Tournament Approaches: Attack From Mars

Hey, what’s up.  This is the first of a quasi-irregular series on how to play Game X in a tournament.  One of my goals is to describe how and why playing a competition game is different from playing a normal game.  I’ve picked Attack From Mars, a well-known game where I feel tournament strategy is significantly different from arcade strategy.

Before you play: If possible, ask another player how the game is playing!  For Attack From Mars, critical information includes the feed from the Stroke of Luck, the feed from the right loop (and whether the ball hits or activates the sling), and the return from a botched lock ramp shot — this return sometimes sends the ball directly to the right outlane, and sometimes straight down the middle.  Also, if possible, watch another player on the game.  Specifically, find out if a ball saver is active or not, watch for tilt warnings, and try to get a sense for how the other player is “missing” their shots.  Does this player keep missing the lock ramp to the right?  That’s good information to improve your own play.

Know the sucker shots: Each game has shots that are valuable but lead to drains.  In arcade play, these are worth going for — they’re fun, they score points, and if the ball drains, no big deal, you can earn an extra ball.  In tournaments, these shots are death.  Outlanes are usually wider.  Tilts are tighter.  Required reaction time is faster.  Basically, if you think the ball may drain from a successful shot to something, don’t shoot it unless it is absolutely critical to success.  For Attack From Mars, this is the saucer.  Do not shoot for the saucer unless the ball saver is on, you are in multiball, the drop target is down, or you need exactly that many points to win a head-to-head match.  AFM doesn’t have other significant drain shots, but by the same argument, you should never shoot for the MARTIAN targets, even if there is only one left.  The reward does not justify the risk.

Getting started: A key concept when playing a game for the first time is to have some success with shotmaking, and ideally get to multiball.  In multiball, mistakes are penalized a lot less severely — unless you “double drain” the worst that can happen is you’re back in regular play.  So, my target when playing AFM is to get to the regular multiball as quickly as possible.  On plunges, if ball save is active, I go for Super Skill Shot (hold down left flipper) to try and open the saucer, otherwise make a regular plunge — bonus multipliers are actually pretty valuable on AFM, at least 5 million each.  Then, shoot only for the lock and possibly the right orbit (a wide, safe shot to the bumpers) with the goal of getting the ball fed to the right flipper for a lock shot.  By shooting consistently for the lock, confidence and accuracy on that shot increase quickly, and the lock shot is always very valuable on AFM.  Find out early, too, if you can “hop” the ball from the left flipper to the right from a lock feed, as this decreases the number of shots you need to make to get to multiball.

During multiball: Multiball is a time to get used to other shot locations — specifically, the right ramp, which tends to be very difficult to get used to, and punishes a missed shot.  I aim for the right ramp immediately, until it’s hit or until ball save shuts off.  Beyond that, play the normal strategy of trying for a Super Jackpot.  It’s not worth aiming for the saucer; probably a ball or two will bounce in there anyway.  Ideally you should get at least one Super Jackpot, since that will raise the value of the next multiball immensely.

After multiball: There are really only two strategies worth trying for on AFM in tournament: multiball and Total Annihilation.  Multiball is easier to get to (4 or 6 shots instead of 12) and awards about the same number of points.  If you got a Super Jackpot in your first multiball, I suggest continuing to play for the regular multiball for the rest of the game: the first cycle of jackpots and Super is worth 650 million, but the second cycle is worth 1,150 million, the third is 1,650 million, and the fourth and beyond are 2 billion each.  This is a lot of points!  If you are good at multiball this is really the way to go, I feel, especially if the “hop” is working.

