Pinball, where have you been? This once insanely popular game has been in hiding the last dozen or so years, falling out of favour for a time, but now appears poised to make a comeback. Slowly but surely, building speed and growing with each passing day we see more and more of these machines, out there in the wild, more people talking about them, more interest in the pastime. It sometimes borders on the fanatical. Are we on the threshold of something?
Ever so cautiously, we ask…you, the devotes, dedicated players, enthusiasts, owners, is it true? Rumour or idle chatter, is pinball back? Is it a thing again? The answers comes quick, all agree, some with a bit of reserve, others with glorious full-on enthusiasm, YES. The reply we hoped for. Time to rejoice pinheads. Break out the quarters! Good to have you back dear friend…damn…you’ve been missed.
Follow us as we hang with the faithful, as they allow us into their world, their temples to the game, for a moment or two. We’ll attend service and just watch and listen and document. Expect it’ll be a great ride (ed: it was).
Pinball’s been destroying minds since the 1930s. I’d venture to guess most of you reading this post recall the “golden era”, that span between the early 1970s to mid-1990s when the game was at its peak of popularity. Back then, when one craved a fix, they only need head down to the nearest local arcade – every mall, shopping centre or retail block had one. While some were nice family friendly places, many were seedy, dark and dirty, hangouts for troubled, but generally harmless, youth. Arcade=low class.
At this point, pins were king. An arcade might have a wall of them, dozens and dozens of machines, most in use, stretching off as far as the eye could see. Ding, ding, ding, the noise was deafening. These places were always packed. The distinctive “clack” heard on earning a free play always turned heads. Could he be…a pinball wizard?
Of course there were other places to play. You might find a machine or two, variously, in a store, theatre, pub, bus terminal, bowling alley, or anywhere people congregated (little temples to the game). They were everywhere. An avenue of last resort – the local pool hall – every neighbourhood had one of there was always a few machines shoved in back. Most of these establishments were pretty questionable, even down right unsafe, dingy and smokey, populated by ne’er-do-wells and toughs looking for trouble. All but the hardest core pinheads, one’s who could hold their own in sketchy environment, dared venture inside. Your author did. But he was big fellow, even as a youth, and was no stranger to roughing it up so it was no big deal. Most players gave them a wide berth.
Arcade video games (aka vids) tried killing off pinball in the 1980s. The scheme didn’t fully succeed. Still, from that point forward pinball sorta played “second banana” even if the game still remained reasonably popular. Just not like it was.
Fast forward to the 1990s, home gaming is now huge. By the last years of the decade it pretty much nukes the arcade industry. Pinball has a brush with death and once the dust settled, there was but one manufacturer left (for most of the modern era, there were many).
Then a strange thing happened. Slowly. Since people couldn’t play at the arcades, there were none, they started collecting. New machines and old, the latter found socked away in back rooms and storage lockers, resurrected and brought back to playing condition. And it was not just pins, old vids, jukeboxes, they were all being snapped up. Arcade machines, pinballs in particular, were cool again. And it wasn’t just the old guys and their sentiment driving the market. New comers, ones who may never have known the real arcade experience, joined up.
Soon on a second manufacturer started producing games. And there’s rumour, started here folks, of a possible third. We made some calls and one former maker told us there’s been some serious “talk”. And while it’s unlikely the industry will ever reach the heights of old, it’s a rebirth of sorts.
Basements and back rooms, garages and spare bedrooms became the new arcades. Some collectors might have a machine or two, others a dozen or more. Some only stop when they run out of usable space (cough, cough, Alex, Josh). Some collectors like pins from specific eras or manufacturers, others it’s what ever they find. Taking up the hobby, it pays to learn a bit about pinball repair – the machines are not low maintenance. You can hire an “old school” tech if it’s beyond your skills.
Clubs are formed. Member’s float from collection to collection, for organized group play. They trade machines – it’s easy to get tired of one and want something different – help each other with repairs and act as an advocacy and support group. They put member’s machines on location, in pubs typically, since no one else does that any more, not to make money but to introduce them to a new audience or those who thought the game was dead.
Early November, the Bakker temple. It’s a club meeting. We arrive before everyone, to get a lay of the land, get some pre-people shots, chat up our host, that sort of stuff. Later it’ll be hopping but for now it’s quiet. We’re taken aback by the machines. Clearly our host, Alex, is serious when it comes to the hobby (dare we say a nut…in the best way possible). Passionate, proud, he’s a collector’s collector, his stable of machines impeccable. They’re like new. They’re better than new. Shiny, fast, spotless, each plays perfectly. Some have been highly customized. Who knew this was even a thing?
His collection includes machines from many of the big makers. Most are from the 1980s-1990s, a couple quite a bit newer. Themes run the gamut. Some are licensed tying in with films or TV shows and stuff like that, other come straight from the mind of the designer or the firm producing them. A couple real old machines wait in the garage to be fixed up.
Club members arrive, the church lights dim and the play begins. The noise, music, flashers, the over saturated colours, glare, reflections, pop artwork everywhere…it’s a sensory overload. Church is in! No one notices the guys with the cameras. Pinball face, absolute laser beam focus, complete concentration, that lost-in-the-game blank stare look. The world could be ending and they wouldn’t even notice. Everyone playing gets it. Flies on the wall, we take it all in. This is magic.
