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The first coin-operated pinball machines appeared in the United States in the early 1930s but the table games that they drew inspiration from go back to at least the 1870s. Pinball was one of the most popular arcade-style amusements up until the late 1970s when video games emerged as competition. It wasn’t long before game makers got the idea of offering pinball inspired video games.
What is a virtual pinball machine? A virtual pinball machine uses video game software, computerized controls, and digital displays to recreate the look and feel of traditional analog pinball machines. While the earliest pinball video games were poor substitutes for the look and feel of the real thing, modern virtual pinball machines incorporate analog controls and offer advanced game physics.
For pinball purists, even the best virtual machines will never replace the enjoyment of spring-loaded plungers, steel balls, buttons, and flippers. But when you consider that a virtual machine can offer players thousands of distinct games in one cabinet and that each title costs less to purchase and load than a few plays on a traditional machine, there are some good reasons to give virtual machines a look.
To see some of the most popular pinball machines on the market just click here.
Not Virtual OR Analog—Virtual AND Analog
A lot of the discussion around virtual pinball machines has been looking at what they have to offer from the wrong perspective. While some enthusiasts have embraced virtual machines and extol the virtues of all the advantages they have over traditional machines, traditionalists have refused to accept the idea that they could ever replace analog machines.
We think that this is the wrong way to go about it. We agree that there is something about the experience of playing a wood and steel machine that virtual games can never hope to replace. At the same time, we think that virtual machines are pretty great. We can imagine a world where virtual and analog machines live side by side in harmony.
There are a lot of things that virtual pinball machines offer that make them worth checking out. If you’ve always dreamed of having a pinball machine in your game room at home, you can get a virtual pinball machine that allows you to play hundreds – or even thousands – of different pinball games on one cabinet. It’s a great way to avoid agonizing over which title to choose and the risk that you’ll get bored.
In this article, we will look at what goes into a virtual pinball machine and the advances in technology that have brought them to the point where they can compete with analog machines in terms of player experience. Then we’ll look at the options you have for buying or building a machine to enjoy in your home. Finally, we’ll offer some maintenance tips to help you keep a virtual machine in ship shape.
What’s Inside a Virtual Pinball Machine?
The best virtual pinball machines take advantage of every opportunity to recreate the experience of playing a traditional machine. Many re-use the cabinets from old machines or model cabinet specs on traditional machines down to the last detail. Traditional styling and the versatility of monitors in the backglass mimic traditional aesthetics even as they shift to and fro with changes in game selection.
Instead of a traditional playfield under glass, a virtual pinball machine displays game play on a flat-panel LCD or LED monitor. While the game is played on a computer, like a video game, many virtual machines combine traditional controls like plungers and buttons with game control sensors to offer the most realistic experience possible.
Where a traditional machine would have to be rebuilt to achieve a change in the game it holds inside its cabinet; a virtual machine allows players to select from any of the game titles loaded into the computer. It’s like having an entire arcade at your fingertips without taking up any more space in your game room than a single cabinet requires.
The speakers in a virtual pinball machine don’t just transmit the game commands, soundtrack, and sound effects that you get from the speakers in a traditional game. They also relay the sonic elements of realistic game play, such as the sound of the steel balls rolling on the playfield, bumpers, flippers, and more.
To Buy or To Build?
If you want to get a pinball machine for your game room, you first have to decide whether you want to go with a traditional electromagnetic or solid state machine or devote the same floor space to a virtual machine that will give you access to hundreds of different games. There are solid arguments in favor of both, and only you can decide which option is best for you.
While the cost of getting a traditional machine for your game room will depend entirely on the title you’re looking for and the condition of the machine, the cost of a virtual machine is based on the components you select for the build and whether you purchase the machine or build it yourself.
The price of a brand-new machine with a popular title can be $5,000 to $7,500 (or more). If you’re shopping for a classic title on a machine in mint condition, you can expect to spend at least that much. In comparison, you could have a top-of-the-line virtual machine built to your specs for under $5,000. You could build an equally powerful machine yourself for as little as $2,500.
Of course, there is more than price to consider when you’re deciding whether to build or buy a machine. Even if you decide to go the virtual pinball machine route, you have to decide how much the looks of the cabinet sitting in your game room matter to your overall enjoyment of having it. If you want a professional looking cabinet, you’ll probably have to purchase a used cabinet to house your virtual machine or purchase a virtual machine from professional builders.
What You Should Expect If You Buy
There are a lot of companies out there that will be happy to build a virtual pinball machine for you. It will look like the machines you see in arcades and businesses, and most builders will customize the game to your specs. It can be a big up-front investment to get a professional-looking cabinet with stylish graphics, steel legs, playfield glass, and all of the trimmings – but if those elements are important to you, it will be worth the money.
If you’re really good at woodworking, metal working, graphic design, painting, and drawing—you might be able to match the looks of a professionally built machine by building one yourself. Most of us aren’t that good at all of those skills. But maybe you have enough friends that you can put together a build team that can tackle the project together.
If you decide to pony up the costs of a professional build to get a great looking machine without having to enroll in tech school and art school first, look for a builder that will custom build your machine to your specifications. Be aware that most professional builds do not include the cost of game titles.
