FPGA Jacked Into Pinball Machine Masters High Scores

How do you preserve high scores in an old arcade cabinet when disconnecting the power? Is it possible to inject new high scores into a pinball machine? It was the b-plot of an episode of Seinfield, so it has to be worth doing, leading [matthew venn] down the rabbit hole of FPGAs and memory maps to create new high scores in a pinball machine.

The machine in question for this experiment is Doctor Who from Williams, which, despite being a Doctor Who pinball machine isn’t that great of a machine. Still, daleks. This machine is powered by a Motorola 68B09E running at 2MHz, with 8kB of RAM at address 0x0000. This RAM backed up with a few AA batteries, and luckily is in a DIP socket, allowing [matthew] to fab a board loaded up with an FPGA development board that goes between the CPU and RAM.

The basic technique for intercepting and writing a new high score for this pinball machine comes from the incredible [sprite_tm] who is tweeting high scores from a 1943 cabinet. The idea is simple: just have an FPGA look at one specific memory address, and send some data to a computer when the data at that address is updated. For the Doctor Who pinball machine, this is slightly harder than it sounds: the data isn’t stored in hex, but packed BCD. After a little bit of work, though, [matthew] was able to write new high scores from a Python script running on a laptop. All the code (and a few more details) are over on a Github

Extending arcade games by tapping into address and data lines isn’t something we see a lot of, but it has been done, most famously with the Church of Robotron. Here, a few MAME hacks turn a game of Robotron into a Church for the faithful to fully commit themselves to the savior of the world, due to arrive in 66 years and save the remaining humans from the robot apocalypse. This hack of a Doctor Who pinball machine goes beyond a modded version of MAME, and if we’re ever going to make a real chapel with a real game of Robotron, these are the techniques we’re going to use.

This Pinball Game Doesn’t Come In A Box… It Is The Box

Pinball still has that bit of magic that makes it stand out from first person shooters or those screen mashers eating up your time on the bus. The secret sauce is that sense of movement and feedback, and the loss of control as the ball makes its way through the play field under the power of gravity. Of course the real problem is finding a pinball machine. Pinbox 3000 is swooping in to fix that in a creative way. It’s a cardboard pinball machine that you build and decorate yourself.

We ran into them at Maker Faire New York over the weekend and the booth was packed with kids and adults all mashing flippers to keep a marble in play. The kit comes as flat-pack cardboard already scored and printed with guides for assembly which takes about an hour.

The design is quite clever, with materials limited to just cardboard, rubber bands, and a few plastic rivets. Both the plunger that launches the pinball and the flippers are surprisingly robust. They stand up to a lot of force and from the models on display it seems the friction points of cardboard-on-cardboard are the issue, rather than mechanisms buckling under the force exerted by the player.

When first assembled the playfield is blank. That didn’t stop the fun for this set of kits stacked back to back for player vs. player action. There’s a hole at the top of playfields which makes this feel a bit like playing Pong in real life. However, where the kit really shines is in customizing your own game. In effect you’re setting up the most creative marble run you can imagine. This task was well demonstrated with cardboard, molded plastic packaging (which is normally landfill) cleverly placed, plus some noisemakers and lighting effects. The company has been working to gather up inspiration and examples for building out the machines. We love the multiple layers of engagement rolled into Pinbox, from building the stock kit, to fleshing out a playfield, and even to adding your own electronics for things like audio effects.

Check out the video below to see the fun being had at the Maker Faire booth.

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Mademoiselle Pinball Table Gets Rock ‘n Roll Makeover

Once upon a time, there was a music venue/artist collective/effects pedal company that helped redefine industry in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. That place was called Death By Audio. In 2014, it suffered a death by gentrification when Vice Media bought the building that DBA had worked so hard to transform. From the ashes rose the Death By Audio Arcade, which showcases DIY pinball cabinets made by indie artists.

Their most recent creation is called A Place To Bury Strangers (APTBS). It’s built on a 1959 Gottlieb Mademoiselle table and themed around a local noise/shoegaze band of the same name that was deeply connected to Death By Audio. According to [Mark Kleeb], this table is an homage to APTBS’s whiz-bang pinball-like performance style of total sensory overload. Hardly a sense is spared when playing this table, which features strobe lights, black lights, video and audio clips of APTBS, and a fog machine. Yeah.

[Mark] picked up this project from a friend, who had already cut some wires and started hacking on it. Nearly every bit of the table’s guts had to be upgraded with OEM parts or else replaced entirely. Now there’s a Teensy running the bumpers, and another Teensy on the switches. An Arduino drives the NeoPixel strips that light up the playfield, and a second Uno displays the score on those sweet VFD tubes. All four micros are tied together with Python and a Raspi 3.

