So what’s the deal about pinball? Does anybody even remember the games anymore? Those dinosaur machines are problematic, bulky and a remnant of the past. Who cares about ’em?
Pinball is a uniquely American invention, with its roots in turn-of-the-century gambling devices, and then later morphing into a “game of skill” to get around anti-gambling laws. It’s almost by accident that it became a popular interest in the 60s and 70s, with a handful of companies, mostly in the Chicago area, cranking games out by the tens-of-thousands in its heyday, and a small coalition of artists finding a unique showcase for their talents, one that would last much longer than they imagined and become an American icon.
Pinball is one part art; one part electro-mechanical ingenuity, one part pop culture, one part sensory stimulation, and one part business. People who are into pinball often have a soft spot in their past for the machines. Many of us had a favorite machine in some obscure bowling alley, arcade or convenience store, some of us were “latch-key kids” who found the machines our babysitters on lonely afternoons after school. We remember the first time we “broke the machine”, rolled it over, scored a credit, or achieved a significant gameplay goal. None of us ever imagined being able to own one ourselves. And then one day, the opportunity presents itself and we’re crazy enough to take the plunge.
For me the appeal of pinball centers around the mechanics of the machine. The ability to be entertained by a device you work on is the cherry on top. I enjoy the challenge of taking an old, abandoned device and breathe life back into it. Pinball machines are not as impossibly complicated as today’s modern electronics with their surface-mount components and multi-level PCBs and wiring schemes that no mere mortal conceived, much less imagined being able to maintain beyond swapping out entire components when things go wrong. Pinball machines were (and still are) made by hand, using components that you can see and manipulate, and with the proper attention, understand their very nature and in the process appreciate the cleverness of the mechanical engineer who managed to find a way to make a magnet manipulate a flap, ramp, diverter or swingarm in such a way that nobody had previously thought.
In the modern world there seems to be too many insurmountable goals. On a pinball machine, whether it’s above or below the playfield, while the goals may seem lofty, they’re not impossible. That small step can lead one to greater heights in the long run.