Pinball With No Computers

Pinball machines were the video games of their day. Back when they were king, there were no microcontrollers — everything was electromechanical. We know from experience that fixing these was difficult but we imagine that designing complex play behavior with a bunch of motors, relays, clutches, contacts, and more would have been excruciatingly difficult. [Technology Connections] has several videos about an old Aztec machine and he promises more to come. You can watch the first two below.

To give you an idea of what’s involved, imagine a very simple pinball machine that supports a single player and a handful of targets. When the ball hits a target, that could trigger a micro-switch. The switch closure could trigger a relay that closes a contact for a short period of time. That contact energizes a solenoid that advances the score wheels. So now, when a ball hits a target, the score wheel will spin enough to award ten points. To make sure there is enough time for the score to advance, the relay uses something like a mechanical flip flop.

Sound complicated? That’s nothing. Don’t forget, the machine also has to reset the score at the start of the game, count the ball in play, and end the game when the last ball returns. Then consider a real game. There will be multiple players and fancy sequences (e.g., hit the red target three times to award double scores for other targets).

While we knew a fair bit about the design of pinball machines already, we did learn a lot about their history and where the idea came from. The video also explains why it is called pinball since modern machines don’t really have pins — these were like relay-based computers with strange electromagnetic I/O devices.

While pinball machines were the best example of this sort of thing, there were also things like bowling machines and ladder-logic industrial control systems. We’ve even seen an electromechanical phone answering machine.

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Virtual Mini Pinball Cabinet Scores Big

Do you love pinball, but can’t justify owning a full-size cabinet? Yeah, us either, and that’s why we’re so interested in [mircemk]’s great-looking DIY mini virtual pinball cabinet. Since [mircemk] is a IT service specialist, they are lucky enough to have access to lots used and broken equipment, and that’s what this build is made of.

Essentially two computers working together, the playfield is a old 17-inch monitor that needed its LED lighting replaced before gracing the MDF cabinet The backglass is an ancient 10-inch tablet that was perfect for this application.

Even the motherboard, RAM, and SSD came from one of [mircemk]’s previous PCs. The SSD needed some attention first as well — it didn’t work sometimes, and didn’t show up in the BIOS at all, so [mircemk] threw it in the oven for 10 minutes at 250°, and now all is well.

One thing we really like about this build is that instead of designing a control board for the buttons, [mircemk] used a cheap USB joystick and wired them up to the pads.

So how does the tablet figure into all of this? It’s connected to a PC via USB and does its job thanks to a piece of software called Wired XDisplay. There is even a tilt switch in this bad boy. Because what’s a pinball cabinet without a tilt switch? A cheater’s cabinet, that’s what. Check out the build/demo video after the break.

Don’t even have the space for a mini cabinet? We hear you. Here’s one that fits in the palm of your hand.

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Internet Connected Pinball Machine Shows Off Scores

Before video games, there were pinball machines. Not that they don’t exist today, but a modern pinball machine will likely have microprocessors and other fancy things that traditional pinball machine designers could never dream of. [Eli] had one of these mechanical machines from 1974 as a kid and, later, encountered a more modern machine with a rudimentary microprocessor and other integrated circuits onboard. One thing this enabled is the ability to remember high scores. But you have to physically look at the machine, and you can only see the top four scores. [Eli] decided to adapt the machine to upload high score data to the Internet, and it is a fun project.

[Eli]’s design goals were to make it automatic and robust. That is, if the network is down or the machine loses power, you shouldn’t lose high score data. In addition, he didn’t want to change the appearance or damage the 40-year-old machine. You can see a video of how it all turned out below.

The Laser Cue machine is one of many built around the “Williams System 7” platform. A 6808 CPU, along with some I/O chips to manage all the lights, sensors, and bells. The game has only 1K of RAM, 12K or ROM, and 128 bytes (no prefix, just bytes) of RAM with battery backup. There was even a common “operating system” called Flipper ROM, and that’s actually documented over on GitHub.

The ESP32 version of the WiFi interface board

Since the memory for the machine is all in external chips, it was a reasonable idea to replace the CPU with a board that monitored signals on the board. The CPU would plug into this new board, and then a newer microcontroller with an Internet connection could eavesdrop on bus traffic. However, removing the old CPU and jamming pins into the ancient socket was worrisome, so instead, [Eli] elected to tap into a test connector that was already on the board but not plugged into anything.

An ESP32 is more than capable of the speeds, although connecting to 5 V logic was a bit of a problem. The CPU has 5 V tolerant pins, but some of the 25 available pins on the development board either set items on boot or may briefly be outputs and were thus unusable. To reduce the necessary pins, [Eli] decided to do some of the decoding in separate logic. Instead of using TTL chips, he elected to use a programmable logic array.

