Friday, April 25, 2008

Last Of The Pinball Tycoons

MELROSE PARK, Ill. — Being inside a pinball machine factory sounds exactly as you think it would. Across a 40,000-square-foot warehouse here, a cheery cacophony of flippers flip, bells ding, bumpers bump and balls click in an endless, echoing loop. The quarter never runs out.

But this place, Stern Pinball Inc., is the last of its kind in the world. A range of companies once mass produced pinball machines, especially in the Chicago area, the one-time capital of the business. Now there is only Stern. And even the dinging and flipping here has slowed: Stern, which used to crank out 27,000 pinball machines each year, is down to around 10,000.

It's worth reading the whole thing. I grew up with pinball; when I first started, a single game was a dime, and you could get three games for a quarter. I watched as the pinball manufacturers did things that pissed me off, such as changing from short, stubby flippers to longer flippers that were mushy, and adding zeroes to all of the scoring widgets so that it took millions of points to score a free game. Stupidity.

Ideally, a machine for me would work on the 1 game/dime 3 games/quarter principle, and each game would consist of 5 balls. The scoring widgets would be set to 2-and 3-digit numbers, so you could calculate at a glance how many points you'd need for a free game. The board would be honest, with a fair chance to keep the ball in play, without a lot of clutter in the center area.

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