Star Trek: The Next Generation (Williams pinball machine, 1993)

Location: Littleton, Colorado.
Symptom: Left cannon/gun shooter wouldn’t find its home position.

This one had me stumped for a while.  If I executed the diagnostic test for the gun shooter, it found the home position normally, without fail.  Yet when powering up/booting the game, it just cycled back and forth.   I checked and adjusted everything associated with the home microswitch.  I finally concluded there had to be a bug in the firmware.

It turns out I was partially correct.  There is an optical sensor located at the front of the gun to sense when the ball is in position and ready to be fired.  If this sensor fails, the revision LX-3 firmware ignores the home switch, will not home the gun, and it gives an incorrect error message. This post helped steer me in the right direction.

I burned (programmed) a new game ROM with more recent LX-7 code.  In the revision history, there is mention of “Enhanced the broken gun launcher opto compensation.” I don’t know if it fixes the problem of the incorrect error message or not, because I went ahead and fixed the opto sensor problem.

To troubleshoot the opto sensor problem, I first checked the voltage across the IR transmitter located on the left side of the cannon. It was about 1.3 volts, and this normal. Next I checked the voltage across the phototransistor located on the right side of the cannon.  It was reading zero volts, with or without blocking the light beam.  A properly working sensors would have approximately 12 volts across it with the light beam blocked, and between 0 and 1 volt with the beam unblocked.

Next, I checked the continuity through the wires down to the first connector under the playfield.  It turned about both wires were bad.  I noticed that the shooter solenoid wires to the gun had previously been replaced as well. It is a common problem that flexing wires thousands of times will break them.  I suspect they are broken where they go through the playfield.

I ran two new wires from the phototransistor down to the connector and left the old wires in place. That fixed all of the problems.

ST:TNG is one of my favorite pinball machines in terms of theme execution.  The audio clips are great and integrate well into game play.

Twilight Zone Pinball Machine (Bally, 1993)

Location: Littleton/Denver, CO.
Symptoms:  Flipper problems, ROM checksum error, Proximity Sensor error.

I started with the ROM checksum error.  I re-seated the game ROM in U6 and the other socketed parts, with no improvement.  I programmed a new 27C040 with the game code (decided to try the 9.4H version) and replaced the ROM and the problem was solved.  I verified the code in the old ROM and there were several bits that had reverted back to 1, which was causing the checksum error. This probably caused the game to lock up occasionally, which was one of the complaints.

The proximity sensor senses when a normal metal ball is delivered to the shooter lane (as opposed to the Power Ball which is made of ceramic).  It was simply out of adjustment and not located close enough to the ball to sense it.

The flippers had the most problems.  Neither of the left flippers were working properly.  The top flipper was kicking out, but not holding and the bottom flipper was vibrating and buzzing and weak.  At first I thought the two problems were related and that there may have been a driver problem on the Fliptronic board.  But that wasn’t the case.

The upper flipper had a broken wire on the holding coil. I resoldered it the coil and it solved that problem.

Fliptronic I Flipper Button Opto Board

The lower flipper had a more difficult problem to find.  I hooked the oscilloscope up to the flipper driver output of the Fliptronic board.  It was rapidly pulsing off and on.  When I disconnected the flipper connector, the problem went away and there was steady power to the connector.  I checked the coil resistance and found no problems.  It turned out to be the flipper button opto board.

Normally when pressing the flipper button, the optical path opens and the phototransistor begins pulling the signal down to ground from 12 volts.  When the voltage falls below 5 volts, it triggers the flipper driver via the processor.  A good opto circuit will pull down to below 1 volt.  This was only pulling down to about 4.8 volts, which was too close to the threshold of 5 volts.  When the flipper engerized, the ground probably shifted a little causing the circuit to think the voltage had risen above 5 volts, thus shutting the flipper off. As soon as the flipper shut of, the voltage would fall back below 5 and energize the flipper again.  A vicious circle, which caused the output to pulse off and on very rapidly.

