A Total Beginner’s Guide to Pinball

As a kid growing up in the rural South, I didn’t get a lot of opportunities to visit the arcade. On the rare occasions that I did manage to convince my family to drive me the hour and change it took to get to what passed as my “local,” I never quite understood the appeal of the pinball machines. Their large frames seemed primitive and ungainly compared to the sleek curves of modern cabs like Time Crisis, and I always lost my three balls so quickly that I felt that the machine had scammed me. 

Over the past year or so, however — thanks largely in part to instructional YouTube channels like PAPApinball, and the wide availability of MAME-like “pinball simulators” — I’ve actually found myself getting into the hobby at my own pace. And while the obstacles standing between clueless gamerdom and the high score on your local Medieval Madness are considerable, here’s a guide to getting started at America’s favorite ball-based pastime. The other one, I mean.

Anatomy of a Pinball Machine

The fundamental inaccessibility of pinball lies in the fact that every machine has completely distinct rules, which means that you have to spend a substantial amount of time trying to wrap your head around a new one before you can put up a decent score. But while strategy varies from game to game, the building blocks of most popular cabinets are surprisingly consistent.

I’ll be using the 1988 Williams classic Taxi to illustrate my points, ending with a short explanation of its basic ruleset. I chose this particular cabinet because it’s one of the most accessible ones you’re likely to find in the wild, while still exhibiting a degree of strategic depth that only becomes apparent after you spend some time with it.

If you look at the lower right of most pinball machines, you’ll find the plunger. This is the spring-loaded mechanism that launches the ball into the main “playfield,” where the action happens. While some games have an “auto-plunger” that shoots the ball for you at the touch of a button, many machines expect the player to manually pull it back themselves. Additionally, most games have a “skill shot,” which is an opportunity for bonus points if you manage to finagle the plunger in the correct way. Taxi’s skill shot is particularly important, but we’ll get to that later.

The outer lanes on the lower playfield cause the ball to drain, which ends play. That’s why they’re known as outlanes, and they should be avoided as much as possible. Conversely, the lit lanes that feed down to the flippers are called the inlanes  running over them can sometimes give you points or bonuses. The large triangular objects that bump the ball towards the outlanes are called slingshots. There’s also the flippers, but hopefully you know what those are already.

On the upper playfield, from left to right, you have Taxi’s Dracula shot, which is the sort of difficult-to-nail precision shot you often see in this position in other cabinets. From there, emblazoned with the image of two yellow cabs, you have the left ramp, so named because it launches the ball up an incline and onto a “habitrail” that leads back to the flippers. (Note that Taxi has rare “crossover ramps,” which means that a left ramp shot feeds to the left flipper, and vice versa.) To the right of the left ramp, directly above Santa, there’s a round sinkhole (or saucer) that the ball can fall in. This particular feature is key to the ruleset of Taxi, as it collects both of the game’s jackpots. (There’s also the collect passengers switch, but that’s a Taxi-specific concept that we’ll get to later.)

The C-A-B columns at the top are called rollover lanes  each time the ball “rolls over” one of them, they light, and collecting all three causes things to happen. The three elevated circles are bumpers that shunt the ball around, collecting a miniscule amount of points each time. The three thin squares above Marilyn are drop targets, so named because they “drop” when the ball hits them. 

To the right, you have Taxi’s Gorbie shot, which orbits around the top of the playfield to rest in the Santa saucer. (Most orbits go entirely around the playfield and feed to the flippers, so we might call this a “semi-orbit.”) To the right of that, you have the right ramp, and beyond that, marked with a 1, the game’s only lock, so named because it “locks” the ball in preparation for multiball play. Below that, there’s another set of drop targets (Pinbot this time, not Marilyn).

More Pinball

Basic Moves

Arguably the most basic maneuver in pinball, the concept of trapping is very simple, but deceptively difficult to master — as the ball fires towards your flippers, instead of immediately shooting it back up into the playfield, finesse the flipper as a sort of “cradle” to press the ball against the slingshot. This allows you to maintain control of the ball instead of just flailing away willy-nilly and hoping for the best.

Many of the fundamental moves in pinball are just different manners of trapping the ball in specific situations. For example, if the ball is coming at you from the opposite angle (i.e. towards the left flipper from the right) at a medium-speed, it’s often useful to let the ball bounce off the flipper without flipping at all, then engaging the other flipper in order to capture on the opposite side. This is known as a dead bounceIf the ball is coming from the adjacent angle (i.e. towards the left flipper from the left), if you have good timing, you can manage to trap a ball at the exact instant that it hits the flipper. This is called a live catch.

