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Pinball machines have been around for almost 90 years, evolving from shady barroom amusement in the 1930s to pop-culture phenomenon by the ’70s. After a resurgence in the early 1990s, pinball nearly died out by 2000 as the Big Three manufacturers (Williams, Bally, and Gottleib) exited the business or went bankrupt. Amazingly, the game held on and has even flourished, thanks in part to fans who spread their pinball passion online and new manufacturers that have entered the business. Today, you can find pinball-themed bars, arcades, museums — and even laundromats — from coast to coast, where games old and new are just waiting to be rediscovered — or discovered for the first time. Not sure what to play first? We talked to a couple pinball experts for their take on the best games from pinball’s golden era, the early 1970s to the late ’90s. Odds are, you can find some or all of these classics at an arcade near you. Just bring extra quarters; most vintage games now cost anywhere from 50 cents to $1 or more to play.
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FIREBALL (BALLY, 1972)
There’s no missing “Fireball” at the arcade with its demonic red namesake glowering at players from the backglass. Its fantasy-world theme was one of the first games to depart from the traditional sports and guys-and-girls designs of the 1950s and ’60s. And in the center of the playfield was a novel feature that had only been found on a couple of earlier, obscure pinball games: a spinning disc. “That can change everything in an instant,” says Chloe Hansen of the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, California. “You think the ball is going to hit the left bumper, then, boom! It hits that disc, spins, and goes right.” The spinning disc, it’s “zipper” flippers (which could “zip” together to prevent a ball from going down the drain) made “Fireball” a hit, and it remains one of the best electromechanical games of the early ’70s. A home version of the game appeared in 1978, and Bally produced an arcade sequel, “Fireball II,” in 1981.
WIZARD! (BALLY, 1975)
The song “Pinball Wizard” from The Who’s 1975 cult film “Tommy” helped bring pinball into the mainstream. It also inspired “Wizard!,” the first in a slew of pinball games with celebrity, TV, and movie themes. From a gaming perspective, “Wizard!” isn’t particularly challenging to play. In fact, it was one of the last models that used electromechanical parts instead of solid-state components to make those bells ring and bumpers kick. But after “Wizard!” no arcade was complete without a pinball machine featuring some pop-culture icon of the day. Bally gave Elton John his own game, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy,” in 1977; its backglass pays homage to his role in “Tommy.” Other popular games from the era feature stuntman Evel Kneivel (1977), Lee Majors in “The Six Million Dollar Man” (1978), and Detroit rock heroes Kiss (1979), all of which were made by Bally.
FLASH (WILLIAMS, 1979)
“Flash” arrived with a thunderclap at arcades, dazzling players with its novel namesake “flash lamps” and dynamic sound effects that would intensify with play, a technological first for pinball. “The longer you kept the ball in play, the background sound would rise. Everyone in the arcade would know when you were doing well,” says Chris Kuntz, aka the Pinball Pirate, a former arcade owner and lifelong pinball enthusiast who collects, sells, and repairs machines in the Bay Area. “It was a big deal at the time.” About 19,000 units were built, placing it behind only “Eight Ball” and “Addams Family” in terms of the most popular classic-era pinball games. Collectors prize “Flash” for another reason; it was the first by Williams’ legendary game designer Steve Richie, who also created “Firepower” (1980) and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1993), two of the company’s other best-selling machines.
GORGAR (WILLIAMS, 1979)
Nineties classics like “Addams Family” yammered nonstop while you played, but in 1979 talking pinball machines were something altogether new. This sci-fi/fantasy themed game was the first, its vocabulary containing a whopping seven words that it could combine into different phrases to taunt players during the game, such as “Me got you!” and “Gorgar hurt!” Even creepier is the throbbing “heartbeat” sound effect that gets louder as play goes on. By later pinball standards, the speech was kind of cheesy, Chloe Hansen says, but the game still holds sway over players. “It’s funny how many kids I see at the museum approach the game then run away when it speaks,” she says. “It’s kind of scary!”
FRONTIER (BALLY, 1980)
This Wild West-themed pinball game is a bit of a sleeper hit. Only about 1,000 were produced — far fewer than other classics from the era — and it’s harder to find in arcades today than other games from the same era. But for players and collectors who can track one down, “Frontier” strikes pinball gold. It’s not particularly sophisticated, but it’s got all the elements of a classic-era game, with two banks of drop-down targets that would trigger big point bonuses, thumper bumpers, and rollover targets. “I like games based on the emotional response you get when you play it,” Chris Kuntz says. “And ‘Frontier’ is a really, really good game. The layout, the rules, it’s all challenging.”
EIGHT BALL DELUXE (BALLY, 1981)
Poolhall-themed “Eight Ball Deluxe” is a follow-up to Bally’s “Eight Ball,” which was one of the best-selling machines of 1977 (just over 20,200 units were made). When it debuted four years later, “Eight Ball Deluxe” also made players flip, but fewer than 9,000 machines were built. Pinball’s days of dominance were numbered as video games like “Pac Man” and “Defender” began competing for arcade floor space. Today, enthusiasts and collectors say “Eight Ball Deluxe” represents the best the industry had to offer at the time. Sharpshooters need a supple wrist to clear the row of seven drop targets and plenty of English on the bank shot to drop the four in-line targets at the top of the playfield. And like other machines of the era, “Eight Ball Deluxe” talked back to you as you played, reminding you to play stripes or solids, and churning out pool-hall sound effects to set the mood. But the true attraction is the machine’s artwork. “Bally had a lot of really good artists in the early ’80s,” Kuntz says. “The stencil art of the side of the head of the first version of ‘Eight Ball Deluxe is just beautiful. It’s clear a talented artist created it.”
