When playing pinball in a tournament, the only goal is points. In match play, of course, you just want more points than your opponent(s). In qualifying, formats vary — some tournaments only reward the top 8 or 12 scores, so a high score is necessary. At PAPA, you can earn points for as low as 87th place on a game, but you qualify by playing well on all the games in one “run”. In PAPA qualifying, consistency is rewarded far more than a single high score.
A good tournament game has multiple strategies, so there are ways for players to “go for broke” or “play it safe”. Unfortunately, some games (even very popular and successful games) are terrible in tournaments because they reward a single strategy far more than any other. Then, of course, everyone just plays that one strategy… it’s boring to watch, boring to play, and the winner is the one willing to lather, rinse, and repeat more than their bored opponents.
Here are a few games where a single strategy can dominate, and what you should do to crush anyone who doesn’t do the exact same thing. I hope some of these are a little surprising.
Star Wars (Data East): Probably the most obvious one-hit wonder, Star Wars has a center ramp that scores 3 million at 3 ramps… then 8 million at 8 ramps… uh, then 33 million at 33 ramps. Even if the ramp didn’t also spot progress toward other game objectives, it’s an easy shot and hittable from either flipper. Don’t do anything else, except when multiball is lit for free on Ball 3. Many games fall into this “one shot all day” trap, such as Police Force and Hurricane.
Junkyard: The classic example of a one-hit wonder from PAPA qualifying. Players realized at PAPA 6 that the game’s video mode was repeatable, and worth an increasing number of points each time (500k… 1m… 1.5m… 2m… 20m…). In the end, this strategy dominated play on Junkyard, and the game dominated the qualifying table for the tournament’s A Division. Several players qualified for the finals entirely on their Junkyard score. Judge Dredd has a similar exploit, with its left ramp worth the same scores, but there is enough points in the rest of the game that “left ramp all day” doesn’t really pay off without making 30 or 40 ramps.
Earthshaker: The center ramp is worth 50k to 100k per shot, plus 2 miles — no big deal, except at 99 miles every further ramp shot is 200k. If this ramp is easy enough, there’s no sense in playing for anything else. (Whirlwind has the same ramp points, but plenty more points available in its modes and multiballs, so the ramp strategy doesn’t dominate there.)
Theater of Magic: Many players don’t play its one-hit strategy: the left loop! Loop shots lead to bonus multipliers, and loop shots are part of the bonus! This can make each loop shot, by itself, worth 4 million per ball in bonus. Every 7 loops lights a 50m Hurry-Up at the trunk, but some players ignore it, especially if the loop shots are continuous, scoring COMBO points of 2m, 4m, 6m, 8m… with no limit until you miss. This strategy makes end-of-ball bonus overwhelming, so don’t tilt.
Revenge From Mars: A surprising strategy can dominate all others on this game: shoot the lock! Six shots start multiball, with three of them going to the bonus multiplier lanes. Then, during multiball… shoot the lock! Revenge’s multiball allows you to shoot any major shot, as long as you’re willing to wait for the saucer to reappear. So keep shooting the lock. It returns safely to the flipper for another lock shot, and you’re getting bonus multipliers (typically 1 million each, more on a long ball). Then when the Super Jackpot is lit… hm, maybe shoot the lock! This strategy works partially because multiball never gets any more difficult to start.
Cue Ball Wizard: Many games, including Cue Ball Wizard, have a set of modes with a “big mode” at the end. If the next mode lights up automatically when one ends, consider “timing out” the modes (trapping the ball and waiting) in order to get to the “big mode” more safely. In this game, it’s a 3-ball multiball where every target is 5 million. Would you rather advance toward that, or shoot that Rowdy Ramp for 2 million? Your choice! No Fear also falls deeply into this category, with 5 modes followed by 3 “big modes”, as does Roller Coaster Tycoon. These “timeout” games are especially boring to play in tournaments, but points is points.
Some other quick hits from recent PAPA qualifying:
- Corvette: combos, combos, combos, especially during multiball.
- Demolition Man: MTL lights “Claw”. Claw lights multiball. Another claw starts multiball.
- Paragon: drop targets = bonus + multiplier + extra ball.
- Spider-Man (Stern): Octopus all day.
- Elvira: Right ramp all day, although in tournament the Jackpot is big enough to go for.
- NBA (Stern): Right ramp all day. ALL DAY unless extra ball or special is lit. And those come from shooting the right ramp.
- Tales of the Arabian Nights: Shoot the bumpers. Make sure the “Harem” light is lit or it won’t go to the bumpers. When multiball begins… shoot the bumpers!
- Indy 500: Loops, loops, loops, especially the left loop to “turbo” combo.
I’m sure I’ve missed many good examples, so feel free to add your comments. The best tournament games don’t have single, exploitable strategies like these, and it’s one reason why you keep seeing the same rotation of games at PAPA.