Black Pearl Pinball Review and Test
Five balls, from left to right: Gold, Power, Black, Standard, and Swirlie
Fashion pinballs seem to be all the rage these days. First came the PowerBall, then the gold pinballs. Now on the horizon appear two new contenders, black and black-silver 'swirlie' pinballs, both from Back Alley Creations.
A few weeks ago, Matt from Back Alley Creations contacted me about performing a durability test on their new "black" balls. While he says that Back Alley Creations has conducted their own durability tests on their balls, he was looking for some external validation that their balls would not wear in a manner similar to what was seen with the gold pinball tests. This page attempts to document the findings of that testing.
Since the gold ball testing showed that the magnet/flipper sweeping motion of RollerGames was much more harsh on the balls than Tee'd Off, I decided to only test balls in RollerGames this time. This was done to speed up the testing and also because it seemed to represent the worst case wear scenario. (And I'm getting really tired of playing games just to test ball longevity. I've put more than a few tens of billion points on my RollerGames during the combined testing, and I have to say it gets really old playing the same game so many times in a row!)
Back Alley Creations didn't want to reveal their method for creating the black pinballs for business reasons, and with the number of knock off products out there (such as the copying of PinLED designs), I can respect their reticence to divulge their process publicly. With no firm technical knowledge on how these balls were created, all one can do is speculate. Matt did let me know the process starts with regular pinballs, and that the balls aren't plated. That leaves very few options for creating a black ball, the most probable candidate being some sort of surface treatment. (That would also explain the existence of the swirlie ball to some degree.)
Appearance: The appearance of the balls would also seem to suggest some sort of surface treatment. Though it's not entirely apparent from the above photo, these balls are not completely black. They are however very dark, enough so that at first glance one would think they are indeed black. On closer examination the balls are simply very darkly tinted. If one could imagine several layers of window tinting applied to the front side of a mirror, then one would have a good idea what these balls look like.
Testing methodology: Five balls from the same run were used. Two balls were separated out and used as controls. The controls were placed into a plastic bag and never placed into play on any game at any time. The remaining balls were used as main play balls in RollerGames. Balls were pulled and photographed after ten games, twenty-five games, and fifty games.
Click on ANY picture to see a very high-resolution version of the same shot.
Weighing The Balls
First thing was to weigh the balls. For this test, I would turn the scale on, zero it, place balls on the scale, take a reading, remove balls, then turn the scale off. I repeated each measurement four times, then averaged them. The black balls average reading was 324.5 grams for four balls. (The scale was regularly vacillating between 324 and 325 grams.)
From the gold ball test, we know the average weight of four regular balls is 323 grams / 4 balls. Technically you could say these balls are 3/8ths of a gram heavier per ball, but that's really close to the limit of the scale's accuracy so I wouldn't worry too much about it. A difference in ball stock of my new balls versus the ones used for the darkening process could account for the slight variation.
After 10 games: Not a whole lot going on
Without flash on the left, with flash on the right. Hate to be anti-climactic, but there really wasn't much of anything going on with the black balls after ten games. A few perfunctory scrapes, but nothing major.
I need to mention that I made a mistake with these photos. I didn't use a new silver ball for the control but had grabbed one from a machine nearby. I correct this oversight in the next photos.
After 10 games: Lower flippers
The lower flippers on RollerGames after ten games. A bit of grime, about what I'd expect.
After 10 games: Upper flipper
The upper flipper (along with the magnet that causes all the trouble) had a similar amount of grime to the lower flippers.
After 25 games: Still holding up quite well
No flash on the left, flash on the right... A little bit of scratching as seen before, but not much difference between these shots and the ten games shots.
Note that the silver control ball is now correct.
After 25 games: Lower flippers
Getting dirtier, but within the range that I tend to see on this machine.
After 25 games: Upper flipper
After 50 games: They look worse than they are
Without flash on the left, with flash on the right.
After 50 games, the balls seemed to hold up quite well. Unlike the gold balls which appeared worse than the photographs would lead you to believe, the black balls look better than the pictures would have you believe. It's funny, looking at the pictures blown up on a large monitor they look like they have quite a few nick marks.
Yet as I'm writing this I'm holding these same balls in my hand and rolling them around, the unaided eye just doesn't see nearly as many defects as show up on the pictures. The oil from my fingertips is causing much more of a surface abnormality than the surface scratches, which I have to admit is just the same as with regular pinballs. (sigh)
After 50 games: Lower flippers
The lower flippers were dirty after fifty games, but not unreasonably so.
After 50 games: Upper flipper
Similarly, the upper flipper was dirty but not crazy dirty after fifty games.
After 50 games: Lower left flippers compared
I thought it would be fun to try and compare the flipper dirty-ness of the lower flippers from the gold ball and the black ball tests. I must state that The left image has been modified by photoshop to try and match the brightness of the right image.
Although similar, the 'gook' on the gold ball rubber seems to be more pronounced and has flecks of something on it. The black ball rubber has far fewer flecks embedded in it.
After 50 games: Upper right flippers compared <
Less of a difference on the upper flipper, but those flecks are still bothering me. Again, the left photograph was manipulated in photoshop to match the brightness of the right one.
Not much of a surprise here. When weighed after testing, the black balls vacillated between 324 and 325 g. Unlike the tested gold balls, there was no observable weight difference after fifty games.
The bottom line
From a longevity standpoint, I don't see an issue with the balls from Matchstick Creations. They seemed to hold up about equally as well as a regular steel ball for fifty (...long...) games. Looking at them while I'm writing this, the oil from my fingertips is far more pronounced than the surface scratches.
While I have said that gold balls should only be used for special occasions (since they wear out so quickly), I don't see any need to use that kind of a qualifier here. Certainly, a surface treated ball will not last as long as a solid steel ball. But it is my opinion that in home use (and unlike the gold balls), it's much more likely that you'll need to replace the ball from gouging or ball-to-ball impacts before the surface treatment wears out.
However, I do have to caution that since the balls are black, there are a few things one needs to keep in mind before purchasing:
- By the nature of these balls being black rather than silver, they are harder to see on a playfield than regular steel balls. It's pretty easy for an accomplished pinball player's brain to pick out a regular moving ball on the playfield; if you're a player you've trained your brain to do it. But a black ball is more like trying to track a shadow... it's not something the brain is accustomed to tracking. In essence, the player's brain has to compare the picture that it sees right now with what it saw just a moment ago, and the difference is where the ball is. This takes some getting used to, but for a good player isn't an overly difficult adjustment. However, it is an adjustment, so if you're rapidly switching between games with normal balls and a game with black balls (such as in a tournament), it can be jarring.
The game's GI lighting is going to be of critical importance. These balls would be a bad fit for older games such as Pharaoh or the original Black Knight, as these are dimly lit to begin with. A poorly lit game with a dark ball isn't going to be much fun to play, full stop. But on a newer or more brightly lit game (such as Pirates of the Caribbean), this shouldn't be an issue.
- If the game's GI lighting is below average (or if the game is a dark game like Swords of Fury), the amount of room light will play a factor. In other words, if the game doesn't send a lot of light towards the ball normally, the room lighting will have to compensate. If you have a dark game to begin with and play in the dark, you probably don't want to put these balls in your machine. (A dark game with a dark ball is not that much fun.)
Keeping those general guidelines in mind, if the black balls are your mod of choice I'd say go for it. They seem to wear near identically to regular steel balls, so if they fit your style I can see no reason not to use them.