The Pinball Expo is the oldest event dedicated to our passion, pinball. This year, the 38th edition was held from October 19th to 22nd, 2022. I’m thrilled to have had the chance to attend, and happy to share with you what I learned from it, via the publication of my first article for Pinball Mag.
Taking place in the vicinity of Chicago, home of the vast majority of our beloved machines, the Pinball Expo attracts pinball industry professionals, players, collectors and enthusiasts from around the world.
This unmissable event has been organized since its first edition in 1985 by the equally unmissable Rob Berk, who can be seen at the show with his numerous machines selected among the 1200 machines of his collection, according to one of his daughters with whom I had the opportunity to discuss.
I share here my personal vision of what I particularly remember from this show. The opinion that I allow myself to give is a personal opinion, of a non-professional player, who discovers machines in a physical condition degraded by jetlag, lack of sleep, and diminished reflexes (low score pinball wizard ®).
Like its domination of the pinball market, Stern Pinball naturally occupied the largest space at the show: numerous machines, a merchandising sales counter and a stage occupied notably during the Drinks with Jack (which were surprisingly held without Jack).
The Mandalorian pinball machines present were topped with their superb official topper, which was teased the day before on the Stern Pinball Youtube channel. It’s a beautiful object, much more technically advanced than most of the recent official toppers.
But my main expectation was of course to test the new pinball machine, the 007! At the time of writing we have not yet had the opportunity to get our hands on it in Europe.
There were about ten machines present, half of them Pro versions, half Premium versions. It was naturally the most represented machine on the booth and I don’t remember seeing any of them unoccupied, that’s to say the expectation it raises.
Aesthetically, no big surprise: in real life, the pinball machine didn’t look any better or uglier than what I had seen on the Internet. I find the Pro version very clashing with its flashy yellow and its Dr No written in big letters. I find the Premium version more successful. For both, the design is not the same on both sides of the case, the right side seems to me more successful, to be taken into account in the layout in a gameroom.
The pinball machines were loud enough, and although the conditions of this type of event are not conducive to hear it well, I appreciated the sound atmosphere because it brought back good memories of my youth on this franchise that I had abandoned a long time ago. This made me want to see the movies again!
Of course, I mostly played the Premium version, to give me the opportunity to test all the features of the game.
Without being able to compete with flow references, there are some satisfying sequences. The presence of a third flipper, more and more frequent on today’s pinball machines, brings a real added value to the game: it allows you to take one of the two central ramps, or to pass through the rounded corridor serving the MI6 at the top of the playfield as well as the bumpers just underneath.
The Aston Martin toy, with the ball ejection, is very nice. Shooting the lock missile (physical with a specific ramp on the Premium) is not so easy, as is shooting the jet pack ramp. The ramp returns are complicated with some nasty outlanes. In some aspects this pinball machine reminded me of the Turtles pinball game.
All in all, it’s still a game that I would say is promising, because the code is obviously far from being finished. Moreover, an update was made to neutralize the jet pack (specific to the Premium version), which did not allow us to test it. However, I don’t think we should worry about it, the foundations of a good game are laid, Stern just needs some more time to perfect it. Their competence to do so is no longer in question.
The new Pinball Brothers was of course the Queen game. The first day only a Rhapsody Edition was present, but it was joined by a Champions Edition on the second day.
Aesthetically I must say that it was a pleasant surprise: I found it more beautiful than what I had seen on the Internet! Of course the body is still sober and the translite is not crazy, but the playfield is successful. Its decoration, the illuminated sides (on the Rhapsody Edition), the second board in the shape of a guitar… Really good.
In terms of gameplay, the test conditions were not optimal as we could only engage one player per game, and with only 2 balls. With many people queuing, you don’t necessarily want to line up again immediately for another game, so I would have played only 2 more games later during the show.
Like the last Stern table, it seems that this latest Pinball Brothers still needs some finishing efforts to reach its full maturity: the two pinball machines present, especially the Champions Edition were often open and unavailable.
Jersey Jack Pinball
The 7 machines produced by JJP so far were present on the show.
No big surprise for me, especially since the last one, Toy Story 4, had been presented in France on various occasions, notably during the event covered by Pinball Mag. at Loisirs & Technique.
The JJP are beautiful machines: the decoration of the case and the board, the numerous and sophisticated lighting, the giant screen, the presence of toys in quantity and quality are characteristics that contribute to give a wow effect even before putting your hands on the machine.
