In a previous article I looked at the retro world of video games as a potential means of home entertainment. This time round I would like to trawl even further back in time and take a look at the arcade sensation’s older sister in the entertainment stakes.
The word pinball often conjures imagery that is synonymous with the phrase “misspent youth”. Once the staple part of any sleazy bar’s stock in trade imagery. Propping up the back wall in any number of gloomy smoke filled establishments with the slightly debauched lure of its flashing lights and its rattles and chimes. It seems that if you are of a certain age whether or not you ever played these machines they are firmly entrenched somewhere in the midst of our entertainment culture.
Pinball has a long and chequered history that dates back to the late 1800’s and is seen by many as a distant cousin of the game Bagatelle. This was a game in which a player would use a cue or stick to hit a ball that in turn would knock down pins at the other end of a table. It wasn’t however until the late 1940’s that pinball would take a form that many would associate with its modern counterpart. Essentially it was at this point the machines gained familiar traits such as the flippers mounted at the bottom of the playfield designed to help keep the ball in play. Competition between the remaining manufacturers inspired innovation in the field of pinball design and with each passing year new features such as chimes, bumpers and spinning targets became popular features on the new generation of games.
By the 1970’s pinball machines like everything else had been caught in the sweeping tides of technology. Up until this point the machines had been controlled by a complex series of relays and drums that controlled elements of gameplay and scoring. However at this point incorporating the new technology meant that a good portion of the machine now became controlled by microprocessors and circuitry. The ramifications of such sweeping changes meant that games became more complex, offering many and varied electronic sound effects and for the first time speech. It was these innovations that made the pinball machine a more immersive experience. Often the presence of a voice that sometimes goaded the player behind the flippers made it feel you were not just participating against a machine but an actual opponent.
At this point in time pinball had already become an established part of the world’s entertainment culture, one of the best examples of this was Pete Townsend’s rock opera “Tommy” which followed the adventures of “that deaf, dumb and blind kid” who as we know “sure played a mean pinball”.
By now the pinball industry was whittled down to three main manufacturers. Bally, Williams and Gottlieb had survived the arrival of the video game despite the fact that at this point the young upstart had stolen much of pinball’s thunder all three manufacturers continued to make and market a steady supply of machines although for a time in reduced numbers.
The 1990’s saw the resurgence of the pinball machine when the video game industry collapsed. At this time the machines had continued to evolve with the aid of modern technology. Designs became increasingly complex leading to more involved levels of gameplay. Film and television licensing also began to play an increasing role in the themes of the games (the most popular tables being based upon The Addams Family and The Twilight Zone).
Alas despite this upturn in fortunes this newfound resurgence wouldn’t last and by 1997 the remaining manufacturers (Bally/Williams who had by this point merged, Alvin Gottlieb and Sega who had come to the field later than most) had all minimised their production runs to a fraction of their output during their recent boom. A last ditch effort to save the pinball format was made in 1999 with the Pinball 2000 concept which incorporated a “holographic” video display into the traditional playfield. It was a nice idea, but alas one which was doomed to failure. For many the concept was too far removed from the original idea of what a pinball machine should be and as a result the idea floundered and was soon abandoned. Nowadays there is only one active manufacturer, Stern Pinball Inc still making tables in relatively small numbers and the general consensus is the games aren’t necessarily of the same quality that preceded them.
Although the pinball industry is technically comatose right now there is more than a passing interest in the machines for home use. A number of suppliers have realised the interest and have now set up stall to sell the machines for home use.
If you’re in the market for a pinball machine the most common choices available for the home buyer come from the 1990’s. Not only were these the most exciting and elaborate games made but they were also made in larger numbers than any of their forebears.
Pinball machines are at heart very complex pieces of equipment, under the playfield are extensive looms of interconnected wire that in turn are connected to arrays of lights, sensors and solenoids. However if you buy from some of the more reputable second hand suppliers then you should find that the machines have been thoroughly checked out before hand and most tables do come with a warranty. However saying that no machine of this nature is ever going to be faultless but thankfully a lot of the problems that can occur are relatively simple to fix and if you fancy yourself a dab hand with a soldering iron simple repairs are not beyond the realms of possibility.
More complex repairs however can be a little pricier but on the plus side you should find that even with the older games there are still parts available and even electronic machines that were built in the 1980’s can still be a viable prospect for repair.
If you’re talking price certain examples can be found on eBay from as little as ?400 but if you’re looking for a prime workshopped example expect to pay anything from a ?1000 upwards. The cheaper examples really do reflect the saying “buyer beware”, a cheap example might be easy on the wallet in the short term but sometimes these tables are loaded with potential problems waiting to happen such as digital displays that are fast approaching the end of their life and circuitry that could potentially be hiding expensive faults. However if you are looking for further advice before you buy there is a Pinball Owners Association with a healthy membership roster which is more than capable of providing you with advice and assistance if need be.
There is also an active newsgroup on Usenet (rec.games.pinball) which is a home from home for machine owners world wide and if you find yourself with a technical issue its unlikely to be something they haven’t encountered before.
So in summary would I recommend the purchase of one of these machines?
Well, my opinion might just carry a little bias as I’ve grown up with pinball from a closer vantage point than most (pinball’s and jukeboxes have formed a large part of my family’s business). These machines can be a real love affair for some enthusiasts and represent a pastime that has undeniably captured the hearts of more than one game playing generation. In the home they represent a real visual talking point and the artwork on many machines is undeniably a thing of not inconsiderable beauty. Out of all the options available for the individual looking to convert the spare room into a games emporium I would say that the pinball machine is the one with the most soul.