A while ago we wrote about setting up a MAME machine, which allows you to play faithfully emulated old arcade games on your computer. In an aside to that article, we mentioned that a similar program exists for the other arcade staple—pinball machines. Some pinball fans have written in, asking for more information, and because we love all arcade technology equally here at Maximum PC, we decided to do a quick writeup on how to get started playing classic pinball machines with Visual Pinball and PinMAME.
So you want to play some pinball, huh? There’s two programs you’ll need if you want to run your favorite arcade pinball machines at home: Visual Pinball and PinMAME.
Visual pinball is a physics simulation program that allows you to play original and recreation pinball tables. The tables’ geography, artwork and gameplay are rendered faithfully, and the physics engine delivers a top-notch pinball-playing experience. The latest release is version 9.0.3, although many tables still only work with version 8. It’s worth the upgrade, though, for the enhanced physics in version 9.
Visual Pinball is also a powerful editor for creating your own tables. The Visual Pinball community has used this editor to recreate most classic pinball tables.
PinMAME, as the name would suggest is the pinball analog to traditional MAME. Where MAME simulates the electronics inside of old arcade machines, PinMAME simulates the boards inside of pinball machines. This means that PinMAME is needed, in conjunction with Visual Pinball, to simulate more sophisticated pinball machines. Visual Pinball simulates the physics and the table, and PinMAME simulates the electronics inside, which most importantly run the LED scoreboard.
Both programs need to be installed, along with several other resource packs. Fortunately, this process is made a lot easier if you use the all-in-one installer provided at VPForums.org. VPForums.org is the primary hub for all things Visual Pinball on the web, so if you’re interested in this stuff, you should definitely give them a look.
Just download the VP Installer linked to above, and run it. It’ll first run the Visual Pinball installer, use the default settings, and at the end make sure that the Install VPinMAME box is checked before you press finish.
When the VPinMAME Installation program pops up, just click the Install button.
When the Installation program has no buttons grayed out, you’re ready to install some tables and launch Visual Pinball.
Although downloading pinball tables is subject to some of the same legal sketchiness as arcade machine ROMs, it’s generally not as much of an issue, since most of the companies involved have been defunct for a long time, or have given their explicit or implicit approval to the Visual Pinball community. As such, table recreations and ROMs are freely available for download at VPforums.org or at the sites of individual tablemakers, such as JPSalas.
You need two things to play most tables: a table (.vpt) file, and a ROM. Generally, both can be downloaded from the same site. For instance, to find a table on VPforums.org, just open the 4:3 Table Downloads menu, then click VPM Recreations under Visual Pinball 9. Then, to find its accompanying ROM, just click ROMs in the same menu, also under Visual Pinball 9.
Both files come zipped, but (and this is IMPORTANT) you need to unzip the table file, and ONLY the table file. Drop the UNZIPPED table file in the tables folder in your Visual Pinball directory, and the ZIPPED ROM in the roms folder in your pinMAME directory (itself a subfolder of the Visual Pinball directory).
Playing a Table
Once you’ve got everything in its right place, it’s time to launch Visual Pinball. When you run the executable, an empty editor window opens up. Choose File > Open and select one of the tables that you downloaded. Then, either click on Table > Play or click on the Play button in the editor toolset.
Once the game launches, the default controls are as follows:
5 – Insert Coin 1 – Start Enter – Pull back plunger Left or right shift – Left or right flipper Z or / - Left or right nudge
Here are three common solutions to problems you might encounter
Make sure that you’re running the right version of Visual Pinball
As with most software, Visual Pinball is constantly being updated with new features, bug fixes and graphical improvements. For small version changes (v9.0.2 -> v9.0.3 for instance) these updates won’t have too much effect on your pinballing experience, but the major updates (v8 ->v9) frequently introduce such dramatic changes that backward compatibility is lost with boards created for older versions of the software. In other words, if you’re using Visual Pinball version nine, make sure that you get tables designed for version nine. Most sites have separate download pages for version 8 and version 9 tables. If you really want to play those v8 boards, you just have to download the executable for Visual Pinball 8, rename it to VPinball_v8.exe and drop it into your Visual Pinball installation folder.
Disable Hardware Acceleration
If you’re having problems launching Visual Pinball, or getting error messages such as “Could not create offscreen surfaces” your graphics card (or lack thereof) might be the problem. If you’re running integrated graphics, or you happen to have an incompatible card, you need to disable hardware acceleration. To do this, open a table in Visual Pinball, click the Options button, and then uncheck the Hardware Graphic Rendering box on the right side in the Colors & Formatting menu. Of course, don’t do this if you don’t need to, as it’ll slow down your board rendering speeds.
Make sure your ROMs are zipped
This one’s easy: if you’re getting messages about bad ROM sets, or checking your ROMpath, go ahead and make sure that you’re putting the ROM files, still zipped, named as you downloaded them, into the roms folder in the pinMAME directory.