If you have the ball trapped on the wrong flipper, you can try to pass it to the other flipper. While there are a variety of ways to do this — some more complex than others — the easiest way to do it in most games is by releasing your trap, immediately bouncing the ball against the bottom of the slingshot, and then allowing that momentum to carry the ball across the gap. This is called a post pass (or post transfer).

There are many more advanced techniques, such as cradle separations (to separate two balls trapped on the same flipper during multiball) and slap saves (to save a ball that is hurtling “straight down the middle”), but beginners don’t need to worry about those too much.

How to Play Taxi

You don’t have to start with Taxi — after all, every player’s individual taste in machines varies — but in general, cutting your teeth on older, simpler games (such as World Cup Soccer, Medieval Madness, and Attack from Mars) is a good way to build up the skills that you will need to understand what the hell is going on in the more modern multi-mode monstrosities. If you’d prefer to start with other games, simply search the machine’s name and “rulesheet,” and you’ll find some sort of guide that someone has written for it. You might even find a YouTube tutorial if you look around enough.

In Taxi, there are two main ways of collecting big points: shooting for the airport millions, and collecting passengers. Before we discuss that, however, let’s go over the game’s skillshot, as well as its version of multiball.

Skill Shot

In Taxi, you launch the ball into a spiral funnel, and each rotation of the ball within boosts your points, up to a total of 100,000 multiplied by your current ball number. On balls 2 and 3, it’s typically best to go for the 100,000, but scoring 25,000 (or four rotations) also spots you a passenger, which can sometimes be more valuable. As such, it’s up to you to figure out which one to go for. If you’re on the verge of the passenger jackpot, I would go for the 25,000 every time.

Multiball and the Express Lane

Multiball in Taxi is relatively easy to achieve compared to many other machines. Simply shoot the ball into the lock in the middle-right of the playfield — wait until it’s just at the end of the flipper, but not so far that you hit the Pinbot targets — then plunge a new ball. After that, hitting the left ramp will activate a two-ball multiball.

While multiball is helpful towards the other major goals in the game, it also has its own mini-progression. If you shoot one ball back into the lock, you have ten to fifteen seconds to shoot the other into Dracula. If you do, you’ll collect 300,000 points and light both the ramps, which score 100,000 each per shot. If you’re good at shooting the ramps, this is a safe way to boost your score, so go to town. Once one of your balls drains, multiball ends, and you can’t lock the ball again without collecting a passenger.

The Airport

This strategy is straightforward, but very challenging: passing over an inlane lights the opposite ramp. If you shoot the ball up that ramp, the “airport value” advances one step, from 20,000 to 100,000 in 20k increments. Since each shot feeds into the next, you could theoretically combo these five shots together very quickly. Once you collect the 100,000, the Santa shot lights for 1 million points for the duration of your current ball. While on paper this is the easiest way to rack up points consistently, errant or misjudged ramp shots are very dangerous in Taxi, especially if they make it most of the way up before coming screaming back down the middle. As such, this is a risky strategy, and one that requires a lot of practice.

The Passenger Jackpot

The passengers approach requires a greater diversity of shots, but most of them are easily achieved once you get to know them. There are five passengers in the game: Gorbie, the right semi-orbit; Dracula, the center-left of the playfield; Marilyn, the three dead-center drop targets; Pinbot, the three far-right drop targets below the lock; and Santa, just to the right of the left ramp. Once you pick up all the passengers, the jackpot lights on the Gorbie shot for around ten seconds; if you fail to collect it, you have to pick up Marilyn again. The value of the jackpot varies from 500,000 to 4 million — the rollover lanes boost its value, but only by a paltry amount, depending on how many switches you hit during the “raise jackpot” phase that it activates.

For the first jackpot of a given game, two passengers are lit at a time in the above order, and the next one lights as soon as you pick up one. Gorbie and Santa are both important shots in the game regardless of your specific strategy, so make sure you can nail them consistently. (The sweet spots for both shots are about 75% of the way down the flipper.) For Dracula, you need to wait until the ball is right on the tip of the right flipper to hit it. Pinbot’s targets are by far the hardest to shoot, but if you line up the ball past the tip of the left flipper, you can get them. The real killer here is Marilyn’s targets — they’re specifically designed to drain your ball, and as such I suggest activating multiball before aiming for them, if at all possible. 

Once you collect one jackpot, the passengers will light one-by-one, in reverse order, making further jackpots difficult to score. It’s far from impossible, though I typically switch to a ramp strategy if I’m having trouble with Pinbot’s targets. Your mileage may vary, however.

And that’s it! Pinball is an interesting game because the basic skills are transferable, but each board is different. That said, there are recurrent themes in design you can learn to spot across tables. Once you start seeing these patterns, your whole perspective of the game can change — and you might just find yourself becoming a pinhead.