Understanding a Pinball Cabinet System (Part 1)

* This is a Part 1 writeup that gives a quick general overview about pinball cabinet systems, pinball emulator/simulator and pinball front end when I'm setting up my Pinball arcade system on my Desktop setup *

** Stay tuned for Part 2 if you would like to know how I setup each Pinball emulator/simulator such as PinMAME, Visual Pinball, Future Pinball, Pinball FX2 and Pinball Front-end using PinballX **

Pictures will be added in the future...

After 3 months of work I'm proud to say that my HyperSpin setup is now complete! Featuring 130 systems and perhaps more since HyperList is updated very frequently now. I've completed almost all the major systems since the 90's :-)

With this setup I decided to try setting up a Pinball systems. And alas, this has opened up a brand new can of worms! Never have I thought setting up a Pinball front end would be this daunting. So this post is basically summarising what I've learnt and done to setup my Pinball arcade experience using a common Desktop setup. I've got a 30" Dell U3011 but unfortunately it doesn't support rotation, so no chance to flip it over and lay on a flat table.



Disclaimer: I am not a pinball expert in any way and is just a casual pinball player at best. I apologise if some of my wordings is inaccurate. Please leave in the comments if you spotted any mistakes that needed corrections. What you're about to read are just my personal sharing using my own casual wordings.

The Dilemma for Pinball Front End

There are several front ends that you could setup for your Pinball games, among them are, HyperSpin (duh!), HyperPin (which is now obsolete), and PinballX (by GameEx). While HyperSpin is great for arcade, home computers, and console systems, it's not really customised or tailored for Pinball system. Sure the game themes will display just fine but it's just lacking some features that other Pinball specific front ends such as the PinballX can provide. Among the most important one are screen rotation, easier integration with pinball emulator/simulator such as Visual Pinball, Future Pinball and Pinball FX2 which it currently supports.

So the decision has been made, I'm going to choose PinballX as my all-in-one Pinball games front end. To make the transition easier, I'm going to setup HyperSpin to launch PinballX whenever I'm craving for some Pinball gaming session. Though it's silly to call another front end from a front end though :-P

Overview of a Pinball Cabinet System

Read the wiki for more detailed information such as history and machine layout.

There are two types of pinball cabinet:

  • EM (Electro-Mechanical): Uses real mechanical part for the table object such as springs.
  • SS (Solid State): Uses modern electronic components such as transistor, IC, transistor, digital display. Typically used by pinball cabinet from 1980 onwards.

What Makes a Pinball Cabinet System?

A real pinball cabinet typically consist of three major parts:

Playfield

A large flat lying screen (40" or more)

Backglass/Translite

Typically a square screen that is positioned on top of the play field to display the game poster and score board. Might also display additional game information such as Number of Balls, Number of Credits, etc.

DMD (Dot Matrix Display)

A rectangular small dot matrix display that resides just under the backglass

Push Buttons

Let's also not forget the push buttons at the side of the cabinet to play the game! These push buttons typically controls the flippers, tilting, nudging, etc.

Pinball Terminology

Table

The play field with artwork background and 3D model objects, flippers, etc. 

There are three variants for which a table could be designed upon:

Original

Tables that is NOT created based on the actual real pinball machine and is designed from scratch by the talented table designer. These table could be inspired by video games, tv shows, movies, pop culture, music artist/band, etc.

Recreated

Tables that IS created based on the actual real pinball machine. You'll often find manufacturer name and year in the table name, e.g. Bally, Stern, Data East, etc. Some of these tables might require additional support for ROM from PinMAME program to simulate the table behaviour logic (scoring) and DMD.


In addition to the table version, there are two main views for the table:

Desktop

Display the table with a 3D isometric view for desktop setup (monitor with stand). Typically you see the whole pinball machine (with back glass too). Sometimes you can also see the surroundings  if the pinball simulator supports it such as Future Pinball

Fullscreen/Cabinet/Arcade

Display the table in flat view just like the real pinball machine. Best used with a pinball cabinet where the display/monitor laid flat on the cabinet. 

For more realistic 3D view you can use the BAM mod, which changes the 3D camera views according to your head tracking. This feature is only for Future Pinball simulator.


B2S

Backglass server that simulate the information to be displayed on the back glass.

Pinball Emulator/Simulator

Following are the most popular pinball emulators that I found to date:

PinMAME

It emulates ONLY the ROM for the table that controls the DMD and table logic (e.g. scoring). It is not meant to run solely since it does not emulate the Pinball table. So you'll need another program such as Visual Pinball.

