Some Local Area Links

If you live in the Baltimore/Washington D.C. area, check out these pinball leagues.

Free State Pinball Association

I actually won a trophy one summer.

Also, check out these pinball shows in Pennsylvania.
White Rose Gameroom Show, York
PinFest, Allentown

Opinions & other Drivel

Why pinball? And why collect the machines? Pinball certainly has a lot of nostalgic appeal. And the more I study pinball machines, the more I see them as true works of art. But I like pinball machines mostly because they're like crazy Rube Goldberg devices. Rarely does one encounter such a complex machine that exists for such a trivial purpose. Pinball is a breath of fresh air in a world where mechanical devices are increasingly being replaced with software. Video-based amusement devices have never appealed to me. Pinball will never be effectively simulated because any simulation defeats the core objective; to interact with a physical, mechanical machine.

I collect pinball machines because they tend to be difficult to locate and play in public. These days there are no public locations where one can count on finding pinball machines. Playing pinball in public requires planning and advance scouting. Bowling alleys seem to be one of the better prospects. The occasional bar or sandwich shop may have a pin. I've had some minor success with a few campground gamerooms. Most of the few remaining "arcades" have become pin-less kiddie redemption centers. If one is lucky enough to locate a pin, the machine is likely to be so poorly maintained that it's not worth playing anyway. Plus I don't like bowling alleys, bars and cigarette smoke. Also, the older games that I enjoy the most are not to be found in public. Games from the '80s are rare. Games from the '70s are nonexistent. I tried a local pinball league. But leagues provide only a limited amount of fun for me. While do I enjoy playing with other people, I have zero interest in competition. And I don't enjoy being around the hotheads that have a tantrum every time their ball drains. Pinball shows are okay, but are far and few between. And I could do without the crowds and noise. The solution is to bring the machines to my home where I can pick what I want and control the environment to my liking. Pinball maintenance has also proved to be an enjoyable aspect of the hobby.

There are two pinball machines that have particularly influenced my pinball interests. First is Bally Star Trek from 1979. Star Trek may not have been the first pin I ever played, but it is the one I remember. I first discovered this game at a long-extinct ski area called Hahn Mountain in the northern tip of Berks County, Pennsylvania. Both my parents were ski instructors so I spent a lot of time there. My economics during those winters was expressed in credits. I know my allowance at the time was $2/week because I remember being able to play Star Trek eight times (plus, hopefully, a few replays and matches). As can be seen from my list below, my memories of Star Trek have developed into a general interest in early Bally solid-state games. I spend a lot of time with this category of game whenever I can get myself to a pinball show.

My second most memorable machine is Williams Cyclone from 1988. I stumbled across a Cyclone on several occasions and always enjoyed the game. My interest in Cyclone evolved into a general interest in Williams games from the mid to late 1980s. It would seem that I am particularly drawn to Williams games that were created at least in part by Barry Oursler and/or Python Anghelo.

But I wasn't anything like a coin-op addict when I was a kid. Twenty five cents seemed like a lot of money and I had other interests. The Star Trek and Cyclone mentioned above are really the only two machines that stand out in my memory. And the whole arcade video game craze never appealed to me. Then in the spring of 2003 my wife and I sold our old home, but our new home wasn't finished until the spring of 2004. We spent that year trapped in a crappy one-bedroom apartment with not much to do. It was during that time that I kindled my current adult interest in pinball. Armed with more quarters than I could ever afford as a kid, I began scouting the neighborhood for pins. Before long I was hooked.

Within walking distance of our crappy little apartment was a crappy little sandwich shop (now gone) with an Earthshaker and then a Space Station. Next to the crappy little sandwich shop was a crappy little biker bar (now gone) with a Stern Harley Davidson and then a Sharkey's Shootout. There was a Bowl America with a Champion Pub and a Pin 2000 Star Wars. Within a short drive I also found a Last Action Hero, Junkyard and Austin Powers. Space Station, Champion Pub and Austin Powers were my favorites.