If instead you are a better single-ball player I suggest going for Annihilation, specifically the 1 billion bonus for Hurry Ups.  To do this, shoot each of the four shots exactly twice before starting any Hurry-Up.  Additionally, do not shoot an Annihilation shot as Super Skill Shot unless it is the last one, since you are forfeiting the chance of going for the 1 billion bonus.  During Annihilation, shoot the orbits as much as possible.  It is only necessary to shoot the lock ramp once to collect the building Annihilation Jackpot, which has no maximum value.  So, ignore the lock ramp until there are two balls left in play, or unless the value is so large it can’t be ignored.  Shooting the orbits frequently doubles the value of the actual Annihilation shot through bumper and multiplier points, and Super Jets (3 million per bumper) almost always begins during an Annihilation.  Balls shot into the jets don’t come back for a while, which is a key strategy for multiball known as “parking a ball”.

Other advice: AFM is a game where you can easily lose track of your strategy, since all shots score decent points.  Success in tournaments is often about efficiency — you will miss shots, and you will drain.  So, you want every shot you take to be as valuable as possible.  A “Fleeing Bonus” of 10 million is not that shot.  A shot to the saucer is definitely not that shot.  Get control, and advance toward multiball or Annihilation.

Nudging is not as significant on AFM as on some other games, but there are a few things to consider.  One, the feed from the right orbit to the flippers often goes into the sling.  If this is happening, consider bumping the side of the machine high on the right side of the cabinet, which pushes the ball off the railing. Frequently this stops the ball from going into the sling.  Outlane saves on AFM are pretty difficult, and often involve banking the ball off the side wall.  Saving a ball off the side wall takes practice, but basically involves a quick shove toward the side wall as the ball hits the inlane/outlane divider.  This doesn’t come easy but can be a very satisfying save.

Score targets: If you need this many points… try…

  • Less than 200 million: saucers, or the orbits to light Hurry Up for 100m.  If plunging, make a normal plunge, which is typically worth more than 50 million between the Skill Shot award, the +5x multipliers, and the bumper points.
  • Less than a billion: regular multiball, unless you need only one or two shots for Annihilation.
  • 2 billion: regular multiball, unless Annihilation is close or at a raised value.
  • over 2 billion: relax, and play your normal strategy.

Don’t panic, and remember that the T in MARTIAN is not a jackpot!  I hope you found this helpful and let me know in comments what questions you have or what other games you’d like to see profiled.

– Bowen, former PAPA champion


  1. john pursglove
    December 28, 2009 at 11:26 pm

    Good article. Thanks for the tips, Bowen.

  2. Geri Richards
    December 29, 2009 at 12:10 am


    For a newbie like me, it helps to read articles like this.

    I may not grasp all of it without playing AFM directly afterwards, but some of it will sink in.

    Thanks for the post …

  3. Mats Runsten
    December 29, 2009 at 3:54 am

    Very nice initiative with this kind of article! A lot of players in the Stockholmpinball community will appreciate this.
    Do you get to wish? 🙂
    I really need stragegies for newer Stern games like Spiderman & 24.
    Keep it up!

  4. December 29, 2009 at 8:31 am

    This is an excellent post. I hope you are encouraged to do more analyses like this. While reading, I was able to see where I was going right, and also find the holes in my game play.

    By the way…

    “Saving a ball off the side wall takes practice, but basically involves a quick shove toward the side wall as the ball hits the inlane/outlane divider.”

    Does that mean if (for instance) the ball is near the right side divider, the best move is to shove from the left towards the right side wall or vice versa? I’ve wondered this on many games and it would be great to get a concrete answer to this physics-based question.



  5. Ron "TBK" Rezendes
    December 29, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    Thanks Bowen – great write up! Looking forward to the entire series! If I may request a specific title – Godzilla – it seems Jim Belsito’s Godzilla shows up at any tourney in CA and I would love the tourney strategy for a pin I only play twice a year! Thanks again!

    ~Ron R
    TBK=The Biggest Kid
    “Route-rat extraordinaire!”
    SD Pinball Club, OC Pinball League, RGP League

  6. Ed Z
    December 29, 2009 at 4:56 pm

    €œSaving a ball off the side wall takes practice, but basically involves a quick shove toward the side wall as the ball hits the inlane/outlane divider.€�

    Does that mean if (for instance) the ball is near the right side divider, the best move is to shove from the left towards the right side wall or vice versa? I’ve wondered this on many games and it would be great to get a concrete answer to this physics-based question.



