Gears & Gadgets

Fixing the past: The art of collecting pinball machines

Pinball is dying, if it’s still alive at all. The major manufacturers have moved from creating pinball machines to slot machines for casinos, a business with a much rosier future. With even larger arcades only sporting one or two pinball machines, most likely emblazoned with licensed artwork from a popular movie or TV show, enthusiasts of the game are forced to look backward for their joy, not forward.

“Pinball has seen a steady decline since the 90s. Chicago used to have many manufacturers that cranked out thousands of games each year. In the 80s and 90s, video games became popular and pinball sales suffered,” Karl Marsicek explained to Ars. He knows a little bit about the lost art of pinball: his basement houses a collection of machines he has bought and restored. “There is only one manufacturer left, Stern Pinball. They put out about 4 or 5 new titles each year, just a fraction of what manufacturers were cranking out in Pinball’s glory days.”

As a hobby, collecting and restoring pinball machines is tough. The machines are loud, large, heavy, and expensive. The problem is, if you can’t play a game at your local arcade, the only place left is your own basement. “The many machines that were produced in the ’80s and ’90s have reached the end of their life cycle and are disappearing from bars and pizza joints,” Marsicek said. “Strip mall arcades are just about extinct because of computer games and gaming consoles. So pinball machines are getting hard to find.”

The beginning of the obsession

Everyone remembers their first love, and for Karl, his was named Bad Cats. He first saw the machine at a resort in Indiana, on the way to a club on an early date with his wife. They never made it to the club, although he did pump a significant amount of money into the machine over the next few hours.

“I remember really liking the cheesy art and sounds on the game and thinking, ‘I gotta have one of these!’ I wrote the name of the game and the manufacturer on the back of a business card and stuck it in my wallet, and decided that after we bought a house I’d look into buying one.” It wasn’t an idle threat. Five years later he had his home, and he started looking for that machine. It turned out that Bad Cats was a machine with a low production number, so it wasn’t as simple as sending someone a check. Proving his dedication, he looked for a year, until two units showed up on eBay. He bought the better-looking machine and had it shipped to his house.

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The problem? The game didn’t work properly when it arrived, and no one in the area knew how to fix it. “But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it forced me to open up the game and find resources on the Web. I was eventually able to fix everything that was broken on it and it still sits in my basement,” Marcizek said. Soon he knew other pinball enthusiasts and began attending shows. He bought jukeboxes, slot machines, and restored other coin-operated amusements. “But my real passion is with pinball machines,” he stressed.

Remember folks, these machines had actual moving parts

Time is not kind to pinball machines. “Electromechanical games—games with score reels instead of digital displays—have hundreds of switch contacts that are engaged when the game is turned on or a ball hits a playfield switch,” Marsicek told Ars. “If the machine sits for a long time, corrosion can build up on the switches and when you turn the game on the corrosion can prevent circuits from completing… The switches can be cleaned and adjusted.” It’s easy to do, but of course this requires a little bit of a time commitment.

“Solid-state games with digital displays typically have 3 AA batteries installed on the boards. The batteries back up custom settings when the game is unplugged, such as pricing info, high scores, etc.” It may seem easy to just swap out the batteries, but if the machines haven’t been taken care of, there can be more issues. “The problem is that the batteries often don’t get changed and start to corrode, then damage the circuit board. Some other components on solid-state games, like capacitors on circuit boards, reach the end of their life expectancy and need to be replaced.”

Ben Kuchera

So what does Marsicek do when he buys a new machine? “Every game is different; some are well maintained by the previous owner and some don’t even power on. Before I try to turn it on, I check to make sure that all the correct fuses are installed and look over the machine for obvious problems like battery corrosion and wires that are broken or have missing/burnt insulation.” The next step is checking any included diagnostic menus for errors, and on older machines he checks each switch and coil to make sure everything is still in working order. Broken parts are fixed or replaced.

“After that I clean and wax the playfield, replace any missing or worn playfield rubber, replace burnt out light bulbs and install a new ball. Then I call my kids in and we play test it!” It’s not an easy or short process, but the rewards are great. “It sounds like a lot of work, but it’s not usually that bad… The games are designed for commercial use, so if you spend a little time looking things over they will last a long time in a home use environment.”

There are also great resources online. “Clay Harrell has written an online pinball repair guide that outlines maintenance tips for different generations of pinball machines, including steps to take before turning a game on for the first time. I always check his site for additional steps, especially if I am unfamiliar with the game generation or manufacturer. The guides are at http://marvin3m.com/fix.htm.”

So how do I start?

