An increasingly popular modification to pinball machines is to convert the lighting system to LEDs. These machines typically have 100+ incandescent bulbs in them. In addition to burning out frequently, they consume quite a bit of power. Perhaps most concerning of all for a pinball machine, they make a lot of heat. It may not seem like a tiny 6.3VAC bulb could make much heat, but over long periods of time, they do cumulative damage. The bulbs are typically installed under something plastic, such as a toy on the play field, or so-called “inserts”. The latter are shaped plastic pieces pressed into precisely cut holes in the playfield. They indicate states and modes in the game, and give information to the player. Each one has a bulb underneath it. The top surface of these inserts needs to be perfectly flush, to prevent altering the course of the ball as it rolls over them. Over many years, the heat from the ball can cause the plastic insert to droop in the middle. It can also affect the glue holding them in place, which can cause the insert to shift proud of the surface by a small amount.
These are difficult problems to fix, so it’s much better to prevent them all by upgrading the lighting system to a much more efficient alternative- LEDs. In addition to using less power, they also make close to zero heat, and last much much longer than incandescent bulbs. Perhaps best of all, they look amazing. They make a clean, vivid, modern light that is much brighter. Particularly for a game with a modern high-tech theme like Johnny Mnemonic, the look can’t be beat (in my humble opinion).
Let’s take a look at what we’re starting with. Shown below is the original incandescent setup, in various common lighting conditions.
Impressive lighting for the day, but we can do so much better in the 21st century. Let’s get our hands dirty.
The first challenge is choosing and acquiring the bulbs. There are a lot of pinball LED makers around these days, and their product selections can be completely bewildering. It’s difficult to know where to start, particularly when it’s not even clear what type and count of bulbs you need. Furthermore, the LED bulbs come in many variations, colors, and flavors (take my word for it- do not eat LEDs).
It helps to know something about the problem we’re trying to solve. LEDs are not a drop-in replacement for incandescents. The main lighting circuits are low voltage AC (6.3VAC), and the flasher lamps are high voltage DC (20VDC). Neither of those are convenient for driving an LED. Furthermore, the games are developed around the lighting characteristics and performance of incandescent light. That means they use various dimming and pulsing effects that rely on the light decay characteristics of incandescent filaments. Any LED solution needs to mimic or accommodate all these properties. The voltage concerns are pretty solvable, but a couple of issues do arise:
With Dimming effects disabled, the flickering goes away. The loss of the dimming effects really isn’t very noticeable, honestly. I haven’t missed them at all. In fact, I wasn’t honestly aware such effects were taking place until I put in the LEDs.
The next thing to know is, what kinds of bulbs do these machines use? It boils down to a couple standard types. And I do mean “standard”. Most of these are automotive bulbs you can find in any auto parts store (which is a handy tip if you’re not planning to go LED- but then why are you reading this?).
In the above photo, left to right, we have:
You’ll note that all those LEDs are funky colors. This is where LEDs really shine, if you’ll pardon the pun. Namely, you can match the color of the light source to the element being lit up. If you have a red plastic dome over a red LED flasher lamp, the two work together to create a wonderfully intense color that you can’t get any other way. You can also create new colors by mismatching the LED to the plastic color. Interesting combinations are possible, but personally I’m a huge fan of matching the plastic color everywhere, and using white for general illumination.
So personally, I decided to go all-in and LED the entire machine. I opted for products from a company called Cointaker (caution- loud auto-play video at that link), who’s bulbs have a very good reputation. Even knowing everything I mentioned above, it’s daunting trying to know what bulbs to order. I opted to start with a Cointaker kit. These kits exist for a lot of machines, and come complete with location guides for every bulb. Very helpful! It’s unclear exactly what is included in a lot of these kits, but they are generally a good starting point. I found I needed to order a couple more bulbs here and there as I figured out what I would like, or wanted to experiment a bit. The standard Cointaker kit is great, though, as is their customer service. They are quick to respond with any concerns, questions, missing parts, etc. My apologies if this sounds like a sales pitch, but my experience with them has been excellent.
