Historically, the pinball capital has always been Chicago. Nevertheless, Europeans also had a few manufacturers during the beautiful 80s and 90s, which almost disappeared with the collapse of the exploitation in bars and arcades. For the last 10 years, thanks to a market that is renewing itself with machines dedicated to domestic use, new players are trying again on the Old Continent.
The quality of production varies a lot from one player to another, the volumes are largely inferior to the 2 American leaders Stern Pinball and Jersey Jack Pinball. And we can’t say that there is a European “touch” at this stage. Nevertheless, the initiatives are worth the detour: here is an overview of the challengers from Europe.
Pinball Brothers was born from the ashes of another manufacturer: Heighwey Pinball, which disappeared in 2018. PB buys the licenses and designs of its predecessor, and shares some of its investors with him.
On the other hand, Pinball Brothers’ HQ is based in Sweden, in Örebro, while Heighwey Pinball’s founder, Andrew Heighwey, was based in Great Britain.
Pinball Brothers inherited two licenses, and not the least, and each was taken to market and then to production:
- Alien, in standard and limited versions, released in December 2020
- Queen, in Champions Edition and Rhapsody Edition, released in 2022
The Alien pinball playfield is based on the one designed by Heighwey, with a few optimizations and rationalizations. The original machine was attractive, the Pinball Brothers version does not detract from its charm.
As for the Queen game, a prototype was displayed in a London store dedicated to the band about a year before the commercialization. This sketch was also designed by Heighwey.
Given the history of the brand, the questions are: what will Pinball Brothers’ future designs look like now that Heighwey Pinball’s legacy has been tapped? Or, simply put, will there be more pinball machines after Queen?
Let’s give them credit for one thing that sets them apart from the leader Stern Pinball: the different versions of the same pinball machine do not change the gameplay. Only the aesthetics vary. There are no cheap versions of the board, all players get the same game experience. This is a philosophy that we, at Pinball Mag., appreciate.
Barry Driessen founded Dutch Pinball in 2010, which as the name suggests, is a Dutch company. In 2014, the manufacturer’s first success is the Bride of Pinbot 2.0 kit, a module that installs on the Bride of Pinbot pinball machine. The machine originally released by Bally/Williams in 1991 is then equipped with a new code, a connected function to share its scores online, a color screen …
This first attempt is not lacking in audacity, and even today the production of the module continues.
But Dutch Pinball does not intend to stop there. In 2016, the manufacturer markets The Big Lebowski, a pinball machine on the theme of the eponymous movie. We will not know better than to refer you to the video on this game.
It is characterized by the richness of its playfield and a great respect in the treatment of the license. To this day, The Big Lebowski is a sought-after pinball machine and each production run is eagerly awaited.
In May 2022, the company moved to Herkenbosch, still in Holland, and thus acquired a larger workshop. This is a sign of a business that is doing well! There are no other models announced for the moment.
Bitronic and Quetzal Pinball
Here is a marriage of reason (for love, we’ll ask them) between Quetzal Pinball which designs pinball machines, and Bitronic which knows how to make them.
Quetzal starts on its side with two small productions. Their first pinball is “Captain Nemo dives again”, announced in 2012 at 30 copies. This number was still not reached in 2020.
The second concept is “Tokyo perfect drift”, which is still in production. The concept is made in 2018 and the production starts in 2019. The first model comes off the assembly line in October 2019, and the rest leaves the workshop a priori in dribs and drabs.
It is clear that Quetzal’s machines deserve a “maker”, i.e. a solid structure that allows Antonio Ortuño Nicolas and his Spanish team to give their ideas a boost. This has been achieved thanks to the design team’s partnership with Bitronic. The latter has been building “recreational” machines with coin-operated machines (arcade terminals, darts games…) for several years.
So, Bitronic ordered a pinball machine from Quetzal that was adapted to the operation. The designers chose to reinvent a machine named Canasta 86, made at the time by a Madrid manufacturer: Inder, an acronym for Industria Eclectromecanica de Recreativos. In addition to echoing an old glory of the Iberian Peninsula, the theme of basketball retains its relevance, as this sport remains very popular there.
As for the adaptation to the operation, the bet is not to use drop targets, probably generating frequent breakdowns.
Finally renamed (license problem?), the Super Hoop pinball machine is presented in January 2022 by its official importer in France: Planète Jeux Transcard. Even if Bitronic seems to have solid backbone, the duo will probably take some time to honor its orders. We will have to wait before discovering a new machine, hoping that the partnership will last.
The small pinball craftsmen
Once the 3 manufacturers listed above are included, we go down a notch in terms of company size and production volume. Here are two names that have yet to reach the forefront. This paragraph focuses on the players who have gone beyond the “Homebrew” stage (prototype for private use), otherwise the list would be much longer.
3 defectors from Heighwey Pinball, living in Wales (UK), started their company a few years ago. For over a year, they designed and manufactured 10 copies of their first machine: The Mafia, officially announced in 2018. Unfortunately, 2 years later, the team hasn’t produced more than those first 10 games.
The Mafia is a pinball machine that goes to the basics, without ramps, with a simple board but a rather worked artwork if you appreciate the cartoonish side.
Don’t think that the trio stops there: we find them in 2021 designing the Rudy’s Nightmare kit. It is a sort of extension and modernization of the legendary FunHouse pinball machine, designed by Pat Lawlor. The kit is manufactured by Pedretti Pinball, an Italian company that holds the rights to the spare parts and mods of Bally/Williams games.
In an interview given to Pinball News, the 3 partners Janos Kiss, Otilia Pasareti and Romain Fontaine specify that they have learned from Heighwey Pinball’s mistakes: all of them have jobs on the side that allow them not to burn the stages, and thus give themselves time to succeed.
Olympic Goblin, finally renamed Goblin Contest when it was commercialized in 2018 for legal reasons on the term “Olympic”, is the first pinball of Phénix Pinball. If Christian Petit and Julien Larose, the founders, have great ambitions at the start, it is difficult to know today the state of the project. It seems that the duo makes ends meet with restoration work.
Goblin Contest is a pinball game that is simple in its design but also in its game mechanics.
Do European manufacturers have a future?
Problems of supply, distribution, compatibility with American standards… One might think that European manufacturers do not have all the chances on their side. But the situation can be seen differently.
Gary Stern told us in his interview that exports accounted for 35 to 40% of the market leader’s pinball sales, and that Western Europe accounted for a major part of this percentage. The euro zone is therefore a significant pool of potential buyers.
But within the European Union, the problems of the euro/dollar exchange rate and customs duties are over. Without cutting into their margins, European manufacturers are mechanically competitive on the price side. All they have to do (easy to say!) is to increase their production rate and secure the quality of their machines, both in terms of design and reliability. Customers will follow, no doubt about it.