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Tropes In Pinball Games
This page is an index of Tropes frequently found in Pinball games, whether they're physical machines or digital games.

An article in this index will be about these things:

  • Gameplay mechanics, including mechanics borrowed from Video Games and Tabletop Games.
  • Characterization and setting tropes frequently appearing in game characters and settings.
  • Setting tropes that are used in many pinball games to the degree they are pretty much stock elements, or without which many games would be unrecognizable/unplayable.

Also see Pinball Tropes, for tropes specific to pinball games or named after Pinball in general.

NOTE: If a trope is specific to a particular pinball title, consider adding it to the game's Works page instead.


Pinball games and machines often demonstrate the following tropes:

  • Announcer Chatter
    • FunHouse was the first to do this. Rudy, a talking ventriloquist head, will frequently compliment players for good shots, tell players about scoring opportunities, and tease players during the course of each game. He even nicknames the individual players.
    • Capcom's Flipper Football also has an Adult Mode, where the referee uses very colorful language and a number of four-letter words. "Hey! Let's talk about your sister!" It only gets better from there...
    • No Good Gofers has the two gofers (Buzz and Bud), who comment on the play, usually sarcastically. When the ball drains down the right outlane, Buzz usually says "Hole in One! Ooops. Wrong Hole!"
  • Anti-Frustration Features/Mercy Mode:
    • In older solid-state pinballs, if you launch a ball and it drains without hitting any switches or targets, the game would feed it back to you for another go.
    • Much more common in modern tables is called a "ball saver"—an extra chance on that ball if you manage to lose the ball immediately after launching it. This started with "Flight Insurance" in F-14 Tomcat.
    • A less common variant is the "Consolation Extra Ball" (a.k.a. "Pity Extra Ball"), where if you lose your first two balls quickly and/or without scoring much, the game simply lights the Extra Ball at the start of your third ball. You usually still have to make the shot to get it, though.
    • Some games, like Shrek, will even light a pity multiball on the third ball if the player has done poorly on the first two balls. Bram Stoker's Dracula will light Mist multiball on the third ball for free (on default settings) if you have not played it yet.
  • All There in the Manual: Many of the details about a game's plot or backstory is reserved for the game's operator manual.
  • Appeal To Novelty: Frequently invoked when a game introduces a new feature, gameplay element, or cool interactive toy. See the trope page for a list.
  • Artificial Brilliance: To an extent. The pseudo-random awards given in many pins really do deserve the "pseudo" in their name and will usually try to give you the most helpful award that it reasonably can (for instance, in Attack from Mars, if you have Martian Attack lit at the same time, you usually get a martian bomb for use in that mode). Seemingly just as often though, it will just give you a mediocre amount of points.
    • Perhaps even more genius is the Match feature, which is also pseudo-random and designed to pull in more money for the operator. For example, the match feature has a disproportionately higher chance of giving player a match if two have just played, so the other player will deposit money and they will both play again. See this article.
  • Attract Mode: Almost all games have attract modes similar to those in Video Games. Typical versions will play music, flash the playfield lights in a choreographed sequence, and play animations on the alphanumeric or dot-matrix display.
  • Betting Mini-Game
    • Jack*Bot is Pin Bot with a casino theme. The whole game revolves around this trope, although you are always betting hypothetical points. For instance, you are given a chance to double-up the points you won on a casino game by shooting under the left ramp. The "Casino Run" Wizard Mode, which operates very similarly to the Bonus Round of The Joker's Wild has you spinning a slot machine and each time allowing you to take your "bank" of points (and maybe even extra balls and specials) or risk it. Getting a bomb on the slot machine or running out of time to shoot another hole costs you your bank.
    • WHO dunnit has slots which give out various awards, as well as a roulette mini-game where you can bet your points. Unlike Jack*Bot, you actually are wagering your already-earned score, making this a rare example of a pinball game where you can lose points.
    • The Sopranos has the "Executive Game" which is a game of seven-card stud poker where the bet increases dramatically for each card (a few tens of thousands for your first card, and then millions by the last card). You can lose points here.
  • Bigger Is Better: Hercules, a 1979 Atari pinball is the largest pinball ever made at 39" wide, 93" long, and 83" tall. It uses a billiards cue ball as its pinball. YMMV on the "better" part though, as it is considered a simple and mediocre game by most players.
  • Boss Banter: If a game has an antagonist and speech, expect a lot of taunting during the game.
  • Cap: Long before dot-matrix displays became commonplace, many tables had score displays that were limited to a set number of digits.
    • Even with modern dot-matrix displays, the score displays on some games will usually roll back to 0 if they go over the maximum number of digits that can be displayed. Most dot-matrix games will roll over at 10 billion points; WHO dunnit and Dirty Harry are examples of games where this is not very hard to do. The high score tables usually can display the full scores though.
