Tournament Approaches: One-Hit Wonders

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.

– Bowen


  1. Joe
    January 10, 2010 at 2:48 am

    In default configuration, I’d count Shadow: Vengeance. 4 shots to start, 4 shots to complete (>100M if you did it cleanly) AND restart, and all the shots feed cleanly to the flippers. Oh, and you’re picking up bonus X while doing it, too. Simple “fix” is to adjust the Vengeance timer to the lowest possible value (which is something odd like 12 seconds). That “fix” doesn’t thwart a flawless shooter, but if you do miss a shot it’s hard to recover in time (whereas the default 30 second timer leaves plenty of opportunity to recover from a missed shot).

    If you’re putting RFM in this category, then AFM belongs there too. AFM jackpots aren’t as easy to collect, but you’re never more than 6 shots away from multiball.

  2. January 13, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    Great Stuff Bowen!! Nice site.. I will pump it up!!

  3. Bowen
    January 13, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Joe. I have to disagree with this choice for Shadow — it is too risky when playing a game for the first time, especially if the ball saver is shut off. Both ramps, especially the left one, are very dangerous to try and get used to the timing of the shots.

    Also, there are several other workable strategies. In a qualifying system where only the top few scores count, the best strategy (in my opinion) is the 2-Way Combo strategy of shooting the left loop, then shooting the side loop as many times as possible. The combo is 10 million the first time, then 13, 16, 19… There is no upper limit and the combo value carries over throughout the game. Also, once 20 left loops has been achieved (again, this carries over) “Super Loops” begins which adds another 20 million per left loop shot. I have used this strategy to get 2.6 billion on Shadow with no extra balls, on a competition-difficulty machine.

    And there are plenty of other choices, including playing the multiballs, playing Battlefield (this seems to be the strategy of choice for European players), and playing for the modes and the potential billion-scoring Final Battle. When Shadow first came out, I would have agreed with you that Vengeance is the way to go, but there are safer, more points-efficient strategies. Still, one thing that makes Shadow interesting in competition is this variety of choice, and players in the same match will make different choices that can all pay off.

    See the earlier article on AFM; I don’t disagree with you that much. RFM is a little more one-sided, because its multiball only requires the one shot while the increasing jackpots can pay as much as they do on AFM — at least on AFM you must make the tricky right ramp to proceed.

  4. artistic
    August 21, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    Is Theatre of Magic really an one hit-wonder game? For the first two regular multiballs, the center ramp collects Magic-letters, which are 1 million each in bonus before multipliers, and advances you towards the multiball which can be lucrative (although extremely tough to play), and it is a fairly easy shot to make.

    Does the left loop count as combo shot if the ball takes its time in the bumpers, or only when you shoot it past the rollovers to the back ramp? I always do a live catch when the ball exits the bumper area, and then shoot again for the left loop, but have never gotten a combo out of this.

    Shooting the Trunk sure is risky, though every illusion you start is worth 4 million in bonus. I don’t think its worth
    it, however, each right loop shot gives you one million bonus – twice as much as the left orbit, if we discount Theatre Hurry-Up and the possibility of the combos. And if the ball ends up on the left flipper, a post pass to line up left loop shot has its risks. You will also get two millions per Magicianship, so getting multiball and Midnight Madness also contribute a few points for the bonus.

    Tiger saw shot may be a bit risky, however, if the first Vanish-lock is at 3 hits, and the mode can potentially be lucrative, it seems worth it as well, at least for the first time.

  5. Bowen
    August 21, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    In tournament play, shooting the trunk is very dangerous, since you can easily lose the ball on a successful shot. I prefer to take “Start Illusion” at the beginning of a ball, as long as there is a ball saver, then use the illusions that support a target strategy. I tend only to shoot trunk when lit for Theater Hurry Up, since a successful shot returns to the flipper instead of being out of control.

    Your description of the left loop to bumpers is correct. More important to me is that it’s safe and easy to repeat.

    It is true that Theater of Magic is less of a one-hit wonder than some of the other games listed, but I primarily meant this as a guide for certain games where an extremely simple strategy can pay dividends. After playing the two “easy” multiballs from the center ramp, I feel there is no strategy that pays better risk-free points than left looping.

  6. john
    March 20, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    I just got a Revenge from Mars and it seems like the game’s big thing is to go for Attack Mars. I’m sure the multiball is the safest due to the ball coming back to the flipers like you mentioned but is continuing to go for the capture and multiball really the best option for big points? is it just more dangerous to go for the big points or are the points just not there in the same way as multiball?

  7. Chuck
    December 29, 2013 at 1:16 am

    More simple strategies.

    Rescue 911. Play multiball. learn that emergency room shot. once you have that down, you can pretty much choose your score. Abuse the insta-catch flippers. the right ramp is easy. the emergency room is NOT, it’s a very narrow shot, but if you have it down it’s by far the safest strategy.

    Medieval Madness. Peasant ramp over and over and over. try to pass it to the right flipper after the ramp shot. cash in a HUGE hurry up at the castle gate.

    Phantom of the opera. left ramp all day, if you can get it down.

    Back to the future. left ramp all day. on many machines this is easily doable. Multiball jackpots just don’t score enough to be worth the risk of tagging the drop targets.

    Dr. Dude. mixmaster all day, only stopping to catch the ray. Much safer then actually trying to hit that heart standup. use gift of gab shot to move the ball to the right flipper.

    STTNG: center ramp all day, if the game will let you loop it. if not, you may be able to pull off right ramp all day, if you can keep passing the ball back. if neither work, then shoot picard maneuvers all day. THat said final frontier is awfully tempting….

    Games where “one shot all day” isn’t as simple as it seems.

    Cue Ball Wizard. yes you can just shoot the ramp and time out the modes. But once you start pool ball mania, you have to shoot the drop targets. and it’s MUCH easier to get the half billion if you ignore normal multiball and manage to sink the rack to light the 8 ball before you start.

    Theater of magic. left loop all day is highly dependent on what happens when you try and loop. it is very repeatable, but often the ball will stay out of the bumpers, and you need it to go in there. that said, a well timed nudge can stop it from going all the way. also you have to be able to get the ball back out of those bumpers.

    Hurricane. you’d think this would be easy, but looping the center ramp all day is actually quite difficult. UNLESS some wacko put lightning flippers on your hurricane. then the shot suddenly aligns well and becomes a joke.

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