Taming the Beast - Learn How to Play Bally’s Widebody Classic, Paragon

Taming the Beast - Learn How to Play Bally’s Widebody Classic, Paragon
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Published on
November 7, 2023
Updated on
November 7, 2023
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I’ll always be sentimental towards Paragon - it was the first pinball machine I ever played (given that I had one in my basement growing up), and got me started on my pinball addiction. So, imagine my excitement when I learned it’s an incredibly popular game. After all, when put next to other games of this era, Paragon stands out like no other. It’s not just because of its size - the game features spectacular art by the legendary Paul Faris, and one of the most incredible layouts to be put onto a solid state machine. It’s widely considered to be one of the greatest pinball machines ever made, as well as one of the most difficult.

About Paragon Pinball

Bally's Paragon pinball was released in 1979 and is Bally's first widebody game. It features four flippers, including a scissor flipper configuration on the right side of the playfield and a mini flipper on the upper left side.

This Paragon pinball tutorial covers everything you need to get started with the game and the best strategies you should focus on for a high score when playing at home, on location, or in a tournament.

Paragon Playfield Overview

A quick aside, first: this playfield overview isn’t going to be super comprehensive. Paragon’s challenge doesn’t come from the rules; it comes from the layout. While understanding the rules is important, if I were to cover every little detail with the playfield here, I’d have nothing left to cover in the tutorial. We’ll get to it, don’t worry!

Paragon is one of four “superwide” machines released by Bally during the 1970s - the other three being Space Invaders, Future Spa, and Embryon - and despite being considered a widebody game, it is truly much wider than most other widebodies out there. Keep this in mind as you play - it means that horizontal action is significantly deadlier on Paragon than on a normal-sized game, as there are many ways for the ball to get to the outlane without being interrupted by a post or wall.

Speaking of “significantly deadlier,” look at the outlanes - the right outlane’s entrance is much higher up than it is on most tables, meaning that the danger zone for outlanes is much higher than you might expect. The left outlane doesn’t even exist - instead, it’s replaced with an area called the “Beast’s Lair,” which is notoriously unforgiving. We’ll talk about how to survive the Beast later, but for now, it’s best not to challenge it.

Another contributor to this game’s difficulty comes from the infamous “scissor flipper” on the lower right side of the table. This was a common layout choice during this era - but in case you’re unfamiliar with it, there’s no guard rail underneath the upper right flipper. So, if the flippers are up, you can actually drain in between them. A “scissor drain” or “double flipper drain” is among the most agonizing drains you can experience. If you’re unfamiliar with this flipper layout, some general-purpose advice applies: don’t trap on the lower right, drop catches are better than live catches, keep the flippers down when you can, and be wary of spin on the ball. You’d be surprised how much the upper right flipper can mess with balls as they’re going to the lower right.

It’s tough to control the game on the right side, but it becomes pretty mandatory. There’s not much to aim for with the left flipper, but there’s a lot to aim for with the right; most notably, the “Valley of Demons” on the far left side is unequivocally the most important shot at the entire table. You can sometimes backhand this with the left flipper, but when it’s possible, it’s extremely difficult to do. There’s also a spinner, which is very valuable, but again, only really makeable from the right side. You should familiarize yourself with both of these shots from both flippers - you won’t always get to try for the flipper you want, as many shots made on Paragon will be on the fly.

There’s also a tiny little flipper just above the Beast’s Lair. There’s only really one “shot” to make with this flipper, and it’s this weird little arc in the upper right side of the table:

However, this shot is extremely difficult to make and is also possible from the lower left. Making shots with this upper flipper is generally inadvisable since you’re usually just going to shoot the ball straight into the right outlane. That’s not to say you should ignore this flipper, though: you can hold it up as balls roll down to divert balls to the right flippers, and you can also encourage balls to leave the Beast’s Lair with some quick flips.

Paragon has massive slingshots. Not only are these slings huge, but they’re also uneven: the right one is higher up and is angled further up than the left. This means that a bounce off the left sling into the right will typically put the ball very high up on the playfield, hopefully into the Valley of Demons and hopefully not into the Beast’s Lair.