  • Celebrity Star: Occurs fairly often, especially for games named after a celebrity, musician, or band.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: In modern pinball games, multiball locks are usually colored green, "shoot this shot" arrows are colored yellow, and extra ball lights are colored red.
  • Combos, which usually involve completing a specific sequence of shots.
  • Continuing Is Painful: Bonuses, missions, combos, multipliers, and such reset if you lose a ball, unless the table has a "multipliers held" or similar function you can enable to preserve them for your next ball.
    • However, there are pinball tables in which any increased bonuses and multipliers that are earned stick around until a player's game ends.
  • Cut Scene: Games with dot-matrix displays will usually stop the action for a moment to show one.
  • Difficulty Levels: There are operator-adjustable preset difficulty levels, usually five: Extra easy, easy, medium, hard, and extra hard. These adjust things like the ball saver length (or the number of ball saves; you might get multiple or no ball saves), the number of times a shot needs to be made to start a mode or get an award, whether hit targets have "memory" between balls (a common trait of harder settings is to unlight hit targets when a ball drains), and other things.
  • Do Well, But Not Perfect: If you want your high scores to save into a machine's memory, particularly on most older solid-state games, you better not get a score that will go over the maximum that can be displayed. A score that's slightly over a million points on a six-digit display probably will not save, though some games are nice enough to save this as the maximum displayable score.
  • Dynamic Difficulty: The replay value on modern machines is adjusted every so often based on recent scores gotten on the machine so that a certain percentage of scores will get a replay. Obviously, these tend to be much higher on privately-owned machines than public machines. And some tables will award a pity extra ball if the player did badly on their first (or first and second) ball(s).
  • Easter Egg/Everything's Better With Cows:
    • Easter Eggs are often referred to as "cows"; actual bovine references are an industry Running Gag, first popularized by Williams Electronics and later adopted by other creators for fun. See the page for an extensive list.
    • A lot of the post-1995 Williams/Bally games also have a Midnight Madness mode if you start a game at midnight.
  • Endless Game: Almost every pinball. Averted by a few games like James Bond 007, Safe Cracker and Flipper Football, which use timed play.
  • Every 10,000 Points: Virtually any pinball machine will give you a "replay" (or sometimes an extra ball) for reaching a certain score, known on most games as the "replay value". Older pins usually have several of these.
    • 1986's High Speed was the first game to feature automatic replay adjustment, in which the replay score automatically adjusts based on the players' performances on location.
  • Everything's Better with Spinning:
    • There are squares that you spin to score. They are called, appropriately, 'spinners'.
    • Some tables (such as Fireball or Whirlwind) also include spinning wheels on them that can alter a ball's trajectory.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: Stern made a 1977 pinball called Pinball. It was made in both electromagnetic and solid-state versions, though this was the case with many games released that year.
  • Extra Balls: These are usually rewarded for completing specific goals on any given table. However, some tables reward extra balls after reaching specified scoring plateaus.
  • Fanservice: Though it depended on the subject matter, many machines featured artwork of scantily clad females for no other reason than to have scantily clad females all over the machine.
  • Genius Programming: In an interview, Steve Ritchie called Larry DeMar, the main programmer of Williams' pinball operating systems, "the most powerful programmer in pinball".
  • Golden Snitch: Occurs sometimes, usually when the scoring rules for a game are insufficiently balanced. A prime example is The Machine Bride Of Pin Bot. The single highest shot on this table scores an immediate 1,000,000,000 — yes, one billion — points. The next highest point reward is a mere 50 million, which still is worth about as much as an otherwise well-played game.
    • On a lot of early solid state games, the key to getting a high score usually is learning how to light the spinner for 1,000 points a spin (instead of 100/spin, or in really mean cases 10/spin), or figuring out how to get a 5x bonus multiplier. Bonuses can often be the majority of your score; they can amount to well over 100,000 or even 200,000 on games that can only display six digits. Even better if you can do both.
  • Have a Nice Death: Expect the Celebrity Star to pity you if you lose the ball.
  • Hey, It's That Sound!: Most of Williams' 1980s pins reused the sound effects from 1980's Firepower. According to Eugene Jarvis, he developed those sound effects, and were reused in their video games, including Defender and Joust.
    • Similarly, Data East's games using the BSMT2000 chip also reused sound effects.
  • Last Chance Hit Point: WHO dunnit has a variation of this; either outlane can be lit to start the slots when the ball drains. Matching two of the reels (but not all three) will give a Second Chance, where a ball is plunged back in and shooting one of the lit shots will match the third reel. Whether you match the third reel or not, it won't count as a drain and you get to keep playing on the same ball. Getting Multiball on the slots will save you from ending the ball too.
