When people ask what the best pinball machines of all time are, recent machines are rarely mentioned. So we offer you a special ranking of pinball machines released since 2010. We will come back to the reasons why we put the cursor at this date and not before.
The top 10 pinballs since 2010
True to my principles, I’ll give you the result right away. Afterwards we will talk about the nuances and we will justify our choices. We don’t classify them, we list them by year of release and that’s good enough:
- Tron: Legacy – Stern – 2011
- Metallica: Master of Puppets – Stern – 2013
- Wizard of Oz – JJP – 2013
- The Big Lebowski – Dutch Pinball – 2016
- Ghostbusters – Stern – 2016
- Total Nuclear Annihilation – Spooky Pinball – 2017
- Pirates of the Caribbean – JJP – 2018
- Iron Maiden: Legacy of the Beast – Stern – 2018
- Deadpool – Stern – 2018
- Jurassic Park – Stern – 2019
Why 2010 and not 2000?
Excellent question, dear reader! The history of pinball can be summarized as follows: first, they were mechanical, then electromechanical, then electronic. At the end of the 1990’s, they came very close to becoming part of history like the telescope, the dial telephone, the crank cars… In short, to become collector’s items, all the more rare as there were, no new ones marketed.
Stern Pinball was the only one (I’m simplifying, don’t quibble!) to maintain a production in the 2000s. Moreover, its founder, Gary, understood the shift from operators to private customers.
But then, why 2010? Because a new era began at the beginning of that decade, with the arrival of new players: American Pinball, Spooky Pinball, Jersey Jack Pinball, just to name the main ones.
The pinball world in which we live was forged more than 10 years ago, with this renewal of competition. It was a sign that the pinball industry was not dead and that it was going to renew itself definitively by seducing a smaller clientele with enough purchasing power to afford a new machine at home (and to find a place for it, which is even more difficult). No more teenagers in arcades, welcome executives and professionals!
So that’s why 2010 and not 2000. Maybe we’ll do an article on the 2000’s machines, but I doubt it. Honestly, not many of them are doing well, it was a very dark time…
How do you rank pinball machines?
With a lot of bad faith and bias of course! How can you get an editorial team with such disparate tastes to agree? It’s impossible!
More seriously, we tried to compare our opinions with external sources:
- Pinside’s Top 100, purged of pre-2010 machines
- A pinside survey dedicated to the pinballs of the decade in question
We did not include 100% of the top rated machines in these lists. Because another criterion played a role: the originality, the innovation that the machines brought, even if some have defects that many will find prohibitive.
Oh, and we’re ruling out remakes. We love them, these little wonders of Chicago Gaming, but a big part of their success is due to the original models, so that would be cheating.
Wizard of Oz, the champ
We didn’t rank the pinball machines, but if we had, Wizard of Oz would have been the #1. First of all, it is elected far ahead of the others in the pinside poll (but not in the top 100, strangely).
But also, it was the first machine of JJP, which announces the color: Jack, the founder, didn’t set up his company to play with Homebrews. He knows his stuff on the technical side: WoZ machine scrapped the antediluvian light bulbs to put LEDs instead, and welcomed the first LCD screen in the history of pinball. Moreover, we are not talking about a tiny LCD, but a panel that occupies almost the whole width of the front panel! Still today, this particularity makes it a recognizable pinball machine from far.
And this playfield, Pinheads, this playfield… Honestly, it’s so full of toys that it looks like one of Zen Studios‘ virtual pinball machines.
We can address only one reproach to Wizard of Oz : the slowness of the ball. The JJP “touch” announces a more composed game, more in control than in reactivity. Speed is Stern’s trademark, and we appreciate their hard-hitting flippers and shots that send the ball flying at 10,000 miles per hour. Jersey Jack Pinball has taken the opposite view.
It’s up to you to see if you like it or not, but in any case this machine has made history.
Pirates of the Caribbean, JJP’s third production and second license, pushed the envelope:
- still a gigantic LCD screen
- its little brother on the apron
- a boat that rolls from left to right as an upper playfield
- a whirlpool ramp
Nothing to complain about, great work. Note that the last born from JJP, Guns ‘n’ Roses, does not show the same generosity on the filed. It’s almost as if the challenger is starting to approach the standards of the dominant manufacturer. Well, speak of the devil…
Stern, not surprisingly, very present on the podium
6 pinball machines out of the 10 selected come from Stern. That’s the minimum for the undisputed leader of the sector. And if this ranking were to respect the volumes produced over the decade, there should be 9. But hey, we like to vary the pleasures.
