At the beginning of 2022, we would have liked to see the cost of living return to normal, the shortages fade away, or to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but unfortunately, recent events do not support this. There is nothing like a little game on a pinball machine to change one’s mind, but one must have the space and the means to do so.
So, in these conditions, what about the “virtual pin” solution? Seductive or not?
Far from trying to convince you, I will try to synthesize what a good Vpin is and share with you my feedback on the subject.
Personally, I started the Vpin adventure almost 6 years ago, by joining the pincabpassion.net forum. I created a “WIP” (a forum topic about my current project titled “Work-In-Progress”) in which I shared my progress, my questions, my changes of mind and lastly, the final result…it was long, but it was good!
What does Virtual Pinball mean?
If I were to try to put it in layman’s terms, I would say that a vpin is to pinball what a driving simulator is to cars. It has all the external elements of a real pinball machine, but the playfield is replaced by a screen and the heart of the system replaced by a PC (or console). From then on, its form and hardware can vary according to the desires, means and ideas of its creator.
On the software side, other big names in the field of vpins include Pinball FX (Zen Studio) and Pinball Arcade (Farsight Studio). However, these games do not offer an “out-of-the-box” integration for the Virtual Pinball. For example, to play in portrait mode on Pinball FX, you will need to send an email to Zen Studio with a picture of your cabinet so that they can send you a unique code to “unlock” the cabinet function.
If you are really looking for adapted software, you will find your happiness in open source, especially in Visual Pinball X and Future Pinball. You may find the latter one is less popular, despite some nice adaptations like the new Sonic Pinball Mania table.
It’s hard when talking about virtual pinball machines not to mention the duo Visual Pinball X (VPX v10.7 at the time of writing) and VPINMAME (the cousin of the MAME emulator, very well known in the retrogaming world), since it offers the most beautiful reproductions of tables with emulation of the original ROMs. Not only is this software combo free, but so are all the tables that are made by the community.
So what you’re telling me is: “Finally, a Virtual Pinball that is quite simple: a PC, a screen and two buttons…no need to make a big deal of it!”
Yes, but, we’ll come back to the virtual pinball box a little later. For the moment, the important thing to remember is that the cost of a vpin depends on the hardware that makes it up and the software (for the most part) being freely available on the web.
The importance of choosing the right screen.
The playfield display is the cornerstone of any Vpin. This choice, which may seem insignificant, will affect the whole construction of the cabinet: its dimensions, the configuration of the PC within and the toys that will surround.
If some people prefer to stay on reasonable dimensions and try the adventure with a minimalist version (because of lack of space), I would advise them not to go under a 24″ screen. Below this size, the board image will be too small and the game experience will not be as good as it should. You might even be disappointed and give up your machine.
When I started this adventure, the standard for a 1:1 scale cabinet was a 40″ screen in full HD (1080p for the purists). Today, the standard is a 43″ screen in 4K which fits exactly in a “Wide-Body” case.
The display frequency is secondary, unless you want to go beyond 60 frames per second (minimum required to have good fluidity of the ball). It is possible, for a fee, to reach 140 frames per second, but you will need a recent configuration.
The latency of virtual pinballs: a real false problem?
Let’s tackle a subject that makes people angry!
To better understand this phenomenon well known to video game players, we need to define it physically: on a Vpin, it’s the time lapse between the button press and the player’s movement.
On a real machine, the delay between the button press and the player’s reaction is almost instantaneous. The command is transmitted at the speed of the electric current and our brain does not perceive any latency.
On a virtual pinball, the information comes from the button that is connected to an interface which is connected to a USB on the PC. The PC then processes the information and transmits it to the screen via a HDMI cable, which in turn processes the signal received to transform it into a visible image.
Each phase of this data transmission takes time, infinitesimal for some and longer for others, but especially on the screen which often takes the largest part of lost time.
It may only be a few millisecond and this may seem low, but for a trained eye, a latency of 30 milliseconds is more than enough to create visual discomfort between the press and the visible reaction.
Today, you can find TVs with 5ms response times and monitors with 1ms response times. With such performance, latency is imperceptible.
But does latency make the game unplayable?
From my point of view, since my screen is not a “gamer” screen, I unfortunately had to get used to this phenomenon and now, I hardly feel it anymore. Even better, I can switch from my pinball machine to my vpin without worrying. This remains subjective, but if there is one thing to remember, it is that this phenomenon can be erased by choosing a screen with a low latency (CQFD).
OK for the screen, but what about the rest?
Now that we have chosen our screen to simulate the playfield, let’s focus on the box…
Some minimalist configurations are satisfied with a single screen and buttons, the dilemma is generally at the crossroads between the vpin and the bartop (arcade terminal that can be placed on a table).
Those who say “backbox”, say “speaker panel.” Those who say “speaker panel,” say “Dot-Matrix-Display.”
Is it possible to equip your Vpin with this type of display? Of course! There is the PIN2DMD which is preferred if you like 90’s pinball machines, but you can also emulate the LCD screen displays with dimensions equivalent to the Stern Spike 2 pinball machine. Everything is possible on a virtual pinball!
With a front panel, a coin door, a lockbar, and a plunger, the vpin looks more and more like a real pinball machine. We could say to ourselves that at this stage, the machine is playable, but we didn’t count on the DOF: the Direct Output Framework!
This software with a barbaric name is, so to speak, the conductor of the “toys” that will play for you the long-awaited sweet mechanical symphony, among which you will find: electro-mechanical contactors (the same ones you find in electrical cabinets), a shaker (as in real pinball machines), a knocker, but also xylophones (for fans of roller pinballs), a fire bell, fans (blowers) and even a windshield wiper motor!!!
