Before there was Nintendo or PlayStation, pinball machines ruled the roost

Playing The Addams Family at the Courthouse Hotel in Sydney's Newtown.

Now they’re back with a flipping vengeance.

Pinball machines reached icon status in the 1970s and 1980s when every pub, milk bar, bowling alley, shopping centre and games arcade had more than one in the corner. They offered the thrill of a battle against the table to keep the silver ball in play using only flippers, springs and the odd (and rarely unpunished) tilt of the machine.

Then along came video games such as Space Invaders, Pac-Man and Asteroids, and the pinnies started being pushed out. Then video gaming began moving into people’s homes with Atari, PlayStation, Nintendo and more. Pinball machine manufacturers went under or moved into other ventures such as building poker machines.

Although there was a surge of interest in the early 1990s, when popular pinball games such as The Addams Family, Guns N’ Roses and Fish Tales were released, the internet – and the gaming options it offered – was a killer blow.

By the early 2000s there were few pinball manufacturers left standing. Great names from the industry including Bally, Williams and Midway fell victim to economics. Eventually Stern Pinball was the world’s only full-time pinball machine producer left.

But pinball is fighting back. The hipster generation has warmed to pinball, along with vinyl records, Polaroids and beards. There is a busy market in second-hand pinball machines although, like classic motorcycles, owning one requires you to get good at tweaking and fixing, or finding someone who can do it for you.

New machines are also pulling in enthusiasts. Though Stern almost disappeared during the global financial crisis, a partnership with a private equity investment firm in 2009 gave the company a much-needed injection of funds and new direction.

It proved to be an inspired investment as the deal left Stern in pole position when pinball’s revival took hold.

So great is the demand for its products that Chicago-based Stern is moving to larger premises early next year to cope, says its marketing director Jody Dankberg.
“We are seeing the interest in pinball come from all ages,” he says.

“The folks who grew up with pinball are now affluent enough to have pinball machines in their homes. This in turn is spawning a new generation of kids growing up with pinball in the house. We also see 20- and 30-somethings out on location playing at the bars and in the tournament scene.

"Mobile apps [such as Pinball Arcade] and pinball games on home consoles have also helped bring in the new generation of players.”

In Australia, Amusement Machine Distributors (AMD) has the exclusive licence to distribute Stern pinball machines. The company has been selling pinball machines for four decades and is thrilled with pinball’s resurgence over the past two or three years, says general manager Michael Bowyer.

When Stern decided to only create machines themed along the lines of a licensed brand such as Avatar, Transformers and X-Men, business began to pick up.

But it was the coming together of Stern and Australian rock behemoth AC/DC in 2012 that really shook the industry all night long.

“A relatively successful machine in Australia sells around 30 to 60 units in a year. The AC/DC themed pinball machine has sold over 700 so far,” Bowyer says.

Stern is no longer the sole maker of new pinball machines, either. New Jersey’s Jersey Jack Pinball started shipping its machines last year.

Interestingly, the market for pinball machine sales has moved on from milk bars and pubs. More than 90 per cent of the Stern machines sold through AMD – costing from A$7000 to A$10,500 each – go to private homes. Bowyer says they’re being bought by a broad range of people, mostly in the 30 to 60 age group, for their “garage, lounge or man cave”.

In 2011 Norbert Snicer, a 30-year veteran of the pinball industry, started the Australian Pinball League to boost the game’s profile and give Australians a chance to get onto the world rankings, officially recorded by the International Flipper Pinball Association. Back then there were only four Australians in the world rankings. Now, after just three years, there are more than 600.

“People at our competitions come from all walks of life,” he says.

“It is male dominated but we’re working on that – the sport is gender neutral and skill based and we have some amazing female players who beat all of the guys.

“We get scientists, nurses, CEOs, truck drivers – all types of people keen to socialise in a friendly environment and play pinball. The competition is very light-hearted and you see a lot of smiling.”

But why now? Why has pinball, said by the industry to be the friendliest sport on the planet, made such a comeback?

“I think the truth is that pinball was well and truly forgotten as things advanced, then people became over-saturated with technology and craved human connection,” Snicer says. “They still wanted some form of play, but they also wanted to socialise in a friendly environment. That’s what pinball is all about.”
AC/DC themed pinball machines helped drive the resurgence.

AC/DC themed pinball machines helped drive the resurgence.

Play the pinnies

Pinball machines can still be found at bars and game arcades around the globe. Doing a quick Google search of “where to play pinball in [location]” is a great start in tracking down machines, or you can hitch into some dedicated apps on your smartphone.

You could try:
  • Pinfinder (iOS)
  • Pinball Locations (Android)
  • Flipper Finder (Android)

These following venues are just some that play up the pinball attraction: 

HQ Beercade, Chicago, Illinois, US;
Retro watering hole HQ Beercade in Chicago includes a “pincade” with more than 20 pinball machines and other arcade games. A second Beercade will open in Chicago later this year.

The Silver Ball Planet pinball arcade, Shinsaibashi Big Step shopping centre, Chuo-ku, Osaka, Japan; or
With more than 36 pinball machines available to play, this is the largest public pinball arcade in Japan.

Pinball HQ at Coogee RSL, Coogee, Sydney, NSW, Australia; 
The child-friendly (before 6pm) Coogee RSL is currently the biggest pinball venue in Australia and epicentre of the Australian Pinball League. 

Courthouse Hotel, Newtown, Sydney, NSW, Australia;

“The Courty” is home to a clutch of well-maintained classics and new release pinball machines.

Pizza N Pinball, Newcastle, NSW, Australia;
Two brothers with a love of pinball have opened their collection of machines for others to play, with a serve of pizza on top.
See a list of pinball tournaments worldwide at the International Flipper Pinball Association;

This article is from the July 2014 issue of INTHEBLACK.

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