Later that same night. A stop at the Palamino Smoke House downtown to check out the games there. Some of the club’s come down to meet and greet with a pinball artist. This fellow, “Dirty” Donny Gillies will make an appearance in a follow up article. We ran out of space here and if I type one more word, my publisher will have my ass on a plate. Right Mike?
Mid-November, Edmonton, Yellowhead Inn. We’re in town on another mission. Unknown to us, where we’re staying, a dive hotel, is also home to some games. Cheap accommodation and pinballs? We’re blessed. These machines belong to the local pinball club, the Die Hard Pinball League who put them on location much like the Calgary group. Machines are mostly post 1990s, right up to brand new.
One pin is being worked on. Thanked the fellow for keeping the faith. This pinball, Embyron was a particular favourite of this author way back when. Loved the theme, the artwork, the sounds, the play. It always put up a fight as I recall, but it could be beaten. Plunked in a couple quarters once the fellow’s work was done. God I hate that machine. Couldn’t win to save my life. Need to practice more (damn fine advice).
Outside some club members hanging with the fixer-upper guy, Connie and I were the only ones playing. Most people in the bar seemed drawn to the VLTs instead. Silly rabbits!
Late December, the Brown place Calgary. Again, this was a meeting of the Calgary club and we were along to watch. Arrive early. Josh, tonight’s host, has a nice mixed collection of pinballs and vintage video games. Wasn’t a big vid player, but dabbled in it. Even the hard core pin guys experimented. His basement in pretty much full of machines. We’re out of room! Something a collector never wants to hear!
Much like the earlier club get-together, we blend into the background. That’s not a bad thing, in fact it’s the best place to be if a photographer hopes to get a candid look at things. No notices us, not even the kids. After all, there’s games to be played. More pinball face. Serious, stoic, unconcerned with what’s going on outside the game. More noise, chaos, frivolity. This is not some seedy arcade of old, we’re not scrounging for quarters (free play here), but we’re taken back. It’s just like we remember. This gig won’t make us much money (starving artist, starving writer, same thing), but for the fun alone, we’d have done it for nothing.
January, various times, in Calgary, with Gary Makota Repair. Gary’s been at it a long time. Working in the industry since the 1970s, there’s not an arcade machine he can’t repair, pretty much regardless of condition, make or era. Naturally this makes him a popular fellow, the only tech in the general area who’s got the skill, expertise and experience to do it all. Some collectors can fix their own machines and many hard core ones do, but some can’t. He’s there to help when it’s the latter. For those keeping the faith, this guy’s pope. A healer of souls…and machines. Kept us on the edge of our seats with his stories from the old days.
He allows us to tag along as he makes the rounds (thanks to the owners too) and we simply watch in awe. Get the feeling he’s done this before. Over a two day period, a video is fixed up, a pinball problem is addressed (Capt. Fantastic, a fav of your author in the “electro-mechanical” or “EM” era). Recall the pinball themed movie Tommy? This machine is based on it. The art designer was a little obsessed with, ahem, an “overly developed” representation of the female form. Russ Meyer approved!
Lastly, an old jukebox, one nightmarishly complex piece of machinery, is made to work again. How the hell does he do it? Tighten this, adjust that, replace this, all instinctively, and appearing as though effortless. A few minutes later Roseanne Cash is heard belting out a tune…
“Well, he couldn’t ride or wrangle, and he never cared to make a dime…but give him his guitar, and he’d be happy all the time…the little dark-haired boy who played the Tennessee flat top box. And he would play…”
And they would play…
Author notes: Going into this project we had great expectations we’d be able to capture the full “pinball experience” in one neat and tidy article and share it here. Foolish us. Not even close! We didn’t scratch the surface and could have added dozens more pics and pages more text and not touched on it any better than we did. It’s too broad a subject. Realize that now. Still, hope we sorta captured the spirit of it all. At least a wee bit. In hindsight that’s about the best we can hope for. We thank everyone involved for allowing us in. Know we were a pain, a distraction and appreciate being so welcomed and accommodated by everyone involved.
Machines featured prominently in this article…
Metallica (Stern, 2013/2014), Batman Forever (Sega, 1995), Baywatch (Sega, 1995), Rollergames (Williams, 1990), No Good Gophers (Williams, 1997), Pinball Magic (Capcom, 1995), Laser War (Data East, 1987), Who Dunnit (Williams, 1995), Monopoly (Stern, 2001), Duette (Gottlieb, 1955), Big Buck Hunter (Stern, 2010), Ghost Busters (Stern, 2016), Pinbot (Williams, 1986), Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends (Data East, 1993), Capt. Fantastic (Bally, 1976), Elektra (Bally, 1981), Embryon (Bally, 1981), Golden Axe (Video, Sega, 1989), Street Fighter (Video, Capcom, 1987), BurgerTime (Video, Bally-Midway, 1982), Vectrex (Home Machine, early 1980s), Sybaris (Jukebox, Rock-Ola, 1970s).
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: November 2016 – January 2017.
Location: Calgary and Edmonton AB.
Article references and thanks: Stern Pinball, Scientific Games Corporation, Internet Pinball Database, Alex Bakker, Josh Brown, Darryl Minsky, Gary Makota Pinball Repair.