I love pinball.
Cool story, bro, but I do.
There's something about that idea of a kinetic universe under glass. A fast, exciting journey through alleys, ramps and bumpers, with flashing lights, blaring music and wild sound effects all providing a visual and aural soundtrack to the chaos.
Pinball is built around Pavlovian satisfaction, with the addiction for many players coming from the brain recognising success. A small self-congratulatory feeling sent throughout the body whenever a solid shot is achieved or a difficult goal reached. You know that feeling you get when you hurl a ball of paper into a bin and nail it? Imagine if, every time you did that, a fanfare played, lights flashed and a sultry voice screamed "JACKPOT!!!" at you.
A lot of people would probably chuck out a lot more paper, that's for dang sure.
Pinball is a deceptive game. Like many casino games, Pinball is brilliant at convincing you that you are in complete control of the situation, and that everything is going to plan, when in actuality, that's probably not the case. A cash-guzzling monster, its essential design is to take money from the player, which it does via a hypnotic sensory experience, teamed with a constant tease of "Oh, you nearly got it that time, why not try just one more time"
Good pinball machines are essentially mechanical strippers. Convincing you that "Hey, you're so cool, You aren't like the other guys who come in here." and the next thing you know you're out of cash and ass-first on the street, wondering where you went wrong, and convinced that you'll get her number "next time"
Ok, maybe I'm reaching. But terrible metaphors aside, Pinball is great. It's exciting, fast-paced, skilfull, heart pounding, gorgeous looking, satisfying to play, and great competitive fun for all the family.
Y'know, like Strippers. (...What is WRONG with me??)
Pinball was originally introduced to bars up and down America as Bagatelle, a simple table-top game where you fired small ball-bearings into a playfield of pegs and, well, hoped you "won"
During the Depression, this was seen as a cheap form of casual entertainment for barflys of the time. It was very successful, and by the 1930's the industry was blossoming, led by upstart companies Gottlieb and Bally.
You know who doesn't like it when people are having fun? that's right: Everybody.
Pinball felt the sting in the 1940's when Mayor La Guardia banned the game in New York, as it was a commonly held belief that they were a form of gambling. Raids were carried out, Untouchables-style, and thousands of pinball machines were destroyed across, in very publiicised manners such as mass smashings and bonfires. Pinball had become the devil's spawn and must be destroyed for the good of humanity, like Beatles merchandise or Nickelback records.
The leading manufacturers stayed alive by shipping their games over to Europe, where pinball was fast finding a new audience. The machines themselves constantly evolved. First they became coin-operated, then started featuring more complex electrical components. The biggest innovation that would change the shape of the entire industry came in 1947, when Gottlieb outfitted their new release Humpty Dumpty, with two player-controlled flippers.
This minor design idea would become single-handedly responsible for the phenomenom to follow.
Back in America, Pinball was finally freed from its questionable status as a country-corrupting monster in 1976. A man called Roger Sharpe testified before a governing committee that Pinball was a game of skill, not a game of chance and was therefore not a gambling device. Sharpe played some games before the committee, using his skills to hit specific shots and correctly predicting the balls trajectory. It was decided that the ban was to be abolished in New York immediately, and many states followed suit afterwards.
It was on, and Pinball absolutely flooded the American market for the following decade. Almost every single store, garage, laundromat, and street corner was outfitted with games as the manufacturers poured out thousands upon thousands of machines. By the 1980's Pinball was absolutely EVERYWHERE, and, coupled with technological advances, talented designers, awesome artwork and popular licences, it would head into the 1990's stronger than it had ever been.
At this stage arcade giants Williams (incorporating Bally) had become the masters of the industry, having leapt in feet-first as soon as the U.S ban was lifted and banging out a series of fantastic and hugely successful games. Bally/Williams continued to rule the roost throughout the early 90's with its popular range of movie licensed games, often featuring excellent Dot-Matrix animation and fantastic sound, speech and light shows. Sega and Capcom also wanted in on the burgeoning market, and began producing their own games. Gottlieb, sadly, did not adopt to the modern industry fast enough, and the very first Pinball kings fell from grace hard and fast, before bowing out in 1996.
Gottlieb would soon be joined on the unemployment line, however, as pinball suffered a huge decline toward the new millenium, as the generation who grew up alongside it found life moving them on, whilst the generation replacing them had access to far more reliable, portable, powerful, and cheaper technology in the form of home consoles, the internet, mp3 players and Saved By The Bell: The College Years. It wasn't long before Capcom, Data East, and Bally/Williams closed their pinball divisions, all within a very short space of time.
Fast forward to today, and only one (major) company remains, Chicago-based Stern Electronics, who continue to produce games at the rate of one or two a year. There are some small independent companies attempting to gain ground, but, in such an expensive niche business, they are frequently failing to deliver upon their plans and promises, leaving many investors and customers angry, out of pocket and in some cases, straight up cheated.
Moving into editorialising here, with an opinion that is unpopular amongst my fellow silverball fans. Pinball cannot regain its 90s stranglehold as people like to believe it can and will. Every single day there is a new article written somewhere that "Pinball is making a comeback" and this article has been rewritten again and again for over 15 years now.
Looking at things from a pragmatic standpoint, the games are incredibly expensive, physically huge in size, require constant maintenence, are costly to ship overseas, have unstable software and are expensive and difficult for beginners to play. All this whilst competing in a world where people can get so much easy entertainment, in their back pocket, for free.
Whilst that seems like a low note to end this piece on, let it be known that pinball also can't ever be classed as "dead"
There are still thousands of these machines in existence, lovingly restored and cared for by fans and collectors. There are many ways for people to experience these games digitally, and various national leagues, tournaments and coin-op expo's are held around the world, which you can attend in order to experience and play these beautiful works of art. You can still find new games out in the wild, though obviously a little more sporadically than you could a decade or so ago.
The world of entertainment has changed too drastically in the last 20 years for pinball to be a viable venture that will mass populate the laundromats of the world. But that doesn't mean it can't still be played and enjoyed today as a nostalgic museum piece and reintroduced as such to all future generations. Pinball lives forever as a marvel of a time capsule, and a constant reminder of how successfully a phenomenom of pure and unashamed fun can capture the heart and spirit of an entire population.
Pinball's place in the rollercoaster history of Interactive Entertainment cannot be denied. It's a colourful, fantastical and indelible mark on the roadmap of the industry that we all love.
At one point, it was making more money than the entire movie industry, and whilst it may not reach those dizzying heights again, it is absolutely wonderful that we ever had it at all.
Thanks for reading. This is a VERY-abridged version of Pinball's storied, 70-odd years of history. But I just wanted to share a basic synopsis of how pinball came to become the global monster of the 80s/90s.
This is part of a short series I intend to write, keep an eye out for a list of my fave games, some of pinballs worst art, and some fun trivia.
Are you a pinball fan? Is it an era that passed you by? What licensed themes would make good Pinball today? Do you play Pinball video games? I'm very interested in hearing your thoughts and experiences.
Thanks again for reading. The floor is open, so grab the mic friends.