Pinball. It's a term we all know to one degree or another and has been part of Americana for as long as most of us have been alive. Over a 75 year period it has gone from a table top game played with a marble, to the wood bordered classics of the 1950s, to the electronic, digitized, licensed game it has become today.
It has always been a classic. It always was able to create a certain magic connection between player and ball. The ball. Pinball pioneer Harry Williams said, "The ball is wild!" That is the essence of pinball. It can't be programmed, it can't be directed, it can't be controlled, at least not completely. Even designers who have played their own games time and time again are often surprised at a wild jump or hop that sends the ball in a totally unexpected direction.
Pinball of today is a Chicago creation developed around the time of the Great Depression, but it can trace its roots back to an eighteenth century parlor game called bagatelle. French nobility, using a small cue, shot balls into holes located around the playfield. Bagatelle was brought to America by French allies and the game became so popular a political cartoon depicted President Lincoln playing one.
But it wasn't until 1870 when Cincinnati toy manufacturer, Montague Redgrave replaced the cue with a spring-powered plunger that the game came into its own. At the time of the Depression, the country was ready for an escape and pinball meant to fill the void. Whiffle produced in Ohio and Whoopee in Chicago were among the first. But when pioneer David Gottlieb made Baffle Ball it became a sensation, in no small part due to its amazingly low $17.50 price. Baffle Ball sold 50,000 pieces in six months. Gottlieb distributor Ray Moloney decided to go out on his own and produced his version, Ballyhoo, leading to the creation of the Bally Manufacturing Company. While by 1932 there were about 150 pinball manufacturers, two years later only 14 were left. Enter Harry Williams who invented the tilt anti-cheat mechanism and by 1942 would form Williams Electronics, Inc. and pinball was on its way.
Pinball has always tried to improve and better itself to appeal to a new and broader market. In the thirties, some manufactures began experimenting with payout games which lawmakers came to see as gambling devises. During WWII pingame factories supported the war effort but when the fighting was over, pinball returned. When D.Gottlieb's Harry Mabs created the first flipper on a game called Humpty Dumpty in 1947 and classic designer Steve Kordek put two of them at the bottom of his game Triple Action, the transformation changed pinball forever. There have been banana flippers, long flippers, short flippers, really short flippers, automatic flippers, digital flippers and sometimes only one flipper—but flippers, in some form, have been a part of every pinball produced since.
The 1950s is called the golden age of pinball and Gottlieb was king. Nearly every game produced by designer Wayne Neyens, especially when pared with artwork from Leroy Parker, was an instant classic. The 1960's saw the development of many new features in the game including drop targets, different types of bumpers and improved scoring including score wheels which allowed two and four player games. The release of the Who's rock opera Tommy in 1969 gave a boost to the popularity of the game. While the movie of the same name is not considered a success in any way, it did spawn at least two classic Bally games in 1976 from designer Greg Kmiec and artist Dave Christensen: Captain Fantastic and Wizard. A few years before, a Playboy article on pinball in the December, 1972 issue is often credited for much of the popularity of Fireball, another Bally classic.
In the late seventies and into the eighties, pinball went electronic. Relays were replaced by chips and many parts of the game became more reliable, easier to make and maintain and lighter! But along with digital pinball came video games. Games like Pac-man, Space Invaders and Missile Command took pinball's 80 percent share of the coin-op market and left it with less than a tenth of that amount.
But, as it had done in the past, pinball came back. Manufacturers added more features and playfield design innovations and regained much of the ground pinball had lost. By the early nineties games like Twilight Zone, Star Trek: The Next Generation and the all time highest production champ, Addams Family, were the new classics.
Williams Bally/Midway then decided to make a bold move and developed their Pinball 2000 line of games. They produced a game that combined the vivid graphics of video with the mechanical action of pinball. Two models had been released by late 1999 when, seemingly over night, the company announced it would cease pinball production effective October 25 of that year.
Only 24 days before, Gary Stern revealed that he had purchased the assets and rights of Sega Pinball, Inc. to form Stern Pinball, Inc. Gary's father, Sam, headed up Williams pinball after Harry Williams retired and Gary's first Stern Pinball made games from the late 70s to the early 80s. Now, only a month after the rebirth of his company name, he found himself in the position of "the last man standing." Gary announced that he would take a step back and produce "mechanical action" pinball. This would be a product he hoped would appeal to a slightly different audience: the bar, restaurant and pub crowd. Licensed themes were to be the norm and a sophisticated tournament system was developed.
Today the company is alive and well, producing three or four titles a year. Many former pinball creators from the industry have found new opportunities at Stern who's games are steadily increasing in quality and popularity. Some recent titles such as Iron Man and Tron have become the company's highest earners.
There is also a thriving hobby community that has been around for many years. The focus has changed along with the games, but machines find good homes when they are finished on location as well as selling directly to individuals with no plans to "operate" them. Clubs, leagues, groups of all kinds exist with more than a dozen organized shows and tournaments each year world-wide. This is all supported by coin-op hobby magazines, in print and on line, with some focusing entirely on pinball such as Pinball Player (UK), Spinner (Holland) PinGame Journal (USA) and Pinball News. As baseball philosopher, Yogi Berra once said, "Dere's lots dat goes on."
Another pop philosopher, George Carlin, as a character in his TV sitcom once said, "Man will always play pinball." That prediction may prove accurate as we've seen the game rise and then fall to apparently unrecoverable depths, only to rise again to captivate a new generation of players. Maybe the magic, the involvement, the connection relates back to that Harry Williams exclamation, "The ball is wild!" The game has had a wild ride through history and that ride is certainly not over. To discover where it's going next, all we have to do is hang on and enjoy it!
by Jim Schelberg, Editor PinGame Journal