On this Day:
In 1942, a Bronx magistrate ruled all pinball machines illegal.
Pinball is an arcade entertainment machine in which a ball careens around the machine’s interior, hitting various lights, bumpers, ramps, and other targets depending on its design. The game’s object is to score as many points as possible by hitting these targets and making various shots with flippers before the ball is lost, either through gutters at the sides of the machine or through the lower center “drain” space, usually between the flippers. Most pinball machines use one ball per turn (except during special multi-ball phases), and the game ends when the ball(s) from the last turn are lost.
By the end of 1932, approximately 150 companies manufactured pinball machines, most of them in Chicago, Illinois. Chicago has been the center of pinball manufacturing ever since. Competition was strong, and by 1934, only 14 companies remained.
During World War II, all major manufacturers of coin-operated games turned to manufacturing for the war effort. Some, like Williams, bought old games from operators and refurbished them, adding new artwork with a patriotic theme. At the end of the war, a generation of Americans looked for amusement in bars and malt shops, and pinball saw another golden age. Improvements such as the tilt-sensing mechanism and the awarding of free games (replays) appeared.
1947: Flippers introduced
Gottlieb’s Humpty Dumpty, introduced in 1947, was the first game to add player-controlled flippers to keep the ball in play longer, adding a skill factor. The low-power flippers required three pairs around the playfield to get the ball to the top.
Triple Action was the first game to feature just two flippers at the bottom of the playfield. Unlike in modern machines, the flippers faced outwards. These flippers were made more powerful by the addition of a DC (direct current) power supply. These innovations were some of many by designer Steve Kordek.
The first game to feature the familiar dual-inward-facing-flipper design was Gottlieb’s Just 21 released in January 1950. However, the flippers were rather far apart to allow for a turret ball shooter at the bottom center of the playfield. Another 1950 Gottlieb game, Spot Bowler, was the first with inward-facing flippers placed close together.
The post-war era was dominated by Gottlieb. Game designers Wayne Neyens and Ed Krynski, with artist Leroy Parker, produced games that collectors consider some of the best classic pinball machines.
1970s: Solid-state electronics and digital displays introduced
The introduction of microprocessors brought pinball into the realm of electronic gaming. The electromechanical relays and scoring reels that drove games in the 1950s and 1960s were replaced in the 1970s with circuit boards and digital displays. The first pinball machine using a microprocessor was Flicker, a prototype made by Bally in 1974. Bally soon followed that up with a solid-state version of Bow and Arrow in the same year with a microprocessor board that would be used in eight other machines until 1978, which included Eight Ball, the machine that held the sales record from 1977 to 1993. The first solid-state pinball is believed by some to be Mirco Games’ The Spirit of ’76 (1976), though the first mainstream solid-state game was Williams’ Hot Tip (1977). This new technology led to a boom for Williams and Bally, who attracted more players with games featuring more complex rules, digital sound effects, and speech.
The video game boom of the 1980s signaled the end of the boom for pinball. Arcades replaced rows of pinball machines with video games like 1978’s Space Invaders, 1979’s Asteroids, 1980’s Pac-Man, and 1981’s Galaga. These earned significantly greater profits than the pinball machines of the day, while simultaneously requiring less maintenance. Bally, Williams, and Gottlieb continued to make pinball machines while also manufacturing video games in much higher numbers. Many of the larger companies were acquired by, or merged with, other companies. Chicago Coin was purchased by the Stern family, who brought the company into the digital era as Stern Enterprises, which closed its doors in the mid-1980s. Bally exited the pinball business in 1988 and sold their assets to Williams, who subsequently used the Bally trademark from then on for about half of their pinball releases.
While the video game craze of the late 1970s and early 1980s dealt a severe blow to pinball revenue, it sparked the industry’s creative talents. All companies involved tried to take advantage of the new solid-state technology to improve player appeal of pinball and win back former players from video games. Some of this creativity resulted in landmark designs and features still present today. Some of these include speech, such as Williams’ Gorgar; ramps for the ball to travel around, such as Williams’ Space Shuttle; “multiball”, used on Williams’ Firepower; multi-level games like Gottlieb’s Black Hole and Williams’ Black Knight; and blinking chase lights, as used on Bally’s Xenon. Although these novel features did not win back players as the manufacturers had hoped, they changed players’ perception of pinball for decades.
Pinball was banned beginning in the early 1940s until 1976 in New York City. New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia was responsible for the ban, believing that it robbed school children of their hard earned nickels and dimes. La Guardia spearheaded major raids throughout the city, collecting thousands of machines. The mayor participated with police in destroying machines with sledgehammers before dumping the remnants into the city’s rivers.
The ban ended when Roger Sharpe (a star witness for the AMOA – Amusement and Music Operators Association) testified in April 1976 before a committee in a Manhattan courtroom that pinball games had become games of skill and were not games of chance (which are more closely associated with gambling). He began to play one of two games set up in the courtroom, and – in a move he compares to Babe Ruth’s home run in the 1932 World Series – called out precisely what he was going to shoot for, and then proceeded to do so. Astonished committee members reportedly voted to remove the ban, which was followed in other cities. (Sharpe reportedly acknowledges, in a self-deprecating manner, his courtroom shot was by sheer luck although there was admittedly skill involved in what he did.)
