Is The Pinball Arcade Dead?

Pinball arcades were all the rage back in the 20th century. Kids and adults both would spend hours in front of these brightly lit pinball machines, whacking the metal ball around the board while more lights and sounds went off. It was an exhilarating time, but what about now?

Is the pinball arcade dead? Not completely. While the popularity of pinball arcades has fallen, the use of pinball machines has been reviving in recent years. It might be hard to find a pinball arcade, but it’s much easier to find a pinball machine in a bar or family entertainment venue as they are making a comeback in those places. 

Since the turn of the century, pinball arcades have seen a decline in popularity, but that doesn’t mean they are gone for good. Where did they come from, what did people love about them – and where are they now? We’ve got the answers.

To see some popular pinball machines that are currently on the market just click here.

Where Did Pinball Machines Come From?

Before pinball was invented, many Americans were playing lawn games that would eventually shape into many games we know today, such as:

  • Shuffleboard
  • Billiards
  • Bocce ball
  • Croquet
  • Golf
  • Pall-mall

The 1930s – The Rise

Eventually, these games moved away from the lawn and into a small table game. Slowly companies began adding flippers and bumpers, and by 1931, you could pay one penny to play these games at the arcade.

The 1970s – The Glory

By the 1970s, pinball machines were at the height of their popularity. Now, these machines were working with solid-state electronics and a digital display that caught the gamer’s eye. Soon pinball machines began to take after popular movies, such as Indiana Jones and The Wizard of Oz. Many arcades had rows of pinball machines during this time.

The 1980s – The Beginning of the End

The pinball industry took its first big hit in the 1980s when video games started to gain more popularity. Popular games started to take over the arcades and pretty soon replaced most of the pinball machines. Here are a few that came into existence during this time:

  • Pac-Man
  • Galaga
  • Asteroids
  • Space Invaders

The 1990s – A Rebirth

Eventually, the coin-operated video game industry collapsed, and the pinball industry saw another boost in popularity in the early 1990s. At this point, manufacturers were focusing on mainstream pop culture as an aid in design.

This surge in popularity didn’t last long. By the end of the decade, many popular manufacturers were forced to close. As a result, the industry as a whole suffered, again.

Gambling’s Hand in Pinball’s Fall

Another big factor that contributed to the decline of pinball machines was gambling. Like any game, someone found a way to make money off of it by making bets. Eventually, it grew out of hand, and authorities were forced to act. New York City banned pinball machines from 1940-1976.

The 2000s – A Comeback

Once again, the industry bounced back in the 2000s with the rise of independent pinball manufacturers. Aside from the technological advancements in the game itself, such as the inclusion of LCD, not much has changed with pinball machines. The pinball industry has been able to stay afloat, but pinball arcades are hard to find.

If Pinball is Back, Where Are the Arcades?

There are many reasons why the arcades disappeared, even though pinball fans remain. First is the fact that people play pinball for the game and not the design. In other words, there is no reason to have 40 pinball machines in a room.

These machines have been around long enough, and most people already know what they’re going to get into and only want to play the game. Only true pinball enthusiasts care about the design of the game. And in today’s arcades and entertainment centers, there is too much competition for pinball to dominate the scene.

In any arcade, you will find dozens of games that are flashing their lights and trying to pull you in. The idea of having an arcade dedicated to only one game is almost absurd.

How Pinball Culture Stays Alive

Despite years of success and failure, pinball machines have been able to stay in the game. For the longest time, pinball machines were tabletop games that only kids would play. Now, almost an entire century from when they were first introduced, they are still around today and enjoyed by all ages.

Pinball’s Adaptation Into Computer Age

The first reason why pinball culture is still alive is because of the adoption into the digital age. Before computers were around, whoever wanted to play pinball had to go down to the arcade and spend money to practice. This costs both time and money.

Then computers were introduced, and the whole world changed. Games like Full Tilt! made it possible to practice pinball at home for free. This increased popularity in the game from a digital standpoint. The increase in accessibility was a key factor in making the game live in the new century.

Today, there are hundreds of different pinball games you can buy online. This has single-handedly kept the spirit of pinball alive in the world and has made it much easier for more people to get into the game. On the other hand, this same accessibility is a huge contributing factor as to why pinball arcades have slowly vanished.

The Influence of Brewcades on Pinball

Another way pinball machines have been able to stay relevant in today’s world is by shifting audiences. In the early stages of pinball machines, kids would most often be seen playing these games. Then, in the 2010s, someone figured out that pinball and alcoholic beverages would go great together, and the rise of Brewcades began.

The idea is very simple; it’s part bar, part arcade. These adult playgrounds have been slowly popping up around the country. Adults 21 and older now have the opportunity to play some of their favorite games while drinking their favorite drinks. All of a sudden, your favorite pinball games are available for you to play without any kids around!

There are also family-oriented entertainment centers that offer arcades, food, bowling, bars, laser tag and more. These venues are another opportunity for pinball to remain part of today’s entertainment culture.

And, of course, many bars continue to carry pinball machines. Usually, you can find one or two bunched with the rest of the games. 

The Future of Pinball

The future of pinball machines is unclear. It’s hard to say if brewcades will last a while, or if it’s just a momentary trend. It’s likely pinball games will always be available online. While there’s no guarantee anyone will play them in the future if the past 90 years are any indication, there’s a good chance pinball will survive.

On the other hand, the idea behind pinball machines is entertaining, and it’s a fun way to challenge your reflexes. The problem is, it is a very limited game with little to no room for improvements, changes, or “leveling up.” In other words, there’s nothing new to the games. This makes it hard to stay relevant in today’s rapidly evolving game culture.

There is no way to say for sure what the future of pinball machines will look like. Right now, the industry is holding on by a string, but what’s next? There are already versions of virtual reality pinball out there, like this one. All we can do is enjoy it while we can, see what comes next and hopefully enjoy our favorite beer while we play.


Pinball arcades are a thing of the past. Without any new advancements, these games are slowly becoming just a novelty. The idea of having dozens of the same game is impractical, and arcades have realized that.

Fortunately for us, the game itself has proven to be a classic that (hopefully) will never go away. If it has been able to last almost a century thus far, we will likely see this game being played in the year 3000. Hopefully, by then, there will be a better way to save the ball from going straight down the middle of the bumpers.

Matt Robbs

There is nothing quite so enjoyable as bringing back memories from your childhood. We used to spend hours playing pinball in my friends basement and that really got me involved in everything retro!

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