It’s worth noting that it was the first time I saw a Toy Story 4 in its Collector’s Edition, as well as the Guns’n Roses game. Beyond their topper and specific body elements compared to the other versions, their light show is amazing, JJP announces more than 450 RGB LEDs individually controlled on the Toy Story 4 CE and more than 600 on the GnR CE.
From JJP, I will remember the fantastic factory visit at this Pinball Expo, where we were welcomed by Jack Guarnieri, in the presence of JJP collaborators, among which Ken Cromwell (marketing & communication), Steve Richie (who we don’t need to introduce any more, and who I can’t wait to know what will be the first machine resulting from his collaboration with JJP).
We also saw Pat Lawlor during the visit. I’ll have the pleasure to meet these two mythical game designers again later at the Pinball Expo. Even though they are both over 70 years old, they still seem to be very active, which is not bad for us.
The American Pinball booth was very inviting and offered several of each of its 4 machines.
Personally I had only had the opportunity to test the Hot Wheels, this was the opportunity to test Houdini, Oktoberfest and, especially, the last one to arrive, Legends of Valhalla.
I like the Legends of Valhalla for its virile theme, its atmosphere, and its music. The rules for scoring did not seem intuitive to me, as is relatively often the case with recently released pinball machines. They offer more and more complexity to satisfy the home use of the demanding pinheads that we are.
I didn’t see any impressive feature like the Houdini where the ball is projected to 50 centimeters in a box (what about the ageing of the ball ?).
The flow is interesting, there are many different shots. As for the Queen game, I hope to have the opportunity to play it for a long time on other occasions to get a better idea.
Chicago Gaming Company
The line-up proposed by the CGC booth included 9 Cactus Canyon, 1 Medieval Madness and 1 Monster Bash.
It was the first time that I had the opportunity to test the remake versions of these mythical machines, and I was delighted to do so.
I have to admit that these remake versions are… Faithful! They perfectly meet the expectations I had of them. What a joy to play on new machines, whose original versions, which are about 30 years old, are often tired when you have the opportunity to try them.
The star of the CGC line-up was of course the Cactus Canyon table. I spent a little more time on this model.
All the machines were Special Edition, two of which were equipped with the very nice topper.
For those who don’t know the machine I refer you to the article, from which it is important to remember that the original Cactus Canyon is the last DOT pinball machine of the Bally/Williams era, produced in a very limited number of copies, and with an unfinished code…
As this is the remake version, I really liked:
- The lighting effects: there is no need to say, there is a step forward with the RGB lighting…
- The 19¼” color screen, which offers successful cinematics while respecting the DOT spirit. Note that on its 4th machine, CGC does not offer a Classic Edition declination with the monochrome 13⅞ screen.
- The toys, magnified: Bart the cowboy, the train, the mine …
- The sound ambiance: the quality of the sound, the sound effects and the music (especially since I’m a western fan)
- The apron with the guns
In these test conditions, I did not find any real negative point. When I saw the plastic ramps, I remembered my disappointment when the Mandalorian Pro was released, but it’s less annoying on the Cactus Canyon because no plastic ramps go through the center of the board. And then the original Cactus Canyon was like that, the idea is still to be faithful.
Concerning the level of finish of the code, I would have difficulty in expressing myself because the only original Cactus Canyon I had the opportunity to test had a non-original code, probably Eric Priepkes’ “Cactus Canyon Continued” but I am not sure. In any case, the test did not allow me to detect any bug or lack in the code.
For my part, it is now certain that if I had to buy one of these mythical machines, at roughly the same price, I would rather go for the CGC versions than for the original ones: the remakes offer a superior playing pleasure while keeping the original ball feel.
I don’t beat around the bush, I really liked the Spooky Pinball booth.
A booth held by two young people whose good mood was particularly communicative, full of goodies (caps, hats, t-shirts…) and, although the machines were not numerous, the most recent ones were there: Halloween and Ultraman.
For my part, before this trip, I had very little knowledge of Spooky Pinball, I had only tested the Total Nuclear Annihilation. So I played a few games on the Ultraman and I have to admit that I was really excited.
There are a lot of RGB leds, especially the bands that delimit and highlight the three game boards, which, in addition to accentuating the relief and the depth effect of the game, contributes to a very successful lighting atmosphere.
