Glossary of Pinball Terms
Some basic terms you’ll need to know when buying a pinball machine
Here are a few of the most common terms that you’ll see used when describing pinball machines that are for sale. Knowing these phrases will help you select a machine with the features and conditions you want.
7-Segment Display: This refers to the score display on Solid State machines which don’t have Dot Matix Displays. You’re familiar with 7-segment displays as they are found in alarm clocks and VCRs. Each number is formed by lighting various combinations of the seven segments. Some crude animations can be performed on these displays, but they are much simpler than those found on DMDs.
Backbox (also Head): The backbox is the vertical box on the rear of the pinball machine which displays the player’s scores and other information. In solid-state machines, the backbox houses the game’s controlling circuit boards and in electro-mechanical machines, it will house the scoring reels and some other devices. The backbox has a small amount of sideart which you’ll want to meet your standards. For storage or transport, the backbox can be folded down onto the top of the pinball machine, making it take less space and making it easier to get through doorways.
Backglass: This is the piece of glass that is held in the backbox through which the scores and other information are displayed. The backglass can be a simple piece of clear glass with a translite behind it, or on older machines, the glass itself will actually be painted. If you’re looking at a machine with a painted backglass, you want to watch for peeling or cracking paint as the light bulbs behind the glass generate heat and will often damage the backglass paint after many years. Many people enjoy collecting pinball backglasses as they make neat decorations to hang in a game room. Search for pinball backglass.
Cabinet: The wooden body of the pinball machine. The cabinet holds the playfield and has the sideart. It is usually made of particle board and you want to be sure that it has not endured any water damage or major gouges.
DBV (also Dollar Bill Validator): This optional device takes paper bills from players, so the machine is not limited to accepting only coins. On most machines, the DBV is an add-on item and may fit the existing coin-door or require a slightly different coin-door. The DBV is not necessary for home use, but it is a neat touch to have for some collectors and is usually worth an extra $100-$200 on the machine’s price. Usually, a machine will not be sold with the DBV as the arcade operators will remove and re-use the DBV in their other machines. Search for dollar bill validators.
Dot Matrix Display (also DMD): Commonly found on late-model pinball machines, the dot matrix display is an array of individually controlled dots found on the backbox. The array of lights lets the pinball designers display graphics, letters, animations, player information, and mini-games — things that are not possible with the 7-segment displays used before DMDs were available. The dot matrix display uses a technology similar to a neon sign and over time, they wear-out and get dim. Replacing the DMD is easy, but depending on whether you replace just the display or the entire controller board, it can be over $100. Fortunately, the DMD will last many years in a home environment since they are designed to be lit-up all-day in an arcade. Search for dot matrix pinball parts.
Electro-mechanical (also EM): This term refers to pinball machines which generally were made before 1978. These machines use a combination of electricity and mechanical components, such as relays, motors, and scoring wheels. The machines don’t use microprocessors and other modern electronic devices like the Solid State machines do. Typically, an EM machine has a much simpler playfield and uses simple bells and chimes for sounds. Electro-Mechanical pinball machines have a classic charm and are often enjoyable for people who are mechanically inclined to work on because the functions of the machine are visible and adjustable. Search for EM pinball items.
Multi-ball: A pinball machine with a multi-ball mode is one that will have more than one ball on the playfield and in-play at some times. The multi-ball mode adds quite a bit of excitement to a machine and helps to get non-pinball players involved in the game (they will often go crazy when they see three or four balls out at once). Many late-model games have at least one multi-ball mode, some with six or more balls in action at once!
Playfield (also PF): The playfield is the surface under the glass where the ball rolls around while you’re playing a pinball game. The playfield is made from a high-quality piece of wood that is screen-printed to add the colorful graphics. The various “toys”, such as pop bumpers, slingshots, and ramps are affixed to the PF, thus forming the game the player will experience. Playfields vary widely in design, complexity, and color, so it will be one of the main factors influencing whether you like a particular game or not. Search for pinball playfield items.
Side art (also sideart): These are the graphics that are painted (silkscreened) on the side of the cabinet. Often, the sideart on many machines is faded on one side from being placed near a window. The sideart is difficult to touch-up if there are scratches or gouges in the cabinet, so be sure that you buy a machine with the side art in the condition that you can live with.
Solid State (also SS): A Solid-State pinball machine is one that uses electronic circuits to control the machine, track the score, and perform other necessary functions. These styles of machines became popular around 1978 as computer chips and transistors became more commonplace and affordable. Unlike the Electro-Mechanical machines, which use motors, gears, and clockwork type mechanisms, a SS machine has a microprocessor and memory mounted on circuit boards, similar to what you’d find in your computer. Typically, a Solid State pinball machine will be more reliable as there are fewer moving parts that need adjustment and maintenance.
Wide-body: This is a style of pinball machine which uses a cabinet that is wider than a typical machine. The added width allows the machine’s designer to include more toys and ramps. Wide-bodies are nearly always newer solid-state machines. A wide-body pinball machine is heavier than a normal machine and may be more difficult to fit through narrow doorways. Examples include Space Invaders (1980) and Twilight Zone (1993).
Woodrail: A woodrail pinball machine refers to machines manufactured prior to 1961 or so that used wood strips to secure the playfield glass rather than the metal rails used on later games. Also, the lockdown bar was made of wood on these games, making them a security problem for arcade owners. Woodrails were phased out in favor of metal side rails and lockdown-bars which are standard today. Search for woodrail pinball machines and parts.