Game players flip with the return of pinball

A fully operational Simpsons pinball machine may be worth up to $1,700 according to pin side.com. Competitors take turns versing each other on the same machine each round.
A fully-operational 2004 Simpsons pinball machine may be worth up to $4,500 according to pinside.com. Competitors take turns versing each other on the same machine for each round.

Behind the dark-stained wood door and faded red-brick of D&D Pinball in Tucson, Ariz. lies a collection of the biggest movie and TV stars from the 80s and 90s. The Addams Family, Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker, the Creature from the Black Lagoon and many more fight for gamers’ attention in a war zone of flashing lights, countdowns, pings, pews, clanks and explosions.

Places like D&D Pinball, Arizona’s largest pinball arcade with 30 machines, serves as a time capsule preserving childhood memories of the arcade and a life support system for the resurgence of pinball to the younger generations, which represents the growing popularity of pinball and its community.

“Maybe you want to rekindle or recapture some of what you had in your youth, the memories, the fun times of being at the arcade,” said Mark Pearson, International Flipper Pinball Association state representative for Arizona, or maybe you have never seen or played a classic pinball machine except for on the Internet.

“Everything has its cycle where it kind of reinserts itself back into popular culture: records, fashion, games,” said Matt Christensen, Tucson local and biology science technician with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

Pinball players, collectors, competitors and enthusiasts are bringing pinball out of collectors’ basements and game rooms and back into the public’s eye by spreading the word about sanctioned league play, sales, restoration, popular arcades and events.

“With the Internet and cellphones, younger people don’t need a place to hang out as much as the 80s,” said John Shopple, a web developer from Phoenix. “If you wanted to meet up with friends you went to the arcade.”

Arizona’s 16 top-ranked pinball players went to the arcade [D&D Pinball] on Feb. 7 to compete in the IFPA Arizona State Pinball Championship to showcase skills and compete for an invitation to the IFPA U.S. National Championship in Las Vegas on March 26.

The popularity of competitive pinball is growing worldwide with the help of the IFPA and its members who aim to increase awareness and bring competitive pinball back into the spotlight across the world, according to the IFPA website.

IFPA members can locate weekly and monthly sanctioned league play tournaments on the website in order to improve their rankings. Phoenix members will typically gather at a private residence of another member who owns a large collection of machines. However serious competitors will travel between Tucson and Phoenix to play in as many tournaments as possible.

Since 2007, the IFPA increased from 500 to 23,000-registered members. On Saturday, the IFPA simultaneously conducted 38-other state championships, including a European and Canadian this year for the first time according to Pearson.

“I think the lay person walking by are attracted to the lights, art work, noise and the ping, ping, ping is really fun,” said Christensen.

He started playing pinball within the last four years and would occasionally find a pinball machine at a bar to play like the Surly Wench on Fourth Avenue in Tucson.

“A lot of people haven’t seen them before and now they are being reinserted,” he added. “Places like this just aren’t as frequent.”

Robert Noble and Constance Negley have owned D&D pinball since November 2013 and said a typical weekend averages about 500 customers who play more than 3,000 games ranging from 25-75 cents per play.

“Steeping foot into this building [D&D] is like I remember when I was 9, 10 years old and had a pocket full of quarters,” said Patrick VanCott, an air conditioning contractor from Phoenix. He recalls the 90s as the “heyday of pinball” and remembers playing on the more than 60 pinball machines at the Castles and Coasters arcade in Phoenix.

Now, “It [pinball] is hard to find on location, places like this a rarity,” said Pearson. “I think there is a resurgence because of the Internet that partly makes you aware of where games are available and the whole market is big right now.”

Arizona's top-ranked pinball players traveled from across the state to Tucson's D&D Pinball to compete. The majority of players traveled from Phoenix.
Arizona’s top-ranked pinball players traveled from across the state to Tucson’s D&D Pinball to compete. The majority of players traveled from Phoenix.

He mentioned popular websites like pinside.com that connect people to everything pinball: open discussion forums, event updates, top 100 lists for machines and locations for pinball arcades across the country.

This is ironic because modern technological advances like the Internet and mobile devices are also contributed to the decline in pinball popularity.

According to Pearson, from the 40s-70s, pinball experienced a decline in popularity due to a stigma linking pinball to the mob, money laundering and racketeering. Pinball almost died with the introduction of Pac-Man in the 80s. The major decline was in the late-90s when new gaming systems like Nintendo 64 and Gameboy hit the market.

Will McKinney, the 2015 IFPA Arizona State Champion and real estate management company employee from Phoenix,  returned to pinball a couple years ago after its decline in popularity in the late 90s.

“I grew up with Nintendo just like everyone else,” said McKinney. “I always like pinball for the mechanical aspect.”

He owns an ACDC pinball machine at home but said, “If I could have a game room of 20 machines I can come up with a good list: Twilight Zone, Addams Family, Metallica.”

Douglas Haider on the other hand owns 10 pinball machines in Glendale.

“We spend so much time on smartphones, screens, and movie screens that everything seems to be some kind of alternative or virtual reality and pinball has this here and now physical tactical sense to it,” he said. “So I thought one day when I really make it I’ll buy myself one of these games,” which eventually led to nine others.

Like cars the price of a pinball machine depends on the popularity and condition.

According to Robert you could buy a nice electro mechanical machine for less than $1,000 but a Star Wars costs about $2,800, Twilight Zone costs $5,000 and Medieval Madness can be worth more than $10,000 because it is 20 years old.

Competitors take turns versing each other on the selected machine for the round. Each player gets three balls per round and the highest combined score wins the round.
Competitors take turns versing each other on the selected machine for the round. Each player gets three balls per round and the highest combined score wins the round.

VanCott comes from a family of pinballers. He remembers playing his first pinball machine in his grandparents’ basement. Then his parents bought one. Then when he moved out he bought one.

Today he owns 14 machines at his home in Phoenix. His favorite era of games was from the 90s. “The ones I played as a kid,” he added.

He revisits his youth and the countless hours spent in the local arcade by playing pinball for 45-minutes, a few nights a week after putting the kids to bed.

VanCott said his children and house are known throughout the neighborhood for its pinball collection, which still mesmerizes even the youngest generation with its flashing lights, loud sirens, and physical nature.

David McGlothlin is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service provided by the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach him at dmcglothlin@email.arizona.edu. Follow him on Twitter  @mc_glothlin. 

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