It's interesting how everything worked out for me logistically. Before I ever seriously considered buying a pinball machine my wife and I designed a new home including a huge walkout basement. It is the ultimate gameroom. We had a lot of stuff to move and a big house to furnish so we bought an enclosed cargo trailer. The trailer ended up being the perfect pinball hauler. I studied electronics and electrical engineering back in the late '80s and early '90s. But then I lost interest in electronics and never kept up with modern technology. But pinball is pretty old-school and the technology seemed to be within my grasp. As it turns out, pinball repair and maintenance are the only activities that cause me to appreciate and enjoy my education. As the summer of 2005 rolled around, everything was in place for me to buy that first game...

But I didn't just run off on some random buying spree. I carefully considered the eras and manufactures that appealed to me. And I thought about what I was willing to spend and what I was willing to repair or restore. All in all I spent about three years studying everything I could find on the subject of pinball history and pinball restoration.

Some collectors pursue diversity or the rare and unusual. Not me, I go for simple and easy. As mentioned above, I like Bally games from around 1976-1980 and Williams games from around 1986-1990. Not only are these my two favorite categories of games, they're also two of the most popular. Bally and Williams dominated the industry during these time frames, respectively. Production numbers were high. Games and parts are relatively plentiful and technical information is readily available. Plus I like the idea of focusing my repair skills and parts inventory on just these two game platforms. Simple and Easy.

They say pinball machines are like potato chips; you can't have just one. But can you have too many? Maybe. After collecting games for about seven years I was up to eleven and feeling bogged down. I sold some off in 2013 and brought the number down to eight. Hopefully I'll rekindle some enthusiasm now that I've narrowed my focus a bit.

My game acquisition time line...

10/04: Five Star Final (sold 10/13)
05/06: Cyclone
10/06: Pin*bot
03/07: Mills Bursting Cherry
05/07: Power Play (sold 10/13)
09/07: Star Trek
04/08: Space Station
12/08: Xenon
04/09: Night Rider (sold 10/13)
08/09: Grand Lizard
09/09: Dolly Parton (sold 10/13)
03/10: Bad Cats
10/11: Silverball Mania (sold 10/14)
08/14: Elvira and the Party Monsters
11/16: Millionaire

More about my Bally interests...

The early solid state pins from Bally are some of my favorites and are the games I tend to spend the most time with when I go to pinball shows. Gottlieb was the king of pinball up through the mid 1970s. But Bally hit back with two major innovations. First, Bally began a long tradition of producing games with licensed themes. Bally began with games like Wizard and Capt. Fantastic, two of the most popular EM games of all time. Second, Bally embraced solid state technology and quickly abandoned EM production. These factors put Bally on top through the mid to late 1970s with many production runs approaching 20,000 units. Below is a list of Bally solid state games from inception through 1980. The games are presented more or less in chronological order and include my personal comments and opinions. Click on the game title to see the corresponding IPDB link.

Flicker (1974): Flicker was a production EM game used for Bally's earliest venture into the world of solid state. An EM Flicker was sent to an outside company, Dave Nutting Associates, for conversion to a one-off solid state prototype. This was the first microprocessor-controlled pinball machine. It's a fascinating story. Check the June 1999 issue of Gameroom magazine for a comprehensive article about the solid state Flicker. There was also a seminar about this game at the 2011 Pacific Pinball Expo. Audio from the seminar car be heard at pinballnews.com.

Bow and Arrow (1975): Bow and Arrow was another production EM game and the first game to be experimentally converted to solid state with Bally's own designs. I have read that something like only 22 of these solid state games were produced and half of those were dismantled. The game uses an early version of the AS-2518-17 MPU with all electronics mounted in the body instead of the head. I guess this was some carry-over thinking from EM designs, but anything that fell off the playfield would drop on the boards and short out the circuitry.

