball for the SEGA Genesis will only set you back about $30 at most.

A few of these even come bundled with the latest generation of miniature gaming consoles from the likes of SEGA and Nintendo, while others can be accessed and played free of charge through many gaming websites spread out across cyberspace.

Thus, to say that gamers have more than a couple of options open to them is a bit of an understatement.

Excellent! So, Which Version Is Best?

Honestly, that all comes down to your preference.

If you’re not one for building or purchasing a machine that can cost the same as a used Toyota, then downloading some Pinball King to your Samsung or hitting up the local flea market for used copies of Highspeed Pinball for your Nintendo Entertainment System is probably the way you’ll want to go. And honestly, that’s perfectly fine.

However, if you have the time, skills, and bank to either build or purchase your own virtual pinball machine, it does offer some perks that your average video game version does not.

Looking to give Pinheads a truly authentic gaming experience, these machines replicate the physical movements of a pinball machine thanks to their dedicated software and overall construction.

By contrast, using a keyboard, a game controller, or your finger just doesn’t offer up the same sort of immersive experience that playing on one of these new machines does.

I am by no means saying that this makes video game pinball somehow inferior to a machine. It all just depends on your tastes and how much time, energy, and cash you’re willing to commit to the hobby is all.

Bumpers on a traditional pinball machine

That’s Great! Got Anything Else To Say?

Pinball may no longer be the new game on the block, but there is no denying its popularity. It has faced stiff competition and some pretty big odds and is still regarded as one of the most beloved games of all time. It has succeeded where others have failed and even embraced the high-tech wizardry of our modern age to truly become something more.

Virtual Pinball has allowed an entirely new generation of gamers to not only play the game for the first time but even given them the option to make each round as unique and special as they are. It is more than a game. It is now an experience. 

Like the Apple II, the Nintendo Entertainment System, and the Sony Discman, this new world of virtual pinball machines has taken the future of consumer electronics to an entirely new and impressive level. We are now able to craft and execute every last aspect of what we deem to be an appropriate and satisfactory gaming experience.

The power truly is in our hands as we look to a tomorrow filled with infinite possibilities. One where our entertainment is crafted exactly as we would like. Where technology sits quite literally at our fingertips, and where everything old really is new once more!

Last update on 2024-06-07 at 12:14 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API