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  Visual Pinball

Don't have the money to buy a real pinball machine? Don't have the space for it? Or have you started collecting already and want to check out which machine to buy next? Visual Pinball is your friend in any of these cases!

Part 1: Visual Pinball
Part 2: Other Great PC Pinball Sims
Part 3: Other Horrible PC Pinball Sims

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Part 1: Visual Pinball

Visual Pinball a software developed by Randy Davis for the Microsoft Windows personal computer. Visual Pinball lets you create your own virtual pinball tables by offering an easy-to-use graphical editor where you can place devices, flippers, walls, lights and textures to build your own pinball playfield. To give it game rules and have the objects interact, you can write a Visual Basic script which is a very basic object-oriented programming language (even easier than standard Visual Basic). After you're done, or if you want to test your work-in-progress table, you can hit the "Play" button anytime to load up the table in a simple 3D engine which will display the game in software DirectX, including fixed roomlight shadowing, ball shadows, animation where necessary (flippers, devices if you move them with scrip-ting, lights) and full game control. The engine can display the table in any resolution and colour depth your PC supports. For enhanced beauty, the background can be textured or coloured the way you want it and you can add simple score reels or solid-state displays, or program your own counting mechanism. There are even mods out there made by fans which enhance Visual Pinball with fading lights, rendered graphics, dot matrix displays, MP3 and WMA support, and more!
While Visual Pinball is not the ultimate pinball simulation since its ball physics are somewhat questionable and it still has a few bugs, it's the only decent way to build your own tables on the PC - and to play existing creations of other users, many of which are recreations of existing pinball machines. However, since every real machine has ROM chips that include its rules, audio and video files, you need an additional program, a plug-in called Visual PinMAME which emulates all kinds of real-world pinball systems and lets the ROM software run on your PC, including audio, game rules and the stuff seen on the displays! Connect this plug-in with Visual Pinball and you can play virtually any real pinball machine on your PC - if you have the ROM files and if you make a recreation of the game in VP, or if you find an existing recreation made by other users. I'm going to give you detailed instructions on where to find Visual Pinball, VPinMAME, add-ons, ROMs and tables right here so you can get started right away.

Software You Need

Initially, Visual Pinball and many of the mods and tables you're going to download are hosted by the Visual Pinball Forums, VPForums for short. You need to register for free at these forums to download any of these files! Even if you don't write posts in the forums itself, downloading the applications and especially the huge collection of recreated pinball tables requires your registration. It's free and easy to do: just go to http://www.vpforums.com and register, then choose a nickname you want to log in with in the future, and a pass-word for this nickname. You'll be required to fill out some fields including your valid e-mail address so that they can send you the acti-vation e-mail and keep you informed about updates. I registered there in June 2004 and I never got any spam mail, advertising software or spyware, so I guarantee you it's absolutely safe and free. All you need to do after registering is check your e-mail, click on the link in the activation mail you received, and you're on. From now on you can log in to the site with your chosen nickname and password, and start downloading software and table files.

Note: you will be able to download a maximum of five tables each day if you registered for free. You will also have a five-minute delay after each download before you can start the next. If you become a supporting member (any amount of money you donate will upgrade your status to that), these limits are removed. ROM and software downloads are not counted against your download limit! Only the tables you download from AJ's have this limit.

The applications you need to download and install to play table recreations are as follows:

Visual Pinball - the core program. The official site is http://www.randydavis.com/vp and you can get a list of available download versions on http://www.randydavis.com/vp/download.htm. This list will link you to VPForums' Visual Pinball download host which will offer the file to you.

Visual PinMAME - the ROM emulator. Originally MAME stands for Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator and is a program conceived by fans who sought a possibility to replay the old arcade video game classics on the PC. MAME is a software which can emulate all kinds of old arcade video game systems and tons of game ROM files can be found on the Internet. I've only got one ROM file on my hard disk which I keep playing with MAME; Super Hang-On, the classic motorcycle game. Later some people created PinMAME, a software dedicated to emulating ROM files of pinball machines. While the program was updated, it was extended to be compatible with more systems from the different pinball manufacturers, emulate sound and music, and have a fully accessible virtual playfield switch matrix where you can "play" games by activating the switches manually. PinMAME is more of a testing and experimentation program since the hardware of a pinball machine is missing.
Now we have Visual PinMAME, or VPinMAME for short, which was released not all that long ago. It combines the power of PinMAME's emulation capabilities with the tools to recreate pinball machines on the PC which Visual Pinball gives to users. By hooking up PinMAME with Visual Pinball, it was now finally possible to play recreated pinball machines on the PC instead of just having a testing program. All you need is a recreated pinball table built in VP and the ROM files of the machine for VPinMAME.
PinMAME has an official site at http://www.pinmame.com, where you can also find VPinMAME downloads on http://pinmame.retrogames.com/downloads.html. Unlike all other files, VPinMAME is not hosted at VPForums but has its own host, so there is no registration required to download this file.

scripts - VPForums also hosts an up-to-date script collection which has all the system scripts for Williams, Bally, Gottlieb and other ROMs. These scripts tell VPinMAME how to handle the specific systems. Without them, you cannot play any ROM-based table.

sound samples - a separate ZIP file hosted at VPForums which includes all sorts of mechanical samples needed to give the emulation mechanical sound. Most of these samples were ripped from Empire Interactive's Pro Pinball: The Web. While many recreated tables have their own mechanical sound samples, it's better to have this collection just in case VPinMAME needs it.

