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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 4)

"Addams Family is one of those enigmatic phenomena--the most successful, most honored pinball machine of all time," says Sharpe. "Obviously, Addams Familys that came out in '92 are still in active operation in most 'A' locations. You had something that had international notoriety--people remembered it from the [1960s] TV series or the old Charles Addams cartoons--brought to life in a pinball machine. You had some unique mechanical devices--Thing's hand coming out and reaching for the ball, "Thing Flips," which was an automatic flipper on the side of the cabinet where if you touched the button, if the ball came at the right time it would actually flip automatically for you. You had really solid game rules--there was a full chore-ography of events and activities from the logic of a pinball machine."

But most importantly, says Sharpe, "The guiding principle for a successful game in pinball design has always been: something that is easy to understand and difficult to master. If anything, The Addams Family resides as the quintessential example of that." Sharpe himself has designed about a dozen games. One of them, Sharpshooter, is on permanent display in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Sharpe is pictured on the backglass with his wire-rimmed glasses and walrus moustache, dressed in Western garb. "It's my homage to High Noon," he says with a laugh. "I play Gary Cooper's part."

A recent tour of the Williams factory in Chicago with Sharpe offered a glimpse of where pinball is headed. Workers were busily assembling the 3,000 parts of one of Williams' latest games, Johnny Mnemonic, based upon a William Gibson science fiction story about cyberspace that became a 1995 movie starring Keanu Reeves. The machine features a launch button in place of a plunger and a pair of magnetic "data gloves" that snatch up pinballs, which the player than moves to a "Cyber Matrix" magnetic ball lock. Line up three balls and they're launched into "multiball," where all three are in play simultaneously.

"We're fortunate to have 10 design teams here doing pinball," says Sharpe. (There are fewer than two dozen pinball game designers in the world.) "So we have probably the lion's share of pinball designers, not the least of which is Steve Kordek, a legend and a true patriarch of pinball, who has been in the business since 1937. He heads up pinball design here. He's a font of wisdom and knowledge who, as he says, works with these 'young kids,' guys in their 40s and 30s, and some in their 20s. It's nice to have that perspective."

Unlike the simpler days of game-a-month, two-man pinball teams in the 1950s and '60s, today's more complex machines take a crew of creators nine to 18 months--and about $1.5 million--from concept to released machine. "With today's team," says Sharpe, "you have a lead designer, a programmer who is going to create rules, a graphic artist who is going to make it look wonderful and a sound [engineer] or two. Now, with the addition of dot matrix displays for scoring and other visual effects, you probably have one or two people on that, you have a mechanical engineer, a technical engineer, so you are probably looking at a core group of six to eight individuals who are married at the hip--or, more importantly, married at the brain; for what you are doing is giving birth to a creative idea."

Visit an arcade these days and you'll find pinball machines light years removed from what you remember growing up. Bally's Apollo 13, based on the hit movie, has a 13-ball multiball (with the potential for 13 balls in play simultaneously); Bally's Stargate has a 3-D pyramid on the playfield that swallows balls; while Bally's Attack from Mars, just released this spring ("a throwback to '50s sci-fi movies," says Sharpe), features flying saucers, a dot matrix screen with wisecracking women in peril, and, yes, little green men leaping around the playfield.

While commercial pinball is continuing its latest comeback, the collector pinball market is taking off. Home demand is "very high," says Steve Young, the 43-year-old owner of The Pinball Resource in Lagrangeville, New York, and collector, with partner John Fetterman, of about 300 classic pinball machines that he hopes to one day put in a pinball museum. The Pinball Resource is probably the world's largest supplier of pinball parts for the hobbyist (The Mayfair Amusement Co. in Ridgewood, New York, is another large supplier), with an inventory of about one million parts, from bumpers to bulbs, flippers to fuses. ("I think it's over a million," says Young. "Anybody who doesn't believe it can come and count 'em. I won't pay them to count 'em, but they can come count 'em.")

When you enter Young's sprawling split-level home, the site of The Pinball Resource, it's almost like walking into a pinball machine itself. Two machines sit on the living room floor with their guts spilling out ("I've been meaning to get to those," he mutters); backglasses and old bagatelles line the hallways. One room is filled with classic Williams games; another room is lined with classic Gottliebs. These games are in perfect working order, but to play them, you'd first have to remove the piles of schematic drawings of countless other pinballs sprawled across the tops of the machines. Young's office is crowded with file cabinets filled with more schematics, manuals, flyers and pamphlets. "We have all of the documentation that anybody ever had on pinball," Young says. The basement is room after room of shelves lined with labeled boxes--coils, rubber rings, bumper caps, etc. Another room is his workshop, where he makes replacement parts for particularly hard-to-find playfield pieces. "It's a controlled madhouse," Young admits. "I don't live in my house anymore. Pinball lives in my house."

With a customer base of about 5,000 pinball enthusiasts, Young is seeing a rise in collecting. But as of now, the price of a pinball machine is still quite low.

"You can buy these games at surprisingly reasonable prices," says Sharpe. "Brand new games? No. But you can get a good game for probably in the $300 to $500 range on up, and have something that's going to be very entertaining for a long period of time, that can become a very cherished possession."

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