    Sounds like he’s saying to try and get the most bounce off the rubber post (as possible) on a ball headed mostly down the outlane. The shove to the right is moving the rubber post into the path of the ball with hopes of enough force to ricochet off the side wall out of trouble (hopefully not down the middle).
    Ed Z

  7. artistic
    December 29, 2009 at 10:08 pm

    Very helpfull article, thanks!

    Now that we’re talking about tournaments, which games from the late eighties (or possibly even older) to early nineties are considered eligible for high level tournament play? By eligible, I mean not too high ball times, not too random awards, no stuff carrying between games etc..

    Whirlwind has appeared at PAPA A bank several times, F-14 Tomcat in Stockholm Open several times, and Fun house at various tournaments. Dr. Dude was at the last PAPA 11 A finals, how did it play? Or Taxi in this years finals?

    Here is a list of some machines, in no specific order, that I came up with. Would these be eligible?

    Dr. Dude
    Mousin’ Around
    Elvira and the Party Monsters
    The Party Zone
    Banzai Run

    As for a games I’d like to see profiled, definitely No Good Gofers.

  8. Jonny O
    December 29, 2009 at 11:22 pm

    Bowen, I look forward to seeing future articles. This is great!

    Any chance you could break down some tournament finals games?

  9. bowen
    December 31, 2009 at 12:26 am

    Replying to some comments.

    Olli from Finland reminded me about the newest software version of Attack From Mars, which makes the Stroke of Luck hole valuable again in tournament play. After multiball, the Stroke of Luck will award Video Mode and Strobe Multiball, as it would normally (in older tournament software, Stroke of Luck only awarded 50 million, making it useless). These are definitely worth cashing in, and another reason to play multiball. The Stroke of Luck shot is a safer “backhand” (from right flipper).

    As for saving off the side wall, the idea is to push when the ball hits the inlane/outlane divider, up and toward the wall — on the right side this would be a push up and to the right. This is one of the few ways to save a ball when the outlane is significantly wider than the inlane. When it’s done right the ball hits the divider, hits the side wall, comes back barely over the divider and to the inlane. This move is possible even on games where there is no rubber on the divider, and maybe the only way to save outlane-bound balls on some older games like Firepower or Blackout.

    Any game can be “eligible” for a tournament but it’s generally good to avoid games with repeatable, valuable shots. I would not choose to include Earthshaker, Party Zone, Banzai Run, or Hurricane for those reasons. Whirlwind tends to be a good choice even though it has a repeatable ramp shot, since the value of that shot doesn’t dominate other potential scoring.

    Thanks for the kind words and I’ll work on another of these as soon as I can.

  10. ZED
    January 12, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    I’ve been compiling my own list of tourney strategies, done slightly differently. Here are my categories of thought, plus my TAF list of ‘answers’:

    Other categories include ‘before you start’, which includes looking for where the powerball is on TZ before decide turn order.

    Ten Words or Less: Tour the Mansion. Greed Multiball. Multiball / Room combos.

    Things to Look For:

    (1) Swamp kick out. On many tourney machines, you can just hold up the right flipper and catch the ball kicking out of the swamp. If not, what do you do with the ball? Possibility of a stab catch of sorts, or bat ball towards thing ramp.

    (2) Chair kick out. Depending on speed and angle of kick out, you may just be able to hold up the left flipper and have the ball come to a stop. If not, options become:
    €¢ Dead pass €“ let ball hit left flipper, bounce to right side, catch on right flipper. A really good idea if the ball is coming out with speed. Possibly to be followed a post pass to left flipper.
    €¢ Drop catch €“ execute a drop a catch with left flipper. If the ball is coming out soft from the kick out, a good option to consider.

    (3) Bear Kick Ramp return. On some machines, the ball is coming very softly out of the bear kick ramp, and you can just hold up the right flipper and stop the ball, have it cradled, and then shoot for the chair.