HIGH SPEED (WILLIAMS, 1986)
By the mid-1980s, pinball machines were losing the arcade popularity contest with video games. In response, manufacturers like Williams began adding new features to the playfields and props on the cabinets to make them stand out in a sea of blinking, beeping machines. One of the most distinctive is “High Speed,” a police-chase-themed pinball game with a red emergency light on the top of the backglass that spins during play. “No one had ever done that before,” says Kuntz. It was crammed with fun-to-play features: two ramps, a toy traffic light on the playfield that changed colors as you hit targets, and a novel multiball that could be carried over from one game to another. There wouldn’t be another pinball machine this sophisticated until games like “Addams Family” arrived in arcades. “For five years, this game defined pinball,” he adds. “The light box, the multiball…. ‘High Speed’ sort of invented that.” It also had several technical advances new to the industry, most notably its digital alpha-numeric display, which displayed not just your score but also flashed status updates and point values during play.
THE ADDAMS FAMILY (BALLY, 1992)
Ask a pinball geek to name his or her favorite game of the ’90s, and they’ll likely say, “Addams Family” because it was quite literally a game-changer for the industry. “It used to be that all you could do was win a free game or hit 10 million. Now, pinball was more like a video game and the challenge became: How far can you get?” says Kuntz. “‘Addams Family’ became the model for all the games that came after — if you do all these hard things, you’ll see something few players do. And it was fun to play. It still is!” The game quickly became Bally’s top seller and the best-selling pinball machine of all time, with 20,270 units produced. Signature features include Thing, which emerges from his box to snatch the ball beneath the playfield before kicking it out from a different spot moments later, and flippers that move in time to the game’s finger-snapping theme music (not to mention snippets of dialogue from the film).
TWILIGHT ZONE (BALLY, 1993)
Rod Serling’s iconic TV show of the late 1950s and early ’60s gained a new following among GenXers on late-night TV in the ’80s and ’90s. Seeking to capitalize on this, Bally created “Twilight Zone,” its most elaborate game to date. The playfield’s graphics reference props and characters from classic episodes; the hands on a toy clock spin crazily; a gumball machine dispenses a super-fast ceramic “powerball”; and a ramp leads to the Power Field, a mini-playfield above the main board where players must sink the ball in using magnetic “flippers” to defeat The Force. Not only is it a heck of a lot of fun to play, Pacific Pinball’s Hansen says, it’s challenging enough for novices and pinball wizards alike and is a regular at tournaments. “It’s good for the finale,” she says.
THEATRE OF MAGIC (BALLY, 1995)
In order to compete with video games, pinball machines in the 1990s morphed into complex creations with multiple goals and outcomes, not to mention ever more outlandish playfields crammed with interactive features. All of it was designed to keep people playing. One of the most engaging and eye-catching, says Hansen, is “Theatre of Magic.” Drop in a quarter and you’re greeted with a booming “Welcome to the Theatre of Magic!” The centerpiece of the playfield, a large revolving magician’s trunk, is one of the era’s most notable “bash toys,” designed to trigger game functions like multiball mode when struck by the ball. Other notable features include ramps that snake around the playfield and a magnetic “magician’s ring” that makes the ball float from one ramp to another. “It gives you so much feedback that you want to keep playing,” she says. “It’s one of my favorite games.”
REVENGE FROM MARS (BALLY, 1999)
At the tail end of pinball’s golden age, the industry had one last trick up its sleeve: Pinball 2000. The gaming system, invented by Williams and licensed to Bally, was a curious hybrid of pinball and video, with a floating screen atop the playfield that created the illusion of computer graphics hovering in space. The graphics were as sophisticated as any arcade video game of the time, flashing an ever-changing sequence of exploding spaceships, attacking aliens, and other displays. “The holographic floating screen and how it interacts with the game below has yet to be surpassed, though augmented reality will ultimately accomplish that someday,” says Nic Schell, director of the Roanoke Pinball Museum in Virginia. Although revolutionary, “Revenge From Mars” wasn’t enough to save Bally or Williams, however. Both of the once-legendary pinball manufacturers ceased making games by the time 2000 rolled around.
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What makes pinball so appealing after all these years? Schell, who made a name for himself as something of a traveling pinball repairman before taking the helm in at the Roanoke museum, thinks he knows the answer. “Pinball is a defiantly analog experience in an increasingly virtualized world,” he says. “It’s real, it’s social, and it gets you on your feet. That’s an increasingly uncommon experience these days.” If you’ve got a pile of quarters burning a hole in your pocket or purse, there are arcades and pinball museums from coast to coast. The Museum of Pinball near Palm Springs, California, is perhaps the biggest, with more than 1,000 games, while the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas boasts more than 200 games. You’ll also find places to play in Seattle; Asheville, North Carolina; Asbury Park, New Jersey; Atlanta (opening later this year); and elsewhere. There are also conventions, tournaments, and podcasts.