The Silver Ball

When your profession entails  a lot of thinking, talking, writing and presenting, it’s therapeutic to spend some downtime working with your hands.   That’s why my hands can sometimes be found on flipper buttons, or more likely, fixing the fantastically temperamental machines on which they feature.

As the song says: “ever since I was a young man, I’ve played the silver ball“…  fascinated by the electromechanical wizardry of pinball machines.  And I still enjoy the challenge of competing against a pinball table, making the right shots in sequence, unlocking its hidden features, and achieving the satisfying “thunk” which signals a free replay.

Non-devotees quip that pinball is “the sign of a misspent youth”.  Perhaps they are right.  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 escape from the prevailing heat, beach and boredom.

It was the golden era of pinball.  The electromechanical marvels of the day strung together snapping solenoids, blinking lights and tinkling bells in an impossible web of copper circuits. No screens, keyboards or joysticks. 

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

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

With its backbox against the wall, the pinball industry rallied in the 80s and 90s.  The manufacturers embraced solid state electronics, with every more creative tables complemented by 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.  Novelty targets, magnets, holograms, and all manner of mechanical contraptions made pinball’s physical dimension all the more satisfying.  Talking games, in-game storyline adventures, and deep rule sets, exercised the brain as well as the flipper fingers.

But ultimately, home video gaming terminated both the video arcades and the resurgence of pinball.  In the late 90s, with computer games capturing ever more leisure dollars, the manufacturers realised the business of pinball would soon become unprofitable.  Iconic pinball brands – Williams, Gottlieb, Bally, Midway, Data East – merged, collapsed, and then disappeared.  

For two decades, only a solo pinball manufacturer – Stern – remained.  In the past few years, a couple of boutique operators – Jersey Jack Pinball and Brisbane’s own HomePin – have also helped keep the silver ball in play.

With very few pinballs now “in the wild”, I and a small number of nostalgic private collectors are recreating the pinball experience in our garages and attics.   It’s a hobby which entails equal time playing, repairing and restoring… the sheer physics of metal ball bearings hammering around in a cabinet mean there’s frequently plastic, rubber, brackets or circuits requiring our ministrations.

For the enthusiasts, 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 modern 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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