Freedom (1976): Freedom was the first non-experimental solid state game from Bally to have a regular production run. I like the theme and spinner action. As with most of the first solid state games, Freedom had an EM counterpart. Freedom is the only non-experimental Bally transition game where EM production exceeded solid state production. Early EM production games had a fourth thumper bumper between the flippers as depicted in the game flyer. The game was subsequently redesigned with a more conventional lower playfield layout.

Night Rider (1977): I like Night Rider's layout of symmetrical drop target banks. I also like the spinner action and the theme and artwork. Night Rider also has a high-production EM counterpart, but EM production of transition games would be low from here on out. Update: I acquired a Night Rider of my own. Click to go to my Night Rider page.

Black Jack (1977): Black Jack is a fun player with its "beat the dealer" feature. I like the backglass, but the playfield is a little strange in that it's sort of both drab and psychedelic at the same time. Black Jack had a low-production EM counterpart. The EM is a two-player with a completely different backglass. This is Bally's most unique EM transition game.

Evel Knievel (1977): Many Bally games from this era seem to follow a standard layout of playfield elements including drop targets on one side, stationary targets on the other side, three thumper bumpers and two orbits. But I suppose it's no more or less fun than any other Bally game from the time. I like the theme and art. And the top of the backglass features some light animation with a jumping motorcycle. Evel Knievel had a low-production EM counterpart.

Promotional poster. Click thumbnail for larger image.

Eight Ball (1977): I give up trying like this one. Shooting at stationary targets and rollovers to lite pool balls isn't too exciting. And the game seems to be a drain monster. I'm not sure I see how this game set a production record with more than 20,000 units. Nevertheless, the game has a great theme and artwork. Eight Ball is an unlicensed game, but appears to be an obvious rip-off of "the Fonz" from the TV show Happy Days. But according to artist Paul Faris, the theme is merely a generic representation of popular culture. Eight Ball's other notable feature is that it's the first Bally game to make good use of the memory recall capabilities of the new solid state technology. It's also the first Bally game not to have an EM counterpart. These games are usually beat or expensive (sometimes both!).

Power Play (1978): I had a Bobby Orr Power Play of my own. Click to go to my Power Play page. Power Play had no EM counterpart, but the game sure does have an EM "feel" to it.

Mata Hari (1978): Mata Hari is another game with that symmetrical arrangement of drop target banks that I like. But every time I get to play this game it seems like the kickout saucer is adjusted to throw the ball straight down the middle. Yeah, it's just an adjustment, but these experiences have left me feeling alienated. The game is a lot of fun when it's working properly. It has a great theme and one of the most notable art packages of all time. Mata Hari had a low-production EM counterpart.

Strikes and Spares (1978): This game stayed under my radar for its lack of drop targets. But it seems like there is always a Strikes and Spares at every pinball show I attend. After a few years of seeing and playing this game, it began to grow on me in a big way. There's a lot to shoot at on this game and it makes good use of memory recall. And the game has what may well be my all-time favorite backglass. Never have I seen a real girl with shorts tight enough to show frontal panty lines. Strikes and Spares is the last game to use the original AS-2518-17 MPU and the last game to use an electromechanical chime unit. I like these old-school chime units a lot better than early attempts at electronic sound. Strikes and Spares had no EM counterpart. There would be no more EM pinball machines from Bally.

Framed promotional poster. Click thumbnail for larger image.

Lost World (1978): Unfortunately, the game play seems pretty boring. This is the first game to use a new four-color printing process for the backglass. The art is stunning, but personally I prefer the simpler style of earlier games. This is also the first game with the new AS-2518-35 MPU (which is not really all that different from the previous AS-2518-17 system). In concert with the new MPU, this is also the first Bally game to feature electronic sound. I realize that electronic sound had to start somewhere, but these early attempts are not nearly as charming as the old-school electromechanical chime units.

Framed promotional poster. Click thumbnail for larger image.