I tried cleaning the opto interrupter, but that didn’t help.  The opto interrupters for this board are no longer available (as far as I can tell).  The only option was to replace the board.  Great Lakes Modular offers a totally redesigned flipper button board that utilizes magnetic sensors instead of optical. The pinball machine owner opted to give it a try.  I ordered one and installed it.

The board needs to be adjusted once it’s installed.  The LEDs on the board really help this process.  However, to adjust it, you need to slide the magnet into different positions and I found it really sensitive.  Just a 1/16″ movement will cause it to go out of adjustment.  Great Lakes recommends taping the magnet after getting it adjusted.  I opted to glue it.  We’ll see how long it lasts. Once adjusted, it had the same feel and response as the right side flipper button.


Bram Stoker’s Dracula Pinball Machine (Williams 1993)

Location: Broomfield, Colorado.
Symptom: Error message indicating several switch rows shorted to ground.

The owner had checked the playfield and the coin door wiring, looking for any obvious shorts.  None were found.  I suspected there was a problem on the MPU board, where all of the columns and rows of the switch matrix connect.

Lower portion of the Williams MPU board (click for larger), U20 is just left of center. Note battery holder above it.

I disconnected all of the switch connectors from the MPU. With the pinball machine in the Switch Edges test routine, I took a couple of jumper leads and a diode and connected a Row 1 with Column 1.  Instead of seeing a single switch closure, the entire Row 1 lit up as being closed.  I repeated with a few of the other rows and got the same result.  This pointed to the column driver chip U20 (ULN2804).

To be sure, I checked the column outputs with my oscilloscope. Instead of seeing a signal pulsing from 12 volts to ground, I saw a signal pulsing from about 2 volts to ground.  I checked that there was 12 volts on the pullup resistors to make sure the PCB wasn’t damaged from leaky RAM batteries.  The 12 volts on the pullup resistor was fine.  I then checked the input to U20 to make sure the upstream chip was functioning correctly.

I replaced U20 with a socket because this is a common problem with these Williams MPU boards.  I then placed a new ULN2804 into the socket.  The board was retested in the machine and everything was fine.

Fast Draw, Gottlieb pinball machine

Location: Boulder, Colorado.
Symptoms: Pinball machine wouldn’t reset.

A machine not resetting is the most common problem with an electromechanical pinball machine.  In a way, it’s like a self-test, because a lot of things have to be working for the machine to reset.  The reset sequence is like a series of dominoes, one item affects the next item and so on.  If one item fails to reset, then the sequence is either halted, or more likely, gets stuck in a continuous reset cycle.

This Fast Draw had been not working for nearly 12 years.  And typically with an EM machine that hasn’t been used for years, it usually needs some contact cleaning, contact adjustment, and the steppers rebuilt.  This particular machine also had a broken wire associated with the reset relay.


Moulin Rouge, Williams Pinball Machine (1965)

Location: Aspen, Colorado.
Symptoms: A variety of things not working.

The Williams Moulin Rouge is an electro-mechanical (EM) pinball machine from the mid-1960’s.  The owner has owned this game for over 30 years.  However, the game hasn’t been used in over 8 years.

When I first opened the machine, I saw some disconnected wires dangling from the playfield.  These were associated with the left flipper.  I re-soldered these wires to their respective places.

In the backbox, there were a couple of steppers that were sticky and needed to be cleaned.  The ball count stepper and the match stepper.  Even if a pinball machine has been set for free-play, the match stepper is important to have working.  The match stepper is used continuously throughout a game and is triggered by various switches in the playfield.  In this case, it controls various playfield features that alternately illuminate.

The machine wouldn’t power up due to a broken in-line switch that had been placed on the line cord.  I replaced the line cord, which had been previously spliced and installed a better quality switch.  Originally these games didn’t have power switches.  To turn the game off, you kick the bottom of the machine, which trips a “kick-off” switch.  To turn the game on, you press the left flipper button.  Kicking the bottom of the machine is awkward, so I prefer an in-line cord switch.