Like New York, Los Angeles banned pinball machines in 1939. The ban was overturned by the Supreme Court of California in 1974 because (1) if pinball machines were games of chance, the ordinance was preempted by state law governing games of chance in general, and (2) if they were games of skill, the ordinance was unconstitutional as a denial of the equal protection of the laws. Although it was rarely enforced, Chicago’s ban on pinball lasted three decades and ended in 1976. Philadelphia and Salt Lake City also had similar bans. Regardless of these events, some towns in America still have such bans on their books; the town of Kokomo, Indiana lifted its ordinance banning pinball in December 2016.
Simulating a pinball machine has also been a popular theme of video games. Chicago Coin’s TV Pingame (1973) was a digital version of pinball that had a vertical playfield with a paddle at the bottom, controlled by a dial, with the screen filled with simple squares to represent obstacles, bumpers and pockets. This inspired a number of clones, including TV Flipper (1973) by Midway Manufacturing, Exidy’s TV Pinball (1974), and Pin Pong (1974) by Atari, Inc. The latter replaced the dial controls with button controls.
Other early pinball video games include Toru Iwatani’s Namco arcade games Gee Bee (1978), Bomb Bee (1979), and Cutie Q (1979), Tehkan’s arcade game Pinball Action (1985), the Atari 2600 game Video Pinball (1980), and David’s Midnight Magic (1982). Most famous on home computers was Bill Budge’s Pinball Construction Set, released for the Apple II in 1983. Pinball Construction Set was the first program that allowed the user to create their own simulated pinball machine and then play it.
Most early simulations were top-down 2D. As processor and graphics capabilities have improved, more accurate ball physics and 3D pinball simulations have become possible. Tilting has also been simulated, which can be activated using one or more keys (sometimes the space bar) for “moving” the machine. Flipper button computer peripherals were also released, allowing pinball fans to add an accurate feel to their game play instead of using the keyboard or mouse. Modern pinball video games are often based around established franchises such as Metroid Prime Pinball, Super Mario Ball, Pokémon Pinball, Kirby’s Pinball Land, and Sonic Spinball.
Popular pinball games of the 1990s include Pinball Dreams, Pro Pinball and 3D Pinball: Space Cadet that was included in Windows ME and Windows XP. More recent examples include Pinball FX, Pinball FX 2, and Pinball FX 3.
There have been pinball programs released for all major home video game and computer systems, tablet computers and smart phones. Pinball video game engines and editors for creation and recreation of pinball machines include for instance Visual Pinball, Future Pinball and Unit3D Pinball.
A BBC News article described virtual pinball games e.g. Zen Pinball and The Pinball Arcade as a way to preserve pinball culture and bring it to new audiences. Another example of preserving historic pinball machines is Zaccaria Pinball that consists of digital recreations of classic Zaccaria pinball machines (per Wikipedia).
First, a Story:
The Lord of the Rings official pinball machine doesn’t take quarters.
Second, a Song:
“Pinball Wizard” is a song written by Pete Townshend and performed by the English rock band the Who, featured on their 1969 rock opera album Tommy. The original recording was released as a single in 1969 and reached No. 4 in the UK charts and No. 19 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.
The lyrics are written from the perspective of a pinball champion, called “Local Lad” in the Tommy libretto book, astounded by the skills of the opera’s eponymous main character, Tommy Walker: “He ain’t got no distractions / Can’t hear those buzzers and bells / Don’t see lights a flashin’ / Plays by sense of smell / Always gets a replay / Never seen him fall / That deaf dumb and blind kid / Sure plays a mean pin ball.”, and “I thought I was the Bally table king, but I just handed my pinball crown to him”.
Townshend once called it “the most clumsy piece of writing [he’d] ever done”. Nevertheless, the song was a commercial success and remains one of the most recognised tunes from the opera. It was a perpetual concert favourite for Who fans due to its pop sound and familiarity.
The song was performed by Elton John in Ken Russell’s 1975 film adaptation of Tommy. This version was released in 1975 as a promotional single only in the US, and in 1976 in the UK, where it reached number 7. Because it was not released as a commercial single in the US, it was ineligible to be listed on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It did however make the US Radio & Records airplay chart, where it reached number 9.
John’s version uses a piano as the song’s centerpiece in place of the acoustic guitar in the original (in the film, John’s character is shown playing his pinball machine via a small piano keyboard), and features additional lyrics specially written by Townshend for the movie version, as well as a subtle inclusion of musical phrases from the Who’s 1960s hit “I Can’t Explain” during the outro (similarly, the Who’s later cover of Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” included parts of “Take Me to the Pilot”). Unlike most of the soundtrack’s music, which featured various combinations of the Who and some of the era’s best session players, Elton John used his own band and producer Gus Dudgeon for the track. John has performed the song as part of his Las Vegas Red Piano Show, as well as on various tours. To date, it is the only cover of a Who song to reach the top 10.
The song has subsequently been performed by Taron Egerton who portrayed Elton John in the film Rocketman (2019).
Here is Elton John in the Pinball scene from the movie Pinball Wizard. I hope you enjoy this!
Thought for the Day:
“Whatever adults don’t understand, because they didn’t grow up with it, is the thing they’re going to be afraid of and try to legislate out of existence. It happened with videogames, it happened with television, it happened with pinball parlours and rock and roll.” – Warren Spector
Subscribe: The Smile delivered to your Inbox: https://bit.ly/3JniFkq
Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky