The arcade may not be as thriving and widespread as it once was, but the lack of public places to play pinball hasn’t killed the mighty machine just yet. In fact, it’s experiencing a second Renaissance.
Giants of the pinball industry like Williams, Bally and Midway fell into financial oblivion, and only one pinball manufacturer, Stern Pinball, was left standing. Then starting in 2011, smaller companies started to emerge, like Jersey Jack Pinball, with its eye-popping, pinball rendition of The Wizard of Oz film, and American Pinball, which turned the legend of escape artist Harry Houdini into a colorful and challenging pinball game.
This year’s Texas Pinball Fest, hosted last weekend at the Frisco Hotel and Convention Center, attracted a massive crowd of pinball players who tackled some of their old favorites from private collectors. Then they lined up to try their hand at new machines designed and released in the last year by game makers like Stern, American and many others.
Iron Maiden: Legacy of the Beast
Iron Maiden: Legacy of the Beast (Stern Pinball)
Back in pinball’s first heyday, musicians knew they made it when a company made a pinball machine bearing their likeness and logo on the back glass. Music acts like KISS, The Beatles and Elton John had their own pinball machines that gobbled up millions of quarters on the weekends around the world. Modern pinball makers are bringing back that tradition with machines like Stern’s tribute to one of Great Britain’s most influential rock groups.
The player starts by choosing one of 12 Iron Maiden songs such as “Aces High,” “Number of the Beast” or “Fear of the Dark” that will serve as the soundtrack for their metaphoric march into the monstrous breach. The board has four flippers on the field including two near the bottom, a left flipper just over halfway up the board and a small right flipper just barely hiding underneath one of the three metal ramps. The game has a large selection of scary ways to rack up points and jackpots in this dark fantasy world of skeleton soldiers and undead Egyptian pharaohs, and you’ll use all four flippers to angle your shots up alleyways and over ramps.
There are some clever challenges built into the game like the “Pharaoh’s Bullseye Target” that sits on the back wall of the cabinet. The only way to hit it when prompted is to propel your ball with the bottom flipper at just the right angle up a short ramp so it launches through the air and smacks into one of the target’s three rings for bonus score multipliers.
The art and video scenes are dark, colorful and stunning. The artwork looks like a pop-up version of any Iron Maiden cover. The scenes of brutal war, death and destruction at the bony hands of skeletal evil on the screen feel like you’re watching an animated movie based on the band’s signature style of hardcore fantasy metal.
Oktoberfest: Pinball on Tap
Oktoberfest: Pinball on Tap (American Pinball)
American Pinball really started an impressive sprint after going public in 2017 with its first game Houdini: Master of Mystery. It has some detailed and interactive pieces, magnets and technology that can send a ball flying out of other parts of the field and even a reversed, multi-ball mode where the flippers move down instead of up when players press the buttons. Oktoberfest: Pinball on Tap isn’t as insane as American Pinball’s predecessor, but it’s just as fun.
Players move the ball around a German beer village that’s right in the middle of a bouncing, beered-up brew fest. There are steins that players can pick up to give them certain scoring or objective achieving advantages. They can send their ball on an amusement ride such as a banking corkscrew chute that sends the ball on a tiny, wild mouse coaster ride. There’s also a fun video mode that’s a high-definition, German-ized version of the arcade classic Tapper.
Pretty much any mode you play offers a light, fun challenge. It’s not as complex as the machine that launched the company, but for players who long for the days when the only challenge in pinball was to hit a bumper, it builds on the basics of pinball with great theming and engaging features.
Deadpool (Stern Pinball)
Games based on Marvel Comic characters are starting to feel like the same beat ’em up and smash ’em down fare with slightly different weaponry based on the character’s mutation or choice of arsenal. Marvel’s “Merc with a Mouth” was screaming to be made into a pinball game even before the first Ryan Reynolds movie made the morally flexible mercenary a household name. Deadpool is silly, snide and self-aware and the game captures him perfectly; it feels like Stern let the character design his own pinball machine even though we know he doesn’t really exist (as far as we know).
The graphics on the screen are styled to look like its running on a Super Nintendo and each ball opens with the fourth wall breaking brawler playing his own pinball…