Once the machine was powered up, it was in continuous reset mode.  This is not unexpected with an EM game that hasn’t been used for a while.  A game will get stuck in reset mode when something isn’t detected as being reset.  In this case, the score reels were not being reset.  They were sticky and not turning freely.  Also, there was a dirty contact that was preventing the “100” digit to not get the reset pulses.  Once the score reels were fixed up, the game would reset.

The next thing I noticed was that the outhole wouldn’t register a ball after the first ball. Therefore it wouldn’t give an end of ball score, wouldn’t advance the ball count stepper, and therefore wouldn’t eject the ball to the shooter lane.  After checking the schematic to see what else was in that circuit and manually tripping the outhole relay, I noticed the scoring motor wasn’t indexing to its home position after either a trigger of the outhole relay or the eject relay. It turned out to be a couple of dirty contacts on the score motor bank that were supposed to keep the score motor running until it was indexed.

Next up, there were many lamps not working.  This wasn’t because the bulbs were burned out, but because the sockets and the lamp bases had corrosion on them.

Next up, the right slingshot wasn’t working correctly.  As the slingshot arm would kick the ball, it would get hung up on the playfield plastic over it.  The plastic was warped. I placed washers under the plastic to raise it up high enough so it wouldn’t interfere with the slingshot.

I replaced all of the rubber pieces on the playfield.

The left flipper needed a new bushing and was missing its torsional return spring.  The right bushing was okay, but both will be replaced on a future visit.

All in all, this was pretty typical work for a pinball machine of this vintage and the years of non-use.  People always ask me for estimates on this kind of work.  It’s very difficult because you have to start fixing things to see what else doesn’t work.  But it’s almost always in the 3-6 hour range.

Golden Eye, Sega/Stern Pinball Machine (1994)

Location: Centennial, CO
Symptoms: Auto-launch ball shooter would not launch ball.  Lower playfield lights not working.

I opened the coin door on the pinball machine and immediately saw a coil dangling from the playfield.  It was the shooter coil and it was resting on the metal junction box.  It probably grounded out against the box causing the 50V supply fuse to blow.

The coil bracket had broken from the stresses and vibration of years of use.

The lower playfield general illumination lights were not working. I suspected a connection problem on the IO Power/Driver board.  I couldn’t find any problems with the connector. The lights started working momentarily on their own.  I could hear a faint buzzing that seemed to be emanating from the fuse.  I tapped the fuse and the buzzing would change. I removed the fuse and tested it.  It wasn’t blown, but there was a connection problem inside of it (more on fuses here).  I replaced it and the lights began working reliably.

Once the lights and the shooter coil were fixed, I played a test game and discovered a playfield ramp switch that was dangling with nothing holding it. I wasn’t able to locate any screws lying in the cabinet.  So I reattached it with a new screw.

Sharkey’s Shootout, Stern Pinball Machine (2000)

Location: Boulder, CO

Symptoms: Ball trough solenoid not working — ball not delivered to shooting lane.

For some reason, this past week I’ve gotten a lot of Stern/Sega pinball machine service calls, and all machines are roughly the same era.

I started a game and no ball was delivered to the shooting lane.  The Dot Matrix Display (DMD) indicated it was ball 1, so the computer thought the ball should have been there.  I checked the flippers and they weren’t working either.  At this point, I suspected a blown fuse.

The flippers, pop bumpers, vertical up-kickers, and ball trough solenoids all are “high current” solenoids and run on 50 volts DC.  I checked fuse F21 on the IO Power Driver board and it was blown.  F21 is a 3 amp slow-blow (time delay) fuse for the 50 volt power supply used on these high current solenoids.

Portion of control board showing F21 and power LEDs (click for full res).

A quick visual check of the various voltages can be made by looking at the bank of power LEDs.

