The Silver Ball

When your profession most frequently entails thinking, talking, writing and presenting, it’s quite therapeutic to spend some downtime working with your hands.    That’s why my hands can sometimes be found pressing flipper buttons, and fixing the fantastically temperamental machines which feature them.

Like the song says: “ever since I was a young man, I’ve played the silver ball”.   I’ve long been fascinated by the electromechanical wizardry of pinball machines.  And I still enjoy the challenge of taking on a pinball table designer, making the right shots in sequence, unlocking a table’s hidden features, and achieving that satisfying “thunk” which signals a free replay.

Non-devotees often quip that pinball is “the sign of a misspent youth”.  And indeed, my love affair with pinball did begin during the lazy summer holidays of my boyhood.   Back then, every caravan park and milk bar had a pinball machine … a high-tech sanity-preserving distraction from heat, beach and boredom. It was the golden era of pinball – electromechanical marvels jam-packed with snapping solenoids, blinking lights and tinkling bells, strung together by an impossible web of copper circuits.

But as the milk bars were replaced by McDonalds, and caravan parks gave way to glass towers, so too were pinballs squeezed out by electronic games such as Space Invaders and Pacman.   More compact and more mechanically reliable than pinballs, these CRT-based amusement machines rapidly gained the favour of shopholders.   The primitive hammer-on-bell sound effects of pinball machines, and the clicking of their mechanical score reels, were all but silenced, and electronic bleeps and squawks held sway.

While I too enjoyed this new generation of arcade games, I never lost my affection for pinball, and its clunky mechanical soul.

With its backbox against the wall, the pinball industry rallied in the 80s and 90s by increasingly creative tables, supplemented by electronic features and dot matrix displays.   Multiball – the pinball player’s ultimate test of reflexes and skill – became a standard feature. Dual-level tables, ramps and decks, took pinball into a third dimension.  Playfields sprouted novelty targets, magnets, holograms, and all manner of mechanical contraptions which made pinball’s physical dimension that much more satisfying.  Talking games, in-game storyline adventures, and deep rulesets, exercised the brain as well as the flipper fingers.

Ultimately, it was the advent of home video gaming which terminated the resurgence of pinball.  In the late 90s, with computer games capturing ever more leisure dollars, the business of pinball became unprofitable.  Iconic pinball brands – Williams, Gottlieb, Bally, Midway, Data East – merged, collapsed, and then disappeared.   At time of writing, a sole remaining pinball manufacturer – Stern – is keeping the silver ball in play.

In the absence of pinballs “in the wild”, I and a small number of private collectors are recreating the pinball experience in our garages and attics.   It’s a hobby which entails equal parts playing, repairing and restoring… the sheer physics inherent to metal ball bearings meaning there’s frequently plastic, rubber, brackets or circuits needing ministration.

Here are the pinball machines currently in my collection:

  • Travel Time, an old style machine from 1973, which used to be in my local milk bar;
  • Safecracker, a rare experimental redemption pin from 1996, designed for use in casinos;
  • Cirqus Voltaire, a complex, spectacular Williams electronic machine from 1997;
  • Lord of the Rings Gold, the collector edition of a recent machine by Stern;
  • Revenge from Mars, a high-tech Pinball 2000 machine featuring holographic targets and displays;
  • Black Hole, a classic 1981 Gottlieb which features a second backwards-sloping playfield;
  • World Cup Soccer 94, a Bally machine themed on the World Cup I attended in LA in 1994;
  • Twilight Zone, the wideboy pin widely considered to be the pinnacle of 90s-era design;
  • Starship Troopers, perhaps the best pin ever created by the Japanese Sega company;
  • Dr Who, a Midway machine from 1992 which features a 3-level moving mini-playfield.

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