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Pinball is one of the most recognizable and iconic options in coin-operated amusement. When we walk into a video game arcade, we expect to find pinball machines amongst the options that are available. At the same time, private ownership of pinball machines has been increasing as people seek to include them in their home game rooms or incorporate them into staff lounges or public areas in their businesses.
Are pinball machines still being made? With pinball experiencing a resurgence in both public and private settings, it might surprise you to learn that none of the companies that built pinball’s empire are still in operation. In fact, there is only one prominent pinball maker that has shipped multiple titles each year for the past decade and that is Sterns. But newcomers are helping to keep pinball alive in the 21st century.
Whether you’re shopping for a game of your own, looking to add some fun to a business space, or just interested in the history and future of this uniquely American pastime, there’s a lot to know about how history shaped the industry and where it appears to be headed. With some companies acting as custodians of the tradition and others seeking to innovate, it’s safe to say pinball will remain popular.
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Who Still Makes Pinball Machines?
The first commercial pinball-style amusements were introduced in the early 1930s. That means that pinball has been a part of American amusement culture for nearly a century. Tracing the advances in game technology over that time reads like a who’s-who of the important pinball machine makers that helped to establish these games as a must-have element of every arcade.
The status that pinball enjoyed in the 70s and 80s has a lot to do with the nostalgia that has made them a sought-after status symbol in-home game rooms as well as the private and public areas of businesses. The market for machines has spurred a growth in refurbishing specialists and re-sellers that repatriate American machines from abroad. It has also served to keep Stern Electronics in business as the maker that has ties to both the past and the future of the industry.
While Stern Electronics stands alone as the only “major” designer and builder in the industry, there are more than a dozen newcomers to the world of pinball that are helping to both meet the demand for new machines and drive innovation in game design. In addition to the companies building traditional solid-state tables, there are numerous companies offering virtual and visual tables for sale.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the history of the pinball machine. We’ll discuss the major milestones in game design as well as the manufacturers who contributed to that evolution. Doing so will help understand how Stern came to be the lone major manufacturer of pinball machines and how new companies and design innovations appear to be shaping the next century of pinball game play.
A Brief History of Pinball Machine Makers
The folks who’ve studied the history of pinball machines all agree that they are the result of game makers combining elements from pool tables and pin games. The earliest ancestors were stand-alone “Bagatelle Tables” that had players try to shoot balls with a cue stick to get them between pins and into holes that had been assigned point values. At some point, tabletop versions started to show up in bars and cafes.
Those early pinball-like machines were constructed of wood and lacked most of the features that we associate with contemporary pinball machines such as flippers, bumpers, and even automatic scoring. The two most popular game titles were “Whiffle Board” from Automatic Industries and “Ballyhoo,” which was created by the man who would go on to found Bally Manufacturing.
In the early days, game operators often gave away prizes for players who got high scores on their games. This, of course, led to cheating—which in turn led to the invention of the first innovation that we associate with modern pinball games. The “tilt” mechanism was introduced in games made by the Williams Manufacturing Company during the late 30s and 40s. Backglass and bumpers also started to appear in this era.
Just as the pinball tables that we know and love today were starting to take shape, the manufacturing facilities and materials needed to produce them were all directed to the national war effort. The war’s end saw the emergence of chrome and steel machines equipped with flippers, bumpers, backglass, and electromagnetic automatic scoring systems.
The Golden Era of Pinball Machines
From the 1950s to the 80s, pinball machines were one of the hottest amusement commodities in the country. This led to growth in the size and number of manufacturers offering pinball machines to foreign and domestic markets. This era saw a lot of innovation in game technology. It was also a time of mergers and sales that ended with all but one major manufacturer of pinball machines leaving the industry or going out of business entirely.
In the 1980s, Williams and Bally merged to form the largest and most prolific manufacturer of pinball machines during their golden era. Their collaboration was responsible for the most popular pinball machine in the modern era. The Addams Family game sold more than 20,000 machines world-wide and remains popular as a collectible to this day.
