A personal favorite of many, Pinball Machines has undeniably changed the course of gaming history. Even with the creation of video game consoles and online computer games, old-school style of amusement trumps down present-day entertainment. How so?
For starters, natural way of winning and earning rewards is already an achievement in itself as opposed to modern technology that already took the fun out of the true gaming experience especially with players being able to manipulate the game.
That’s what sets classic arcade games, such as Pinball Machines, apart from contemporary games. It gives its players genuine gaming experience and that crossing the finish line isn’t as easy as entering a cheat. Patience, accuracy and determination is a requisite and key to winning.
Although the industry showed decline over the past decades due to the fact that it is being considered a form of gambling and emergence of modern gaming technology, countries in major parts of the US and Europe are slowly being hooked again to the world-renowned arcade game. In fact, in the International Flipper Pinball Association’s World Pinball Player Ranking, the world’s official pinball ranking system, ranking players are mostly from the US, Canada, France, and Switzerland.
But how did Pinball Machines came to being? And what makes it so resilient that it was able to stand the test of time? This article will take you to a trip down memory lane and show you how Pinball Machines came into being and turned into the biggest game of all time.
A Brief History of Pinball Machines
“The Early Years”
During King Louis XIV, a game called bagatelle was invented. A cross between a pool table and a pinball table, It is an indoor game inspired by billiards with a main goal of shooting the ball into a hole guarded by wooden pegs without knocking over the latter.
In mid-1700s, bagatelle evolved to Billard Japonais; an invention in Western Europe that used the same device (Spring Launcher) as the existing pinball machines today.
Decades later, the birth of modern pinball emerged when British Inventor Montague Redgrave upgraded the bagatelle, called the ball shooter. The newly improved spring launcher was relatively smaller in size, used metal pins and replaced balls with marbles
“Birth of Pinball Machines and its Coin-Operation”
By the turn of the century, bagatelles turned mechanical and was more popularly known as marble games/pin games that used coins in order to function. The design as well changed with a glass on top of the table but still retaining Montague Redgrave’s signature plunger device to launch the ball.
In 1931, Whiffle Board came into being. It was the first ever coin-operated pinball machine to be invented. Years later in Chicago, Raymond Maloney created the Ballyhoo that further the gaming industry during the 30s. But the first ever coin-operated machine that really made a hit during the Great Depression-era was Baffle Ball by D. Gottlieb & Company.
The decade showed rapid prominence of pinball machines across the US which resulted to the emergence of other pinball machines such as Bingo by Bingo Novelty Company, Mill’s Official, and Rock-Ola Juggle Ball by David Rockola.
“Electric Pinball Machines”
2 years after the birth of Whiffle Board, use of electricity as the backbone of pinball machine’s operations was introduced and was evident in Pacific Amusement Co.’s Contact. Not only was it the first pinball machine to be powered by electricity but also the one who introduced solenoids that added momentum to the ball and an electric ringing bell that rings every time a ball shoots up in the hole.
With the effects of great depression heavily felt by Americans, and demand for cheaper form of entertainment getting higher, players resort to cheating by lifting and shaking the machine in order to obtain a prize. As a result, Harry Williams, owner of world-famous Williams Manufacturing, invented the tilt-mechanism to avoid the aforementioned.
Towards the end of the decade, over 150 companies have manufactured different pinball machines with most of them situated in Illinois, Chicago.
“Golden Age of Pinball Machines”
After the success of Baffle Ball, D. Gottlieb created buzz with the release of
Humpty Dumpty, the first flipper pinball machine that regained people’s interest in pinball machines. Steve Korder continued to innovate pinball machines by doubling the flippers in his Triple Action machine.
Towards the end of 1940s, D. Gottlieb dominated the pinball machine industry especially in the 1950s when they released the first modernized version of pinball machine called Spot Bowler.
