What are game rules ? What makes pinball games 'deep' ?

A pinball machine is a pinball machine, right ? Wrong ! OK, pinball machines have a different name on the backglass, but in the end they all play the same, you have to keep the ball in play as long as possible, right ? Wrong again !

Pinball machines are all different. OK, 50 years ago playfield layouts were sometimes re-used and a new game was just a copy of the old with a new picture drawn on it. But these times are long over. Competition between manufacturers made them innovate, every game released had to be something new, something special, to attract players.

While the building blocks stay the same, flippers, slingshots, bumpers, targets, .. their position influences gameplay a lot.
The addition of ramps took gameplay to another level, there wasn't the limitation of the flat playfield anymore, designers used ramps to make 'shortcuts' to move the ball from one side of the playfield to the other.
Solid state controlled pinball machines also have more processing power which allows them to have more complicated rules.
Contemporary pinball machines really have a theme, and by controlling the ball you achieve goals, just like you would play a videogame.

What are rules ?

If you have never (or hardly) played a pinball machine before it may seem strange to you, but these games actually have rules and specific goals to reach. Most beginners are happy if they are able to keep the ball in the game for a while. This is step one in learning how to play pinball.. keep the ball in the game and try to let it go in the direction you want.. But as you play more, you'll notice that sometimes you have a high score, sometimes a low score but your game lasted longer. So you don't get points for just keeping the ball longer in play ?

Some history.. In the beginning games were simple and you got points for everything you hit. Hit a target, get 1 point, hit another, get maybe 2 points, make a very difficult shot and get 5 points. Soon game designers added features like 'special when lit'. These are targets which increased in value on condition of something else you had to do. I.e. shot down all targets of a drop target bank, or all targets in a row, or pass all rollovers, or .. These bonuses are made so good pinball players can earn extra points. The game also becomes a lot more interesting: now you have a goal to shoot for. You have to aim for some targets, make shots in a specific order, .. It isn't a matter anymore of just keeping the ball into play and have it hit everything random.

The introduction of solid state machines (they have a computer in them) meant a revolution in game rules. Before there was a cost involved in adding logic: it were real switches and other components which had to be added. So maybe it was technical possible to do more complicated things, but it would become too expensive, and there's also the volume of switches. If you look in the backbox of an EM game you'll notice it's quite full. But now there were computer ICs and adding extra logic to a game became very cheap, as long as you had bytes free in the rom you could add new rules..

Game designers suddenly could become more creative. Their creativity didn't stop with a playfield layout, this was only the beginning. Now they could let the player do specific things to earn more points, and with alpha-numeric and dot matrix displays they can even tell you what's going on or has to be done.. Some dotmatrix games even have simple video games in them. The theme of the game is no longer just a picture on the backglass and graphics on the playfield, but it became an essential part of gameplay itself. Some nice examples of this are games like: High Speed: the police is chasing you and you have to outrun them. Cirqus Voltaire: do tricks to join the Cirqus. NBA Fastbreak and World Cup Soccer, play a basketball game or try to win the Soccer World Cup. Medieval Madness and Attack from Mars, conquer castles, or save the earth. There are much more games, but these are some good examples of pinball games in which the player feels more involved because he really controls the action, just like in a video game.

Games now also have 'modes'. A mode can best be described as a period of time during which game rules change and there is a very specific goal to achieve. An easy example which everyone knows is a multiball. You trigger it by locking 2 or 3 balls, and during multiballs i.e. some targets or combinations of shots can become jackpots and score much more then they normally do. Some games have very specific 'wizard modes' which require you to make a specific shot. You have to make these shots to continue, no other shots count anymore.

Some games even allow to stack modes, when one mode runs you can start the other at the same time. In Bram Stockers Dracula the game is designed so to score points you must run multiple multiballs at the same time. But most games don't allow stacking, when one mode runs it's exclusive until it times out.

And the wizard mode.. well, that's the ultimate goal of the game. That's why you're playing it. You have worked towards this mode, and if you complete it or do well you can earn many many points with it.. Some games even keep a specific high score list for the points you made during this wizard mode. Usually during this wizard mode you have to make specific shots in a specific time.. You have to prove you're a real pinball wizard who can make accurate shots whilst under pressure...

Why would someone buy a (very) hard game to play at home ?

If you are a good pinball player, and understand/learn the rules of the game, you'll want a difficult game.

At home you can practice as much as you want. You don't have to put coins in the game. So a difficult game which has a steep learning curve is not a big problem. You can practice for weeks to learn the game. If you had to pay for each game, you probable wouldn't afford this.

It took me almost a month (playing almost every evening) before I even started to like my TZ. In a pub I play like 3-4 games and stop if I don't like the game.

You could buy an easy game which is great for beginners. But if you have this at home and play it every night, and your skill improves, it will become boring.. then you want a bigger challenge, or a game which gives you lots of options. You don't want to play 100 games and 50 of them are exactly the same. You want games which have some random things in them. And when you reached one goal, there should to be a more different goal which you haven't reached yet (and requires a different path to reach it)

Of course everything depends on your own skill, how good you play, and how good you want to become.

If you're not good at playing pinball, won't play a lot and don't think you'll ever become 'good' at it, don't buy a Twilight Zone or other 'hard' game. They will be too difficult and maybe you'll never play good enough to really enjoy/understand the game.

So then start with an easy game. All electronic games have an adjustable difficulty btw. So when it becomes a bit too easy, set it to the 'extra hard' setting, and try to beat your high scores again. Or you buy another game, a bit more difficult..

Certainly when you buy a game for children, you're better off with an (older) easy game. Most of the time they are happy if they can keep the ball in game for a long time, and they are too young to understand the (sometimes subtle) game rules. For them you're better off with a game which either says 'shoot everything for points' or 'aim everything that's lit'. Preferably with nice sounds and flashers, and they'll be happy..

Pinball games are made for enjoyment, and you've got to select a game which fits you best. You may become frustrated with a difficult game, if you only get 10% out of the game and never are able reach more. And if you are too good, a game which is too easy may become boring because you defeat the wizard mode too much..