I replaced the fuse and the solenoids began working again.  I did a coil test from the diagnostics menu to see if there were any problems that would have caused the fuse to blow.  I then tested all of the switches.  Not seeing any problems, I concluded it was simply what I call a “fatigued fuse”.

Fuse fatigue occurs if the current in the circuit exceeds the rated value of the fuse for a brief moment.  The F21 fuse is a MDL time delay type of fuse rated at 3 amps.  If 3 amps is passing through the fuse, it won’t blow.  If 4 amps is passing through it, it will blow within an hour. It can handle 6 amps (double) for up to 5 seconds before it blows.  So a fuse like this can handle spikes in current without blowing.  But if coil or a drive transistor shorts out, it will blow protecting the circuit.

During multi-ball, the flippers and bumpers can energize all at the same time causing current spikes much greater than 3 amps.  After years of this, the fuse filament gets weaker and eventually breaks, like a light bulb burning out.

Which fuse is blown? The center fuse. See text.

The fuse on the left sure looks suspect with it’s black residue.  This is a fuse that I took from a high powered coil circuit from a different machine.  It still works.  It still measures good on an ohm meter.  I doubled checked by putting exactly 3 amps through it with my bench power supply.  It’s what I would call “fatigued” and probably will blow in the near future.

The center fuse is blown, but it’s difficult to tell visually.  The fuse on the right is intermittent.  It works for 15 minutes then stops.  If you turn off the power, it will start working again.  It’s the most bizarre behavior I’ve ever seen in a fuse.  It had me thinking the loss of power was somewhere else.

When it comes to fuses in pinball machines, don’t trust your eyes or your meter.  But if the fuse looks like the one on the left, replace it anyway because it’s about to blow.


Star Pool, Williams Pinball Machine (1974)

Location: Broomfield, Colorado

Symptom: Not powering up, not working.

This pinball machine is located in a youth center in a church basement.  No one seemed to know much about it, other than it was probably donated. So it was unknown when it last worked.

Given the age of the machine, before powering it up, I checked the mechanical operation of all of the steppers and visually checked the contacts on the relays and score motor cams.  Several of the steppers were gummed up, but the rest were in good condition.  I rebuilt the steppers and fixed the left slingshot linkage which was binding.

We had to drill out the lock in the back box because no one had a key and we couldn’t find one in the machine.

Once all of the mechanical parts were working freely, I powered it up.  The machine would get stuck in continuous reset mode.  The reset cycle description in the manual was nearly incomprehensible.  So I was on my own.

I checked all of the obvious things, like the score reels resetting to zero, the ball count stepper unit, player count stepper unit, etc.  Everything was being reset and all reset switches were working.  The only weird thing was the credit stepper was stepping up to the maximum allowed credits during reset, when it should be subtracting 1 credit.

It occurred to me to check the coin switches, which I hadn’t checked earlier.  They were a mess.  I think someone thought they could get freeplay mode by bending all of the contacts together on both coin inputs.  Once I got the switch wires and contacts untangled, the machine would reset properly.

I bent the switch contacts on the credit unit to give free plays.

After that, there was still some minor tuning needed and got 98% of it working well.  I discovered a broken switch contact on the Spinner Advance Stepper (EOS). It was broken right at the insulator which prevented me from soldering another contact on.  I am currently researching a replacement switch or contact.

I will update when this is done.

Red & Teds Road Show, Williams Pinball Machine (1994)

Location: Broomfield, CO

Symptoms: Delivers too many balls to the shooter lane.

In this era of pinball machine, the ball trough is monitored by infra-red emitters (LEDs) and detectors (photo transistors).  The detectors are on one side of the trough, the emitters on the other side of the trough.  The game senses the ball when it breaks the beam of light between the two.

The owner had suspected faulty opto boards and had replaced them to no avail.

The test diagnostic (“switch edges”) showed that the Trough Jam opto was not working.  It said there was a trough jam all of the time, even when no balls were present.  This caused the firmware to think the ball was jammed and to try shooting it again into the shooter lane.