ROM sets - the machine inside. To play a recreated pinball machine in Visual Pinball, you'll need the ROM files of that machine. Getting those does not necessarily require registration at VPForums because companies like Williams offer their ROMs legally on their own web-site. Alternatively, you can search for the machine in the Internet Pinball Database and download the ROM set from there. However, if you want ROMs from Gottlieb or don't want to search all these websites for the files, you can also find a usually up-to-date version of the necessary ROM set on VPForums next to the table you want to play.

Visual Pinball tables - the playing interface. This is what VPForums concentrate on; you can find virtually any pinball machine recrea-tion there in a huge list along with the necessary ROM set. You can also look for some tables on a few other sites which I have listed in my "Links" section.

Installation

Installing Visual Pinball is easy. Just execute the setup file you downloaded, pick a directory and off you go. You can now use VP to build and play tables - as long as they don't use ROM files. Installing VPinMAME is a little difficult, but easy to follow. To play pinball machine recreations with ROM files, do this:

1. Install Visual Pinball to a folder of your choice. Keep in mind that this folder will include the entire collection of ROMs, tables and mods you'll be using in the future.

2. Unpack the VPinMAME ZIP file into a subfolder you make inside the VP installation folder. For example, if you installed VP to C:\Games\VP, unpack VPinMAME to C:\Games\VP\VPinMAME. Do it the same way with all other mod applications and plug-ins you install later. This ensures that you keep a substructure of the whole thing for easier surveillance.

3. Unpack the scripts from the downloaded ZIP file into VP's "Tables" folder - not the "Scripts" folder.

4. Copy the "pinmame.zip" sound samples file into VPinMAME's "samples" subfolder. Do not extract the samples, just copy the ZIP file itself there.

5. Run VPinMAME's setup.exe and click on the "Install" button. After this is done, click on "Setup Paths..." and fill out the fields with the required paths. ROMs go into the "roms" folder inside the VPinMAME folder, "Configuration" goes into the "cfg" folder, and "Screenshots" go into the "snap" folder - all others are self-explanatory.

6. Download a ROM set and put the ZIP file into the VPinMAME\roms folder. Do not unpack the ROM files from the ZIP!

7. Download a table recreation for the ROM file and put the VPT file into the "Tables" folder of VP. You can now open this table file in VP and play it. You will get a dialog asking whether you are entitled to play this ROM set - click yes and VPinMAME will load the ROMs along with VP loading the table. You will probably see nothing except for VP's editor in the foreground, so minimize it to see the table inside the 3D engine which is behind it (must be a little bug). You can also see VPinMAME's display which shows information that would appear on the real machine's display(s). You can drag the display anywhere on the screen so it's out of the way of the table view.
It will happen that you see something like "Factory Settings Restored" on the display and the table doesn't boot up. This happens because you turned the game on for the very first time and it does not have any data in its (emulated) RAM to load settings from. The least you need to do to start playing is entering the setup and leaving it again so that the machine gets the factory settings applied (see the next paragraph for instructions).

Controls & Features

You can set up the controls of VP under "Preferences" in "Keys". However, VPinMAME also has some control keys you need to know.

start a new game: 1
buy an extra ball: 2
insert coins: 5
ROM setup menu controls: 7, 8, 9 and 0 (depends on system)
control volume on WPC games: 8 and 9 (equals setup keys)
open/close coin door (required for WPC/DCS and later): END
VPinMAME controls: tilde (~) key respectively ^ key on non-English keyboards, then use the arrow keys

VPinMAME emulates the complete ROM set if it's supported. This means you can enter the setup menu if the ROM has this and configure the game like you would configure the real machine. This way, you can set up things like free play, extra balls instead of credits for special and replay, customized game rules etc. Just press 0 on WPC games to enter the menu and press 0 again to go onto the first level. Then use 8 and 9 to navigate through the options and press 0 again to choose an option. Press 7 to go back one level or exit the setup menu. On System 11 games and similar, there are only three buttons of which one is only used to reset highscores. Thus, you have to use 8 to enter the menu and navigate forward. Press 7 to push down the auto/manual button which would be at this position in the coin door of the real machine. If the button is pushed down, you can go back through the options by using 8 again. Pressing 7 again releases the auto/manual key and pressing 8 navigates forward again. Choosing an option is done by pressing the start button, 1. Exit the menu by pressing 9 or navigating forward to AD70 and beyond (like it's done on real machines).

You can set up the default options VPinMAME should choose once you run a newly installed ROM set for the first time. Execute setup.exe and select "Setup Defaults...", then make your choices. Once you save the changes, every new ROM set you run with VPinMAME will default to this setup.
Hint: you can reset the configuration of a ROM set by deleting the CFG file inside the "cfg" folder of VPinMAME. It will then default to the setup you made in VPinMAME.

