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Whatever Happened To Pinball?

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We drove through the street of Austin, and it was a part of town I didn’t recognize. Leaving our hotel, which was in the center of the commotion and driving a ways to this unknown place that I was told, “would be fun”, had every bit of my brain going on horror-movie mode. When we walk in my eyes get as big as saucers and all I can think is that I’m in heaven! Arcade Games as far as the eye can see, of course I search frantically for the Dance Dance Revolution game that is….OUT OF ORDER. My friend laughed at my face of disappointment and gives me a handful of tokens and I robotically follow further into the arcade. That is when I behold an eye-popping splash of lights, color and sound! Row upon, row of Pinball Machines from different films of my youth and current TV/film  lined the innards of the arcade.

I stood in front of one that was themed after the Batman Forever film, I put in 5o cents and pulled the ball release. I prayed I’d be decent…

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While I stood there huddled over the machine strategizing when to activate the flippers and trying to time it just right, the flood of memories and nostaglia came back. I remember pinball being an ever prevalent form of entertainment from my youth, and as if overnight, it just disappeared. These where fun pieces of gaming past time, what the heck happened to them? What happened to those days where random strangers would circle the coffin-shaped boxes, waiting to take their turns at achieving the highest of scores in a game of semi controlled chaos?

As I racked points and listened to random quotes from Batman Forever being spouted at me, I found it interesting to think that 40+ years in the past Pinball was illegal. This was due to the fact that it was seen as a game of chance, and so it was outlawed and treated with the same severity as alcohol by the federal government (Prohibition). So while Pinball was illegal to own or use in the U.S, Europe on the other hand was booming during that time (the Great Depression), and thusly the coin operated amusement game industry began. Pinball was a basic game of bumping and tilting a pin game to get a little metal ball to a high score goal area – a game of chance really. The flippers that many use to “strategize” in Pinball weren’t created and inserted into the game until 1947, which is  5 years after the bans on the game were implemented. It wouldn’t be until April of 1976 that Pinball would be legal once again in the U.S.

After that the Pinball industry was booming. What was once a basic version a plinko saw the addition of idiosyncratic features like flappers, bumpers, slingshots, rollovers, stationary targets, wire ramps, and mechanical toys. Pinball began to take inspiration from what was hitting big in popular culture (i.e: Happy Days, Superman, Flash Gordon and etc.) and games featuring more complex rules, digital sound effects, and speech.  Pinball continued to grow, and at one point, made more money than the entire movie industry.  That is until the video game industry began to pick up. The arcade parlor, which was once lined with Pinball games, by the late 1970’s going into the earlier 1980’s was infiltrated by video arcade games. Arcade goers were gravitating to the glow of arcade cabinets with games like Pac-Man, Centipede, and Galaga.

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The 90’s came and did, arguably, see some of the very best of the pinball era. A death rattle, really. Machines like Adams Family, Twilight Zone, and Theater of Magic – three of of the most technically advanced machines, with a number of gimmicks that made field of play the most unique and exciting. The Adams Family having The Thing Hand come and grab the ball. Theater of Magic having magnets to temporarily levitate the ball. And Twilight Zone which featured an actual working gumball machine among its many complexities. The latter machine, Twilight Zone, is currently the top-rated electronic pinball machine of all time on the Internet Pinball Machine Database. Here’s video explaining its features and gameplay:

It was also in the 90’s that Pinball began to make its descent, as video games officially took over the arcades. Players took to games like Mortal Kombat and Streetfighter over becoming the next pinball wizard. What was once seen as a rebellious game of skill began to fade into the background. But of course, looking at the arcade game industry as a whole, it has taken a big hit overall with the ever growing home console and computer gaming industry that has managed to evolve with everyone’s desire for quick satisfaction and online convenience/connectivity.

Additionally, Pinball players’ skills didn’t vary much from game to game. This was a problem for designers — they had to keep throwing more and more complex mechanisms to increase difficulty and keep wizards from scoring free game after free game (taking advantage over the low scores from inexperienced players and getting a free ball for being the new highscorer). And new players couldn’t get into the games because they were so difficult. That cut down on the numbers of people playing pinball. So the pinball companies weren’t getting much money from either experienced or inexperienced players, as they were playing for free or not playing at all, respectively.

As I move to another Pinball game, with a boost of confidence at my meager abilities, I make my way to the Tales of the Crypt pinball game. Only 5 folks are in my pinball row, all of them choosing their next descent towards nostalgia, it is intimate and thrilling to be engrossed in something that takes all your wits and concentration to master. An arcade like this one, was hard to come by, a mix of video games with a secret treasure trove of pinball stations were dying out as fast as Playstation, Xbox or Nintendo could crank out a new shiny console.

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Despite the staggering decline in pinball gaming, machines are still being made to promote current pop culture favorites such as:

and so many more are still being produced to this day to entice a new generation to pick up the game. Stern, the only company that has been manufacturing pinball machines continuously over the last decade actually has competition now.  Pinball smartphone apps and console games have sparked interest in the real thing. Here’s a video showcasing some of the bells and whistles of the newest machines:

Pinball interest is on the rise again but has yet to become the mainstay and bars as they once were. There are tournaments and festivals, aimed to bring fans young and old together for the simpleness of enjoying a past time and reminisce. Ask anyone actively involved in Pinball, and they will tell you that Pinball is alive and well, surging in popularity.

In this era of instant gratification and 2 min attention spans, millennials are constantly wanting to recapture the beauty and simple creativity of the past. But while it has affected certain industries that were dying out, vinyl and vintage clothing, it may or may not reach the Pinball gaming industry. Arcades have petered out and even though you find them, just as my friend from this hidden treasure and brought me to it, it is unlikely that we’ll see a resurgence of the past time in a local sense. If anything the convention or competition arena is where you will see the growth in the industry.

For more on Pinball, you can check out the Internet Pinball Database showing game lists and top rated machines. There’s also a fascinating documentary on Netflix called Special When Lit which is a thorough and earnest look at Pinballs rise and fall, as well as cast of odd characters and their devotion to Pinball. You can buy Pinball machines on Ebay, various 3rd party sites and forums, or sites like HomeLeisure Depot which list new and old machines and have finance options. Or, if you don’t want to drop $5-6000 on a machine, you can download recreations of the all time greatest pinball tables from The Pinball Arcade app.

Category: Featured, Nerd Culture

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