The only other thing you should be immediately aware of is the Advance Bonus standup in the center of the table, just beneath the lower bumper. While it’s good for advancing your bonus, it’s much better at immediately ending your ball. There will come a time when you’re tempted to shoot for it since it’s an easy bonus advance. Resist that temptation - aiming for this target isn’t dangerous; it’s suicide.

I’d say that 150,000 points is a pretty commendable score on Paragon, but if it’s playing nasty, breaking 50,000 might prove difficult.

Abridged Tutorial

paragon abridged tutorial card

Control is hard to attain, but it goes a long way. Try to slow the ball down, and don’t panic if it’s not on the flipper so long as you can get it onto a flipper from wherever it is.

Bonus advances are your top priority. Nearly everything advances bonus, but the best advances come from the Valley of Demons, which also advances your bonus multiplier up to 5X.

  • Do not aim at the center standup for bonus advances.

At 20k, 30k, and 40k in bonus, you will lock in that bonus for the rest of the game. An advance from 19-20k on ball 1 is effectively worth 41,000 points in bonus.

  • Do not aim at the center standup for bonus advances.

If you have a super bonus early on, and nobody else does, you win. Try to get that 20k, especially since it’s the hardest to reach.

  • Do not aim at the center standup for bonus advances.

The upper left saucer - called Golden Cliffs - is worth 2k and increases by 2k each time you land in it. At 20k, this is one of the most valuable scoring opportunities at the table.

  • Bonus advances are your early priority, however. Golden Cliffs doesn’t award a bonus advance unless it’s at 20k, which reduces its value just slightly in the early game.

Spelling PARAGON is worth 50k and a special. It’s only really possible if the PARAGON letters aren’t set to “scan” (meaning the lights over the left saucer aren’t strobing all over the place), and it becomes extra valuable if the Valley of Demons targets are set to spot letters.

Max bonus is 245,000 points, which is pretty insane if you can pull it off, and it is likely to win you the game with a single collect. Be careful not to tilt!


Getting Control

you must have control

Paragon’s central challenge comes from controlling the game. This is not a given - it’s not unusual to see someone play an entire game without ever getting control. It’s not a very common occurrence, but knowing how to slow the ball down and get control right away will at least help you beat those who can’t.

The plunge puts the ball up top, where you’re likely to get some bumper visits or some shots into the saucers. From there, the ball can come down in so many different ways that it makes my head spin. Ideally, you can get control on either the upper right flipper or lower left flipper, which are the only places where you can trap up and catch your breath for a second. If the ball is moving too fast, don’t just flail it away. Try to put it somewhere that slows it down or ends up somewhere with a consistent feed that you can rely on.

If you’re mostly familiar with modern games, you might know about how many shots have consistent feeds (such as habitrails or kickouts), which make them very reliable as methods of regaining control. Paragon only has one relatively consistent feed (the Valley of Demons), so the only way to regain control is through fancy flipper work.

While you can’t always slow the ball down, if it’s moving fast, you need to slow it down. Just having a little bit of control can go a very, very long way in Paragon, so try and reduce the ball’s speed through some drop catches or some great live catches. Also, try to redefine your definition of “control” - just because the ball isn’t trapped on a flipper doesn’t mean you don’t have control of the ball. If its trajectory is predictable, or it’s in a spot you’ll be able to get control from, then you have control. Try your best not to panic - play calm and patiently. It will pay off, trust me.

Bonus Advances

bonus advances paragon

Paragon is a bonus game, meaning your end-of-ball bonus is the most valuable scoring opportunity available. Your primary goal is to focus on advancing your bonus and bonus multipliers. Unlike some of its contemporaries (such as Eight Ball Deluxe), there is no way to collect your bonus aside from ending your ball. This simplifies the strategy quite a bit, as you don’t need to think about when to collect, just how you can best advance it.

bonus advances paragon pinball

Nearly everything at the table advances your bonus, but not all advances are created equal. As mentioned before, the center standup is extremely deadly and should be avoided. The spinner is a great way to advance bonus as it’s likely to provide three or four advances on a good rip, but it does put the ball into the bumpers, which are unpredictable and can send the ball completely out of control. On the bright side, they do often send the ball into the upper Advance Bonus standup, as well as the two saucers up top, which can be absurdly valuable if you visit them enough. 

