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Pinball is a type of arcade game in which a player attempts to score points by manipulating a metal ball on a playfield inside a glass case. The playfield is three to six degrees inclined upward, away from the player. Once a ball is in play, it tends to move downward towards the player, although the ball can move in any direction, sometimes unpredictably, as the result of contact with objects on the playfield or by the player's own actions. To manipulate the ball, the player may make use of the plunger, flippers, or by nudging (physically pushing the cabinet). However, nudging is considered cheating by some.

Pachinko is a cousin of pinball, but the games are very different.

The game ends when a specified number of balls have been lost off the bottom of the playfield. This number was up to ten in very old machines, usually 5 in games of the 1940s through 1970s, and typically became 3 balls in the late 1970s or early 1980s. In more modern games, it can be either 3 or 5, at the operator's discretion.
NB.: This number is per player. So in a 2-player game, each player gets 3 balls to play. Score is kept separately for each player.

In games with more than one player, players alternate turns playing, one ball per turn. (Exception: during the course of play, a player can sometimes earn extra balls, and in those cases, the extra balls are played immediately.)

The plunger is a spring-loaded launching device used to get the ball going. The player can control the amount of force used for launching by pulling the plunger a different distance (thus changing the spring compression). This is often used for a "skill shot", in which a player attempts to launch a ball so that it exactly hits a specified target. Once the ball is in motion in the main area of the playfield, the plunger is not used again until another ball must be brought onto the playfield. In modern machines, an electronically-controlled launcher is sometimes substituted for the plunger.

The flippers are two or more small levers, roughly 3 to 7 cm in length, used for propelling the ball up the playfield. They are the main control that the player has over the ball. With the flippers, one attempts to hit various types of scoring targets, and to keep the ball from disappearing off the bottom of the playfield.

Common scoring targets include:

  • Bumpers: These are round knobs that, when hit, will push the ball away. There's also an older kind of bumper that doesn't propel the ball away; this is quite rare on machines since the 1960s, so technically, the bumpers on playfields now are "pop bumpers", "thumper bumpers", "jet bumpers", depending on who you ask. Most recent games include a set of pop bumpers, usually three, sometimes more or less depending on the designer's goals. Bumpers predate flippers, and active bumpers added a great deal of spice to older games.
  • Kickers and slingshots: These are targets which propel the ball away upon impact, like bumpers, but are usually a horizontal side of a wall. Every recent pinball machine includes slingshots to the upper left and upper right of the lowest set of flippers; older games used more experimental arrangements.
  • Ramps: Ramps are... just ramps. You try to hit the ball with enough force so that the ball will make it to the top of the ramp and down the other side. If you succeed, you have made a "ramp shot". Ramps usually end in such a way that the ball goes to a flipper so you can make several ramp shots in a row. Often, the number of ramp shots scored in a game is tallied, and reaching certain numbers may lead to various game features.
  • Drop targets: You hit them, they drop. Eliminating an entire row in this manner may lead to any of various features.
  • Holes: You hit the ball into a hole. On modern games, there are both vertical and horizontal holes, and the game can move the ball between them. On older games, there is a peculiar thing called a "gobble hole": this takes the ball, awards a large number of points or a free game, but doesn't give the ball back.
  • Spinners: a ball can push through a flat surface that is hinged in the middle, causing it to spin; each rotation adds points.

There are other idiosyncratic features on many pinball playfields.

