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Let's play 'ball!

Pinball machines riding wave of retro buzz back into the bar scene

  • Bottom Lounge
Bottom Lounge (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye )
July 11, 2012|By Leonor Vivanco, RedEye

The flashing lights, dinging sounds and tiny silver ball of a pinball machine used to lure gamers into corner bars. Now, a "Golden Tee" golf game sits in its place. But could pinball bounce back and reclaim its spot?

Lately, signs are pointing to a comeback for the pinball machine, which fell out of favor in the late 1990s, when manufacturers folded and many of the games disappeared. In spite of the challenges to its return—namely, scarcity of places to play and the high cost of operating a machine—thousands of players today are competitively ranked, pinball hotspots across the country have popped up, and a new manufacturer has entered the game.

"We're on the verge of a renaissance," said George Gomez, vice president of game design at suburban Melrose Park-based Stern Pinball, which until recently was the only manufacturer of the games in the world.

Just like vinyl records, pinball machines seem to have that retro appeal these days. Take a look at the newly opened Emporium Arcade Bar in Wicker Park, the record store and vintage arcade museum Logan Hardware in Logan Square, or Bottom Lounge in the West Loop, which offers free pinball on Thursdays.

The driving force behind the uptick, industry watchers say, is the game itself, which offers a combination of skill, luck and physical action that can't be replicated by online games or video games. They say the game won't truly be back in style until there's enough demand and machines are easier to find—a major hurdle considering they are more expensive and harder to maintain than other options.

"To bring more people into pinball, you have to find them, find the people and play the game," said Bowen Kerins, who is ranked fourth in the world and is tournament director of the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association. "For locations to grow, they have to see a good reason to put a machine in."

Small pockets of pinball enthusiasts have popped up across the country. Portland, Ore., for example, is a hotbed for the game. The city hosts weekly tournaments, and many venues there stock multiple machines. Although that kind of frenzy hasn't reached Chicago yet, the city has a strong tie to the community because it's located so close to one of its biggest manufacturers. The Chicago area also hosts the annual Pinball Expo, a multi-day event about all things pinball, in October.

"Chicago is like the Detroit of automobiles. All pinball manufacturing ever has been in Chicago," said Josh Sharpe, who runs the International Flipper Pinball Association with his brother.

The associationheld the World Pinball Championships last month. They started ranking pinball players to generate attention for the game in 2006, coming up with a list of 500 players based on 50 pinball events. Now, 14,000 players are ranked and compete in any of the 350 IFPA-endorsed tournaments around the world.

Meanwhile, the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association's world championship tournament held every summer in Pittsburgh has doubled to 500 players in less than 10 years.

"Competitive pinball has never been at its highest point," said Sharpe, 32, who lives in Palatine and is a controller at Raw Thrills, an arcade game company. "I think that people naturally like to compete in things and be ranked in things, whether it's Words with Friends or whatever, and that it's a very unique outlet for people to get an experience they can't get anywhere else."

Mike Miller used to go to corner bars with friends just to play pinball. He's seen the games come and go on the nightlife scene. As a bar owner himself, he wanted the machines at his two bars, even though they're not money makers.

"I want people to come have fun at my bar, shoot pinball and have some drinks," said Miller, owner of Bottom Lounge and Delilah's in Lincoln Park, which also has a pinball machine. "I'm offering the environment they want to go to."

Miller, a pinball enthusiast, said the AC/DC game at Delilah's gets plenty of play. "If you're an AC/DC fan, you can't walk by the machine and not play," he said.

That game, which launched early this year, is the latest from Stern Pinball. The company was the only manufacturer of arcade-quality pinball games until this year when a new company, Jersey Jack Pinball, entered the fray with its Wizard of Oz machine. The game, expected to ship in September, features an LCD monitor with scores and animation, stereo sound and ruby red flipper slippers. Although the company's machines are assembled in New Jersey, its design and development center is in Harvard, Ill., about 74 miles northwest of Chicago.

It's the latest turn in an industry that can be quite cyclical. The popularity of the games dipped in the '80s and rebounded a bit in the early '90s.

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