A Classic American Game May Be on the Verge of Extinction
- But Portland Pinball Pros Aren’t Giving Up Yet
BY JUSTIN W. SANDERS
At Ringler's Pub downtown, the jukebox blares out over a low hum of laughing and talking. It takes me a minute of squinting to locate the bar's lone pinball machine, wedged behind the pool tables. It's called Ripley's Believe It or Not!, and leaning against it is local pinball guru Mink Staccato, AKA Scott McKinnon, who advertises lessons for anyone willing to learn the classic bar game. I'm the first person to have taken him up on his offer.
Kind but firm, Mink handles his debut lesson like a pro—which he is. Ripley's, along with other pinball machines around town, offers a tournament mode. It costs a bit more to play, but the extra coinage is pooled, and the player with the highest score at the end of the month wins the jackpot. Mink is a regular winner on the Ripley's machine.
"I've won enough to pay my rent before," he informs me. He also tells me he often comes to Ringler's on his lunch break and spends the entire hour on a single 50-cent round.
"My coke usually costs more than my pinball," he says. He also tells me he started playing pinball when he was three, using a stool to reach the flippers. At the age of five, his dad wanted to take him on the road and challenge other players for money. He's the real deal.
All grown up now, married, and employed at a clean energy company, Mink buys me a beer and drops some quarters in the machine, encouraging me to show him my stuff. I play self-consciously, banging the ball around randomly. Mink is impressed when I "trap" the ball with one flipper, holding it in place so I can then aim it wherever I want.
"You're not so bad," he says. He gently impresses on me the import of having a strategy when you play, item #3 of his "Eight Commandments of Pinball," an actual document he passes out to interested parties. Other items include #2: "Thou shall covet thy extra balls!" and #7: "Thou shall not abuse thy machine!" Mink relates how hard it is to maintain self-control when some drunken asshole starts beating on a machine because he lost his ball.
Then Mink Staccato tells me that pinball is dying.
"It's dying?" I ask.
"I fully expect it to be dead within the next decade or so," he says. "That's why I'm excited for your story—anytime I can support pinball or promote pinball I'm down, because it's probably not going to be around much longer."
THE LAST PINBALL MAKER
STERN Pinball, Incorporated resides in a single 40,000 square foot building in Melrose Park, a suburb of Chicago. It churns out approximately three games a year, each of which takes approximately one year to design. Each design incorporates an average of 15 songs, 3,500 parts, and 115 lights into a complicated, multi-layered field of bumpers, ramps, switches, and levers. A sophisticated point-earning system is mandatory, as is a story thread—both of which must be complemented by an ever-changing dot matrix display. All these disparate elements merge into a twirling, blooping, delicately arranged box of tricks and possibilities, wherein a single metal ball triggers everything. A brand-new pinball machine is a miraculous blend of artistic expression and sheer physics. STERN is the only company in the world still producing them.
It wasn't always this way. A brief history on STERN's extremely informative website (sternpinball.com) traces pinball's roots from a 19th-century French parlor game to its 1950s American heyday, when bumper-and-drop-target innovations made it the game to beat. At one time, pinball enjoyed an 80 percent share of the coin-operated market.
Unfortunately, like many beloved cultural phenomena, the digital revolution eroded pinball severely. In the late '70s, it went electric, but that didn't stop videogames like Pac-Man and Space Commanders from cutting sharply into its revenue. Pinball rebounded with an early-'90s design renaissance, spitting out classics like the Twilight Zone, and also Addams Family, the industry's bestselling machine of all time. But home gaming systems, computers, and other inventions ensured the resurgence was only temporary, and by 2000, major pinball manufacturers like Williams, Bally, and Gottlieb had gone belly up after decades in the business. Only Gary Stern's company, recently acquired from Sega, remained, and with literally no competition to impede it, it has since survived, but for how much longer is a mystery.
At my lesson, I watch my ball move up and down Ripley's ramps, in and out of its secret pits and pinwheels. The game chirps happily when I do something well. It seems so harmless and delightful, this playful little bucket of parts, and with sadness I begin to envision a world without it. I express my sentiment to Mink, and he tries to console me.
"I think the reason that pinball's staying around now is because it's finally gotten down to the people that really love it," he says kindly.
In addition to a calendar of pinball tournaments happening around the world (there are 17 major ones in 2006), the STERN website offers a comprehensive list of dozens of links to other pinball-related websites, ranging in content from online trade magazines, to repair shops, to secondary markets, to forums, to info centers like the Internet Pinball Database (ipdb.org). Pinball may be dying, but its fans are not letting it die quietly.
Mike Mahaffey is the vice president of sales at Portland coin-op machine distribution company Quality Entertainment. A pinball collector and self-taught repairman, he travels around the country attending different tournaments and expos. He assured me by phone that the pinball scene in Portland is thriving.
I know some guys that are some of the top pinball players in the world," said Mahaffey, "and they think that Portland is a pretty booming pinball area."
A website that supports that notion is portlandpinball.com, a forum of hundreds of local hobbyists who wax ecstatically on upcoming events, buying and trading opportunities, and the Portland Pinball League, which meets twice a week at various locations around the city. A recent meeting at Ground Kontrol (Portland's best pinball spot, incidentally, with about 20 different machines) found nearly a dozen members of the league blasting away on games like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Black Knight.
It's not surprising that, amid the loyal cult of pinball, one of its most loyal factions resides in Portland. This is a literate town with a thriving preservationist mentality that places great value on quirky cultural artifacts and retro-style novelties. But pinball machines, both bulky and delicate, also require effort to maintain, and every year fewer and fewer operators make that effort. In my recent pinball travels, I noticed that several machines were out of order or suffering from malfunctioning flippers and other problems. Mahaffey cites this ongoing neglect problem as one of the key contributors to pinball's status as a dying game.
"[Businesses] blame the machine for not making any money," he says, "but you go look at the machine and it looks like someone spray painted it black and there's like two lights working on it. And they wonder why nobody plays it. If you keep the machines clean and in good working order with strong flippers, they do make good money consistently... between 150 and 200 dollars a week. They out earn a lot of the videogames that are sitting right next to them."
KEEPING THE BALL ALIVE
Whether you enjoy pinball as a game or not, I encourage you to take another look at the machines. Examine the intricate series of ramps and chutes comprising the playing field; read the instructions and notice the intricacies of the respective game's storyline; press one of the buttons and feel the reassuring click of a cocked flipper, ready to unleash its surprising power on an unassuming ball. Feel the love, and if anything seems out of order, tell the establishment's owner they're due for a pinball checkup. Together, we can keep this thing alive.
At Ringler's, the moment I've been waiting for finally commences, and Mink Staccato takes Ripley's reins. Relaxed and smiling, he sends the ball on a precise journey, guiding it wherever he wishes around the grid. In seconds he's achieved multi-ball status, and four balls rain down from the heavens. He gathers three of these balls on one flipper, storing them as the other flipper continues to whack away at the fourth ball. Later, he'll "juggle" a ball, flicking it from one flipper to the other, never losing control.
He is as smooth as his name suggests; indeed, in Mink Staccato's hands, the game of pinball is raised to an art form, a kinetic sculpture of light and sound.
For lessons, contact Mink at firstname.lastname@example.org