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Flipper Fantasy: Collecting Pinball Machines

Remember Those Classic Pinball Machines from Your Teen Years? Well, They're Still Out There, and They're for Sale
Terrence Fagan
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96

(continued from page 3)

Sharpe tells what happened next: "'Even down to this plunger,' I told them, 'there's skill. If I pull this back the right way, I should be able to send the ball into the middle slot.' I actually specified a lane, which, in retrospect, I probably should not have done. I pulled back the plunger, and wouldn't you know, boom boom, it went straight down where I had said [it would go]. These people kind of threw up their hands and said, 'All right. Enough. Fine, thanks.'"

The council reinstated pinball in New York City that summer and Chicago followed suit a few months later. (Los Angeles had legalized pinball in 1972.) After nearly 35 years, it had taken a Chicago native son to bring pinball home again.

At the same time, pinball was undergoing its own revolution. The mid-'70s saw the introduction of solid-state pinball machines. The numerous advantages of solid-state circuitry, with its ability to create sound and more sophisticated playfield action, increase machine memory, produce cost savings in design and construction and (usually) effect greater machine reliability, led to the twilight of pinball's 40 years of electromechanicals.

But the computer revolution was a two-edged sword. While pinball was going high-tech, the greatest threat in its history was invading arcades in the guise of digital space ships and dot-chomping circles. Video games had arrived.

The Pac-Mans, Space Invaders, Asteroids and other video games of the early '80s dealt a staggering blow to the pinball industry. Pinball creators fought back with increasingly innovative game designs, even borrowing concepts from video games, but to no avail. By 1984, pinball's 80 percent share of the amusements market had plummeted to 5 percent. To nonbelievers, the game seemed doomed to pop culture's scrap heap.

But, again, pinball came back. By 1992, players were feeding $2.5 billion into pinball games in the United States; overseas markets added $10 billion. (Sixty percent of the pinball production in the United States--the only nation making pinballs today--is exported.)

Filmmaker Houk offers his theories for the resurgence: "For a while, people had been in this virtual reality thing with video. Maybe people started to realize that pinball is reality; it's not virtual reality. The flipper smacks, the ball hits the glass, it goes around the thing; it's very physical, it's sexual, you're really getting into it, OK? Also, pinball fought back with multilevel games, dot matrix animation, more sophisticated voice sampling and playfield gimmickry that had never been seen before."

New York collector Hasse is one of many pinball aficionados who wasn't surprised by its comeback. "I love a quotation from [pinball designer] Harry Williams. Harry used to like to say, 'The ball is wild.' It's really true," the ad executive says. "There's nothing that is unexpected that can happen in a video game. It's all programmed. It's electronically predestined. There's ultimately predictability. And pinball is always unpredictable, because it's subject only to the laws of physics. There's no such thing as a preprogrammed ball. I think for that reason--the randomness, the unpredictability, the fact that each ball, each game will be subtly different than the one before--pinball will endure."

The past few years have been a mixed bag for pinball. The industry's four manufacturers--Williams Bally/Midway (an 800-pound gorilla, with a 70- to 80-percent market share), Premier Technology (which bought the Gottlieb name), Sega (which bought 1980s pinball maker Data East) and a video game-financed newcomer, Capcom, all based in the Chicago area--are experiencing a slump. Part of the reason is that they are victims of their own success. From a manufacturer's standpoint, the ideal pinball machine spends about a year in an "A" location, such as a high-profile arcade or amusement center, and then moves down the distribution chain--smaller arcades, bowling alleys, pizza parlors, convenience stores, bars, laundromats, airports and rest stops, finally ending in storage or the home market. But games such as Williams' Black Knight (1980), Pin.Bot (1986), Bride of Pin.Bot (1991) and Fun House (1990), with a taunting three-dimensional dummy on the playfield called Rudy, and Bally's Eight Ball Deluxe (1981), Elvira and the Party Monsters (1989) and Twilight Zone (1993) were such huge hits with players that the games lingered in locations far longer than manufacturers would have liked. They were flattered, but flattery doesn't sell new machines.

Perhaps the worst "offender" is Bally's 1992 hit The Addams Family. It has been voted the top-ranked pinball machine four years in a row and it set a flipper-era total production record of 22,000 machines. Based on the 1991 movie of the same name, the game features an electric chair, train wrecks, a haunted house and a clever script, with the voices of the film's stars, Raul Julia and Anjelica Houston.

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