In this kit, a bulb is included for every play field insert, all flashers, all general illumination, the back box, and (quite unexpectedly) illuminated flipper buttons. A nice touch is that it even includes bulbs for the Launch Ball, Start, Extra Ball, and coin return buttons on the front of the machine.
I started with the play field insert lighting, because this is the easiest. The kit comes with a checklist of each bulb, the color, and its location. They do this by listing the bulbs in the same order they are listed in the game diagnostic menu. This means you simply run the bulb test mode, and go through each bulb one-by-one, replacing them as specified in the list. It made what could have been a very daunting process of figuring out where all these dozens of colors belong into a very easy task.
General illumination bulbs are a little more trouble. They were intended to be replaced from the top of the playfield. However, they are usually under plastics, and barely stick up enough to be grabbed with your fingers to twist them out. Removing plastics is a hassle (and you risk breaking them). Furthermore, the LEDs are shorter than the glass bulbs, so you can’t get purchase to install them from above through the thick wood of the play field.
Again, the Cointaker instructions to the rescue. They recommend removing GI lighting from below, using a nut driver. This is definitely good advice. Each socket is bolted to the wood with a single 1/4″ self-tapping screw, and it’s a simple matter to remove them, swap the bulb, and reinstall the socket. You do need to be careful not to strip out the wood when you do this, since wood isn’t a great medium for removing and reinstalling threaded fasteners. Be gentle, and don’t over-tighten them. Allow the screw to pull itself in and out. Don’t apply pressure downward.
The back box is entirely trivial- each bulb pops right out, and the new one pops right in. You don’t even have to put down your beer for this part.
Each game will have a few unique lighting peculiarities to deal with. Johnny has two that are noteworthy. First is the cybermatrix. This is a 9-position mechanical ball lock. Each of the positions is a button that the ball falls onto (when dropped from the glove). Each button is lit from below to indicate various game states. These bulbs are buried inside the assembly, requiring the removal of the whole thing. This is another great reason to do an LED conversion- some bulbs in these games are very difficult to reach, and LEDs mean probably never having to go through this again.
Removing the cybermatrix should be a simple matter of two nuts on the backboard, but that would be too easy for Blondihacks, right?
I ended up having to loosen the backboard, loosen all the plastic ramps, loosen some plastics, and generally do a lot of reverse Tetris-ing to get that cybermatrix off the play field. I wanted to make sure whomever comes after me didn’t have to go through that, so I set about fixing the issue.
With that resolved, it was a simple matter to swap the cybermatrix bulbs from underneath this assembly. Note that sometimes it takes multiple insertions to get a 555 LED bulb to work correctly. This is because of those delicate wire contacts I mentioned earlier. Also, some of them are polarized, and need to be tested, then flipped if they don’t work. Because of this, I connected the electrical on this matrix and ran the lighting tests before reinstalling the whole assembly on the play field. Once installed, these bulbs are completely inaccessible for any adjustments.
The moral is, always test each bulb with the machine on before reinstalling anything that makes the bulbs hard to get to. This is generally only an issue for the press-fit 555 bases. The other style (the base 44, twist-in kind) don’t have these concerns.
The second unique issue with Johnny is the bulb inside the lower jet bumper. It has to be removed from above, by removing the plastic cap on top of the bumper. However, to access the screws holding the cap, you have to remove two of the enormous plastic ramps that are in the way. These ramps are fragile and very difficult to replace, so I’ve opted to leave that bulb as an incandescent for now. I made a note to replace it the next time I have those ramps off for some other reason. It’s not worth risking damage to them for a bulb that you can’t really see anyway.
So, was it all worth it? Let’s check out the sparkle in Johnny’s eyes now.
I know there are lots of folks who prefer the original look of incandescents. For me though, there’s simply no contest. Even with the minor quirks of LEDs, they are such a huge improvement in the way the game looks and feels. Plus they’ll preserve the life of the plastics, some of which are nigh-on irreplaceable.
One last look, in case there’s any doubt. here’s a split view taken with about the same ambient lighting. LEDs on the right, old-fashioned glass toaster Edison things on the left.
Huzzah for science!