One of those nights, you’re riding the groove. You’re standing in front of a big, bright, noisy box, and you can’t lose. You can’t drain. It’s the way you shove the machine, just a little, just enough; it’s the glorious mad calamity of the bumpers and bells. It’s the moment when you caught the ball and let it roll down the flipper like a drop of mercury on your finger, and then you nailed that one last standing target. The hammer raps: free game.
You’re a pinball wizard.
That was a long time ago. College, probably. You don’t play as much anymore — if at all. You hear from time to time that pinball is coming back, but you’ve heard that for decades. You content yourself with pushing around a machine in an airport arcade now and then between flights.
But what if it might be coming back, like vinyl? It’s cool! It’s old! It’s analog!
What if a new generation realized that pinball is a remarkable American pastime that’s more than just lights and noise, but something that’s everything the new moderns supposedly want: fast, fun and social?
“It’s really back,” said Kent Anderson, collector and player. “The International Flipper Pinball Association, they rank players who do the tournaments. When I got with them 10 years ago, I was the 557th member. Today they have 47,000 ranked players.”
You’re imagining a lot of middle-aged guys, aren’t you? Wrong.
“I have a lot of female friends into pinball,” said Jennifer McGaffey of the Twin Cities Pinball Enthusiasts club. “That’s really changed since the ’70s and ’80s, when it was a hobby dominated by men. Now we actually have a strong chick turnout, whether they’re girlfriends of the guys or players themselves.
“It’s funny to explain my enthusiasm to some,” she added. “When I first met my husband, I had to explain, ‘Honey, I’m going to play pinball with middle-aged balding men and geek out and talk about skill shots and high scores.’ That does take some getting used to.”
She admits that most of the players are the stereotype, but surely they’re not all middle-agers remembering their idle youth, are they?
“There’s a lot of new blood,” Anderson said. “In the tournaments, the new hotshot kids, they’re forced to play on the EMs [electro-mechanical]. Some love it and some hate it, but they’ve got to do it. These young guys, they’re good at the games with deep rule sets.” He chuckled. “I’m 59. I just can’t remember them all.”
Hold on. EMs? Rule sets? You know pinball has jargon; everything has jargon. But apparently there’s more than “ball,” “bumpers,” “targets” and “flippers.”
To put all this in perspective, we have to back up a bit. You need a little history if you want to impress people when you go to Can-Can Wonderland, the St. Paul gaming heaven, or play some tables between bites when Tilt, a pinball-and-hot-dogs joint opens in Whittier this spring, or drop by Bobby & Steve’s Auto World locations.
There are three basic eras of pinball:
• Old, aka EMs. The machines of the ’60s and ’70s. Two or three loud bells. They feel thick. Playing them can be like trying to push a water buffalo up the stairs. The flippers are stubby, and the space between them feels a mile wide. Free game: 4,300. Backplate art: ’60s girls, astronauts, cowboys. Big names: Gottlieb, Williams.
• Glory days. Tables from the late ’70s to the early ’90s. Fast and innovative. Synthesized sounds and voices; the machines talk and taunt. One ball at a time? Hah! Behold the multiball. Free game: 600,000. Backplate art: Musicians, robots. Big names: Bally, Williams.
• Modern. Tables are crammed with lights and pictures. The rules are complex, so most players just try to hit everything. Free game: 3,000,000. Backplate art: some movie. Big name: Stern, the only company still making tables.
That could seem sad — just one manufacturer still in business. But that business is thriving. Just ask Dave Slabiak of the Twin Cities Pinball Enthusiasts.
“In the 2000s,” he said, “there was this death knell for pinball. But Stern kept plugging forward, making games when no one else did. A year and half ago, Stern moved to a 100,000-square-foot factory, making 100 games a day.”
While that’s good news for pinball fans, it’s still not quite like the glory years when four different companies released new tables every quarter, though. Let’s be honest: For all the buzz, pinball isn’t anywhere near its peak popularity.
What happened? Anderson has multiple theories:
“They’d done everything they could possibly do. The price went up. It cost more to build because they were building fewer, and this made them less accessible. The guys operating them got lazy. You have to clean then; maintain the switches.” After all, a broken machine doesn’t make money.
Video games were another reason, of course, Pac-Man and every game that came behind him. Then console gaming brought a new level of realism to gaming, and you could play with other people — albeit disembodied people on the internet, talking smack in your earpiece as you went on a mission.
“The owner of the Pinball Museum in Las Vegas had an observation about the changes,” Slabiak said. “He said, ‘When I was a kid we used to go out for entertainment, and eat at home. And now we eat out and go home for entertainment.”
Slabiak said that a typical local tournament will draw around 20 people.
“It’s not a sociable thing,” he said. “You face forward and you play it.”
But there is a social aspect to the game; it just tends to happen away from the tables. Everyone seems to have a pinball story from their bar-and-bowling-alley days, McGaffey noted.
“If you mention it in casual conversation, you have someone who has a story to tell — ‘Oh, I used to love to play, I remember this machine.’ ”
For her, it’s Taxi, a 1988 Williams table. The backplate art featured Mikhail Gorbachev and Dracula. “Art by Python Anghelo,” she said of the artist who became famous for his work on pinball machines and video games.
For Slabiak, it’s Xenon, a 1980 Bally table he saw as a kid. “It was the first talking game,” he said, “and the voices and music were by a woman named Suzanne Ciani. I remember telling my second-grade bus driver about it, because we bonded about pinball. I called it X-ee-non.”
The aficionados remember the machines, the places they played them, the names of the artists who made them — and when they have a favorite one, they’ll spend years and dollars tracking it down so they can buy it.
But they’ll play other tables, too, because every game is different. Every table has its personality, its moods. And every dedicated player can look at the back glass and see a reflection — but it’s an outline without the marks the years have added. The players might be older, but a quarter’s still worth 25 cents and gravity’s still their foe.
So pinball might never be as big as it used to be? That’s not that issue.
It’s still around, and that’s what rings the players’ bells.