Forget Solitaire and Minesweeper. The best game ever included with Windows was a virtual pinball table. With blinking lights and arcade sounds, 3D Pinball for Windows seemed like magic back in 1995, and is surprisingly playable even today.
But don’t check your Start menu: Microsoft hasn’t included Space Cadet Pinball in any release since Windows XP, and unlike Microsoft Paint, it’s probably not going to see a Windows Store reboot anytime soon.
Why isn’t this game bundled with Windows anymore? And is there any way to bring it back yourself? Let’s take a little walk down memory lane, before we show you a way to rip this game from an official Microsoft download.
Why Pinball Was Dropped From Windows Vista
“3D Pinball for Windows – Space Cadet” is the most 90s Microsoft name possible. It’s unnecessarily long, includes the biggest buzzword in gaming circa 1995—3D!—and jams the words “for Windows” in there just to remind you which operating system you’re using. But despite the Extremely Microsoft Name, the game itself didn’t come from Redmond.
No, Microsoft commissioned Texas-based developer Cinematronics to build 3D Pinball, which was intended to show off the gaming capabilities of Windows 95 in a world where most PC developers were sticking with DOS.
Development of 3D Pinball was hectic, as this Daily Dot article outlines, but the team was able to pull it off. Microsoft included the game in “Microsoft Plus! for Windows 95,” a separate $50 CD that also included the precursor to Internet Explorer. The game was later bundled with Windows NT, ME, and 2000; Windows XP was the last version to include the game.
Why didn’t Windows Vista and later version of Windows come with Pinball? Because Microsoft engineers couldn’t port the game to the 64-bit architecture without things breaking. Microsoft employee Raymond Chen explains:
In particular, when you started the game, the ball would be delivered to the launcher, and then it would slowly fall towards the bottom of the screen, through the plunger, and out the bottom of the table. Games tended to be really short.
That sounds…not fun. And it proved nearly impossible to fix: the source code for the game was a decade old and not really documented. There wasn’t really anyone to call about the game, either: Cinematronics, which developed the game back in 1994, was bought by Maxis in 1996; Maxis was in turn bought by EA in 1997. All the developers of 3D Pinball had long since moved on.
So Chen made the call: 3D Pinball wasn’t included in the 64-bit version of Windows XP, or in any Windows version since. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get it running, if you really want to.
How to Install 3D Pinball on Newer Versions of Windows
Microsoft didn’t want to include a 32-bit game with 64-bit operating systems, which is understandable, but 3D Pinball still works perfectly fine on modern operating systems like Windows 10 thanks to reverse compatibility. There are iffy third party sites out there offering an unauthorized download of 3D Pinball, but we won’t be linking to them. Instead, as How-To Geek forum member Biswa points out, Microsoft does offer free downloads of Windows XP Mode, initially intended to provide reverse compatibility for Windows 7 users. 3D Pinball’s files are right inside, and we can get them running on Windows 10 with little fuss.
First, download Windows XP Mode from Microsoft. Note that you might have to scroll past a Surface ad to get to the actual download.
Save the file to your Downloads folder—it will be around 470MB. It will be called “WindowsXPMode_en-us.exe”.
Ensure that you can see file extensions, then change the “.exe” to “.zip”.
Head to the Sources folder, then open “XPM.”
Inside this archive we’ll find a file called “VirtualXPVHD,” which is a virtual hard drive with a complete Windows XP installation.
That’s right: we’re looking at an archive inside an archive inside and archive—it’s turtles all the way down. Open this archive and you’ll see the complete Windows XP file structure from back in the day.
Head to Program Files > Windows NT and you’ll find an entire folder called “Pinball.”
Drag that to your desktop, or wherever you want. You’ve now got Pinball on your Windows 10 system!
Alternative: Extract 3D Pinball from an Old Windows XP Disc
If you’re on a limited connection and don’t want to download XP mode, you can also find that 32-bit Windows XP CD you still have in a closet somewhere and rip the game directly from that.
To start, create a “Pinball” folder on your Windows 10 computer—for simplicity’s sake, I’m putting it in the top level of the C:\ partition, but you could put it anywhere.
Now insert the Windows XP CD and open up the Command prompt. Switch to your optical drive by entering its name; for me this meant typing
F:\ and hitting enter, but you’ll need to check which letter your optical drive is using. Next, type
cd I386 to change directories and press Enter.
Now we’re in the folder where the game lives—we just need to extract it. We’ll do this in stages, starting with all the of the files named “pinball”:
expand -r pinball*.* C:\pinball
This uses the “expand” command to extract every file starting with the word “pinball” over to the C:\pinball folder we made earlier (if you put your folder somewhere else, use that location instead.)
We’ll run a similar command for the sounds, fonts, and a picture of the table included for context:
expand -r sound*.wa_ C:\pinball expand -r font.da_ C:\pinball expand -r table.bm_ C:\pinball
Finally, we need to copy one more file:
copy wavemix.inf C:\pinball
When you’re done, head to the Pinball folder you created earlier: if everything worked, you should have 70 files.
Now go ahead and launch pinball.exe!
It’s that easy. You’ll probably want to move the folder somewhere else later, but at least you know it’s all working.
If you grew up with Windows but don’t use it today, don’t worry: you can run Windows software in Ubuntu with Wine, or on your Mac by using Wine on macOS. You’ll need to run the above steps on a Windows computer, but the resulting files run very well in Wine.