  • Loophole Abuse: Ubiquitous among skilled players on both the mechanical side and the "rules" side. On the mechanical side, players will often try to find low-risk shots or kickouts that can always (or reasonably consistently) be trapped on the flipper. On the "rules" side, sometimes there can be a single shot that is worth far more than anything else.
  • Luck-Based Mission: Still very much prevalent today, as even a wizard playing their favorite game can really drop the ball every once in a while, though there is quite a skill component on the mechanical side (being able to shoot shots) and knowledge component on knowing the table's rules. However, pre-1947 pinball games were almost entirely luck-based, as they had no flippers, and the notion led to pinball's ban for over twenty years.note 
    • As pinball pioneer Harry Williams was quoted as saying, "The ball is always wild!"
  • Macro Game: Progressive jackpots that carried from game to game were popular on alphanumeric and early DMD games. Black Knight 2000 has the R-A-N-S-O-M letters carry from game to game. Most games after about 1993 did away with having any sort of gameplay-effecting macrogame.
  • Mini-Game: "Video Mode", a basic Video Game controlled with the flipper and plunger buttons.
    • Smaller playfields within the overall playfield (such as The Twilight Zone's "Battle The Power" section) also count to a degree.
  • No Antagonist
  • No Fair Cheating: Overdo the nudges and the game TILTs, which locks off the paddles until you lose your ball and negated any end-of-ball bonuses. Older electro-mechanical pinball machines had no end-of-ball bonuses, so they would outright end the game then and there, regardless of whether or not you have any balls remaining.
    • Then there's the Slam Tilt to detect people trying to cheat the machine out of money, either by trying to trick the coin mechanism into thinking it accepted a coin when it hasn't, or outright trying to steal the coin box. It triggers a Nonstandard Game Over for all players and voids all credits in the machine. Slam Tilt also triggers in a literal manner if you are needlessly violent with the machine, such as physically lifting it up and slamming it to the floor. Either way, getting a Slam Tilt in any shape or form is a good way to get ejected from the establishment.
    • Averted with the "cheat" mechanic in Jack*Bot, where you can "cheat" at pretty much anything by repeatedly hitting the Extra Ball buy-in button. You can gain advantages in the casino games, the Casino Run Wizard Mode (you can usually negate one bomb in this fashion), and even increase your bonus multiplier at the end of the ball. The attract mode sequence will even tell you that you can do this. Of course, you still have to be careful not to TILT.
  • No Plot? No Problem!: Prevalent in early pinballs, due to technical limitations; the machine's theme would often have little to no bearing on the gameplay itself. Eschewed by modern pinball games, however, as software programming allows for more elaborate stories and rules to support progressively more difficult modes.
  • Not Quite Starring: Often invoked on Licensed Pinball Tables when a star is not available to record game dialog as their character.
  • Obvious Rule Patch: Most modern pinball games usually go through several ROM revisions to balance the game, and the changes made usually can be viewed as this.
  • Pinball Scoring: The Trope Namer. This generally applies, but is not exclusive to, newer tables.
    • As an early example of score inflation, Gottlieb's Ace High (1957) has a minimum scoring increment of 10,000 points. However, because Ace High has several ways for players to lose balls, this table's highest displayable score is 7,990,000 points.
    • This is certainly a Cyclic Trope. Until rolling score counters became commonplace in The Fifties, pinball tables gradually increased the minimum scoring unit from 100 to 1,000 to 10,000 and then 100,000. When rolling counters were introduced, 3- and 4-digit scores became commonplace (though some early rolling counter pins would "paint on" some zeroes). This gradually increased to 5 digits and then 6. The transition from electromagnetic to solid-state games in 1977 picked up scoring-wise where the electromagnetic games ended, though in the early 80s score counters expanded to 7 digits and then when the score display was consolidated, to 8 digits. The 1991 game The Machine: Bride of Pin*Bot went really over the top with the possibility of getting a billion points, though the transition to dot-matrix displays accelerated this trope; most could display up to 10 digits and high scores in the billions became common. A few pins like Jack*Bot, Johnny Mnemonic, and Attack from Mars could display up to 11 digits with the knowledge that scores of 10 billion or more would be reasonably common (Johnny Mnemonic can display 12 digits; it will happily render scores in the hundred billions in either the main game or high score tables). Tales of the Arabian Nights dialed back a good game to being in the tens of millions of points, and most other pins up to the modern day have had scores of roughly the same magnitude.
  • Pressure Plate: When you aren't hitting stuff, you are rolling over it.
