Pinball is a very old game. The first games that can be recognized as pinball date back to the late 1700s, and the first coin-operated games with flippers arrived around 1947.
Since then, a steady stream of innovations has transformed it from a mechanical game of chance into a high-skill showcase of lights and sounds.
At the game’s height, there were several manufacturers actively making pinball tables – Williams, Bally, Stern, Data East, Gottlieb, Sega and Capcom. However, as video games took over arcades, and then arcades themselves disappeared, only Stern remains manufacturing pinball machines today.
I spent a weekend in Dallas at the Texas Pinball Festival to check out a few of these new machines.
Tron: Legacy is a table released by Stern in 2011, themed after the movie of the same name. This game has clear ramps, lots of neon lights, and even a miniaturized TRON arcade game in the middle of the playfield. It is the kind of pinball game that feels like it was designed more for a home collector than the bars and arcades pinball tables are usually found in. It isn’t difficult to keep the ball in play for a long time. This leads to a feeling of accomplishment, and makes it really fun to play. The lights and sounds are also very well designed, hallmarks of Stern’s newer tables.
AC/DC is another of Stern’s new games. It’s a love letter to fans of the Australian hard rock band. The game has 12 AC/DC songs, and each of them have their own goals on the table – "Highway to Hell" prompts you to hit a ramp, while "Hells Bells" has you shoot at an actual bell, emblazoned with the band’s logo. There are three thunderbolts to hit when playing to the song “Thunderstruck”. The goals are fun and easy to understand when paired with the songs, which makes this a table that was fun to play more than once.
One new table that was different from the rest was The Wizard of Oz. This table is the first built by newcomer Jersey Jack Pinball. The table was gorgeous – the flippers were ruby slippers, the ramps were all an emerald green, there was a crystal ball that would show different scenes from the classic movie, and even a model of Dorothy’s house, spinning in the corner. Instead of having a small display on the back of the game to show your score, it has a full flat screen TV showing your score, what you can do to earn extra points, and even characters from the movie to cheer you on. The lights were dazzling and the attention to detail was astounding, but the game was just too busy to be able to tell what was going on half of the time. Hopefully, Jersey Jack’s second offering, The Hobbit, will be more straightforward.
With the high-quality tables that Stern and Jersey Jack are producing, I’m hoping pinball will have the grand resurgence that many collectors have been waiting for. Pinball is far more visceral and physical than video games are, with that immediate physical feedback of the flippers. It is a different experience, and one that just can’t be simulated with a screen.
Some good pinball tables in Wichita:
Street Fighter 2 - Oliver Heights Laundry @ 859 S Oliver
Tee'd Off - Oliver Heights Laundry @ 859 S Oliver
Monopoly - Thunderbird Bown @ 2440 S Oliver
The Avengers - Jon's Ale House @ 917 E Douglas
Lord of the Rings - Billiards Sports Plaza @ 1904 S Oliver
Pirates of the Caribbean - Billiards Sports Plaza @ 1904 S Oliver
Airport - The Donut Whole @ 1720 E Douglas