On some ROM sets there may be problems. The most basic problem is that a ROM ZIP file might be corrupted, but this does not prevent it from being used - trying is better than trashing. If VPinMAME greets you with a warning of corrupted files, simply click on "continue anyway" and try to play the game. If it works, good, but you could try finding a ROM version that has no issues. Also, some games might screw up with some things after playing them for a while, for example Space Station. The only way I have found to counter this is deleting the NVRAM file in the "nvram" folder of VPinMAME. Be warned though that deleting this file is like a factory reset; you delete the information stored in the pinball game's memory including your setup data and highscores for this machine. Any errors will be eliminated this way, though.

How Does VPinMAME Work?

VPinMAME interacts with the script of the table file. If you click on the "Script" button in VP, you get access to the script file which holds all the VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) code that makes the table run. While normal table scripts have everything from controls to game rules to audio and display stuff, VPinMAME scripts only execute commands to map the switch matrix of the ROM file to the sole-noids on the table. Thus, once VP detects something game-related on the table, VPinMAME can react to it like on a real machine.

Where to Find My Machines

You can find a direct link to the table file of the machine I wrote about in its article. However, you may have noticed that machines like Arena and F-14 Tomcat are not linking to table files. I did this with a purpose: I only include acceptable or good recreations in my articles because not every recreation is as good as the real thing. Visual Pinball is never like the real thing anyway, but there are really good, average and downright bad recreations, for whatever reason. Arena's table file does not run at all, but this has to do with VPinMAME and its missing support for older Gottlieb ROMs. The recreation of F-14 Tomcat is sadly so bad that I don't want to screw up the picture of the real machine by linking to this file in my article (I have talked about it with the author and he says that he's thinking about overhauling the table). The Machine's virtual version isn't very good either, plus it has one of the rare Williams ROMs that have problems with the sound emulation of VPinMAME - the audio is simply extremely screwed up. The table itself plays awkward as well. The good or acceptable and playable recreations are linked in the articles of Pin*Bot, Black Knight 2000 etc. These links go directly to the file at VPForums, so you have to be registered there first to access it. Keep in mind that downloads have a five-minute interval for non-supporting members, so you can only attempt one download every five mins unless you support the site financially.

Building Tables, Add-Ons & Mods

If you want to get started building your own pinball tables in Visual Pinball, there are some documentations and tutorials in VP's help file as well as VPForums and relevant websites. It's very easy to learn, only finding the creativity to create something original and learning about the physical flow of a game is what takes some experience and especially a lot of time. It can be very rewarding and a lot of fun though! I experimented with VP for quite some time and also started building my own original table, however now after owning seven pinball machines in seven months, I would give the playfield a complete overhaul for realism and a better game flow. So, experience with real machines can help a lot.
Programming is required to make a table work. Visual Basic is very similar to normal DOS-based BASIC and that's laughably easy to learn. Just look over some simple table scripts (like the one supplied with VP) and you might understand a lot of it already from reading. If you need help with the language, the same sites that provide VP design support often also have scripting tutorials. One such site, and probably the biggest VP editing resource apart from VPForums, used to be shivaSite, a collection of forums where original tables and table recreations, resources like textures, sounds, models and scripts, tutorials for construction and scripting, and a lot more were hosted. The problem is that shivaSite was shut down by the author (Shiva) a while ago with the explanation that he has run out of power to administrate the site which has been up for years. If you go to VPForums and look for some links, you'll still find some other sites that offer more content.

Modifications for Visual Pinball are made by fans who like to extend the possibilities. These include such mods as a dot matrix display with text and video support, audio enhancements to play MP3 and WMA, and the widely-used fading lights mod which makes lamps look a lot more realistic. Often these mods are written in VBA script files that can be included in your own table script or "linked" in your script so that the external mod script is separately loaded. Scripts always go into the "Tables" folder of VP, not the "Scripts" folder - who knows why.

Overview of All Relevant Links

Visual Pinball - http://www.randydavis.com/vp
PinMAME and Visual PinMAME - http://www.pinmame.com
VPForums: VPinMAME table and ROM collection, host for VP files & editing support - http://www.vpforums.com

Visual Pinball downloads page - http://www.randydavis.com/vp/download.htm
PinMAME and VPinMAME downloads page - http://pinmame.retrogames.com/downloads.html
VPinMAME scripts & VPinMAME sound samples - http://www.vpforums.com/modules.php?...viewdownload&cid=2
tables and ROMs overview page - http://www.vpforums.com/vptables/info/
tables and ROMs downloads page - http://www.vpforums.com/vptables/tables.php/

overview of Visual Pinball's features and operation - http://www.randydavis.com/vp/intro.htm
VPinMAME installation guide - http://www.vpforums.com/modules.php?...id_cat=2#5

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Part 2: Other Great PC Pinball Sims

Coming soon.

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Part 3: Other Horrible PC Pinball Sims

Coming soon.

 
 
© 2005 Maximilian Schulz - Williams, Bally, Gottlieb and all other names, all pinball games and software mentioned on this site are trademarks of their respective owners.