    (4) Chair protector plate. Don’t get psyched out by it. If it is not there, definitely be willing to shoot for the chair from the right flipper.

    (5) Is the bear kicks ramp shootable from the right flipper? If so, less need to pass ball to left flipper to shoot ramp to relight chair, especially if you can catch the ball with the right flipper from the swamp kickout.

    (6) Question €“ does the machine in tourney mode kick out all locked balls at the end of the game? I think it does. Not that big of a deal either way.

    (7) Should you shoot the swamp from the upper left flipper? I’ve been toying with not, just holding up the upper left flipper to pass the ball to the left flipper. You definitely pass up on points on shooting the swamp, but reduce the risk of shooting the swamp. I guess it could depend on how good the swamp kickout is, or how much the swamp is worth, or how many points you need, or how hard the machine is as a whole (really hard machine, go for more short term points €“ may be a global statement that needs to be made).

    Best Opening Sequence: I still like skill shot €“ side ramp €“ swamp. A successful sequence is 2M (skill shot) + 1M (side ramp) + 5M (swamp, 5x 1M) = 8M points. But, really, it depends on the swamp kickout, plus how easy it is to hold up the upper right flipper and pass the ball.

    Other option is just a short plunge into the swamp.

    From either option, catch the ball on right flipper (if possible), then shoot the chair from right flipper. Catch the ball out of chair, shoot ramp, work on mansion…

    Most Common Strategies:
    Generally, there are two strategies for big points on TAF:

    (A) Tour the Mansion
    (B) Greed Multiball

    And a third, non competitive option with options (1) and (2):

    (C) Two ball multiballs

    Granted, there are some side options, but at the end of the day, those are the things you want to do.

    (1) (Mansion tours) €“ shoot chair (or near swamp entrance, close to flippers) to start a room. Either ramp lights the chair. Pop Bumpers change which room is lit. 15 ramps starts a room (except for the €œTour€� room (question mark)), as does 25, 35, 45, 55, 65, 75, 85, and 95.
    The €˜Tour’ room (question mark) does not have to be lit by a ramp.

    The tour itself €“ rooms run as they would normally in an order €“ after room n ends, room n+1 begins. Same order every time.
    It does NOT appear that if you have cousin hit already run that ball, that hitting the target during the Tour increases the value of hits from the first sequence. Since there is value in things past Séance, this is a great time to time out Séance.
    Tour also lights up special. And gives you 50 million points immediately. And lights an extra ball in non tourney games. And maxes out the graveyard pop bumpers (oh boy!)

    Rough order of rooms €“ mamushka, cousin it, séance, €˜treasure’, €˜dead’, thing mball start.

    If you survive the whole tour, the mansion rooms are locked out for the rest of the ball. If this occurs, you are probably in good shape, and can start working on greed multiball. Or maybe side ramps. Or bonus x’s. but probably greed mball.

    Note that if you’re on ball 3 with no rooms, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to try and go for tour. Shooting the chair when lit isn’t a bad idea, because, hey, rooms are worth stuff, esp 2 ball mballs having lots of point potential.

    (2) Greed Multiball

    Short description €“ shoot bookcase to spell GREED to light lock, get balls locked, shoot chair or vault to start 3 ball mball.

    Greed MBall notes:
    €¢ launching balls will spot a GREED letter
    €¢ tilting a ball on ball 1 (and maybe ball 2 as well) will spot a GREED letter
    €¢ side ramp worth more than train wreck, so shoot for it
    €¢ relight jackpot with €˜vault’ shot behind bookcase; when relit, only the ramp will be lit
    €¢ good 2 ball strategy €“ with a ball on each flipper, shoot from right flipper up thing ramp. Shoot side ramp from upper right flipper. Pass ball from left flipper to right flipper. Hold up upper left flipper to pass ball to left flipper. Shoot vault from left flipper. Pass from right flipper to left flipper. Catch ball out of swamp with right flipper. Repeat.

    Other things €“

    €¢ While The Power is on, cradling a ball for ~7 seconds can turn it off. Works great for mball starts!

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