Sunday, April 25, 2010

There are not enough pinheads in the world (unedited)

I was born in 1970, I grew up in the 1980s.

Those years are distant memories, sadly. In many ways life is so much better now. But like everybody who grows up, there's nostalgia for the past, a sense that things were better back when.

I grew up playing video games. It seems like video games and the 1980s go hand in hand, but as I have been reminded recently, video games made a huge splash in the early 80s. They didn't completely disappear in the late 80s, but arcades were already falling by the wayside long before 1990.

By the time I was in high school the first Nintendo game system was finding its way into homes nationwide. Home video systems had never held a candle to the arcade experience, but Nintendo narrowed that gap significantly. The arcade industry quickly became irrelevant by the late 80s.

What I was surprised to learn recently was that pinball -- which suffered mightily at the success of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and the rest -- experienced a renaissance of its own in the early 1990s. As video games nudged pinball machines out of bowling alley game rooms, pinball manufacturers had to improve their game if they were to hang around. Ramps, multiple playfields and other innovations made pinball a complex game. The premise remained the same, but the complexity of it grew.

Despite the pinball renaissance, the 90s saw the same downturn in the pinball industry as the video game industry saw in the 80s.

Here we are in 2010. Both are down, but not out. How much longer that will hold true is anybody's guess, but I don't like the odds.

I can't speak for video games. I'm not interested in anything that passes for a video game, and I haven't been for a long time. But given that I was a kid who loved video games, and didn't care much for pinball, it's ironic that I have a great affection for pinball at this point in my life.

Pinball has been almost nonexistent in my life during the past 15 years, yet it fascinates me far more than video games of any kind. I haven't purchased a video game system in more than 10 years, and I'm doubting that I'll buy one again. It's more likely that I'll shell out $2,000 in the years to come for a secondhand pinball machine. I"m convinced it's not a question of if, but when.

There have been a number of pinball machine manufacturers throughout pinball's history, but for the past 10 years, it has been down to one, Stern. Stern is producing a few new machines each year, most of which are tied to a movie, TV show or other licensed entity. The days of building a machine around a simple, generic theme seem to be gone. Machines today are tied to blockbuster movie franchises and popular television shows, primarily. Even so, there's evidence that the last manufacturer standing is having a tough time selling enough machines to keep going.

There may be plenty of bowling alleys and bars willing to host a pinball machine or two, but how many people are going out of their way to play pinball? Not many, I am sure. Kids today are growing up with sophisticated video game systems in their home, they don't need to go to a bowling alley to play games of skill and chance. Between video game systems and Internet gaming, there's little need for arcade cabinets or pinball machines.

Those who love the thrill of playing pinball are few and far between, and there's little chance of another pinball renaissance, it seems.

Pinball enthusiasts, sometimes referred to as "pinheads," are a dying breed. I'm no pinball historian, but from what I do know, pinball has a long, colorful history. Today's pinball, with flippers, traces its roots to 1947. It's a game that has at times flourished, but today is languishing worse than ever. There are too few pinheads and too many factors working against 21st century pinball. I think it's only a matter of time before the final chapter in the history of pinball is written.

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