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The Long and Unpredictable History of Pinball

Image by K-H. Leuders from Pixabay pinball game 2340089_640
What could the police possibly have wanted with pinball machines? Read on for several twists and turns in pinball’s storied journey.

There is something fundamentally compelling about pinball. The basic idea of keeping a shiny, silver ball from draining down a trough, with only a couple of flippers at your defense, seems impossibly quaint in an era of virtual reality and folding smartphones.

And yet pinball remains a global institution in the midst of an amazing resurgence. Pinball machines are reappearing at the bars and arcades that were quick to throw them out in the '80s, while new manufacturers are rising to fill the void left by those that shuttered decades ago. Modern pinball brings new technologies and new licenses to bear while still offering the same basics of physical gameplay mixed with stellar design and compelling artwork.

But this recent tumult is nothing compared to the legal dramas and legislative prohibitions that marred pinball's troubled adolescence. This is the story of pinball, and it's more wild than any of the thousands of tables that have been produced over the years.

Humble Origins of Pinball

It's a little difficult to say exactly when pinball got its start, because it really is just one branch on a broad and twisted family tree of games. 

A major ancestor is something called bagatelle, a sort of mixture of billiards and croquet that developed in the 18th century, itself a variation on earlier games. Bagatelle is played on an inclined table, with players using cues to hit billiard balls into holes surrounded by wooden pegs. 

Eventually, metal pins replaced the pegs. Then, to make these tables smaller and easier to use, the cue stick was replaced with a rod on a spring. Montague Redgrave was issued a patent in 1869 for a table design with those features, but even earlier examples exist.

One branch of this family tree goes off to become pachinko, which is still wildly popular in Japan. Another branch split off to form what we call pinball. 

The term "pinball" originated in the mid '30s, the era that saw the introduction of features like coin operation, bumpers to ricochet the ball, and tilt mechanisms to detect cheaters. Many of the most storied brands of pinball history, like Gottlieb, Bally, and Williams, date back to this era, almost all forming in and around Chicago.

But they were still games of chance. It was D. Gottlieb & Co's 1947 Humpty Dumpty table and Genco Manufacturing's 1948 Triple Action that changed everything. Humpty Dumpty was the first table to use a player-controlled electrical mechanism to activate flippers, a process that hasn't changed much. However, that table had a whopping six of the things! Triple Action pared that down to just two flippers, positioned at the bottom of the table. This created a layout that, even 75 years later, is immediately familiar.

With those innovations, pinball was no longer a game of chance—though that fact would take some time to prove.

Image courtesy of Dan CarneyIMG_2307.JPG

Vintage pinball tables often carried disclaimers to distinguish them from gambling.

The Prohibition of Pinball

The United States prohibition against alcohol ended in 1933. Nine years later, in 1942, another prohibition swept across America: a ban on pinball. New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia was the leading opponent of pinball machines, which he called "insidious nickel-stealers." He pushed through a ban in January of 1942 and immediately his police forces got to work rounding up machines, dragging them into the streets, and smashing them like barrels of hooch the decade before. 

Though not nationwide, many cities followed, including Los Angeles and even Chicago, which treated playing pinball like illegal gambling. The bans would last until 1976 when Roger Sharpe, widely held to be the best player of that era, went to New York and played a demonstration game of pinball at the New York City Council. He showed without a shadow of doubt that pinball was a game of skill, not of chance. The NY Council voted to overturn the ban and others quickly followed.

A massive boon followed. Pinball parlors popped up in places where they were formerly banned, full of bright, colorful tables with evocative titles and artwork. Capt. Fantastic launched this year, perhaps the most famous pinball machine of all, inspired by the movie Tommy and featuring Elton John dancing on the backglass. 

It was a heady time, but it wouldn't last.

Image courtesy of Dan CarneyCollage Maker-17-Jan-2023-12.11-PM.jpg

Boom to Bust

Everything came crashing down pretty quickly in the early '80s. The reason is simple: video games. 

Pinball tables are big, heavy, mechanical objects. They're deceptively simple to play but wildly complicated to maintain. With so many moving parts susceptible to breaking and components that wear out and need replacing, they are a real headache to keep operational.

Arcade video games were a breath of fresh air. Completely solid-state, the only components that would wear out were the joysticks and buttons that so many players abused for hours at a time. As Pac-Mania swept the nation and players wanted new and exciting video games, and as operators quickly saw how much easier the smaller, lighter, more reliable arcade cabinets were to run, pinball was out. 

Thankfully, this isn't the end of the story

Photo courtesy of MIRA OBERMAN/AFP/Getty Imagespinball 124796274 Getty.jpg

A worker at Stern Pinball assembles a Rolling Stones pinball machine in Chicago on August 15, 2011.

Solid-State

In the mid '80s, a new generation of tables raised the level of interactivity with pinball, taking more than a few cues, and a lot of technology, from the video game scene. 

From the 1940s and all the way through the 1970s, tables were broadly called "electromechanical." That is to say, they relied on electricity to power mechanisms rarely more complicated than simple relays. The ringing of a bell and the flashing of a light were about the most significant feedback you were going to get.