The Six Million Dollar Man (1978): This game has the "standard" Bally layout like I mentioned above with Evel Knievel. Still, it's a fun player with good color and art. I doubt there was ever a demand for this game's six-player gimmick.

Playboy (1978): Next to Kiss, Playboy is one of the most collectable (and hence most valuable) of the Bally early solid state machines. It's not a bad player, but the artwork and theme don't appeal to me. The game is too pink. And there's something not right with the artwork. Trying to realistically depict real people on a pinball machine just doesn't work for me. Take a look at Strikes and Spares as a contrasting example. The backglass girl is drawn more simplistically with exaggerated comic-like features. That simple style works better on a pinball machine. Star Trek is another good example. Although the game depicts real actors, the artistic style is fancifully comic-like and more appealing.

Promotional poster. Click thumbnail for larger image.

Voltan Escapes Cosmic Doom (1979): Aside from the experimental Bow and Arrow, Voltan is the only Bally solid state game to not have a full production run. There's not a whole lot to shoot at and the game was a flop. No one wanted to play it. The game is best known for the spectacular Dave Christensen artwork. I think it would be a cool game to own, but as only about 300 were produced, I don't expect I'll ever have the opportunity.

Supersonic (1979): This is a good player. And I like the backglass with the bird wings superimposed over the jet. But the playfield colors are too drab for the era. Supersonic's playfield layout began as a one-off two-player EM machine with a Star Trek theme called Star Ship.

Star Trek (1979): I already own this title! Start Trek is my all-time sentimental favorite. Click to go to my Star Trek page.

Kiss (1979): Of all the Bally early solid state games, Kiss will probably hit your wallet the hardest. Apparently this game's value is inflated by Kiss memorabilia collectors. But I find it hard to believe that there are that many non-pinball Kiss fans out there willing to pay thousands of dollars for a heavy, unwieldy chunk of memorabilia. I think the game is the victim of overzealous pinball collector speculation. I'm indifferent to the band, I do like the play and color of the game.

Framed promotional poster. Click thumbnail for larger image.

Paragon (1979): Don't like wide-body games. Don't like in-line flippers. This game is the artistic follow up to Lost World. Paragon is Bally's first wide-body and the first game with Bally's patented in-line drop target feature. I do like Paragon better than the other wide-body offerings. There are some fun shots and the art is great. If I were going to have a Bally wide-body, Paragon would be the one.

Click thumbnails to see Bally's in-line drop target patent.

Harlem Globetrotters (1979): Don't like the theme. Don't like in-line flippers.

Dolly Parton (1979): I like the right side of the playfield with its in-line drop target feature, spinner and shooter lane return path. The rest of the game is a snooze with an "okay" theme and artwork. Apparently Dolly Parton's management approved the country themed playfield, but insisted on a more contemporary theme for the backglass. Thus the game has something of a haphazard appearance. Dolly Parton is one of my favorite games with an in-line drop target feature. Many Bally games have in-line drop targets, but there are other problems. The targets often appear on games that are wide-bodies and/or have in-line flippers (Paragon, Harlem Globetrotters, Future Spa, Hotdoggin'). But I don't like wide-bodies or in-line flippers. The targets also appear on low-production games like Frontier and Viking, but low-production means these titles may be difficult to locate. On the other hand, Dolly Parton is a mediocre game that had a moderate production run. It shouldn't be too hard to find or expensive to buy. Moreover, the in-line targets on Dolly Parton are favorably positioned. Many other games position the targets high and far off center, which is a bit much for my meager skills. Update: I acquired a Dolly Parton of my own. Click to go to my Dolly Parton page.

Future Spa (1979): Don't like wide-body games. Also, the men depicted on the backglass and playfield are unbearably gay-looking. Maybe they were manly looking back in the late 1970's, but in retrospect... Yikes!

Nitro Ground Shaker (1980): Outstanding Dave Christensen artwork. Unfortunately the gameplay could cure insomnia. Buy the backglass; skip the game.

