Electro-Mechanical “EM” Games
Electro-mechanical pinball machines, commonly called “EM”s for short, are the older games which were made up until early 1978. About 90% of the ones you’ll see in tournaments or at shows were made by either Gottlieb, Williams or Bally. Most of those which are “tournament grade” in terms of design, maintainability and “skill” date from 1965 and later, skewing towards the latter years. All have mechanical scoring reels which rotate vertically to advance in value. Some have an indicator light to show when a player has “rolled over” the score, typically at a value of 100,000, but most have no indication when a player rolls the game a second time. Most EM games have manual coil plungers, but a few older ones automatically plunge the ball when you hit one of the flippers, usually the right one, similar to the autoplunger buttons on newer games like Attack from Mars. Older games may also have a push-up trough where the player must first push a lever on the right side of the machine cabinet to raise a ball into the plunger lane prior to pulling the plunger to serve the ball. These machines will either show the balls yet to be plunged through a glass window in the lower front of the top of the game surface or, if one ball is continually recycled, indicate the ball count at the lower left just below the glass surface.
Solid-State “SS” Games
In the late 1970’s, manufacturers changed how scores are displayed on pinball machines, abandoning the use of rotating mechanical reels and replacing them with brand new digital displays using solid state electronics [hence the vintage’s name, Solid State]. The advent of such electronics and other advances enabled manufacturers to incorporate new playfield and scoring features into the games. The use of multiple levels of bonus multipliers became easier to implement and more common in use. Drop targets were used in new ways – in line rather than always side-to-side, targets that popped back up when not hit in the correct sequence. Multiball play became more common, though still not pervasive as it is now. Sound effects became more varied, and then speech was added. Mechanical push-ups of balls into the plunger lanes were gone.
Despite all that, the general strategies remained similar on many games to that of the EM era: UTAD, completing sets of drop targets, and going for lit spinners continued to be high-value choices.
A large portion of solid-state games consists of “bonus and multiplier” strategies. The multiplier usually maxes out at 5X or 6X. Some have a “superbonus” feature where once a certain bonus level is reached, that amount of base bonus is preserved for the remainder of the game. Some games may instead preserve your achieved multiplier. A few games preserve both.
Almost all of the machines mentioned here lack “tilt warnings.” Modern games make a buzzing or other sound when shaken to alert you that you are about to tilt the game. This gives you an opportunity to stop shaking and possibly avoid tilting if the shake triggering the warning was not too severe. These older games are more binary: the game tilts with no warning to the player. Furthermore, on the older EMs, a tilt may end the game even if you are not on your last ball. If “tilt ends game” is active, either the machine will have text mentioning that on its instruction card or the competition director should have placed a sign on the machine to so notify the players.
I will be using a fair amount of “pinballese” here, e.g. terms like shatzing or alley passing (defined below), and abbreviations like SDTM (Straight Down The Middle, as in that’s where the ball may go in the situation at hand, ending play of that ball or the game) and UTAD (Up Top All Day, meaning that the best strategy to use at that point in your game is to flip the ball up to the top of the machine and ignore lower features and targets). I also am omitting photos both to save space and because I do not possess photos of many of the games I’ve included. For both a good pinball glossary and useful photos of most machines, I recommend using the Internet Pinball Database [ipdb.org]. I will include explanations of a few terms here when I think they may not be in ipdb or if I use them somewhat differently.