Among these 6 machines, 3 represent in my eyes the quintessence of the manufacturer: Iron Maiden, Deadpool, Metallica. How to define this quintessence? Immediate fun, without headaches, with clear objectives and a nice playfield, without being very original or full of toys. Finally, the licenses are adapted with a lot of respect.
Here is equipment designed for operators who would have been delighted to still exist to place them in arcade bars… I am cynical, forgive me, survivors.
Jurassic Park and Ghostbusters, the deep codes
And from time to time, Stern takes out of pinball machines where you have to have 3 years ahead of you to succeed in scoring. The board is then a little richer, the ramps more twisted, but above all the code becomes as deep as the Mariana Trench.
Jurassic Park (not in its Pin version, don’t be mistaken) is the archetype of these pinballs imagined to stay stuck in your living room. Ghostbusters, a little less popular but still in the same vein, digs the furrow. The difference in appreciation probably lies more in the theme than in the gameplay. Even if the red DMD is particularly disgusting on the GB pinball and if the strobe is a shameful technique to shorten the multiballs. I admit, I can’t help but troll on Lazarus’ favorite machine.
What is Tron: Legacy doing in this ranking?
The last Stern pinball is Tron, from the 2010 “reboot” movie. We selected it because it probably marks the entry into the modern pinball era.
Released in 2011, Tron stands out from the crowd with its lightshow, magnified by the multicolored neon lights that adorn its railings. They are made of plastic, of course, but the material fits with the theme. So we can’t blame John Borg, the designer.
Add to that the film’s soundtrack composed by Daft Punk, and you have a real atmospheric pinball, which stands out more for its coherence than for its generosity on the set.
The outsider: The Big Lebowski
As we said at the beginning of this article, the 2010s saw the emergence of competitors of all kinds. Some will barely make a title and will suffer to honor their orders. Others will gain stripes with each new release, slowly but surely.
Dutch Pinball will have struck a blow with its Big Lebowski machine in 2016. A pinball machine with an upper playfield AND a lower playfield is original. The soundtrack would almost make it a music pinball so much the film’s soundtrack relies on hits. And finally, a ton of footage from the movie guarantees immersion.
However, hang on to get your hands on it! The first version was produced in less than 100 copies. The second one has been in production since 2019, at a rate I can’t describe.
Dutch Pinball is representative of this new era: the market is becoming attractive again for investors and enthusiasts. These adventurers think, rightly in my opinion, that if their machine is good, it will sell. The risk is more in the logistics and production than in the marketing, for once. The Dutch have so far only produced two machines and for the moment there is no indication that a third one is in preparation.
By the way, we hesitated to put this pinball in the ranking: Dutch Pinball had serious problems to produce its machines, and we had to be patient to get a decent code.
Moreover, the methods used to avoid bankruptcy for the manufacturer were understandable, but particularly unpleasant for the fools who had made pre-orders. Indeed, in order to bring in cash, the manufacturer did not deliver the first buyers who had advanced money, but more recent customers. Moreover, the “early adopters” did not finally receive their machines at the price initially agreed. The price had indeed been revised upwards in the meantime.
Total Nuclear Annihilation: the advent of a small but strong manufacturer
In the new kids, let’s finish with Spooky Pinball and its Total Nuclear Annihilation machine. Here is a family that is not afraid to play in the big league, and that, after all, has produced more different machines than JJP! Of course, we will have to wait until 2021 to see them announce volumes worthy of the most important players. But all the same, their track record commands respect.
Total Nuclear Annihilation surprises by its “flat” design, without any ramp. The theme is not without reminding Bally/Williams’ machines like Space Station. Metallic voice, “space” noises, full synth…
Besides, the whole atmosphere is due to the powerful sound, which accentuates the bass to stir the guts. This machine is a real risk-taker, without license. It shows the Emery family’s ability to think outside the box. And with success !
And my favorite pinball machine, where is it?
Choosing means giving up, Pinheads. So, of course, we excludes some great machines in this ranking. We may be reproached for the absence of Dialed In for example, but we did it knowingly: it is in our opinion the worst production of Pat Lawlor, its designer. Even if a bad Lawlor pinball is sometimes worth the best of another designer…
But above all, we have left out the most recent pinball games, whose gameplay has not yet been tested by time. We think for example of Guns ‘n’ Roses and especially Godzilla. None of them are bad, far from it. Let’s give ourselves another decade to judge the production of the 2020s.