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Gaming Hacks by Simon Carless

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Play Classic Pinball Without the Table

You too can play mean pinball on modern tables with this great emulation suite.

Suppose you want to play some of the classic pintables (pinball tables) from the ’80s and ’90s, before the market crashed (the only remaining pinball manufacturer seems to be the revitalized Stern). Visual Pinball ( [Hack #80] ) is an amazing start—a fully featured, freeware pinball-table-creation suite that’s actually pretty easy to use. Thanks to this program and some reasonably complex setup instructions, Windows users can play emulated versions of their favorite old pinball machines in no time.

The Magic of VPinMAME

Although MAME is one of the most well-known, coolest emulators around, another project carrying the MAME name may be both lesser-known and cooler. VPinMAME combines the very cool Visual Pinball with MAME emulation of the dot-matrix display (DMD) on recent games. That’s the area that keeps track of the score as well as the logic for controlling the more complex parts of the table, such as when to release multiball and actual mini-games you can play with the flippers.

The VPinMAME emulation uses the MAME codebase, but obviously, you can’t play the pinball game ROMs in any standalone fashion because you need the table as an interface. By hooking up the amazing physics and layout tools of Visual Pinball to the MAME-style emulation of the DMD display, you can play pinball with relevant dot-matrix score and mini-game feedback at the same time. Smart.

VPinMAME Installation

The (Windows-only) installation is a little strange because VPinMAME must live in its own directory. Your Visual Pinball standalone executable is probably in C:\Program Files\Visual Pinball. When you install VPinMAME (from http://pinmame.retrogames.com/downloads.html), it should unzip into C:\VPinMAME. Run the installation program, and all should be fine and dandy for that part.

However, you will need a bunch of extra software before you can run the games. Unfortunately, since there’s no commercial release, the installation process is tricky:

  1. Download the VBS Script Files from http://www.vpforums.com/vptables/tables.php and extract them to C:\VPinMAME\Tables.

  2. To make the fonts look right on the tables themselves, you’ll also need the latest Font file from http://www.vpforums.com/vptables/tables.php. Because they’re normal Windows fonts, you can unzip this into your C:\Windows\Fonts directory.

  3. Finally, you’ll need the default sound samples for every game. Download these in ZIP form from the same site to your C:\VPinMAME\Samples directory, but do not—repeat do not—unzip them.

Okay, it’s not that tricky. Everything’s easy with good directions, if you put your mind to it.

VPinMAME Games of Choice

Before you can play an emulated game, someone has to convert it. AJ’s VPinMAME page (http://www.vpforums.com/vptables/tables.php) is one of the only really comprehensive conversion lists. It also includes download links if you register. At the time of writing, there are over 400 tables available—an amazing fan-based effort—with many more new titles and improved versions of existing games to come. These games span almost all of the post-electromechanical era, from manufacturers such as Bally, Midway, Stern, Williams, and Sega. There are also some earlier titles in there.

Although each individual dot-matrix screen type had different hardware, which meant there were several chipsets to emulate, the vast majority have support now. The approach is similar to that of MAME: bundling emulators for several individual arcade board types. The collective emulator is extremely powerful.

However, please bear in mind that not all of these tables are completely finished. The makers have spent days playing the original machines and tweaking the physics and layout so that they accurately recreate the original articles as much as possible, but many tables are still works in progress. You may be able to estimate how complete the table is by looking at the version number, but some tables are so easy that V1.0 is all they need, and some still aren’t perfect after multiple versions, so your mileage may vary! Check out the README file in ROM distributions or poke around the boards for user comments on a specific table.

In any case, it’s easy to recommend some of my favorite pinball tables of all time. Not coincidentally, they’re often the most polished, so they’re well worth checking out.

The Addams Family

Pat Lawlor (designer of many of my favorites) created what may well be the most popular pinball table of all time in his adaptation of Barry Sonnenfeld’s big-screen The Addams Family. If you haven’t had the opportunity to play it in real life, what should you know? The infamous Thing (a disembodied hand) pops out of the playfield and grabs the ball. Also, there’s the famous Thing Flips reward in which the pinball machine itself activates the flipper for you to try to make the shot; it automatically corrects for you the next time it misses! Besides these special features, the seminal layout offers the ultimate in smooth play with wonderful game modes. See http://www.ipdb.org/machine.cgi?id=20.

White Water

Mixing things up a little, this Williams title riffs on white-water rafting and includes an interactive Bigfoot character on the playfield; try to sneak the ball past him! It also has a gigantic ramp down the right side of the playfield, which will hit the front glass on the way down should you be lucky enough. Although not as well-known as the two titles it’s sandwiched between, this Dennis Nordman-designed title is a cult favorite. You can find more information at http://www.ipdb.org/machine.cgi?id=2768.

The Twilight Zone

Another Lawlor creation, renowned as one of the most complex but deepest pinball tables of all time, this draws on the lore from the classic TV series to create a super-complex, super-enjoyable table. As with the Addams Family, it’s notable because of playfield magnets that change the direction of your pinball unexpectedly. The Twilight Zone messes with things a little further by having a Powerball, a ceramic pinball unaffected by the magnets. This is amazing and obviously tricky to emulate, but the effort is valiant. See http://www.ipdb.org/machine.cgi?id=2684.

The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends

“Hey Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!” The cheerful tones of Bullwinkle J. Moose are a great starting point for this super-addictive Data East title, one of their more notable games. It features several slightly deranged modes, including the famous WABAC Machine that will send you back in (pinball) time. This officially licensed game didn’t have a huge mass-market appeal, but you can tell that the designers had high respect for Jay Ward’s original ‘toons. The ramps are well-positioned for smooth play; plus, there are moose ears atop the actual cabinet. Who can resist that? You can find more information at http://www.ipdb.org/machine.cgi?23.

Tip

If you’re interested in emulators for older, classic pintables without any complicated ROMs to emulate, see IRPinball (http://irpinball.ztnet.com/), which has a massive list of recreated tables from the ’40s to the early ’80s for download. They may not have complex dot-matrix mini-games or cheesy movie licenses, but they’re still rather smart. They don’t actually require VPinMAME to run, just Visual Pinball.

Loading and Playing VPinMAME Games

It seems that nothing’s ever entirely straightforward with VPinMAME, including loading in games. Many games are distributed in two parts, one being the table design itself and the other, the DMD ROM to run in the emulator.

When you find a table in the standard .VPT format, unzip it into the C:\VPinMAME\Tables directory. When you find the DMD ROM, probably from somewhere else entirely, put it in C:\VPinMAME\Roms without unzipping it. Then, when you load the table and play it normally (by pressing F5), it should recognize and include the VPinMAME features.

Tip

If you’re stuck on installation, the VPForums.com site has a FAQ area with basic troubleshooting tips (http://www.vpforums.com/modules.php?name=FAQ). There are also plenty of very friendly people on the boards there who will help you with potential issues.

A Short Legal Note

Of course, this brings about a difficult issue. At least with some emulated titles, you can own the original and feel a little more justified in playing the emulated versions. If you wanted to play five of these titles with full legality, you’d need a garage just to store the originals. Hopefully, the original pintable producers will release officially licensed ROM versions of some of these amazing emulations. In the meantime, use your discretion.

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