Common features in pinball games include the following:

  • Ball lock: Try to get 2 (or 3 or however many) balls into a specific hole or target. Each time a ball goes in there, it is "locked" and a new ball appears at the plunger. When you have locked the required number of balls, a multiball starts.
  • Multiball: More than one ball in play at a time. Difficult to handle. Usually includes some kind of "jackpot" scoring. Multiball ends when all but one ball is lost down the bottom of the playfield, when regular play resumes.
  • Jackpot: Some targets on the playfield increase the scoring value of something else. This "something else" could be as simple as hitting a ramp, or it could be a complicated sequence of targets.
  • Extra ball: If a player has earned this, when they lose a ball, they get another one to play immediately afterward, and the machine does not count the lost ball towards the limit of balls for that game. For example, if you were on Ball 2, and you have an extra ball, the next ball (the extra one) will also be Ball 2 (it will not be Ball 3).
When a machine says "SHOOT AGAIN" on the scoreboard, it means that you have an extra ball to shoot. In a multiplayer game, the player who just lost his ball is the same one to shoot again.
  • Various timed rounds ("modes"): For example, if you hit a specific target 3 times within the next 20 seconds, you might score several tens of millions of points for it. There are many and various time-related features in pinball.

Ways to get an extra game might include:

  • Replay: Beat a specified score to get an extra game.
  • Match: At the end of the game, if the last two digits of your score match a random digit followed by zero, you get an extra game. As pinball scores on modern machines nearly always end in zero, the chances of this happening appear to be 1 in 10, but the operator can alter this probability.
  • Special: Any other way to get an extra game is usually called a "special". Typically, some hard-to-get feature of the game will light the outlanes (the areas to the extreme left and right of the flippers) for special. Since the outlanes always lose the ball, having "special" there makes it worth shooting for them (and is pretty much the only time this is the case).

When an extra game is won, the machine typically makes a single loud bang.

Pinball, like many other mechanical games, was sometimes used as a gambling device. Most games are clearly labeled "FOR AMUSEMENT ONLY" so that the manufacturer can emphasize their legitimate, legal nature.

Some pinball machines, such as Bally's "bingos", would have a grid on the backglass scoring area. Free games could be won if the player was skillful enough to get three balls in a row. However, doing this was pretty much completely random, and the real use for such machines was as a gambling device (such as many places now use video poker).

Skillful players can influence the movement of the ball by nudging or bumping the pinball machine. The tilt mechanism guards against excessive manipulation of this sort. The mechanism is a grounded plumb bob centered in an electrified steel ring; when the machine is jostled too far or too hard, the bob bumps up against the ring, completing a circuit. When this happens, the game registers a "tilt" and locks out. Older games, especially one-player games, would end the whole game on a tilt; modern games sacrifice only the ball in play. Until recently, most games also had a "slam tilt" switch which guarded against kicking the door, but this has apparently recently been obsoleted. A slam tilt will typically end the current game for all players.

Skilled players can also hold a ball in place with the flipper, giving them more control over where they want to place the ball when they shoot it forward. This technique involves catching the ball in the corner between the base of the flipper and the wall to its side, just as the ball falls towards the flipper; the flipper is then released, which calls the ball to slowly roll downward against the flipper. The player then chooses the moment when they want to hit the flipper again, timing the shot as the ball slides slowly against the flipper.

Skilled players can often play on a machine for long periods of time on a single coin. By earning extra balls, a single game can be stretched out for a long period, and if the player is playing well he or she can earn replays by points and possibly also free games through specials. In such cases, a player may even walk away from a machine with several games left on it.

Pinball scoring is peculiar and very arbitrary. Game scores on older games were in the hundreds; in the 1970s, the thousands or tens of thousands. At one period in the mid 1990s, several games required scores of over a billion for a free game. The most recent machines have more reasonable scores, in the tens of millions range. (One designer lamented that the manufacturers just ran out of digits.)

Add to this the difficult physics of a moving ball, and you may find your pinball scores to be distributed over quite a wide range. With modern games, it is no surprise if your "high" scores are five times as great as your "normal" scores.

Any kind of mechanical defect you can name, you can find. You may even find peculiar electronic defects, such as a machine performing incorrect addition when calculating your score.

Balls get stuck pretty much everywhere, or just lost. Targets and switches break and won't register. Displays can die, lights can burn out, and fuses can blow.

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