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When it comes to pinball machines most people would go back into time and think of ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, however they’re far from forgotten. Plenty of hobbyists are determined to own one, even though the costs have skyrocketed in the recent years, ranging up to $20.000 for some of the classics like Indiana Jones, Addam’s Family and Attack From Mars amongst many others.

Major problem in rural areas and outside of United States is that the market is practically non-existent, and people generally don’t feel like dishing out that much money for an arcade game.

However we do live in a digital age, and as you would imagine there’s always a virtual solution for everything and as such we have got an option to go through the entire experience from the comfort of our homes with emulations. One of the most popular emulation at the time, named Visual Pinball requires of you to only download and play, simple as that.

This free software was first released in late 2010, and is regularly updated by diehard volunteers, who dedicate their spare time to build something exciting to all pinball lovers across the globe. The physics engine makes the ball move as realistically as possible, as it’s bouncing off flippers and other features. The visual representation of some classic versions require some hard work, making the job of building something like that quite a feat.

One of those volunteers is Philippe Castermans, who in his youth used to play on a roommate’s inherited Flash Gordon machine, trying to outdo each other’s high scores. The comfort of having a machine in your home is certainly something he didn’t take for granted and it sparked his interest in this unusual hobby. As years passed by there were less arcades in his home country of Netherlands, actually only two, one in Amsterdam, and the other in Rotterdam that he knew of, and he soon found out about Virtual Pinball Forums which were a solid alternative. Castermans lured the forums scouring for new tables to download before he started building them himself.

At first he started messing around with finished projects, editing some things in photoshop that he believed would do better justice to the original, before eventually using aesthetic-oriented mods. Black Knight 2000 was the first table he decided to build himself, one he poured countless hours in during college, since as it seems no one else wanted to build it. One of the things he wanted to improve was the speed at which the game played out, since over the years it got slower when he played it at the Dutch pinball museum.

Along with his basic knowledge of Unreal Engine, for this project Castermans had to learn how to use Blender, an open source 3D graphics program, which was a challenge since the program is much more complicated than anything else he used previously. Up until that point the project itself was going slow, but fortunately he got some pointers from other people on forums whose help was greatly appreciated. Tales of the Arabian Nights, White Water, and Diner are some of the projects he worked on after releasing Black Night 2000, although he claims that his pace is slow, releasing one pinball table a year.

The artworks for the tables are the most important part of the project, meaning he has to scan them in the best condition possible, which is why he’s mainly working on older tables which get restored, besides actually enjoying them personally. One of the perks as he notes is that nobody can tell him what to do next, everything he does is exactly the way he wants, and when he wants and that’s the beauty of having a hobby.

The Diner was his hardest project considering the artwork, it was in bad condition and only thing he could do is spent hours in Photoshop trying to recreate it the best he can.

While Visual Pinball is easy to set up at your PC, many on the forums like to build physical cabinets, with TVs mounted inside, that resemble their analog counterparts. Castermans cashed out 1.000 euros to build one of his own, and while using controls of a PC gamepad to simulate the tilt mechanism, he threw in some extra money for the original switches that are used on real tables to control the flippers. Albeit being proud of his digitalized work, Castermans mentions there are others who have mastered the craft better than him, one of those individuals is named Juan Pablo Salas, who is known in the community for the quality and the amount of tables he’s able to produce each year, having dozens under his belt. Salas is one of the people Castermans would gladly like to work on a project with, since he’s able to put together a table in a matter of days, and that alone is very impressive.

Salas in his native Spain grew up playing pinball during the early ‘70s, but evidently not as much as he would like to. In 2005  he discovered the forums which were a great way to catch up on all the years he didn’t have the luxury of playing pinball. Over a few months he thought himself how to use the programs, and made a version of classic Taxi, followed by Attack From Mars, which is adored in the community. 

In the recent years Salas has dedicated his craft towards preserving the memory of less known tables, some are so rare that majority of audience doesn’t even know of them. Besides taking regular requests for his projects, he also works on older projects like Space Patrol from 1978, and it’s so rare he could only find one image of the table on the internet to base his virtual creation on.

Newer pinball machines however are not usually recreated, since making them would be borderline illegal, and no one wants to get in trouble.

Castermans and others recreate the older versions which still walk a gray line, but they don’t lose much sleep over it, so far nobody had any problem with them recreating these old tables.

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