Pop bumpers, jet bumpers, thumper bumpers – call them what you will: you’ll find them on machines of pretty much all ages. They certainly look good and photograph beautifully, and the 10 (or 100, or 1000) Points When Lit caps are iconic pinball images. (Hell, there’s even one on Pavlov Pinball’s logo).
But what are they actually for?
You can see the point in flippers, a part of the machine that’s so integral to the game that our cheese-eating cousins in Europe actually call pinball machines “flipper” machines.
And slingshots have an important job to do too: they keep the ball moving around in a random fashion in the upper reaches of the playfield to counter the skill of flipper shots.
But bumpers? They don’t really do anything, beyond generating negligible amounts of points, and keeping the ball busy for a few seconds.
In fact in plenty of games (AC-DC I’m looking at YOU) the ball gets stuck in the bumpers for what seems like hours at a time, making you stamp your feet in frustration. Why should you have to stand while your life slowly ticks away waiting for some bloody set of bumpers to deign to give you your ball back? Bastards.
There’s also a problem with what they represent. There’s a theme to every game, but it’s not clear what these strange mushrooms are meant to be. That’s especially true with licensed DMD-era machines: there’s a narrative to these games, a story, whatever you want to call it, based around the theme. But how do the bumpers fit into it?
In a contrived way, most of the time, that’s how. A quick look at the machines in Pavlov Towers says it all. There’s a couple of clever(ish) ways the bumpers have been fit in: In The Addams Family, the bumpers represent graves that you bounce around to raise the dead. Not bad. And in Whitewater the bumpers are boulders that your raft bounces around in the Boulder Garden. That also makes some sense.
But in TZ the bumpers are cars that honk when the ball hits them (or are the balls the cars, in which case what the hell are the bumpers?) No Good Gofers? The bumpers are some sort of weather related entity. Who knows what that means. Metallica? They’re drums. AC-DC? They make a car bump up and down most of the time.
Bumpers have also had an insidious effect on the video games industry, at least according to Chris DeLeon, a games developer and academic who wrote a Master’s thesis entitled Arcade-style game design: post-war pinball and the golden age of coin-op videogames.
Ever wondered what the hell early arcade game characters are doing collecting coins or rings, or fruit, (all worth pitifully few points) as they hurtle around the levels?
“These are outside the narrative of the game,” says DeLeon, “just as the case with bumpers in pinball.” He reckons they were perhaps brought into the arcade world by pinball turned arcade game designers, perhaps to provide additional “fun”.
Interestingly he also attributes the existence of the power pellets in Pac-Man, which when eaten allow Pac-Man to eat the ghosts that chase him, to the Special When Lit tradition of older pinball machines. “It’s a time when the relationship between elements in the game change,” he explains.
Perhaps I’m being unduly harsh on bumpers, but let’s face it, they ‘re really not that fun. And I don’t think I’m alone in thinking this – when was the last time you heard anyone saying the best part of any game was the bumpers?
In the end the only conclusion to draw is that bumpers are the Slovakian interns of the pinball playfield: if they weren’t so damn good looking then most people wouldn’t bother having them at all.