Since it emulates the real Pinball machine ROM, it can unarguably gives the most realistic gameplay behaviour to a table, only if the Table support it.

Visual Pinball

Perhaps one of the oldest and still actively maintained pinball emulator. Some of the table requires ROM from the real pinball machine to function properly, which is emulated by PinMAME. So you're most likely going to run Visual Pinball with PinMAME at the same time, which is handled automatically after you register and setup PinMAME. (There is no need to launch PinMAME separately by yourself as it is automatically launched by Visual Pinball when you play a table).

Pros:

  • Can simulate perhaps the best pinball experience when table support real ROM (emulated by PinMAME)

Cons:

  • No multiple view mode. So you'll always stuck with the default Full Table view.
  • Can be difficult to setup if you want additional stuffs, e.g. showing back glass display.
Program Information
  • Latest Version: 2.5
  • Associated table file extension: .vpt

Future Pinball

A real time 3D pinball simulator featuring very visually pleasing 3D tables. Although the last release was on 2010, several mods had been developed that 'patched/fixed' the unrealistic environment physics (such as ball gravity, flippers, etc.) that many had complaint about. You might find several mods such as Physics 2.4, 2.5 and 2.6. One simply copy and paste the program into the existing Future Pinball folder to use the mod.

Pros:

  • Best looking 3D table with very good looking 3D models and lightning. It is best to use the BAM mod with this to generate the best physics and lightning effects.
  • Very easy to setup and play the table. Just install the program and double click on the .fpt files.
  • Can simulate the real arcade room experience, with arcade machine at the side, back glass, etc. when using Table with Desktop view.
  • 8 different viewing angles (full table 1, full table 2, fixed, scrolling 1, scrolling 2, low angle 1, low angle 2, fixed)
Cons:
  • Some tables without the Physics mod might not played realistically.

Program Information

  • Latest Version: 1.9.1.20101231
  • Associated table file extension: .fpt

BAM (Better Arcade Experience)

More like a game mod instead of a pinball simulator, it provides the best (and perhaps the only) head tracking 3D realistic experience to your arcade pinball cabinet. By using this mod you'll find the 3D model on the table changes its perspective, shadows, lightning etc. depending on your head movement and position. For the head tracking feature to work you'll of course need a camera such as simple web camera, Sony PlaystationEye, Microsoft Kinect, or Nintendo Wiimote monitor.

Pinball FX2

Developed by Zen Studio and available in multiple platforms (PC, console, iOS, Android), it features a very unique and the best 3D looking table to date, much better than Future Pinball. Due to the intensive quality of 3D work required for the table, only less than 100 tables is available to date compared to 10000s of the Visual Pinball and Future Pinball tables.

Pros:

  • The best 3D table with a unique fully interactive 3D environment which might trigger a dialog when certain condition/score is met, e.g. Walking Dead table.
Cons:
  • Lack of tables. Most of the tables are from Marvel, Star Wars, and some game inspired tables, e.g. Plant vs Zombies.

Pinball Front End - PinballX

PinballX is basically a front end that display the Pinball tables. It follows almost the same folder structure as HyperSpin for locating the Database and Media. So transitioning to PinballX is almost just as easy as it can gets. You can also create your own custom Table database such as your favourite tables, only the Original tables, only the Recreated tables, etc.

What is Inside a Pinball Table file?

Typically a table files (e.g. .vpt for Visual Pinball and .fpt for Future Pinball) contains elements such as:
  • Table artwork, 3D model and objects.
  • Script - Logic that controls the table gameplay behaviour such as scoring, triggering condition, mode, etc. For Visual Pinball, the script is programmed using Microsoft Visual Basic.
  • Music and sound effect. Note that some music files required you to place in a specific directory, such as Future Pinball\Music.
Unlike a ROM or ISO image in your console games that contains all the resources needed to play a game, a table files might need additional files to play properly, e.g. music, b2s.

Resources

Where can I download Pinball Tables?

  • PinSimDB.org - Features all and up to date Future Pinball and Pinball FX2 tables.
  • VPForums.org - Features all Visual Pinball tables.

I highly suggest to download Pinball table set torrent collection from PleasureDomeUK to start setting up your home Pinball system.

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I just started researching building a virtual pin. Your write up is great can't wait for part 2. Thanks for doing this.

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