By 1976, the Gottlieb Company, which had introduced flippers to pinball machines in 1947, had been sold to Columbia Pictures. In 1984, Columbia decided to close the operation and sold the name to Premier Technology, which kept the name alive until they went out of business for good in 1996. The Williams/Bally merger continued to make machines until Williams Manufacturing closed that operation in 1999.
One company that emerged in the pinball machine industry during this era was Data-East, which was able to compete with the majors in the industry on its own. Data-East was purchased by Sega in 1994. In 1999, Sega would sell that segment of its business to Gary Stern, the son of Sam Stern—who had purchased the assets of Chicago Coin in 1977 to get into the game manufacturing industry.
The Stern Electronics Story
With Sam Stone’s purchase of Chicago Coin, Stern Electronics, Inc. was born. The elder Stone went on to purchase Seeburg Corporation, a jukebox manufacturer. With everything they needed to make a strong push into the gaming industry, Stern Electronics struggled to find a foothold. By 1985, Stern Electronics had left the amusement industry altogether.
While Stern Electronics had gotten out of the game, Pinstar, Inc. was a subsidiary that stayed involved in the industry by producing conversion kits for older Bally and Stern machines. Gary Stern was the president of Stern Electronics, Pinstar, and Data East after he purchased Data East from Sega in 1999.
From 2000 to the present, Stern has been the only major manufacturer of pinball machines in the world. The company now operates as Stern Pinball, Inc. with a manufacturing facility in Elk Grove Village, IL. It has produced scores of unique titles as well as numerous limited editions and re-themed or re-designed games. Renowned designers like Steve Ritchie, Brian Eddy, Keith Elwin, and George Gomez help keep Stern going strong.
Even as the only major manufacturer in the industry, Stern Pinball has had to adapt to the changing market conditions that have marked the past two decades. Stern now sees direct home sales make up between 35 and 60% of their total sales volume. The firm has also had to contend with numerous newcomers looking to establish themselves as the next big thing in pinball game design and manufacturing output.
The Future of Pinball Machine Manufacturing
There are anywhere from a half dozen to two dozen companies worth knowing about in the pinball machine manufacturing industry at the present moment. Which ones do or do not make the list depends almost exclusively on who you ask. Of course, Stern Pinball remains the recognized leader, but all of the top six game makers are responsible for titles that pinball enthusiasts will recognize.
In addition to game makers that are designing, manufacturing, and shipping popular titles on conventional pinball machines, there are also a large number of companies taking advantage of the digital revolution to produce virtual or visual pinball tables that they hope players will love as much or more than they enjoy traditional machines.
The titles that are currently available for purchase on Stern’s website include:
- Netflix Stranger Things
- Star Wars
- Elvira’s House of Horrors
- Jurassic Park
- Black Knight: Sword of Rage
- The Munsters
- The Beatles
- Iron Maiden: Legacy of the Beast
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Star Wars: Comic
- Star Trek
- Batman: Classic TV Series
There are an additional 46 titles listed in the archive on Stern’s site. In order to find out what titles are actually available for purchase; you need to use their website to contact a dealer or distributor.
Jersey Jack Pinball
According to Jersey Jack’s website, all of their titles are currently in stock and available for purchase. These include:
- Wizard of Oz
- The Hobbit
- Dialed In!
- Pirates of the Caribbean
- Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
American and International distributors can be found on the company’s website. If you want to get your hands on one of these titles, we suggest you make a move sooner rather than later.
Spooky Pinball is based in Benton, WI. The company started life as a podcast about pinball and grew when a single custom re-theme turned into an opportunity to go into full-scale design and manufacturing. The small company has produced a number of popular titles, but they tend to sell out before they’re even officially launched. This company is behind titles such as:
- Domino’s Spectacular Pinball Adventure
- The Jetsons
- America’s Most Haunted
- Rob Zombie’s Spookshow
- Total Nuclear Annihilation
- Alice Cooper’s Nightmare Castle
If you have any interest in getting your hands on a Spooky game, you need to be a regular visitor to their website. They produce tiny numbers of each game, and their titles have a lot of demand with enthusiasts.
