We all know a fast food restaurant that makes a fantastic burger and has a pinball machine tucked away in the corner. When you go there for a burger you never mind the wait as you can jump on the machine and become frustrated at a tiny ball instead. Pinball is an addictive game that has been around in some shape or form for over 100 years. Let’s take a look at how it began and how it changed over the years.
In many ways, the beginning of pinball was the beginning of billiards. In 1871 a British inventor filed a patent for “improvements in Bagatelle” that would set the course for pinball. Bagatelle was an old game that used a table and balls and you tried to get 9 balls into various spots on the board to earn points. It was like a cross between billiards and pinball. The British inventor added changes that brought in a coiled spring, a plunger, and replaced the bagatelle balls with smaller marbles. Pinball was formed out of these ideas.
Pinball machines themselves did not appear until the 1930s. They started as games that were placed on the countertop but the game Bally Hoo in 1931 came with optional legs and was the first coin-operated pinball machine. The term pinball though would not be used until 1936. Further changes came when the bumper was created in 1937 and the flipper was introduced in 1947.
Since the 1950s the game has started to resemble the version we have today. Lights have been added to the background of the game with digital scoring introduced in 1966. Of course, since then the changes have continued. In the 2000s we have seen the pinball machine move to the computer with entire software-based games being created.
The best-selling pinball machine of all time is The Adams Family game which debuted in 1992. It was based on the popular movie one year prior and featured Uncle Fester with a lit bulb in his mouth prompting you to shoot again. 20,000 units have been sold worldwide. The game captured the world because it came out at the right time. In the 1990s modern computing advances were making pinball machines more complex. The Adams Family game was seen as a leading next-gen version. It had a moving mechanical hand (the character Thing) that picked up balls. It had a new dialogue recorded by the movie stars. It had a wide variety of scoring modes too. However, what made it stand out most was the excellent gameplay. There were well-placed ramps with shots leading into other avenues naturally, and it avoided some of the common pitfalls of easy deaths. The game did the simples well and had some flair on top.
Recently Pinball Arcade released a simulated version of the Adams family game funded by Kickstarter. It replicated the game perfectly and is still enjoyed by thousands today. Pinball was seen as a divisive game in the 1950s. Many felt that it was a problem for society and asked for it to be banned. Much in the same way that video games are viewed today. Although the pinball game survived that attack it did fall in popularity at the turn of the century as more advanced computer-based games took over.
However, having just played the simulated version of the Adams Family game and discovering the incredible history, I think it may be time for a comeback. Who knows perhaps we will see the revival of pinball games in the form of a mobile application or something else. What is clear is that the pinball machine has had a lasting impact on both American society and takeaways today.