If you’d like to kickstart your own collection, or even just pick up a single machine to spruce up your basement or garage, Masicek has some advice. “The first thing I would tell a prospective pinball owner is when you buy your first game, spend a little extra and get a clean, working or ‘shopped’ game instead of a project. It can be frustrating having a game you can’t play because you can’t figure out how to fix the problem (or problems) it has. If you only plan to have one game for a while, you might as well have one you can get some playtime on. This will also give you a chance to familiarize yourself with the way the games are supposed to work.”

Ben Kuchera

The next step? Research. “If you have a particular title in mind, know the price range you should expect to pay and try to find out what to look for on that particular title before you go to look at the machine,” he explained. “For example, does the game have a particular toy on the playfield that typically breaks? Are there spots on the playfield where the artwork tends to wear off because of heavy ball traffic? (The pinball newsgroup rec.games.pinball is a good source for this info.) Armed with info like this you will be better prepared to negotiate a price.”

After that, it’s just a matter of upkeep and learning about the machine. “Look through the manual and get familiar with lifting the playfield and opening the backbox so you can change burnt bulbs. Keep the playfield clean and waxed. Replace the ball if it is pitted or worn. Never use lubricant or contact cleaner on moving parts or switches; just keep them clean. Find out what other maintenance tasks you can perform on your game so that you can preserve it.”

This isn’t a hobby for everyone though, and you have to be aware of the risks. Not everyone’s wife will be as understanding, for instance. “The worst is that pinball machines are large and heavy, and it’s easy to get carried away. I know about 25 people in the Chicago area that own pinballs, only one of them was able to stop at just one game. Once you become familiar with fixing the games, polishing and tinkering with them can become as addictive as playing them,” Marsicek told Ars. “If you don’t have room, you have to get creative with making room as pinball machines start to accumulate in your house.”

A few favorites from Karl

We asked Marsicek what his favorite games are, and he had a list ready to go. He’s also always rotating games in and out, while selling his leftovers. “I compete for basement floor space with my kids and their giant plastic toys, so I only have room to keep about 7 games. My projects go out in the garage to be sold. After I restore a game, I play it for a while and if I like it enough I will move it down to the basement and sell one of the games down there instead. So my corner of the basement has evolved into my top seven.”

Ben Kuchera

So what’s in the top seven right now? “Currently I have Medieval Madness, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Whitewater, Bad Cats, F14 Tomcat, Banzai Run, and Star Wars.”

“My absolute favorite is Medieval Madness. I like games that have mechanically animated toys on the playfield and Medieval Madness has the most clever animations, including a castle that mechanically explodes.” His wish list includes Funhouse, Monster Bash, Addams Family, Taxi, Diner, Theatre of Magic, and Mousin’ Around.

“I avoid buying games that I can’t look at and play first. I stay away from Ebay now unless the seller is local to me. Some sellers tend to leave problems out of the description or exaggerate the cosmetic condition of a game, and conflicts can be difficult to resolve after you have paid to ship a game.” Pinball is a sensual art; if you can’t put fingers to button, and take in the overall condition of the machine, then it’s probably a good idea to hold off on the purchase.

Pinball is a magic thing

When I was young, my father had a Playboy pinball machine in our basement, and those were my first memories of pinball. It wasn’t set to free play, so you still had to put a quarter into the slot, but I had a key so I could just empty the bucket out. We kept about five dollars in quarters rotating in and out of the machine.

Ben Kuchera

There was something so immediate about playing pinball that video games lacked. There was something physical happening under the glass, with the loud popping noises of the flippers and the bumpers up top. The lights flashed and the numbers just kept going up. I learned how to stop the ball with the flipper and keep it in place before aiming it for the high-scoring areas. Plus, there were nearly naked ladies in the artwork. All these things worked together to make that machine magical for me. I asked Masicek if he had ever tried that particular machine.

He knew which one I was talking about immediately. “I’ve played it once or twice at Pinball Expo but I’ve never owned one. I like the early Solid State Bally games.” He asked me if my family still owned it, and I told him no. I’m not sure what happened to it, but I remember it like it was yesterday.

“Games with collectible themes like that, or ‘Kiss’ or ‘Harley Davidson,’ tend to go for bigger bucks than average games from the same era because they are sought after by pinball collectors, and Playboy collectors too,” he told me.

If I still had it, or knew where it was, I doubt I would even check to see how much it would go for. I would make a few repairs, maybe replace the ball, and put it out in the garage, where I would teach my own son to play. (I don’t think he’s ever seen a pinball machine.) I would see if I could still knock down all the targets on my first ball.

After that? I have a feeling I would start seeing if there were any other machines for sale in the area….

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Tech – Ars Technica

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