What’s the point of pop bumpers?

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?

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Eye candy? Bumpers also come in threes and look gorgeous

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?

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Star Jet bumpers: they look sexy but where’s the connection with space travel?

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?

Chris Deleon

Chris DeLeon reckons bumpers live on in arcade games

“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.

Feature photo by BeerNotBombs
Sexy Peruvian Girls photo by Neo-Kat

7 Comments on What’s the point of pop bumpers?

  1. Just like you mentioned on a slingshot, they’re supposed to change\randomize direction of the ball.

  2. Maybe on newish DMD’s the bumpers have lost their purpose, but on early machines, particularly EMs, they’re vital.

    Typically the player launches a ball, usually through lanes, then the ball starts to dribble slowly down the playfield, but when the bumbers catch it: lots of fast movement, bells, noise, points racking up, and the important thing is the ball is now moving, at random, and moving fast. And the bumpers keep it moving fast, every time the player returns it to the top of the playfield.

    I bought a Time Machine cheap because the bumpers weren’t working. Very dull start to each new ball until I got the bumpers working. Then it was a whole new game.

  3. Pop bumpers or a bumper nest usually create a delay element in the game. For instance. You’ve just had an intense few seconds of shooting targets down in the bottom half and you need a small break so you shoot the ball up into the bumpers which gives you time to wipe your hands, take a drag of a cigarette or just breathe.

  4. Peter Duerden // 12th July 2014 at 11:40 am // Reply

    For me, pop bumpers are vital. They’re a quintessential, nay, iconic part of pinball. You may be correct in assessing them as less important on more modern games; sometimes they’re well hidden by overhead toys and wire forms. But I think it’s their unpredictability that has made them so enduring. Just when you think you’re in control a ball that ventures between the pops is suddenly hurled back and forth faster than you can see only to emerge where you least expected it – and often hurtling towards the nearest danger zone! Makes for exciting and varied gameplay!

  5. As mentioned above popbumpers originally were used to change the direction of the ball and randomize the ball movement. In the EM days they were also part of the game design as they could be activated for more points by rolling over a certain lane. The objective is simple: light the bumpers for a higher score.

    Originally pinball machines are coin-op devices which need to make the operator money. The quicker a player finishes his game, the quicker another player can have his turn. So the bumpers are there to shorten the ball time of the player, similar to why slingshots near the flippers are brought in.

    The random ball movement is sadly a bit lost element of what bumpers used to provide. Take a look on almost any pinball machine from the 90’s and up and you’ll see the bumpers are sort of in a closed area. Where on EM games a popbumper was able to send your ball into an outline, or drain it in between the flippers, that’s hardly possible anymore. Too bad, as pinball lost a lot of randomness due to that. Ball times increased, making the game less attractive for operators to operate. The lack of income is not completely to blame on the placing of the popbumpers, but it may be a factor to consider. Makes me wonder why Stern, who badly need operators to regain interest in pinball, is not placing popbumpers in a more open placing, allowing quicker drains that benefit the operator. Interestingly most players won’t feel cheated out of a game when draining due to a popbumper hit. Most are likely to think they can avoid draining that way the next time, which actually enhances the fun. Another reason to bring back openly placed popbumpers in pinball design.

  6. Actually, they are very helpful on many machines, when in multi-ball mode. Some machines actually become counter-productive in multi-ball mode! The playfield of X-Men is a good example of a horrible layout for extended multi-ball play time. The more balls in play at the same time, the quicker they all knock each other out of play. Bumpers can help one or two balls stay “distracted” momentarily, allowing for both skill shots to be made more accessible, as well as extended multi-ball play time action. Just saying…

  7. Dangolepinball // 9th December 2016 at 6:53 am // Reply

    Absolutely an active and interactable elememnt on many pinball machines. At least on older EM machines, popping the flippers strategically would give an extra boost to the pop bumpers. Additionally, if the tilt isn’t too aggressively set, a little push forward on the machine can bump up the ball, potentially into another element.

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