Silverball Mania (1980): This game is another winner. It has neat artwork and a novel kickback arrangement that can catch a ball on its way to the outhole and through it back into play. The playfield layout has an old-school feel to it, which I think is a fun throwback. Update: I acquired a Silverball Mania of my own. Click to go to my Silverball Mania page.

Space Invaders (1980): Don't like wide-body games. The middle of this game looks a lot like Silverball Mania. The game has great artwork with a mirrored backglass and infinity lighting.

Hotdoggin' (1980): Haven't played this one enough to have an opinion, but generally don't like wide-body games.

Rolling Stones (1980): This game is similar to Kiss in that its value is supposedly inflated by its celebrity music tie-in. Again, I find it difficult to believe that there are many non-pinball Rolling Stones fans willing to play thousands of dollars for a piece of memorabilia. But what do I know? In any event, I will likely never own this title as it has what I believe to be the most terrifying backglass in all of pinball. Could it be possible that Mick Jaggar didn't think he looked like a total friggin weirdo with that pose and costume? Or was that the whole idea? I cannot recall any former fashion trends that explain what's going on with this glass. I'm trying to play pinball here! I don't need some open-mouthed, twig-chested creep staring down on me. I believe this was the first Bally game to implement a memory drop target bank. But even a new playfield feature can't rescue this game from its backglass design.

Mystic (1980): It's been said that Mystic is a recycled Voltan. I think Voltan's layout is too generic looking to really make that leap, but Mystic is certainly the better game with three banks of drop targets and a play on the old game of tic-tac-toe. I also like the theme and artwork.

Viking (1980): Great game. The game has an in-line drop target feature and an unusual lower playfield including a pair of thumper bumpers and a pair of one-way gates that allow a ball to be saved from the outlanes. The art and colors are also excellent.

Skateball (1980): Drop targets! That's all it takes for me to get into a game. But Skateball also features a break away shooter lane, four flippers and lane change. The theme is dated and corny, but the art is boldly colorful and features a mirrored backglass. But Skateball could have been something very different. Around 1978 the Stakeball art package was to be applied to a whitewood by Bally designer Greg Kmiec (IPDB link). Kmiec's design was to feature a motorized unit of twin targets that alternately disappeared. Engineering the unit took time and Bally wanted to push ahead with the Skateball theme. So Claude Fernandez designed what we now know as Skateball and Kmiec's whitewood was never used. However, there was at least one Skateball backglass produced with "KMIEC" on the door of the van. And although the target unit never appeared in any game, it was patented. See U.S. Patent 4,243,222, "Seesaw Target Apparatus for Pinball Game".

Frontier (1980): I like the way this game plays, but the theme and colors are kind of drab.

Xenon (1980): Xenon came out near the end of 1980 and closes the door on what I would call Bally's early solid state era. Xenon was something different. It was the first Bally game to innovatively combine features like an elevated ball path, multi-ball, continuous background sound and speech (the industry's first female voice). Xenon also has a mirrored backglass and great artwork (although that red female creature on the playfield is kind of creepy looking). Xenon was also one of Bally's last big hits. By the middle of 1980 pinball production numbers were way down in the face of competition from video games. Xenon created a big production spike with about 11,000 units. Bally continued to release innovative games through out 1981, but production numbers remained low. Eventually innovation gave way to cost cutting. The industry hunkered down and hoped for better days to come. By the mid-1980s, Williams emerged as the new leader in pinball. Williams went on to absorb Bally's pinball assets and Bally seemed to loose its identity. Update: I acquired a Xenon of my own. Click to go to my Xenon page.

Click thumbnails to see Xenon's "Tube Shot" patent.

More about my Williams interests...

As mentioned above, I also like some of the Williams System-11 games from the mid to late 1980s. It all started with Cyclone. I like the whimsical, light-hearted themes that were often created by Barry Oursler and Python Anghelo. I've assembled a System-11 collection including Bad Cats, Cyclone, Space Station, Pin*bot and Grand Lizard.