After that, it seemed it would be straightforward, but there was something preventing the ESP32 from reading each bus cycle. [Eli] never got to the bottom of it but instead switched to the Raspberry Pi Pico W. Using the chip’s special I/O processors made the job easy, and it worked perfectly. The rest of the project was just fit and finish. Be sure to read to the end to find out the lessons learned which might help you on your next similar project.

A modern DIY machine might even have an FPGA inside. Don’t have room for a big full-sized pinball machine? No problem.

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Mouse Finds New Home In Pinball Machine

Restoring pinball machines is an excellent hobby, and can even be more than that as we see businesses like bars and museums focusing on them as a main attraction. There’s all kinds of intrigue to be found, from esoteric mechanical systems to classic electronics and unique artwork. For those building new pinball machines, though, one way to bypass a lot of the hassle of finding antiquated parts is to build a digital machine with an analog feel, like this machine which repurposes a computer mouse in an interesting way.

One of the important design considerations with a more modern system like this is to preserve the mechanical components that the player interacts with, in this case the plunger. This pinball machine is really just a large screen driven by a computer, but the plunger is a spring-loaded one from an old analog machine. Attached to the end of the plunger inside the cabinet is a cloth strap which passes underneath an old optical mouse. When the plunger is pulled and released, the mouse registers the position of the plunger and sends that information to the computer controlling the pinball display.

We really appreciate a KISS-style design like this in general. Mice are a proven, reliable technology and the metal components of the plunger are unlikely to ever wear out, which means that at least this part of the new pinball machine is unlikely to need much maintenance over the lifespan of the cabinet itself. For other ways of preserving the original feel of old machines, take a look at this build which incorporates all kinds of tricks within a MAME cabinet.

Tiny Pinball Machine Also Runs X86 Code

As arcades become more and more rare, plenty of pinball enthusiasts are moving these intricate machines to their home collections in basements, garages, and guest rooms. But if you’re not fortunate enough to live in a home that can support a space-intensive hobby like pinball machines, there are some solutions to that problem. This one, for example, fits on the palm of your hand and also happens to run some impressive software for its size.

The machine isn’t a mechanical pinball machine like its larger cousins, though. Its essentially a 3D printed case made to look like a pinball machine with two screens attached. It does have a working plunger for launching the ball and two buttons on the sides for the approximation of authenticity, but it’s actually running Pinball Fantasies — a pinball simulator designed to run on x86 hardware from the 90s. This sports an ESP32 on the inside, which has just enough computing capability to run an x86 emulator that can load these games in DOS.

The game includes haptic feedback and zips along at 60 frames per second, which really brings the pinball experience to its maximum level given the game’s minuscule size. It’s impressive for fitting a lot into a small space, both from physical and software points-of-view. For more full-sized digital pinball builds, take a look at this one which comes exceptionally close to replicating the real thing.

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Chris playing his tiny pinball machine

Tiny Pinball Is As Cute As Pi

Pinball machines are large, complex, and heavy boxes of joy and delight. However, when you don’t have the money or space for one, you have to make your own mini Raspberry Pi-powered one.

With access to a local makerspace and a bit of extra free time, [Chris Dalke] had plans to capture the flavor of a full-scale pinball machine in a small package. Laser-cut Baltic birch forms the enclosure, and a screen makes up the playing field rather than a physical ball. An Arduino Uno handles the three buttons, the four LED matrixes, and a solenoid for haptic feedback, communicating

with the Pi via serial. Unfortunately, even with a relatively decent

volume inside, it is still a tight squeeze.

Rather than use an off-the-shelf pinball game, [Chris] wrote his own in C using raylib and raygui, two handy libraries that can be included in the project quickly. SQLLite3 writes high scores out to disk. All in all, an inspiring project that has a very high level of polish.

If you’re looking for a tiny pinball machine but want more of the classic pinball feel, why not look at this scale pinball machine?

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A screenshot of pinball schematics

Get A Grip On Troubleshooting Your Vintage Pinball Machine

Restoring vintage technology can be a tricky business, especially without the appropriate schematics and documentation. To this end [Mark] has spent the past twelve months building a comprehensive schematic editor and circuit simulator library for electromechanical pinball machines.

Rather than explore each and every table in excruciating detail, the emSim software aims to examine how specific circuits work, and how they are used as part of the gaming experience. The aim of the project is to aid in the diagnosis and repair of vintage electromechanical pinball machines, the types that rely on a dizzying array of switches, gears, motors and coils in their operation, operating like clockwork underneath the play field. While these older pinball machines typically use alternating current, the game logic (for the most part) is still binary, and can be effectively described with Boolean operators.

Like any machine with moving parts, these systems will eventually wear down and require servicing, a task which may not be in the wheelhouse for your casual pinball enthusiast. [Mark]’s hope is that his circuit simulations will allow just about anyone to repair these classic tables, and keep them around for future generations to explore and enjoy.

If tinkering with pinball innards isn’t for you, then make sure to check out our coverage of this awesome virtual pinball table.