Switch Matrix (click for larger and clearer)

Even though the owner had replaced the opto boards, I wanted to start at the beginning and make sure it was working. I checked the signal at the collector of the photo transistor while the owner blocked the light in the trough.  When the light was allowed to hit the detector, the collector measured 12 volts (or close to it).   When the light was blocked, it measured near 0 volts.  This is correct.

Photo-transistor schematic; the red dot indicating the measurement point.

At this point, I thought it would be a good idea to check the other switches in the same row and column as the “Trough Jam” to see if there was a wiring or MPU problem in the switch matrix.  Several other switches in the row did not work.

We spent some time tracing the row wire through the various bundles, not an easy task when 40-50 wires are tie-wrapped together.  The row and column wires are daisy-chained from one switch to the next, zig-zagging across the playfield. We found it broken at the White Standup switch.

I re-soldered the wires to the switch and everything worked.

While the switch edges diagnostic was running, we discovered and unrelated intermittent switch.  We found it easily at one of the eddy current sensors because the LED on the sensor board would blink whenever the connection was lost.  One of the wires was pulling out of the connector.  I tie-wrapped the top of the connector to act as a strain relief and hopefully it will hold.

Counterforce Pinball Machine, Gottlieb

Location:  Highlands Ranch, Colorado

Symptom: No Sound

The owner of this machine had sent both the original CPU board and the Sound board to a pinball repair company located in Illinois.  The owner had found this company listed on E-bay.  He said neither board worked when he received them back.

The owner also had a after-market CPU board made by Ni-Wumpf installed in the game.  It operated without problem (although without sound). So we used Ni-Wumpf to figure out why the sound board wasn’t working.

After checking supply voltages, I traced the audio signal with my oscilloscope.  I could see the audio coming out of the sound generator chip and going into the audio amplifier chip.   But there was nothing coming out of the amp chip (LM380N).  I verified that the output circuit wasn’t shorted, so everything was pointing towards a bad LM380N.   I would need to need to take the board back to my office for repair.

Next, I turned my attention to the original Gottlieb Systems 80 CPU board. The fact that the Ni-Wumpf would work with the game, indicates the pinball machine itself was not the cause of the original CPU board not working.  The Illinois pinball repair company was blaming the slam-tilt circuit for the board not working.  We checked the slam-tilt wiring and it was not at fault.  In fact, someone had soldered the slam-tilt wires together so that it would never activate.  The symptom was that the game wouldn’t boot-up and would cycle the Tilt Relay about once per second. Searching the internet revealed that this is usually associated with a bad or corrupt ROM.

Obviously, neither board was fully tested before leaving the pinball repair company in Illinois.  Also, the ICs they replaced were sanded and painted.  In my opinion, no reputable repair service will do this.  I can’t even imagine why they do this.  The sanding can cause a huge build-up of static electricity, which will damage the chips.  I also noticed the sound board card edge connector was sanded.  We don’t know if the other repair company did this, but someone had sanded through the tin and nickel plating, which doesn’t oxidize very fast, down to the bare copper which oxidizes rapidly like a penny does.  Oxidation will cause the contacts to develop a high electrical resistance and cause lots of intermittent problems.  The best way to clean a circuit board edge connector is to use a pencil eraser and follow up with some denatured alcohol to remove any oil residues.

We didn’t do any further testing with the CPU board because the owner wants the other pinball repair company to make it right.

I brought the sound board back to my office.  I purchased an LM380N at JB Saunders in Boulder, and de-soldered the faulty chip and replaced it.  I connected a power supply to the board and with a signal generator, injected a signal into the input and verified the amplified signal was on the output.  The datasheet states the LM380 has a voltage gain of 50. 0.2V input was amplified to 10V on the output.

I shipped the board back to the owner.  Before reinstalling the sound board, I had him check to make sure there was no voltage on the speaker wire.  The presence of a voltage would indicated the speaker wire was shorted someplace and would probably damage the sound board.  He reinstalled the sound board and everything worked.