How to choose your first pinball machine?

Buying your first pinball machine is bound to be memorable. First, you think about it, a little, then you want it, a lot, and finally you receive it at home and it is an unforgettable moment for anyone who has already had this chance. For the others, don’t panic, nothing is lost and we’re going to go through it all together so that buying your first pinball machine doesn’t turn into an awful crossroad.

Before anything else, the first question you should ask yourself is: “a pinball machine at home, yes OK, but for whom exactly and for what real use?”

It may sound silly, but you may not be alone in the sweet home. Of course, if you are at home, we can move on to the second and very nice step of choosing the “theme”.

To each his own desires

But let’s go back for a moment to those who have the luck, the joy (or not) of living with a partner or even who have children to take care of (joy, luck, all that…or not!): In short, you are not alone in the nest and you will have to deal with these potentially annoying characters in relation to your little selfish project. Because let’s not kid ourselves, you are selfish. Nothing can legitimately justify in 2022 that you can consider the purchase of a machine as imposing as useless as it is expensive in thousands of dollars (!) when clearly you have a family to feed and Christmas is fast approaching.

But your choice is made anyway. And too bad for your aunt who won’t have her chocolates this year, all your little savings will go into the purchase of “that” as your wife says with a desperate look. As for you: it’s decided, we’re going to take action.

Of course it will be a matter of finding where to put “that” in the house, but I leave that negotiation to you. Good news in any case, you will soon have your first pinball machine, and it is now that I intervene more particularly, my little friends, to help you in your cornelian choice: The theme. Yes, always the theme and nothing but the theme in fact…

Your pinball theme

Often underestimated at the time of purchase, it is well known that the most commercially successful pinball machines are almost all based on film or music licenses (Addams Family, Playboy, Kiss, Star Trek, Twilight Zone, Terminator 2, to name but a few, are among the Top best-selling all time pinball machines).

Flyers presenting pinball machines, one of the few means of communication at the time

Commercial success and therefore success of esteem too, if one associates the power of the dollar with the intrinsic value of the product, but this is another debate for another day.

And if nevertheless machines that I would qualify as “original creations” such as Attack from Mars, Medieval Madness or FunHouse are adored, respected and even revered by fans, it is confirmed that they are more the exception than the rule in this field (even though FunHouse was a real commercial success at its release in 1990 with 10,750 sales).

AFM and MM were surprisingly not as successful, with 3,450 sales for Attack from Mars and 4,016 sales for Medieval Madness. It was only later that they became the icons we know today.

All this to say that there is a cause and effect link since -very often- a licensed machine has for it to have already its whole history thought and written. Not only that, but also the theme of the game, the characters that will be the heroes (editor’s note: think Star Wars.).

That’s a lot of time freed up for the brilliant creators to design their playfields, ramps and incredible toys and a lot of time left for the coders to have fun thinking up missions galore, amazing bonuses and crazy multipliers and for us players to enjoy them!

As you can see, in the case of a “licensed” game, the designers don’t have to invent the story, but “just” imagine how it will be transcribed in the game, and this often makes all the difference when a new pinball game is released. This is notably what allowed to produce some popular hits like Deadpool or Jurassic Park recently.

Last year, I spoke with the famous designer Pat Lawlor, who explained to me that it is much more complicated to start from scratch. And while there are inevitably usage restrictions that apply to licensing, the time savings are so great that designers prefer to go that route rather than the other way around.

A little pinball history to illustrate this: Gary Stern, before he “created” STERN PINBALL, was in charge of Data East (and then SEGA PINBALL) and his business model was: license, license, license. Very few, if any, “original” pinball machines: only licensed pinball machines. And it works very well with STERN PINBALL, if we refer to the latest creations such as Stranger Things, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Avengers.

Well, I imagine that at this stage of the reading -if by chance you are still here, and congratulations by the way- you are wondering how it will help you to choose your first pinball machine, am I wrong? Well, let’s go there happily!

A new pinball: Stern or JJP?

To put it simply, you have two options: new/recent pinball (think STERN or JERSEY JACK), or old pinball (think BALLY-WILLIAMS, GOTTLIEB). To be very clear, there are two schools, or even two philosophies, on this subject when it comes to a first purchase. First, the price.

A new STERN costs at least $6,500, and even more than $10k for a LE model (Limited Edition). We are in comparable price levels at Jersey Jack Pinball, while the quality of manufacture is significantly higher, with materials used of better quality: it looks less “cheap” let’s be honest. Some STERN machines are really pitiful sometimes (Stern Army, I see you cough, sorry).

Also the production quantities are lower at JJP, so you actually have a better “investment” at JJP than at STERN.

Stern versus JJP

This is to be taken into account in the context of a later resale, a JJP pinball will be “more valuable” than a STERN one, whose prices on the second hand market are quickly shattered (look at how much a Munsters Pro costs in second hand today… you’ll see). Moreover, a STERN product chasing another every three months, you will not stay long owner of the “latest model”, yours will lose as much value as it is no longer the last one to arrive/last one wanted…

Now let’s be honest, STERN is spoiled for choices: with an average of four new pinball machines (under license) released each year, you’ll find what you’re looking for and the theme that suits you best.

The designers at STERN are talented (Keith Elwin, George Gomez, John Borg, Brian Eddy), the coders too, the machines play quite well and are nice in the absolute.