That said, the bumpers are unpredictable and can send the ball completely out of control. The best way to advance bonus, in my opinion, is at the Valley of Demons inline drops. These usually award one advance per target but can award two (or zero, depending on how the game is set). Most importantly, it’s the safest shot at the table. We’ll go over that very soon. In any case, each bonus advance is worth 1,000 points, as indicated by the inserts in the center of the table. More important than getting bonus advances, though, is reaching...

Super Bonus

super bonus paragon pinball

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, Super Bonus refers to a bonus value that you will hold for the remainder of the game. Paragon features three Super Bonus thresholds at 20k, 30k, and 40k. This means that if you reach 20k in bonus, you’ll start each ball with 20k in bonus for the rest of the game. The advantage of having a super bonus is extremely significant: a player with any super bonus is almost guaranteed to beat a player who has no super bonus.

That 20k super bonus is especially important, as it’s the hardest to reach of the three and makes it significantly easier to get the next two tiers of super bonus (as the 30k is only 10 advances away instead of 19). I’ll say it again: you might have 19k in bonus on the first ball and have a trap lined up to pick off that standup in the middle. Resist the temptation to shoot that standup. There are better ways to advance your bonus.

As with all super bonus games, the earlier it is, the more valuable the Super Bonus will be. Make no mistake, collecting a huge bonus on ball three is pretty significant anyway. But, on ball one, the advance to 19k is worth 1k, and the advance to 20k is effectively worth 41k. On ball three, those two advances will be worth the same amount. This doesn’t devalue the bonus, but it means that if there are other larger scoring opportunities available, they should become a bit more enticing.

Given how valuable bonus can be, you absolutely do not want to tilt this game if your bonus is decent. The good news is that it’s a game that is very susceptible to gentle nudges, so you won’t need to shake the game too much. Besides, it’s a very large, heavy, and sturdy game, so it’s tough to shake around very much anyway.

The bonus value maxes at 49,000 points, and with a 5X bonus multiplier, you’re looking to collect a whopping 245,000 points. As mentioned above, most Paragon games tend to score in the five-digit range, so being able to score a quarter million is pretty significant. It’s also unbelievably hard to pull off, so good luck.

Navigating The Valley Of Demons

valley of the demons paragon

The Valley of Demons is where you can grab your bonus multipliers. If you’re familiar with Eight Ball Deluxe or Harlem Globetrotters, Paragon has a similar rule where the further back the inline drop is, the higher your multiplier will get. This shouldn't be surprising at this point, but Paragon is much more difficult, as the first multiplier isn’t available until the third drop target. 

Knocking down three targets in this series will grant you a 2X bonus multiplier. Getting all four gets you a 3X bonus, and hitting the saucer in the back gives you a 5X bonus (reminder: it’s not a bonus collect). Moreover, each target is usually worth a bonus advance. They can also be set to be significantly more valuable and award two bonus advances and/or letters in PARAGON (which we’ll go over later). Even if the value is just a single advance, getting dialed in on the Valley is where it’s at.

hold that flipper up in paragon

The first step is to get comfortable hitting the Valley of Demons from either right flipper. Once you find out where it is, start figuring out how it returns. I usually find myself using the upper left flipper as a diverter. Don’t flip with it. Instead, hold it up as the ball comes out. This keeps the ball off the top of the left sling and returns it to the right flippers most of the time. Try to catch with a drop catch. Best case scenario, you get the ball to stop right away and can plug another inline drop on the fly. If you get into a rhythm, you can clear this bank in no time.

Be warned that this is a Bally game, complete with Bally targets. Bally targets are notorious for bricking (i.e., not going down) on hard, dead-center shots. They’ll usually drop to gentle touches, semi-firm shots, or off-angle shots, but if you nail one dead center, it’ll often stay up. When this happens, the ball tends to come back much faster than you’d expect, so stay on your guard for that. Granted, you should prepare for returns of any speed. I’ve played Paragons where the ball comes to a dead stop, and I’ve played Paragons where the ball comes screaming back at you. Prepare yourself for the latter.

Speaking of rejections, the saucer in the back is also notoriously difficult to hit. There’s a plastic piece in place that is supposed to prevent balls from flying past the saucer, but it's way too good at its job and will usually reject any firm shot. So, you have to lob it or shoot it gently instead. The first time you hit the saucer, you’ll get your 5X bonus. The second time you hit it, it’s worth an extra ball. If you play in competition, extra balls are seldom disabled on Paragon, and you can often play them for big points. Even if you can’t play them, and you just have to plunge them, Extra Balls are functionally worth your super bonus. So, don’t ignore them if they’re available!