If you’re anywhere near NYC, you can play the glow-in-the-dark ball yourself on July 15th at Le Poisson Rouge. If not, don’t flip—just nudge that break to see her in action. Did we mention there’s a strobe light? Consider yourself warned.

Want to get into DIY pinball on a smaller scale? Build yourself a sandbox and start playing.

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Pinball Wizard Hacks Table for Tommy Stage Show

Ever since he was a young hacker
[Mark Gibson] has messed with the silver ball.
From Soho down to Denver
he must have fixed them all.
But we ain’t seen anything like this
in any amusement hall.
That darn devious hacker
sure hacks a mean pinball.

He hacks it like an expert,
Becomes part of the machine
Automating all the bumpers
Always wiring clean
His table plays by automation,
And radio control for all
That darn devious hacker
sure hacks a mean pinball.

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Tiny Pinball Emulator is Hugely Impressive

We were wondering what [Circuitbeard] has been up to lately. Turns out he’s been building a mini pinball cabinet to add to his arcade of self-built games.

[Circuitbeard] was forced to break out of his Raspi comfort zone this time. We’re glad he did because this is one impressive build. Finding the pinball emulation community lacking for Linux, he turned to the LattePanda, a tiny Windows 10 SBC with a built-in Arduino Leonardo. This was really the perfect board because he needed to support multiple displays with a minimum of fuss. That Leonardo comes in handy for converting button presses to key presses inside the Visual Pinball emulator.

The 3mm laser-cut plywood cabinet was designed entirely in Inkscape and sized around the two screens: a genuine 7″ LattePanda display for the playfield, and a 5″ HDMI for the back glass. The main box holds the Lattepanda, two Pimoroni mini speakers, and a fan to keep the board cool.

There’s a lot to like about this little cabinet thanks to [Circuitbeard]’s fantastic attention to detail, which you can see for yourself in the slew of pictures. Look closer at the coin drop—it’s really an illuminated button with a custom graphic. If you want to have a go at emulating this emulator, all the code is up on GitHub. Tilt past the break to watch some modern pinball wizardry in action, and then check out his mini Outrun machine.

If pinball emulators don’t score any points with you, here’s one that’s all wood and rubber bands.

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Cat Plays the Silver Ball for Treats

It’s pretty easy to train a dog to do things for treats. They’re eager to please. But a cat? Most cats have better things to do than learn tricks no matter how many treats are involved. But if you make an autonomous game out of learning a trick, they just might go for it.

That’s the idea behind Touchy Fishy, a pinball machine for cats. It’s the newest iteration of treat-dispensing machines that [Kim] made for his cat, MIDI. The previous version was shaped like a dog’s head with a joystick for a nose. MIDI was so adept at pulling the joystick toward herself that [Kim] decided to try a new design using a lever.

Humans like challenges, too, and [Kim] wanted to make something purely mechanical this time around. The final product is mostly springs and laser-cut acrylic. MIDI pulls the spring-loaded lever downward, launching a pinball upward in an arc. At the top of its trajectory is a spinner enclosed in a circle. When the pinball hits the spinner, it sweeps a treat toward an opening, and the treat falls down where MIDI can eat it. The best part? The spinner also returns the captive pinball to its starting point, so MIDI can play until [Kim] gets tired of dropping treats into the hole. Watch MIDI claw her way to the high score after the break.

Most of the cat-related projects we’ve seen were built to keep hungry cats from sitting on their owner’s chests at 3AM, demanding to be fed. Here’s one that goes a step further by putting the cat to work collecting wiffle balls which it uses to pay for small amounts of kibble.

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A Sandbox for DIY Pinball Design

If you’ve always wanted to build your own pinball machine but have no idea where to start, this is the project for you. [Chris] is in the process of building a 3/4 size pinball table and is currently in the waiting-for-parts stage. As they arrive, he is testing them in a sandbox he built in an afternoon. Let [Chris]’s proving ground be your quick-start guide to all the ways you could approach the two most important parts of any pin: the flippers and targets.

The field of play is a sturdy piece of particle board, and the cardboard walls are attached with hot glue. [Chris] designed and printed a pair of flippers that are driven by some cheap remote door lock motors he found at a popular online auction house. You can see how snappy are in the test video after the break.

We love the crisp action and elegant simplicity of the spring-loaded drop targets [Chris] designed. Right now he resets them manually, but soon they will be reset by a solenoid or maybe a motor. We can’t wait to see how the table turns out. In the meantime, we’ll have to go back to drooling over this amazing life-size 3D-printed pinball machine.

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