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More Than Meets The Eye: What Makes Pinball Machines So Appealing?

With retro arcades and classic games making a revival in recent times, it seems almost natural that iconic games like pinball have made a comeback. Pinball manufacturers are picking up production again with a vengeful force after verging extinction nearly a decade ago due to scarcity of production lines and its troubled history with gambling that had gotten it banned in most states in the US for nearly 40 years after its prohibition was declared in 1940. 

Just turn around and ask anyone around you if they know what pinball is. I’m sure all your friends can answer that question, even if their ‘experience’ of the game is through Microsoft XP’s 3D Pinball: Space Cadet. It’s hard to forget the hours of endless fun I burnt through the game as a kid, but the online experience does no justice to the beauty and ingenuity of actual mechanical pinball machines. No amount of technology and digitalisation can replicate the sounds, feelings, and experiences created by these pieces of art.

This is because mechanical pinball machines are more than just retro machines or a passing icon of their time. They’re innovative products, combining modern technology with intricate mechanisms to recreate iconic pop culture icons and moments. It’s a machine that pays tribute to both the culture and game to create a bespoke experience for pinheads and casual players alike.


Mechanical Wonders

Have you ever really wondered how much work goes into designing a pinball machine?

It wasn’t until I delved into the world of mechanical pinball machines that I found out how intricate pinball machines are designed to be. With so many different modes and hidden gameplay that reveal brand-new aspects of the game to ensure high replayability, pinball is more than just a game of points and making sure you hit the flippers at the right time. The ingenuity to ensure that it captures the essence of its theme has made modern pinball machines endlessly replayable and exciting no matter how many times you go back for more. Contrary to popular belief, they aren’t needlessly complicated once you realise the effort put into them is what creates most of the game’s magic. 

Sure, the pop culture themes they’re based on help to garner interest amongst casual players to get them into the game. However, it’s the intricate and well-thought-out mechanics that have kept people staying loyal pinheads throughout the decades.  

Closeup of a 1950s pinball machine.

A Collector’s Galore

The pinball machine’s hold as a collectible item stems from its theme exclusivity. Each pinball machine made is specifically tailored to encapsulate the themes they take—be it video games, famous bands, or nostalgic TV shows—in both mechanisms and designs. Production of specific themes are usually set for a limited time run, which means pinball companies only produce a specific number of pinball machines for each particular theme and variation; Stern Pinball produces three types of pinball machines for each of its themes: Pro, Premium, and Limited. Generally once a series goes out of production, you can be almost assured that there are no future releases of the same product on the horizon. Remakes are extremely rare in the pinball industry, which guarantees that each pinball machine is considered a once-in-a-lifetime collectible item.

It’s the reason why the Addams Family pinball machine produced by Bally has been such a commercial sellout even after almost 29 years since it was first produced. Even now, refurbished and original Addams Family pinball machines are still around the market and being sold for around ten to thirteen thousand USD!

Spiderman cosplayer enjoying a game of pinball on a range of pinball machines sponsored for use at San Diego Comic-Con in 2016.

Child-like Wonder

By the end of the day, it’s hard to disagree with the fact that pinball machines are appealing simply because they were built to be played and enjoyed by people all around. It was a machine derived from many other types of games as a way for people to have fun and modernisation has only helped to improve its overall design. Pinball machines are also popular in social settings like arcades and bars because they’re a way to socialise and just have fun. They make great conversation starters for a first date and an even greater game for just having a good time with friends. 

This small list of aspects is just the tip of the iceberg to what makes pinball machines so appealing, coming together to create the experience that makes these classic machines so iconic in both past and present times.

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