Collector’s Choice: What Makes Pinball Machines So Valuable?

I think many of us would agree that mechanical pinball machines are not only iconic pieces of culture in the 90s, but they also hold plenty of potential higher value in the secondary market regardless of being a collector or even just a player. The discussion about prices is endless, whether you look from Pinside to Reddit, ranging from a few hundred bucks to easily above ten thousand dollars or more.  

The big question is, why has this become the case? Just how exactly do collectors evaluate the value of pinball machines on the market? What has caused this increased valuation of pinball machines amongst collectors over the decades that just seems to be continuing to grow? 

 

History

Given that pinball machines were actually illegal in the United States for quite some time in the 20th century, this meant that certain pinball machines had only very limited releases when pinball manufacturers were publicly forced out of production around the 1940s and still kept their release numbers small even afterward. This scarcity plays a part in why some pinball machines might now have a hefty price tag compared to others, such as the original Williams’ 1997 version of the Medieval Madness pinball machine that has less than 5,000 units ever made.

 

Limited Units

Following from the previous point, pinball machines have generally been notorious for their limited production runs throughout the decades, keeping the demand higher than the supply. The reason for this is twofold: to make sure that production costs for materials can be kept at a low enough range that is purchasable by the general public during its release, and also to ensure build quality is consistent for each pinball machine made. This is because many—if not all—pinball machines are fixed with complicated mechanical and electrical components which still require manual installation that cannot be done with ordinary factory machinery.

 

Condition

Maintenance can be tough or worth quite a bit in itself, which is why preserving the condition of your pinball machine is important. Pinball machines in the past were already considered next-gen in terms of the technology being used for them even by the end of the 20th century. For this, you would need to factor in the type of pinball machine that you are purchasing as there are three kinds currently available on the market—Electrical Mechanical (EM), Solid State (SS), and Dot Matrix Display (DMD). To avoid using incessant jargon, the main difference between the three types of pinball machines is how advanced the technology used by them is. This usually does not affect the playability of pinball machines themselves, but it does play a part in determining upkeep and restoration costs, which some might be concerned with.

This is where restoration efforts matter. Unlike most collector items that pride themselves on being in original condition, pinball machines are worth more on the market when they are still in good or impeccable working condition. When pinball machines are maintained, it showcases its value and playability through the fact that it has been cared for, rather than just shoved into a room and forgotten. As long as you take care of your pinball machine properly, it’ll last you a lifetime and give you the best value for your money. Restoring pinball machines increases its resale value, so don’t hesitate the next time you might want to play a game or two on your collector pinball machine as it will not damage its value!

A before and after picture of a restored 1976 Space Odyssey pinball machine. This was done by the Joseph Henry Group of Princeton University.

 

Technology

While the rise of video games was what led to pinball machines and other retro games nearly becoming obsolete in the past, it’s undeniable that modernization and improvements in technology have also fostered the growth of mechanical pinball machines over the years. New tie-ins with digitalized pinball—imagine immersive pinball experiences with VR and 3D sharks!—encourage exposure amongst younger people and allow more to get into the game, increasing pinball’s overall value.

 

Nostalgia Factor & Gameplay

Despite digitalisation of pinball, I believe that such things will never be able to take away from the experiences of owning and playing a real mechanical pinball machine. Nostalgia plays a big part in this statement. Pinball designers take huge inspiration from pop culture when creating the gameplay and aesthetic of certain pinball machines. It is our constant exposure to pop culture that allows certain pinball machines to thrive more than others because even those who aren’t diehard fans can appreciate the references that are weaved into the gameplay. In fact, the themes themselves are a story that the pinball machine tells, and those who do it well are favoured throughout the decades. A great example of this is the Bally 1992 Addams Family release that is still a hit after more than two decades since it first came out due to its engaging gameplay and references to the popular 1991 version of the film that starred Angelica Huston and Raul Julia.

Don Highley is an avid collector from Vacaville. This shot shows some of his favourite pinball machines in his collection. Don also repairs pinball machines and jukeboxes in his spare time.

 

Demand & Appreciation

The value in purchasing a used pinball machine comes simply from the demand itself. How much do you value the game and the experiences it gives you? Does its theme have some significance in your life? There are forum discussions online about whether pinball machines will how and what kind of purchases are good but in the end, most of the demand for pinball comes from how much appreciation is given by the players themselves. It is about the value buyers place on the machine through a combination of factors  Games hold people’s attraction because they remind us of our childhood and if done well, are endlessly replayable. This holds true with mechanical pinball machines, where each theme and gameplay is unique and no two games are the same with gravity working as the randomising factor.

 

These are just some of the factors that make pinball machines such a valuable and appreciating collector’s item. While this may vary, I think what’s most important to consider if you’re ever interested in buying either a new or used pinball machine is how you would personally value it and why? What aspects would you take into consideration? By the end of the day, it is the personal factors between both buyers and sellers themselves that continue to foster the lucrative market of pinball machines for collectors. 

 

Inspired? Check out our fantastic range of pinball machines here.

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