By the late '70s, the solid-state machines started to come in. A true pinball machine must always have some moving parts—a ball and flippers—but microchips started replacing complex mechanisms.

One of the most significant tables that rebooted the pinball industry was High Speed. Released in 1986, it was the first of a new generation of tables from Williams called System 11. In the early '80s, Williams had made millions selling arcade mega-hits like Defender. The company's new line of tables used many of the same components to bring the classic game of pinball to new heights.

System 11 tables ran three Motorola 6800-series CPUs, the same as used on Defender and others. Since there wasn't much need for graphics, the processing power and increased memory of System 11 was instead put toward audio.

High Speed featured advanced voice samples that told a story. You played the role of a driver trying to escape the police. As you play the game, the storyline progresses and the police officers start yelling at you. Escape from them, and you get treated to a celebratory song, the first full song ever to feature in a pinball table. 

"High Speed is more than a car game," Gary Stern, founder and CEO of Stern Pinball, told me. "That game, it's telling a story. The games from the '60s, '70s didn't do that."

And it was a great story, capped off by a spinning red beacon that lit up the arcade and brought players in from all around to see what was happening. High Speed was a huge hit, still the third-best-selling pinball table of all time. It kicked off a new wave of interest in the late '80s into the early '90s. 

The Video Game Influence

As pinball tables evolved and gained more power, manufacturers began to try and bring the flavor of video games into the pinball world. The result was what's called the Dot Matrix Display, or DMD era.

1991's Checkpoint from Data East was the first table with a DMD, but many quickly followed. At first these displays showed simple graphics, fanfares to celebrate in-game achievements. It didn't take long for those interactions to evolve.

In Williams's 1993 classic game Star Trek: The Next Generation, trigger a certain gameplay mode and you're tasked with flying a Federation shuttlecraft through a cave. The table's buttons no longer control the flippers but instead move the shuttle left and right. It's a video game within a pinball game.

The Modern Era

Live in a reasonably metropolitan area? There's a good chance you've got a bar with at least a handful of pinball tables not too far away. The resurgence of pinball has been striking, but the flavor has changed.

For one thing, a huge percentage of modern tables are based on licensed properties. While the most common early tables were original concepts, often inspired by the whims of their creators (designer Steve Ritchie got the idea for High Speed after he was caught speeding in a Porsche 928), by the '90s licensed tables like The Simpsons and The Addams Family began to dominate the industry.

Today, nearly every table on sale carries a license for properties like Star Wars, Godzilla, and even Halloween. Why the license rush? "We say it gets the first quarter," Gary Stern told me. Those licenses bring gamers to the tables, but the designers still need to create games that earn that second round. 

There's another major trend, and that's the rise of Home Use Only, or HUO tables. These are tables not sold for use in bars or laundromats, instead sold directly to consumers to live in their homes. "Now we have many enthusiast shows, we didn't have that in the '80s," Stern told me. "Each country is different, but generally 80 to 75% is consumer and 20 to 25% commercial." Four out of five pinball tables go in someone's basement, then, not an arcade.

One of the reasons why this works is because modern tables are far more complex than before, offering dozens of gameplay modes, special challenges, and gimmicks that make them fresh to play for months or even years. This rise in interest has also resulted in many new manufacturers entering the fray. Stern Pinball is by far the biggest and oldest pinball manufacturer currently in existence. For over a decade, Stern was the only company producing new pinball tables. But, new brands like American Pinball, Chicago Gaming Company, Jersey Jack, and Spooky Pinball are creating tables with interesting franchises like Hot Wheels, Toy Story, and Rick and Morty

But what hasn’t changed? That Chicago geocentrism. "The people who supply the little plastic posts and the tooling for it are here," Gary Stern told me. "It all grew up here. And so we're here and the suppliers are here. We buy most of our components locally."

The Next Generation

What's coming next? Well, it's the Internet, of course. Though much of pinball's charm is its vintage look and feel, the industry is not immune to the progress of technology.

"Pinball, in my mind, is one of the last things to be on the Internet of Things," George Gomez told me. He's a legendary game designer, currently serving as EVP and Chief Creative Officer at Stern Pinball and the designer of that company's latest table, James Bond 007. "When I started thinking about connecting the games, I wanted to be more than just the functionality of connections. I wanted to extend how you interact with the games."

In 2021, Stern launched Insider Connected. This took some of the core concepts from Microsoft's Xbox Live gaming service and brought them to the world of pinball via a smartphone app that you scan on a pinball table. Yes, of course there's online high score lists where you can compare your records with your friends, but for younger gamers, scores aren't quite as appealing as they used to be.

"I have been contacted by numerous parents that have told me that their kids are playing the pinball game for achievements," Gomez said. "They don't care about score. If you think about it, that's so consistent with the world they come from."

But some things will never change, according to Gomez: "I tell my guys, you know, everything's up for discussion, but the ball and the flippers are sacred."

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