The only problem is that there are very few “mechs” inside, and that’s a pain. Very few toys too, not very good either. In fact STERN will put all its added value in the game code and in the artwork (and this is to make us forget that the playfield is empty!): this is a reality dear friends, let’s not lie to each other and stop believing that everything STERN does is great, as I sometimes hear.

Now let’s give credit where credit is due: the code is excellent. Of course, since there’s not much on the playfield… we make up for it with a lot of computing. It’s cool in a way because it increases the longevity of the pinball machine: you’re not going to finish it, but does it make it more fun? I don’t know, the question remains open.

New code update announcement

In my opinion, there has to be a good compromise between what happens on the playfield and the code on the screen. I have the awful feeling that modern pinball machines spend most of their budget on on-screen animations, when in the end you don’t really care: the principle of pinball is above all what happens ON the board, the rest should be a bonus.

In short, STERN: good pinball machines? yes, definitely! The best ? certainly not. Innovative ? well, not either.

But, all this being said, you won’t make a mistake by getting a STERN: you’ll have a nice theme (unless, like me, you’re sick of superheroes and rock bands…), a tasteless but efficient design (except for Elwin, I admit…), few toys on the board, an excellent code… well… why not. We’ll say it’s a sure thing, but I don’t guarantee the reliability of the pinball machine in 10 years if you want to nail it to the floor of your house…We can talk about that another time if you wish.

A used pinball machine: Bally and Williams

This brings me inexorably to the old pinball machines, and rather from BALLY-WILLIAMS (we will leave GOTTLIEB aside if you agree, they are not at the level of B-W, except for Stargate, there again we can talk about it another time).

Several advantages to take a BALLY-WILLIAMS as a first machine: first of all, a much more affordable price (from $1,500 for the less quoted ones, up to $6-7,000 for the most wanted ones like AFM, Twilight Zone, Indiana Jones). This has the merit of allowing you to “test” yourself on a first machine without spending a fortune before bringing out the heavy artillery later, possibly…not stupid.

Cactus canyon by Bally

Another advantage, inside the machine you will find a system of WPC cards widely tested since time and especially: RE-PAI-RA-BLE! Yes, repairable. You can repair all your “old” BALLY-WILLIAMS pinball machines yourself, or have them repaired by a specialist. And the good news is that you will still be able to do so in twenty years, or thirty. Because they were designed to last. They were designed to be abused in the coffee shops of the time, so don’t expect your little fingers to do anything but tickle them.

Terminator 2 by Williams

In short: it’s sturdy, and it’s made to last over time, so don’t worry, unlike modern pinball machines: made for domestic use first and foremost. Quick question: have you heard about “programmed obsolescence” of electrical/electronic machines? This phenomenon appeared in the 2000s…

Cirqus Voltaire by Bally

Here it is…well, you should know that our beloved (modern) pinball machines are not spared from this modern virus, and one day they will be obsolete and not repairable…good luck. It hurts a little to hear, maybe you even doubt my word, but it’s a truth that’s best not to be glossed over.

Besides, and contrary to what one might think, I don’t necessarily advocate buying an “old” Bally-Williams first. I do think that it is an excellent entry point for those who intend to build a collection of timeless and timeless “classics”.

Addam’s Family by Bally

I personally started with an Attack From Mars machine first (rather than a modern one) and I never regretted my choice. Quite the contrary. I continued with a Twilight Zone pinball, FunHouse and other B-W classics before recently adding a Starwars Pro STERN.

But I’ll tell you a secret: if a machine has to leave my collection, it will be the STERN one.

Conclusion: a new pinball machine or an old one?

OK, I realize I’m rambling on to some personal considerations, besides it’s good form to point out that this post only engages my opinion and not necessarily that of the editorial staff of PINBALL MAG so feel free to hit me up if you don’t agree, I’ve got thick skin – Instagram @Paris_Pinball_Addict .

So I’ll finish by telling you the following: YES, taking a STERN as your first machine is a guarantee of safety: it smells like new, it’s rather beautiful, it plays well, it’s modern and everything that “just came out” is the envy of the neighbors. OK.

In addition, being new (or almost new) the risk of immediate failure is relatively low, so you’re playing it safe and fun from the start. I can only recommend this choice if you are what I would call a pinball “agnostic”, i.e. you don’t care what the machine is worth in the long run, but you want to have fun right away without any second thought. In these conditions, go for a new/recent STERN. You won’t be disappointed.

For the others, those who even before having their first machine, are ancestral pinball “fans” with an assumed nostalgia of their college years, then it is perhaps a good idea to go and see the BALLY-WILLIAMS machines: you will be able to find the pinball machine of your favorite bistro, the one which is the main reason of your lamentable repetition of your 10th grade… (editor’s note: true story, I am ashamed but it is true, long live Lethal Weapon pinball).

Lethal Weapon 3 by Data East

You’ll have a classic machine, that has successfully passed the test of time, with great gameplay and pretty cool toys, a code that’s not too complex and then also, and maybe even more importantly, a nice “vintage” object in your living room or your gameroom. For me, that counts.

In short, take your time, talk about it around you, don’t hesitate to contact us at the editorial office, we all have different opinions and preferences and this is what makes the richness of our hobby: there are those who swear by STERN (hello again the Stern Army!), and those who regret the BALLY-WILLIAMS era (hello me!). In any case, there is no “bad” pinball machine and every machine will give you satisfaction and pleasure, as long as the little silver ball keeps rolling on the playfields…

Make your choice!

Paris based pinhead / Pinball collector & contributor / Addict to everything pinball

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