Working out of The Netherlands, Dutch Pinball has produced only two titles so far.
- Bride of Pinbot
- The Big Lebowski
The popularity of the Lebowski game alone makes this a name worth knowing. The company seems to be poised to expand on its offerings and increase the number of units that it can bring to the market. It will be interesting to see what the next few years holds for Dutch Pinball.
American Pinball is a new company that has decided to set up operations in the traditional home of the pinball machine manufacturing industry—Chicago, IL. To date they have issued two titles:
We think that it would be great to see this company expand on what they’ve accomplished. What could be better than a return to the glory days when several large manufacturers called Chicago home?
Chicago Gaming Company
Don’t let the website fool you, the games that this company puts out are up there with the best on the market. On top of that, they’re another company that is paying homage to the central role that Chicago has played in making pinball what it is today. Their titles include:
- Monster Bash Remake
- Attack From Mars
- Medieval Madness Remake
Medieval Madness is one of the most popular titles of all times. CGC’s version is put out under a license from Williams Electronics Games, Inc., who made the original. As an added twist on the classic, CGC has made three special editions available: Classic, Special, and Royal.
So far, this company has produced only one title—Tokyo Perfect Drift. Even that title is actually a collaboration between Quetzal Pinball and STR Pinball. It remains to be seen whether this collaboration will continue for additional titles or whether either of the parties involved has anything else in store for pinball enthusiasts.
HomePin enjoys a solid reputation within the industry for supply parts and providing resources to pinball enthusiasts. They recently released their first original title—Thunderbirds. HomePin seems to be at a point where they can take their game design and manufacturing from the level of hobby to pursue becoming a major player in the industry. Whether they will do so or not will only be revealed with time.
The Best Pinball Machines of All Time
Many people prefer older machines over the newer remakes or virtual machines. For many people having a pinball machine is not only fun but also is a way to own a piece of history.
If you are interested in the top 10 pinball machines of all time then you HAVE to watch this video below!
Everything Else You Need to Know About Pinball Machine Manufacturing
If you’re looking to stay on top of all of the new titles that come onto the market, the eight companies that we’ve profiled are a great place to start. There are also numerous newsletters and ezines dedicated to staying on top of the latest industry news. But there are a few other areas of pinball culture that you should look into if you’re interested in getting your hands on a game for your home or business.
The first thing that you need to know is that resale of classic game titles is a booming sector within the industry. Not only does it give you the chance to shop for titles that you enjoyed playing in the arcade when you were younger, but it gives you a chance to invest in a collectible that will appreciate in value over time. There are plenty of reputable companies that refurbish older games.
While a refurbished game with a popular title will probably cost you a little more than a brand-new game, it will also give you a much better idea of what you can expect the game’s value to be moving forward. It can be almost as hard to find a top-quality machine with a popular classic title as it is to get a spot in line for one of Spooky’s new releases, but persistence pays.
In addition to refurbished conventional games, you can look into virtual pinball machines. These cabinets use high definition monitors in place of a conventional game surface. All of the pinball action takes place on the screen like a video game, but the physics simulators that they use to make the game real are as good as it can be. As a bonus, you can easily switch between thousands of popular titles without dedicating any more space than it takes to have a single cabinet in your game room.
Between the nostalgia behind the return to games of yesterday and the exciting innovations coming from new manufacturers in the industry, it is safe to say that pinball will continue to enjoy popularity with American amusement enthusiasts. Whether you look at the purchase of a game as an investment, a childhood dream come true, or something else entirely, you have a lot of options to consider before making a decision.
Whether you buy new, refurbished, or virtual—it’s important to make sure that you know the maintenance requirements of your machine. It’s just as important that you keep up with those requirements to make sure that your investment holds value or that your pastime performs at its best. Either way, just knowing that there are options available is a great place to start.