However, the era wasn’t all clear skies. Production of pinball machines dwindled as an effect of the war until late-1940s. It was also during this time that pinball was banned in many parts of the US as it was perceived as a form of gambling rather than a game or sport. In fact, the then Mayor of New York City, Fiorello LaGuardia, ordered the confiscation of pinball machines and arrest of its owners. Subsequently, all impounded machines were smashed using a sledgehammer by the mayor himself. Las Vegas was the only city at that time that allowed the presence of pinball machines.
“Rise of Electronic Pinball Machine”
After 2 decades, the fad had a comeback with the introduction of electronic gaming of pinball machines. Such had a significant added bonus to the gaming experience like electronic scoring, sound and speech, and of course, a much cooler design and digital displays.
The Spirit of ’76 by Micro Games and Hot Tip by Williams Company dominated the decade with the latter flourishing until the 80s.
But like in its Golden Age, pinball machines exhibited tremendous decline primarily due to the rise of videogames which made arcades switch to video games. Moreover, several pinball machine manufacturers had to close it doors like the Chicago Coin (which was by the Stern family) and Bally (acquired by Williams Company)
This however was reverted when the US overturned the pinball machine ban and the rise of innovatively designed pinball machines such as Gorgar, Xenon, and Black Hole.
“Rebirth of Pinball Machine and the Digital Age”
The merging of Bally and Williams Company as well as the entry of new manufacturers such as Data East Pinball and Capcom Pinball paved way to the rebirth of pinball machines after its drastic downfall in the previous decade.
The 90s have created some of the greatest pinball machines of all time, namely Indiana Jones, Twilight Zone, Tales of the Arabian Nights, Star Trek, and the most popular in pinball history — The Addams Family-themed pinball machine, with over 21,000 machines sold.
Despite that, pinball machine’s popularity weren’t as strong and stable as it was 50 years ago, and so several manufacturers opted to leave the industry including Capcom, Gotlieb, and even Williams Company. At the turn of the 21st century, The Pinball Factory and Stern Pinball were the only pinball machine manufacturer left.
No other company have manufactured original pinball machines until Jersey Jack Pinball released its first originally manufactured pinball machine, The Wizard of OZ,
How Pinball Machines Evolved
Ever wondered how pinball machines changed throughout the years? Especially in their appearance and features? Well here are some of the pinball machines that went down in history.
Revolutionizing the old Billard Japonais, Montague Redgrave’s refurbished bagatelle composed of several holes across the entire pool table that is guarded with pegs made out of metal pins (initially wooden pins) and used marbles instead of balls. The said design, particularly the spring launcher, is still found on present-day pinball machines.
Ballyhoo Pinball Machine
This pinball machine is definitely an upgrade from the previous design of bagatelle. Although Raymond Moloney retained some aspects of the bagatelle to the Ballyhoo, holes have been strategically positioned and labeled with score numbers in order to easily determine the winner. Pop of colors were also added from the initial all-wood design of its predecessor.
Humpty Dumpty Pinball Machine
A totally different look from the previously mentioned pinball machines, Humpty Dumpty was the first pinball machine to introduced flipper bumpers that helps prolong the actual gameplay and takes on a more contemporary design that set the trend for succeeding pinball machines.
Spirit of ‘76
This machine was released in 1976 and is the first pinball machine to have microprocessor. Despite the fact that it is one of the first innovation of pinball machine in the electronic gaming realm, not many were a fan of the machine primarily because of the design as well as the interface of the machine.
Addams Family Pinball Machine
Based on the hit move, The Addams Family, this machine was deemed the best-selling and most popular pinball machine in the history. The machine itself takes its players a tour of the mansion equipped with different modes to test your pinball skills. Its popularity led to the creation of a Special Collector’s Edition (The Addams Family Gold) with only 1,000 machines produced and sold.
The Wizard of OZ Pinball Machine
At present, The Wizard of OZ Pinball Machine is one of the latest and the best original pinball machine to be created after Stern Pinball concluded its creation of pinball machines in mid-2000. It features an LCD in the back box, LED lighting, and 4 modes with exciting interface and gameplay.