The aesthetics of the two pinball machines is not left out, Spooky Pinball has called upon artists who are specialists in the theme of each of the two machines:
- Jason Edminston for the Halloween: painter, illustrator, designer, known in particular in the world of horror films of the 80s
- Matt Frank for the Ultraman: also an American comic book artist and writer, he is an illustrator known in the world of Kaijū (Japanese movies with giant monsters) and particularly Godzilla
The gameplay is very nice, there is a lot of flow.
Note the ball returns from the scoops, rather original: the ball reappears in an inlane, without us seeing it reappear because it is hidden by the plexi decoration placed above the inlane (which is one with the slingshot)! A few seconds before the arrival of the ball, the concerned inlane flashes to warn the player that he has to expect to receive the ball at this place. I found this unusual.
Having two machines based on the same board design is quite smart industrially, as it drastically reduces design costs, but I think it’s also a good thing for us pinheads. Indeed, for me, the theme (as well as the gameplay and the aesthetics) is a criterion in the purchase of a new machine. The only thing that Ultraman reminds me of (forgive me my lack of culture) is that it was one of the worst video games of the Super Nintendo, my favorite game console. Therefore, if I buy it, I will be very happy to have an alternative.
Even if in terms of pinball I am more inclined towards the current models than the old ones, I remain nevertheless rather insensitive to the alternative of the pincab (maybe because I did not test the most high-end ones). However, I must admit that I was enthusiastic about the product proposed by P3 Multimorphic, which is in my eyes a successful fusion between a pinball machine and a pincab.
The lower two thirds of the playfield is occupied by a screen, over which are real flippers, real slingshots, where real balls circulate. The upper third has a mechanical and hardware part, specific to the game and interchangeable.
This means that you can change the game, like on a game console, without changing the whole pinball machine. The operation was not shown to me at the show, but it would only take 5 minutes.
The case and front panel decoration is also interchangeable since it is magnetically glued. The two machines present on the show were running Weird Al’s Museum of Natural Hilarity. One of them had the game decoration (topper included), the other one had a generic P3 Multimorphic decoration.
After testing this product, it seems to me that it lays the foundations of what could be the pinball machine of tomorrow.
Custom pinball machines
At the back of the room, a dozen homemade machines were lined up.
Among the games on display was a game that has received several awards, including the Best Custom 2021 trophy at the Pinstatic Pinball & Game Room Expo: Sonic the Hedgehog Spinball by Ryan McQuaid.
The few games played were very convincing as the integration of the theme is so successful! The pleasure of playing is immense. Let’s hope that American Pinball, who hired Ryan McQuaid this year, will decide to industrialize this machine!
For an in-depth look at the video, we recommend the demonstration video by the creator of Sonic Spinball.
Great American Pinball
At Great American Pinball, beyond selling new pinball machines, we repair, refurbish, customize and sell all types of pinball machines. Great American Pinball is based in Chicago, has been in business for over 20 years, and had some absolutely gorgeous machines on display.
Twlight Zone and Addams Family in Black and White. A great line up!
I couldn’t finish this selection without talking about this artist whose talent left me speechless.
Brian Allen counts among his clients names like Stern Pinball but also Metallica, Marvel, Harley Davidson, Activision, Hard Rock Cafe…His style mixes and intertwines bright and cheerful creations with dark and scary ones. The drawing is detailed and colorful.
On his exhibited drawings related to pinball I retain the sublime Cactus Canyon picture, the very good Monster Bash, Attack from Mars, TOTAN or the excellent Williams-Bally medley. The creations can be bought in several formats, from printing on plastic support, or on frame with backlighting, on T-shirt…
What to reconsider the decoration of its gameroom!
I invite you to discover Brian Allen’s website if you don’t already know him.
General conclusion about this show
Compared to the other shows I have visited in France, I think that the positive differentiating points of this Pinball Expo are the following:
- The size of the show is disproportionately American
- New machines are often presented in world exclusivity
- Incredible to meet the great names of pinball like Steve Richie, Pat Lawlor, Keith Elwin…
- The show hours, which close at midnight or even 2am on the last day
- The factory visits, this year physical with shuttle bus for JJP, virtual for Stern Pinball
- The numerous conferences held by actors of the pinball world
- The organized tournaments, the prizes to win (example: a Stern 007 pinball in pro version)
The only disadvantage is the price: at 45$ a day, we are on a much higher price than what is practiced on our French shows but the service is not the same. But I did two days when I had planned only one…
Now I want to do others, like the Texas Pinball Festival…