One builder that we found online when we did a quick search is offering:
- An arcade cabinet constructed with ¾” Birch wood
- A 40-inch LED or LCD playfield monitor
- A 32-inch monitor in the backglass area
- A 15.6-inch LED DMD
- Factory hardware that includes the legs, rails, lockdown bar, and receiver, and false coin door
- Flipper buttons and either a plunger or a jumbo shooter button
- A folding backbox for easier transport, moving, and storage
- Tempered glass covers for the playfield and Translite
- An 8” subwoofer and 5.25” satellite speakers with an audio amplifier
- A new computer loaded with Pinball Frontend Software and Windows
- An I-Pac Encoder
You get all of these features in a machine with a custom aesthetic theme that can include powder coating for the hardware, and it will cost you just under $4,500. That gives you a pretty good idea of what’s out there if you’re leaning toward purchasing a virtual pinball machine instead of building one yourself.
Building Your Own Virtual Pinball Machine
If you’re even a little bit handy, you can probably pull together a cabinet that will look “good enough.” If you’re the kind of person who has the skills and enjoys projects of that sort, you might be able to come up with something that will look better than anything you could buy—even if it’s customized to your specifications.
One YouTube user who calls himself “Smugwood” put together a very useful series of video guides to building your own virtual pinball machine. To follow his guidelines step-by-step, you’re going to need some pretty high-end equipment – like a table saw and a CNC Lathe – but even if you don’t have all of that equipment, the videos give you a very helpful tutorial.
In this video, Smugwood lets you look over his shoulder while he cuts and machines all of the parts for the cabinet of his virtual pinball machine. All of his top-shelf shop equipment makes it look easy. Remember the old saying: “measure twice, cut once.”
The second episode shows more progress on the virtual pinball machine, but it also shows Smugwood struggling to work around a mistake that he made in the planning stages of his project. Not only will this help you avoid making the same mistake, but it will help give you the confidence to get the project done even if it doesn’t go perfectly the whole way through.
This installment sees Smugwood complete the basic construction of the cabinet for his virtual pinball machine. It’s a major milestone in the project, but he’s still a long way away from playing his first game.
In episode four, our hero runs up against the limit of his own abilities to handle the artwork for the exterior of a good-looking cabinet and turns to some experts for help.
The fifth adventure in the Smugwood saga sees the virtual pinball machine really starting to come together. At this point, he has ironed out the issues that he was having with the aesthetics of the cabinet’s exterior. He has also gotten to the point where glass and other accessories are starting to fall into place.
Having finally completed the build, Smugwood’s sixth video shows him running the virtual pinball machine with a Zen Studios Setup.
The final video in the series shows one of the great advantages of having a virtual machine over purchasing a traditional solid state or electromagnetic pinball table. At the time that the sixth installment was filmed, Smugwood had wanted to run the Pinball Arcade Setup. Due to delays from the software maker, that wasn’t possible.
Since a virtual pinball machine gives you the same ability to upgrade components that you would get with any computer and the selection of games that you would get with any personal gaming system, it’s easy to get started with what’s available and upgrade whenever that becomes possible.
Reviewing the Build
As we said earlier, it is definitely possible to build your own virtual pinball machine for less than half of what you can expect to pay if you purchase one. Of course, if you don’t have all of the equipment that Smugwood had, you might need to spend some money having a professional complete one or more parts of the project for you. But, then again, maybe you’ve got skills that he didn’t, and you can handle decorating your cabinet without getting any outside assistance.
One option that we haven’t discussed yet is the possibility of getting a build kit for your virtual pinball machine. You can find plenty of good options with a quick internet search, and there appears to be enough variability in what they offer to let you choose the kit that will deliver all of the help you need while still doing as much of the project yourself as you care to.
If you decide to go with a build kit, we would recommend sticking with cabinet and decorating options as you will definitely be able to find better prices on electronics that what we saw from the kits that included those elements in their package.
Whether you start from scratch or work from a kit, remember that building the machine is supposed to be an enjoyable step on the path toward having a virtual pinball machine in your game room that has a history and a story to go with all of the enjoyment that you get from playing it with family and friends. Don’t lose sight of that, and you’ll get to where you need to be.
Maintaining Your Virtual Pinball Machine
Of course, once you’ve put in all of the time and effort to build your machine – or spent all of the money to buy one – you’ll want to take care of it to make sure that it lasts and stays a part of your in-house entertainment for a long time to come.
Caring for the cabinet depends on whether you go with a paint job or vinyl graphics, but be sure to wipe the outside of the machine down frequently to prevent staining, yellowing, or anything else that will affect its looks. It’s also a good idea to make sure that you position the machine where sunlight won’t be able to fade it.
Unless you decide to go with a plasma screen instead of LED/LCD options, then you shouldn’t have to worry about leaving the machine on. If you use playfield glass over the top of the digital display, you shouldn’t have to dust or clean the screen very often. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations when you do.
You will need to care for the computer components the same way you would any other computer in your home. Using compressed air to eliminate dust build-up on a regular basis is the best way to make sure that they stay ventilated and don’t fall victim to overheating issues.
Virtual pinball is a great complement to the traditional machines that so many of us enjoyed when we were growing up. They’re a great way to enjoy playing pinball in your own game room without having to worry about growing bored with the single-game title that you would get by purchasing a traditional machine.
Virtual machines will never replace traditional machines. They’re an alternative that complements them; not a superior option meant to replace them. Don’t get caught up in the silly online arguments. Leave that to the folks who don’t have anything better to do with their time. As for you, wouldn’t you rather be playing a game on your new, in-house virtual pinball machine?
If you follow the guidelines that we’ve given you in this article, you can be confident that whichever way you decide to go in pursuing your virtual pinball machine, you’ll end up right where you’re supposed to be.