The Pinball Machine Champions
A true legend, Roger Sharpe has made a great impact in the in the pinball gaming industry. He was better known for his stint in the New York City Council in 1976 when he proved to the tribunal that pinball is is a game of skill and not a form of gambling as the latter is merely a game of luck. This success led to the legalization on pinball machines across the US.
He dominated the industry in the 80s and became the Director of Marketing and Licensing for Williams & Bally. In the 90s, along with Steve Epstein, he founded the International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA) that created the first official pinball ranking system in the world, better known as World Pinball Player Ranking (WPPR).
Roger Sharpe is the father of 2 of the most notable pinball players in the world, Zach and Josh Sharpe, taking the 5th and 19th spots respectively.
Keith Elwin is generally regarded as the top pinball player, ranking second at the WPPR and first at the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association (PAPA) rankings. The 44-year old has been competing for many years now and owns over 60 pinball machines. No wonder he’s one of the greats in the industry.
A champion in the 6 tournaments hosted by PAPA, 3-peat winner at the Pinball Flipout Expo, and AMOA International Pinball Expo champion are some of his achievements throughout the course of his pinball gaming career.
Officially the best pinball player in the world today, Jorian Engelbrektsson ranked first in the WPPR. When the Swedish pinball player won the PAPA’s 10th World Championship, he became the first non-American to hold the championship title.
Apart from the PAPA championship title, he was also dubbed as the “World’s Greatest Pinball Player” title twice (2009 & 2014) by IFPA. But what can be considered as the pivotal moment of the WPPR history was Engelbrektsson and Elwin’s fight for the World’s Greatest Pinball Player title in 2014 where he defeated the incumbent champion Keith Elwin with just 7.58 WPPR points
Jorian was recognized in several pinball tournament both in his hometown and abroad namely, European Pinball Championship, Pinball Expo Flip Out Tournament, Pre-Pinburgh Tournament, Lyons Pinball Spring Classic and Stockholm Open.
At a young age, Robert has always been a fan of pinball machines, just like his mother. Although he was diagnosed with autism, that didn’t stop him to pursue his love for pinball and create history in the industry.
His first ever tournament was the Canadian Pinball Championship where he ranked 12 out of the 100 competitors of the tournament. Currently holding the 9th place of the WPPR and top spot in Canada, Robert has competed in various pinball tournaments in the US and Canada namely the Replay League, NW Pinball Championships, IFPA US National Pinball Championship, Pincouver!, Lyons Pinball Spring Classic, and VRPA League to name a few.
A documentary about the life and career of Robert Gagno entitled Wizard Mode is already on its final stages of development. The film will not only feature his pinball career throughout the years and the entire industry, but also aim to raise awareness on autism. In his own words, “Hopefully people will buy more books about autism and talk about it more. Because then it will help people understand the people around them better and not just see them as a label. ”
Legacy of Roger Sharpe, Zachary (or Zach) is considered a preeminent figure in the industry. The 32-year old is currently the 4th in WPPR. He is the incumbent Vice President of the International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA). Along with his brother Josh, they established the World Pinball Player Rankings (WPPR) in 2006 which the current notable ranking system in the pinball realm.
In 2002, he took over the Illinois Pinball Association which his brother started in 1998 and continued making contributions to the competitive pinball gaming industry. But apart from playing pinball, Zach has a column at the Play Meter Magazine, as well as a contributor at Critic’s Corner Too!.
Zach has won several tournaments including the Michigan Pinball Expo, Lyons Pinball Spring Classic, NW Pinball Championships, Danish Pinball Open, Dutch Pinball Open, and Louisville Arcade Expo to name a few.
It is no secret that people’s fascination over pinball machines have dwindled over the past couple of decades as it is overpowered by contemporary games and gadgets. Manufacturers today would much rather produce machines that would earn them a living rather than take risk in building new pinball machines. Although unfortunate, it’s still great that several countries in the world, particularly Europe and the US, are rekindling the once prominent gaming industry in the world. And no matter how advanced technology get, Pinball Machines will always remain an icon as it was one who paved the way to the birth of contemporary gaming.