After decades of decline in hopeless competition with videogames, pinball has found refuge on the web. Fans sell weighty multi-volume pinball histories and DVDs of restoration and repair lessons, talk shows, and documentaries. You can browse news sites like Pinball News and Pinside, listen to podcasts and join clubs and forums. The apparatus of online research tools includes Arcade History, the Internet Pinball Machine Database, Pinball Literature Index and World Pinball Directory. Through the web, you can also download freeware pinball engines and thousands – literally thousands – of table layouts, called “pintables.”

And there’s more. In fact, the web’s pinball revival is more thoroughgoing than you’d expect – or, perhaps, want.

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The world’s last maker of new machines is Stern Pinball, a relatively recent startup in Melrose, Illinois run by devout, not to say obsessed, collectors. Each machine they build contains 3,500 parts, including 1,200 screws, nuts and washers, 115 lights, 70 switches, 357 tie wraps and half a mile of wire. Some Stern designers are refugees from Williams, which killed its pinball division in 2000 after a tantalizing flirtation with new tech in its abortive “Pinball 2000” line.

Like vinyl records and other analogue amusements, pinball survives through the grace of connoisseurs. At pinball museums in Las Vegas and Aubervilliers, France, historians can recount in detail the pinball timeline, a progression through flippers, pop bumpers, triggers, slingshots, gobble holes and ramps. Collectors discuss the work of legendary pintable designers the way musicians discuss Bach fugues. Pat Lawlor, Ed Krynski, Steve Ritchie (“the Master of Flow”) and other elite creators achieved excellence in a lowbrow yet subtle and demanding form, much as Von Dutch and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth brought true artistry to Kustom Kulture.

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However rarefied the dialogue, however circumscribed the industry, pinball still has, even today, many fans. The VPForums (“Complete Pinball Discussion”) boast – gad! – nearly 140,000 members and 290,000 posts. Pinball fans hold conventions, of course, and the tournament scene is active. Committed athletes join the International Flipper Pinball Association and compete to rise in the World Pinball Rankings.

Pinball looms large in a whole gameroom industry of jukeboxes, classic arcade videogames and pachinko. The eBay “Pinball” category (under “Collectibles”) routinely features over 1,000 auctions, where reconditioned machines fetch prices from $1,500 to $4,000 and, occasionally, way up. Often, buyers are nostalgic middle-aged guys who have finally shipped the kids off to college and are now busily recapturing their adolescence. In a relentless search for vintage machines, collectors have started scouring Europe and Asia, because the American market is basically locked up. Every working pinball machine in the continental United States is not just owned, it is curated. It is loved as a trophy.

And pinball passion continues to grow in the very area that almost killed the original: videogames.

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Pinball fans aren’t quite like gamers. They’re techie, true, but in a solder-and-solenoid way. They’re generally older and have a longer sense of history. Hearing the phrase “penny arcade,” you and I think automatically of Gabe and Tycho, but pinball scholars maintain exhaustive histories of actual penny arcades.

That said, the relationship between pinball and videogames is deep and venerable. Among Electronic Arts’ first games, in 1983, was a re-release of Bill Budge‘s 1982 Pinball Construction Set for the Apple II. A huge hit that sold over 300,000 copies, Construction Set introduced one of the earliest consumer drag-and-drop GUIs, ahead of the Apple Lisa and the Macintosh. That EA release is still remembered for its cover design, with the designer’s name looming far larger than the title; Budge had already achieved stardom with 1981’s Raster Blaster. (Budge, now a tools programmer at Sony Computer Entertainment, says he’s a terrible pinball player.) The Budge legacy continues even today, in Oxygen Interactive’s recent Powershot Pinball Constructor for the Nintendo DS.

As for the many, many later specimens – MobyGames lists over 175 pinball computer games – most are routine, though many make good use of computer-specific features like animation, multiple linked tables and temporary targets. Beyond this, a few games display remarkable originality:

  • Combining pinball with tactical warfare, Nintendo’s Odama lets you roll a giant pinball over enemy troops in ancient Japan.
  • The Arthurian game Golden Logres is one of several games that offer mission-based pinball with unusual roleplaying elements. The maker, Japanese indie LittleWing Pinball, is still hanging in there after 17 years.
  • Living Ball.
  • “Original” isn’t the word for Metroid Prime Pinball, but it’s heartwarming to know this thing exists. It may be the most popular pinball game of the decade.
  • The Metroid pinball game was created by Adrian Barritt and Richard Horrocks, designers of the much-praised Pro Pinball series. These hardcore simulations feature impressive physics, permit adjustment of dozens of “factory settings” and behave uncannily like physical machines.

Lately, like many other kinds of videogames – more so, really, than its physical inspiration – retail computer pinball has stagnated. Xbox Live Arcade occasionally offers new efforts, such as Pinball FX, which lets you control the ball by waving your arms at the Vision Camera. The DS has four or five decent, if unremarkable, pinball games. Otherwise, only a few casual games, like PopCap’s pachinkovian Peggle, still push the form in new directions.

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But history repeats itself, as a new pinball community has emerged to save the form.

The real action today is in two fan-made freeware programs, Visual Pinball and Future Pinball. Both platforms aim, not totally successfully, for physical simulation of conventional pinball layouts. (To represent advanced post-1980s machines, they require a plug-in emulator, Visual PinMAME.) No ancient Japanese troops or RPG storylines here; these programs’ interest lies not in radical design, but in their feverishly active communities. Enthusiasts have created immense numbers of free, downloadable pintables, an endless parade of faithful replicas and new designs. Some new boards are spectacular carnivals of color and lights that rival the heights of the past.

So the virtual world parallels physical reality. Having drawn close to death in both realms, the pinball platform – the art form – thrives again. But a darker aspect of old-time pinball culture has also bounced back – unfortunately.

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Many pinball sites have a wistful tone. Though they link to the news sites and tournaments, pages like Russ Jensen’s Pinball History mainly reminisce of bygone days. Sometimes they mention in passing that pinball was once illegal in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Baltimore and many other cities. The games had a distinctly seedy reputation, fostered by gambling and mob connections. Many pinball manufacturers also made slot machines. (See “Video Vegas” in The Escapist issue No. 94.) Today that Coney Island honky-tonk stigma, that atmosphere of dark, smoky bars, has vanished. Or has it?

This is the other side of the computer pinball revival. You can download many Visual and Future Pinball tables, especially new fan-made designs, from honest, above-board hobby sites. But tables that replicate published games, especially those based on trademarked, licensed properties, are legally dubious at best. These are available mainly through the online equivalent of smoky bars: warez sites. Tomorrow’s Heroes links to a few of these dodgy sites, full of flashing ads, pop-ups and urgent appeals to click vote trackers – although many of that list’s links are dead.

Now, as before, pinball seems to attract an unsavory element. It seems some things never change.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.

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