Collecting the extra ball also resets the demons and lights the upper saucer for a special. If the drops are set to award bonus advances, this remains the safest way to advance your bonus at the table, as it’s the only method with a relatively consistent return to the flippers. Even though the spinner might seem more profitable, keeping control is much more valuable.

The Paragon Saucer

the paragon saucer

There are two saucers at the top of the game, located just above the pop bumpers. Both of these saucers are pretty valuable, but moreover, the ball ends up above them a lot. You plunge above the saucers, shots to that right lane shot put the ball into saucer range, and most trips to the bumpers (usually via the spinner) will put the ball into the saucers a couple of times. Before we get too in-depth with the value of these saucers, it’s important to know that you can nudge the ball up top. Note that each saucer is effectively in its own funnel, so the ball is very susceptible to gentle nudges up top. Take advantage of this and coax the ball around at every opportunity.

Let’s start with the right saucer, known as the Paragon saucer. This saucer will award a bonus advance plus one letter in P-A-R-A-G-O-N each time you land in it. Completing PARAGON will light the Paragon saucer for a special + 25,000 points, which is pretty nice, but it’s not something you should try for unless you’re already close to spelling it. As mentioned before, the Valley of Demons can be set to spot PARAGON letters, which makes the word significantly easier to complete.

You might notice a second set of PARAGON inserts above the saucer, where the lit one indicates the next letter you’ll collect. The game can be set so that the letters are constantly strobing around, meaning the letter you get is effectively random. If it is set this way, then you can ignore letters altogether since whether or not you actually spell PARAGON becomes pretty much a roll of the dice.

Golden Cliffs

golden cliffs paragon pinball

Okay, now let’s look at the left saucer called “Golden Cliffs.” This saucer is worth 2,000 points at the start of the game, a value which increases by 2,000 points each time you land in it. Plus, it plays a nice little tune, which gets longer with each shot! The saucer maxes out at 20,000 points, and the value carries over from ball to ball. The big downside is that Golden Cliffs is not worth a bonus advance unless the value is at 20k. While 2k isn’t very exciting, once this saucer starts to be worth 10k or so, it suddenly becomes one of the most valuable opportunities at the table.

Make no mistake: bonus advances are still the way to go early on. But with some careful nudging, a day trip to Golden Cliffs can quickly evolve into an extended vacation which is not only worth immediate value but will establish a very high-value shot for the rest of the game. I’d argue that Golden Cliffs is the better of the two saucers to go after since the potential payoff is much, MUCH higher.

So, try to coax the ball into Golden Cliffs instead of the Paragon saucer. This doesn’t mean the Paragon saucer isn’t valuable - it is worth a bonus advance, after all - but it’s less valuable than the Cliffs are. Granted, there’s some subjectivity there. Golden Cliffs has the higher potential; Paragon has the higher immediate value.

3-Bank & The Waterfall

3 bank and the waterfall paragon

There is another set of drops on the right side of the table, this one being a three-bank of drops, which increases in value with each completion. The value starts at 10,000 points and increases up to be worth a special. While I was just talking about how nice getting a 20k saucer is, these targets - even when they’re worth 20 or 25k - are not worth aiming for deliberately. They’re fine, but they put the ball out of control and often arc them toward the Beast’s Lair, which is extremely dangerous.

Speaking of dangerous, we also have the Waterfall. This is sometimes known as a “chicane lane,” as it makes the ball go all wiggly as it flows down the stream. The waterfall is always worth one bonus advance but is also worth its own Waterfall Value, which starts at 5,000 points and increases each time you clear the three-bank. While the three-bank value holds over from ball to ball, the waterfall value does not, and like the three-bank, the waterfall is not worth aiming for deliberately.

The most important thing to know about the waterfall is how it returns the ball to you. Balls will often find their way into the waterfall off of bounces from the upper right pop bumper, and the waterfall’s exit point varies wildly. You need to get comfortable with how it returns as soon as possible, as it can send the ball into various places. It can go to any of the flippers, into either slingshot or even straight down the middle. Plus, it can change from trip to trip, as the speed of the ball affects the angle it comes out of. So, be on your guard at all times.