  • Progressive Jackpot:
    • A few games (High Speed being the first, as mentioned above) have these which carry from game to game, normally as a jackpot, but earlier DMD games will have these as the award for completing the Wizard Mode.
    • The Party Zone has the Big Bang award.
    • White Water has a downplayed version of this in the White Water Vacation Jackpot, which does increment, but it starts at 200M and only increments at a rate of 10K per game where it's not collected; even if 1000 games are played without it being collected (pretty unlikely), the jackpot will only have increased to 210M. By comparison, older pins usually have jackpots that can vary by a factor of 3 or more and playing at the right time can be crucial to a high score.
  • Rank Inflation: Jackpots. When they were first introduced, even a normal Jackpot would usually provide about the same as the replay value. Eventually their significance declined and there were Double Jackpots, Triple Jackpots, and Super Jackpots. As an example, in "Multiball Madness" in Medieval Madness, even a Double Super Jackpot is worth only 800K to 2M when a replay on that game usually takes about 20-30 million.
    • The Champion Pub takes this to ridiculous extremes. The normal Jackpot is worth 100K. Then there are double, triple, quadruple... all the way up to Octuple Jackpot, Super Jackpot, Mega Jackpot, Ultra Jackpot, Turbo Jackpot, Maximum Jackpot, Cow of a Jackpot, and Jackpot Deluxe. That's 15 jackpot levels.
    • Psycho Pinball's Trick Or Treat table keeps inflating, and inflating, and inflating... it starts at seven million, and rises by five million each time it's hit. And it's not too difficult to loop it; 167 million has been reached before. That table also has a Double Jackpot (somewhat harder to loop), and a possible x7 playfield multiplier.
  • Real Song Theme Tune: Usually done with licensed tables, but are occasionally thrown in to non-licensed tables.
  • Recycled IN SPACE!:
  • Recycled Set: Either done as a cost-savings measure, or when retheming an existing table for a special project.
    • Jack*Bot uses the same playfield layout that Pin Bot uses.
    • The Simpsons Pinball Party was re-themed as The Brain, a promotional pinball for a science museum.
    • Family Guy was re-themed as Shrek, as well as a one-off Good Morning America pinball.
    • Game Plan, a smaller pinball manufacturer from The Seventies, did this frequently to save costs. Family Fun! and Star Ship shared the same layout, while Sharpshooter, Old Coney Island, and Sharpshooter II all used the same layout or a mirrored copy. The games were often released together, which highlighted how recycled they were.
    • The Gamatron conversion kit reuses the playfield from Flight 2000 with minor modifications.
  • Retraux:
    • Capcom's 1996 pinball Breakshot has the appearance of pinball from The Seventies, even simulating electromagnetic score reels on the DMD.
    • Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons is a boutique pinball that uses modern art and manufacturing techniques for an old-fashioned electro-mechanical game.
  • Rule of Three: Almost any pinball from The Eighties and onward gives three balls on default settings (five balls was more common for older pins). Most games also require the player to lock three balls to start multiball, and three is probably the most common number of balls in multiball.
  • Self-Imposed Challenge: Quite common in tournaments to reduce play times. Turning off extra balls is almost always done, and setting the software to the hardest possible difficulty is very common. Other adjustments include putting extra-wide posts on the entrances of ramps and other shots to make them narrower, using "lightning" flippers (1/8 of an inch shorter than normal flippers) on games that don't normally use them, making the playfield steeper, or putting extra-bouncy rubbers on flippers.
  • Skill Shots
  • Smart Bomb: Data East games Jurassic Park and Last Action Hero have a Smart Missile feature (activated by a button on the back of the gun-shaped plungers) that has various effects depending on the mode that is currently running, but most of the time they have the effect of collecting all lit shots.
  • Songs in the Key of Panic: Variant — tables of the late 1970s-early 1980s often had the music rise in pitch and/or tempo the longer the ball was in play in an attempt to distract the player. It rolled back around to the original tune after a while. This 1979 Flash machine is a good (annoying) example.
  • Spelling Bonus: The purpose of "spot letter" targets, and the Trope Maker.
  • Timed Mission:
    • A favorite of the genre, and virtually any modern pinball has some modes that are timed.
    • A variant of this is the "hurry-up", a shot worth an amount of points that decreases the more time that it takes the player to shoot it. Variants include a hurry-up that sets the score for other targets afterwards, or a hurry-up that can be collected multiple times.
    • A few designers have attempted to create pinball games that are time-based, such as James Bond 007, Safe Cracker, and Flipper Football. Needless to say, none of them managed to catch on with the mass market.
  • Wacky Racing: Been there, designed a table about that.
  • Wizard Mode: Popularized in The Nineties, to the point of being ubiquitous today.
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