Pinball machines bring out the kid in all of us, hanging out in an arcade losing quarters and setting high scores. And the Classic Space era of LEGO sets appeals to so many of us who got our first LEGO sets back in the 70’s through 90’s. The Brothers Brick contributor Bre Burns hits it out of the nostalgia ballpark with a fully functional LEGO pinball machine called “Benny’s Spaceship Adventure.” She spent several months perfecting the design with over 15,000 LEGO bricks, including LEGO Mindstorms NXT programmable bricks to make sounds and count your high score.
Bre has kindly shared loads of details about her LEGO masterpiece, which stands over two and a half feet tall, exclusively with The Brothers Brick. Let’s pull back that ball launcher, flick those flippers, and learn more about this amazing LEGO creation!
But first, let’s take a look at the pinball machine in action as Bre shares its working features and tells us a little bit about the design process in our latest TBB video.
The complexity of creating a fully functional LEGO pinball machine is rather mind-boggling to those of us who work mostly with System bricks. What’s truly astounding is that Bre herself is new to Technic — Benny’s Spaceship Adventure is her first major LEGO Technic and Mindstorms project!
Bre tells us that the pinball machine incorporates three LEGO Mindstorms NXT “brain” bricks (one “mother” and two “subordinates”) connected to each other via Bluetooth. These NXT bricks control 9 NXT servo motors, 7 touch sensors, 2 color sensors, 2 light sensors, and 2 ultrasonic sensors.
In addition, the game includes 7 sets of LEGO PowerFunctions lights, at least 10 9-volt PowerFunctions single-bulb lights, a 9-volt double-bulb flashing light, 4 M motors, and 1 XL motor. Light-up features are further enhanced with a 9-volt fiber optics element.
The entire pinball machine can run on three or four PowerFunctions battery boxes, but can also be powered using an old 9-volt LEGO Trains speed regulator plugged into the wall.
Even the bouncing bumpers user LEGO rubber bands (more than 30), and the balls themselves are LEGO! Bre used several LEGO Mindstorms steel castor balls, of which one to four are on the table at any given point in time (depending on your luck and skill).
Bre tells us that she first came up with the idea for Benny’s Spaceship Adventure after Emerald City Comic-Con (ECCC) in March 2017, and spent the next few months building the first version, with a “mad dash” to finish it ahead of BrickCon in October. She unveiled the current version at this year’s ECCC in Seattle, just over a year after she began building. Overall, she spent between two hundred and three hundred hours to design, build, and program the pinball machine.
For those who played with Benny’s Spaceship Adventure at BrickCon last year, we asked Bre about the differences between the earlier version and the current version. How did the design and functionality improve? “At BrickCon, it wasn’t very functional due to programming bugs and limited strength in building connections that didn’t survive the drive to the Con,” Bre tells us. “At the time, removing the tabletop (or playfield) was the only way to get inside and fix things, which was really difficult.” But today, the machine includes lots of little doors and drawers to get inside and tweak or fix things, as well as much stronger connections to improve stability during gameplay and transportation for display.
Bre entered Benny’s Spaceship Adventure in a LEGO Technic contest called “Amazing Technic Machines,” and it’s no surprise to us that her amazing machine won! LEGO sent Bre several of the components she needed to finalize her creation, including the parts she used to build the movement feature with Benny’s Spaceship on top of the rear panel.
We asked Bre what she learned from displaying her final version at ECCC in March. “At ECC I realized,” she says, “That, like most real pinball pinball machines, leveling issues, realignments, and periodic breakdowns needed to be addressed, but I was able to achieve my goal of giving a couple hundred people the opportunity to play it.”
Resources, software, & tools
But before LEGO sent Bre a whole bunch of free brick, she had to gather most of the rest of the 15,000 parts. How did she do that? First, she planned sketched everything out on pen and paper to help estimate what she would need. Next, she turned to LEGO Digital Designer, but that turned out to be rather inefficient, “due to the need to see all the physics in action.” Nevertheless, she designed some of the side panel artwork digitally before she began sourcing various parts from the LEGO Store Pick-a-Brick wall (“at least 20-25 cups”), BrickLink, and eBay.
The mosaic parts were created by overlaying a digital LEGO grid, created by a computer program that Bre’s fiancée uses at work, onto images. The program was then used to place digital bricks into the images to get the right looks and part-counts. Printouts were used as blueprints.
We wondered how she managed the cost of purchasing multiple NXT bricks. “I began purchasing the robotic components on eBay,” she says,”And kept with NXT because I couldn’t afford multiple EV3s.” Bre then used the LEGO NXT-G software to program the bricks, learning as she built by watching LEGO Mindstorms tutorials on YouTube. Here’s a bit of the program Bre built to run her pinball machine.
This early version of a flow diagram illustrates just how complex the interactions are between the sensors and other input devices, the Mindstorms NXT “brain” bricks, and the various motors and other output components.
Challenges & obstacles
Bre set herself a particularly challenging goal — use only official LEGO products. What impact did that constraint have on the process? “No gluing, screwing, fabrication, or modification of any of the parts, including balls, rubber bands, and even the use of the LEGO NXT-G software instead of another programming platform.” We watched Bre build and rebuild her pinball machine during BrickCon and ECCC, and continue to be impressed with how committed she has been to this goal!
She also tried to build the table itself as close as possible to a 6.5-degree standard pinball grade.
How the heck do you move this from place to place without it falling to pieces?! “I get asked a lot about this,” Bre tells us. “The machine sits on a custom piece of plywood and is moved as a whole unit. It can technically be broken down by taking off the tabletop (which is actually two parts), and sliding the faceplate (the Classic Space logo) through the top. But leaving these in place actually holds it together better, so I don’t take them off during transport. Honestly, it doesn’t transport well, because bumps eventually throw things out of alignment.”
Ultimately, Bre was fighting with the limits of the plastic medium and the laws of physics, which both proved the most challenging obstacles as the table flew apart repeatedly, hammered by steel balls in motion. But she persevered over nearly 14 months, with help from her fiancée Jessie, who designed the little control room and the platform for Benny’s moving spaceship, among other things. But LEGO is a global community, and Bre was able to collaborate not just with local friends and LEGO builders like fellow SEALUG members, but also people far away like Steve Hassenplug, who built one of the earliest LEGO pinball machines.
What is Bre the proudest of? “LEGO is meant to be played with,” Bre says, “And I wanted this to be an inspiration to young builders, so getting people to play it and seeing kids’ faces light up made all the difficulties totally worth it.” Her pinball machine is a wonderful marriage of functionality and aesthetics, with wonderful mosaics on the case surrounding an incredibly complex mechanical interior.
And what did Bre learn from this marriage of System, Technic, and Mindstorms? “Combining these elements is easier than some may think,” she says, “And that really enhances the build. I had only really used System until this point and learned how to incorporate Technic and Mindstorms by teaching myself from scratch. If I could do it, anyone can. It’s meant for kids, after all!”
Our thanks to Bre for sharing so much great information about her amazing Technic machine! See more photos in the gallery below…
Special thanks to Geoff Vlcek Photography for the onsite photographs from Emerald City Comic-Con (photos used with kind permission of the photographer).