Playfield Nuance

The above pretty much encompasses the entirety of Paragon’s ruleset. Advance your bonus to reach those super bonuses, either through the spinner or through the Valley of Demons, increase your bonus X, collect PARAGON when lit, and build up Golden Cliffs. It’s not a complicated game by any means, so hopefully, you completely understand the rules by this point.

That said, the game's difficulty primarily comes from its absurdly difficult layout. While everything above will help you know what you should be aiming for, the following will focus on how to navigate, nudge, and dodge your way through the difficult pits of this game’s layout. If you’re only here for the rules, then we’ve covered it all. But if you want to bring Paragon to its knees, read on for some layout advice.

Surviving the Beast

the beast's lair paragon pinball

There’s a lot of nuance to this area, as simple as it may seem. I’ll try to summarize it, but remember that it’s complicated and very difficult to survive.

First off, understand that the Beast is very hard to beat. While there’s no real reason to deliberately put yourself into the Lair, you should avoid any angle that could put you into that area. If a ball is bouncing over the top of the left sling, you want the ball to go out to the right, not into the bumper, with the hopes of it bouncing out.

The truth is, there’s not much you can do about being here. The best thing to do is to try and induce rightward and upward motion through the use of the bumpers and crossing your fingers that you manage to escape, either through the “escape passage” that leads to the left flipper or through the entryway above the sling. If the ball is just slightly into the escape passage, use your best judgment in trying to coax it through the whole way - you don’t want a ball to dribble down into the drain.

There’s also the weird rubber post that juts out a little bit. Try to give the game a little bump to help the ball bounce off of this and into the escape passage. It’s common for a ball to come to a dead stop here, in which case you’ll need a firmer shake. Just be careful you don’t bounce the ball into the bumper, as that’ll kick the ball straight down.

The upper left flipper is your best weapon for avoiding entry into the lair. Hold it up for balls rolling out of the Valley of Demons, and flip whenever the ball’s high enough in hopes that you’ll get just a piece of it. I really can’t stress this enough: that flipper is really good at moving the ball around, even off of the tiniest of touches. Speaking of flipper tips...

Playing “Tips”

These kinds of Bally flippers are my favorites to play with. They’re so thick and give you so much more control than you’d ever expect. The tips of these flippers are so wide that they come into play very, very often. As mentioned just a couple of seconds ago, the upper left flipper can really affect the ball even with just a teeny bit of touch. The same goes for all three of the lower flippers.

Because the flippers are so wide, even if you manage to get just a piece of the ball when it’s bouncing around in the center, it’s significantly easier than it might look to save yourself from a center drain. Obviously, you never want to give up in precarious situations like this, but the most important aspect of survival on Paragon is to flip quickly. These flippers provide much more value when in motion than when they’re stationary, so it’s better to use quick taps instead of long holds in most cases. Plus, flipping quickly helps avoid those super debilitating scissor drains.

Speaking of the scissor flipper, you need to be aware about how the lower right flipper effectively has a rubber post at the back of it. This might seem obvious, but if you’re used to games with steel rails, balls will roll back up the flipper, then stop, and slowly roll back down. On Paragon, balls will bounce off the tip of the upper right and come screaming down the flipper. So, try and be fast on those flippers. Trapping on the upper right doesn’t have many unexpected spins or anything like that.

Going back to the flipper tips again, it’s very likely that your reflexes will prepare you for drop catches or shots from the lower right. Remember that if the upper right flipper is held up, the tip will influence the ball quite a bit. This is more of an argument for “quick flips over everything else,” but just holding up the flippers can be really dangerous, anyway.

I think that pretty much covers it. I mean, there’s a ton more to go over, but many of the weird little playfield quirks will vary from machine to machine. In any case, growing your appreciation for Paragon requires you to appreciate subtle playfield tricks and very fine flipper skills, and doing so will make you a better player all around. This is one of my favorite pinball machines of all time and one that I usually try to make my last game whenever I visit an arcade that has one. If you’re not a fan of it, try to play it slower and appreciate the subtleties a little bit. This game deserves all of the love it’s given, even if it deserves most of the frustration it gets, too. Good luck, and have fun!