But the DOF also manages the “light-show” with RGB LEDs that change colors to fit the theme: no less than 5 flashers, a flashing light, strobes and LEDs under the box, and, for the more adventurous, it is even possible to add addressable LEDs!
All this little world is, of course, fully interactive with each game, the effects being implemented, one by one, on each table, by passionate members of the community.
Medieval Madness table on a virtual pinball…
Example: imagine a frenzied game of Medieval Madness!
The ball leaves the launch pad with a beautiful purple chaser effect that accompanies it on the side of the playfield. It goes down into the three bumpers. Each time a bumper is activated on the playfield, contactors come to strike against the body. There are ten contactors on the vpin, each one carefully positioned to simulate the noise that flipper coils, slingshots and targets would make. You hit the famous drawbridge door, it lowers and the wiper motor starts up. The portcullis opens, your ball enters the castle, so the shaker starts to vibrate while switches strike again with each movement of the castle towers and the strobe light flashes.
You feel the vibrations of the toys when your hands are on the lockbar and your eyes are dazzled by the light-show, just like on a real pinball machine, or almost…because we are not really in front of this legendary pinball machine. The virtual pinball allows us to feel it in part, and that’s not so bad!
Permanent innovations that keep on improving the feeling.
In recent years, the world of virtual pinball has been constantly innovating to bring even more interactivity.
One such innovation is SSF: Surround Sound Feedback. This system of managing the sound of the playfield consists of distributing vibrating speakers (“exciters”) on the walls of the box. The sounds of the table are then propagated in 3 dimensions within the case, bringing a bluffing sound to realism.
For example, you will feel the ball really rolling in the four corners of your box and the mechanical noises will be incredibly more realistic.
It has become a must-have in the vpin community, allowing you to avoid using certain toys like the contactors mentioned above.
Pinup Popper changes the game on the Vpin.
But the software that really changed the game, in my opinion, these last years is Pinup Popper!
This software, coupled with the other emulators, justifies by itself the need to have a front end. It allows you to display interactive videos related to the game. The possibilities are immense, such as adding videos for licensed pinball machines based on a movie.
But that’s not all, thanks to this software, it is also possible to create tables from scratch on a theme never used in the pinball world, such as “Harry Potter” by Orbital Pinball.
The other great strength of vpin: its community!
Whether English or French speaking, the virtual pinball community never ceases to amaze me. Often innovative, the little pinheads who play vpins are always on the lookout for THE good idea that will revolutionize our toys.
But this community is first, and foremost, tabletop creators, volunteers, and pure enthusiasts whose only quest is the recognition of their work in the form of a small comment or a like on the page on the site they have chosen to make their hard work available.
You will agree that the least you can do is to respect this sharing by uploading it to these sites and not downloading (or paying for) a table pack. It may not seem like a big deal, but it’s a very disrespectful thing to do to the creators.
Moreover, most of the table packs offered are often obsolete (some of them work on old versions of Visual Pinball and are far from the quality reached nowadays).
In short, it’s the DEAL! The content is FREE but you can only download it on dedicated sites! Otherwise…
Since I started this passion, two prestigious table-sharing sites have disappeared: monsterbashpincab.com and vpinball.com. This is due to a general lack of interest or untimely spats whose source was often the famous packs.
You have understood everything, you are excited but…
…you are not a handyman, you confuse screws and bolts… or maybe you just don’t have the time…
No problem: it is possible to buy a ready-to-use virtual pinball cabinet, or even a custom one!
I have already mentioned the Artcab webshop, but you should know that if you do a little research (like typing “buy vpin” on your favorite search engine), you should have a number of choices available to you.
Here are some tips on how to make sure you don’t make a mistake in your purchase:
- DON’T BE FOOLED BY THE NUMBER OF TABLES OFFERED! This is probably the argument you’ll hear most often: it’s completely unnecessary. The tables at Visual Pinball and Future Pinball are FREE and easily found by anyone who cares to look.
- As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the most important pairing is the monitor and the PC. Check what type of screen is installed in the cabinet, its latency time in particular. Also check the proposed graphics card. Don’t hesitate to ask questions in the store, on the forums or on the Facebook groups. Real professionals will always listen to you and answer your questions.
- Avoid buying your vpins abroad. Some offers may seem tempting but what about the after sales service? It is better to play it local. There are enough stores to find your happiness. As for any other purchase on the net, trust the published reviews.
- Toys: this is the parameter that will inflate the cost of your future new toy. So before comparing the cost between two stores, take a good look at what is included in the vpin (contactors, shaker, knocker, MEG, Led etc…). All of this equipment has a cost but also requires additional man hours for the seller.
- If I had to give you a price range, it would go from a few hundred dollars for models with a simple 24″ screen to more than 6,000 dollars for a vpin scale 1:1 and full toys!
Are we facing a revolution? Will mechanical pinball machines one day be replaced by virtual pinball machines? Nothing is less certain and personally, I do not wish it.
Far from upsetting its big brother, vpin is a tribute to the magic of these machines. It allows ball lovers to play an ever-increasing number of tables with an ever-improving realism.
It could be the perfect companion for a competitor who wants to practice pinball machines before a tournament, or an ingenious addition to collectors who would like to get an idea of a possible future acquisition.
I am fortunate enough to have a real pinball machine at home, as are most of the people reading this article, but I still have the urge to play with my vpin.
Besides, with the current price increases of pinball machines, whether they are new or used, it makes me think that the vpin has a lot of good days ahead of it… How can you hope to play today, for example, games as mythical as Medieval Madness, Monster Bash, Theatre of Magic or Cirqus Voltaire without having to break your piggy bank?
I hope to have given you the desire to start this adventure or at least to have aroused your curiosity.
The sources for your virtual pinball project
Note: Many thanks to Olivier Servais for sharing detailed photos of his work.
If you want to download tables: