With phone and tablet-based electronic games and gadgetry so abundantly at our fingertips, one might confidently assume that the once-mighty pinball machine is dead. But that would be a hasty—and incorrect—assumption.
Although the popular ball-and-flipper-based “bagatelle” game might have peaked in the 1990s and its revenues are a quarter of what they were at the turn of the new century, pinball is mounting a comeback: The single remaining pinball machine manufacturing company, Stern, reports that it has tripled sales since 2009, and, on top of that, a handful of fledgling startup companies are busy developing new machines.
The craze that launched a million “pinball wizards” was never just a fad. Variations of pinball games were enthusiastically played on cabinet-type boards as far back as the 1700s. But the “pinball machine,” as we know it, has mainly been around since the 1930s, when the game cabinet itself was electrified and “bumper” obstacles were introduced.
Texas, as it happens, is one of the most enthusiastic pinball celebrating locales in the U.S. In March, as they have since 2001, several thousand pinball gamers from every point of the compass will congregate in Frisco, near Dallas, for the annual Texas Pinball Festival. Over a three-day weekend, these flipper frenzied aficionados will test their skill playing more than 400 vintage and newer pinball machines, along with other classic arcade games. One of the annual objectives at the festival is to help win back the Guinness World Record for most pinball machines played simultaneously. The Texas event’s record of 272 was beaten last year by 330 participants at a similar festival in Banning, California.
For anyone who grew up testing his or her mettle against the whirring, flashing, dinging and gonging pinball machines, the sensation is a difficult one to describe. Suffice it to say, as one pinball enthusiast, Rita Hornsby, did last year in an interview with the local Frisco Enterprise newspaper: “Pinball machines are one of the few games you can’t really play on your phone; you really have to be in front of a machine to enjoy it.”
With pinball, it’s all about finding the right touch and developing the very physical art of integrating your entire body into your game. It’s applying the right grip on both sides of the glass-topped rectangular board to let your fingers better control the two flippers, and, then, as you spring-launch the silver steel ball up the channel to send it caroming around the flashing, dinging board, it’s a matter of leaning your weight into it to offer just the right amount of body English (but not so much as to cause the machine to lose its mechanical equilibrium, thus ending your game with a flashing “TILT” sign).
Over the decades, the game of pinball, which was once considered “low-brow” entertainment, has gained some considerable esteem. As hard as it might be to believe, pinball “backglass” art (the wild, thematic illustrations on the back of the cabinet), has recently been the topic of lectures at the Smithsonian American History Museum.
Did You Know?
It might surprise you to learn that, for many years in several U.S. cities, playing pinball machines was against the law. In the early 1940s, pinball machines, with their recently fitted coin-operated mechanisms that were similar to slot machines, came under fire in New York City. In 1942, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia officially banned the machines, and other U.S. cities followed suit.