I Thought I Hated Pinball

By Krentz

August 10, 2023

This story got featured & frontpaged on August 16, 2023

44 days ago

I'm a lifelong (video) gamer, and for a recently-turned 40-year-old that's a LOT of gaming. I remember my parents buying a NES when I was no more than 4 or 5. When I was 8 and broke my leg at the very beginning of summer, I was gifted an SNES that made my days stuck indoors more bearable. That summer was the true start of my love affair with video games, and one that lasted me well into adulthood. My poison of choice was long, in-depth RPG games with lots of grinding, complicated stats, and steady progression. I greatly preferred these progressive, methodical games to the twitchy arcade-style games where the only goal seemed to be to earn a higher score and each play session was starting over from the beginning. This continued into adulthood when I would get deeply addicted to loot grind RPGs like the Diablo series, and decades-long MMO progression in World of Warcraft. These were serious, demanding hobbies, I thought, and I was much too advanced of a gamer to waste my time playing silly score attack games.

Guess which camp pinball fell into?

Early in my teens, my dad found a pinball machine on the side of road waiting to be picked up like so much garbage. It was a Big Top by Wico, not the swankiest of machines, but a free machine is a free machine so he brought it home and spent some time fixing it up. He never got it fully working, but he at least got the flippers and mechs to work and triggering chimes. With no functional scoring, it was a neat conversation piece but not a fun game; a cheap imitation of pinball that did little to sway my opinion of the hobby. It still seemed pointless and even pretty boring. Still, watching my dad tinker with the electronic guts inside the machine would stick me.

Regrettably, when I would encounter pinball machines in the wild I didn't see them as much more than glorified whack-a-mole; a seemingly random display of flashing lights and sounds where you bounced a ball around for a minute or so and then were given a score with no meaning or context. What was the point, I thought? I would much rather be at home in a digital world grinding for more epic loot. So unfortunately, for most of my life pinball was a subgenre of gaming that I actively avoided.

As I reached my mid-thirties, I started to become more and more aware of the way video games were designed to consume the time of the players. Progressive games that I had played for years started to lose their appeal as the addictive hooks became more transparent. I gradually started to cut these time-sucking games out of my life, shifting my focus to shorter, more narrative-focused gaming experiences, and - unbelievably - even started picking up hobbies in the real world! I started building models, and I enjoyed the meditative process of assembling something physical. I had played guitar for years, and I started getting interested in assembling my own guitar pedals, learning about electronics and practicing my soldering skills. I was finding enjoyment and satisfaction in these physical hobbies that I wasn't getting out of video games, and I was feeling my priorities start to shift.

Still, pinball was not even on my radar. I hadn't really thought about it in years. That changed one day when I was listening to one of my regular podcasts - The Besties - a video game review show starring some of my favorite podcasters and game journalists, when they had a special episode all about pinball. They brought on a pinball expert who spoke enthusastically about the hobby, focusing on the collectibility of the machines, the customization and tinkering that goes into them, and the strategy of playing the games. In particular, he talked in-depth about "modes" in pinball - goals to work towards, the ability to make progress, and the possibility of "beating" a game and earning a wizard mode.

Gameplay strategy? Collectibility? Tinkering with electronics? These were aspects that hit on all of my major interests, and things that I never associated with pinball before. I still wasn't sold - that didn't sound like the pinball I remember playing in my dad's garage - but my curiosity had been piqued, and I thought about how much he seemed to enjoy fixing it up. Even if I didn't *love* playing the games, I could at least have a lot of fun fixing them up, I thought. I looked up some youtube videos, and ended up binging a bunch of Straight Down the Middle reviews. I started learning things like which games had cool modes, which games had the best ramps and shots, and which games were the most overrated/underrated. The fact that there were so many things to learn about pinball, techniques to master, so many opinions to have, and so much variety between the machines really started to scratch an itch in my brain. I still wasn't completely sold on the hobby, but I was definitely starting to get pinball-curious. I wanted to try it out for myself. And maaaybe I might start looking for an old broken-down machine I could pick up on the cheap and try fixing up. The idea of a hobby that was part gaming, part collecting, and part tinkering/building was really starting to appeal to me...

I decided to slowly start to dip my toe into the pinball waters. My plan was to join some pinball social media groups, get a feel for the culture and best practices, learn about good prices for machines, and maaaybe start looking for a fixer-upper that I could cut my teeth on. I wasn't ready to commit just yet, but my mind was starting to be opened to vast world of pinball.

Well it turns out that the pinball waters are much deeper than I expected! The very first day that I joined a pinball discord just to see if it might be "up my alley," somebody posted a listing for a $200 garage-find Genie - and it just happened to be less than 30 minutes away from me. After asking around and getting some reassurance that this was indeed a great deal, I found myself $200 poorer and driving home with a Genie in the backseat. I went from unsure about pinball as a hobby to having a pinball restoration project sitting in my garage in less than 24 hours!

The Genie was... probably worth the $200 I spent on it; it was in pretty rough shape. At one point the head had been ripped off without removing the head bolts, so the wood supports in the neck were ripped out, along with a bunch of the wiring. Connectors were missing, leaving bundles of exposed wires. The power board had capacitors dangling off of it, and the CPU board was missing entirely. I may have gotten in a little over my head for my first project. Still, there were some positives - the playfield was dirty but had very little wear. All the playfield mechs and wiring in the body looked to be intact. I even found a Chuck E. Cheese token in the body with a date of 1983, which gave me some insight into where this machine had been.

Condition aside, I was excited about my project. Without having played even a single game of pinball in my adult life, I was deep into the pinball restoration world before I even knew what was happening. I spent the next few months researching, reading wiring diagrams and wiki pages, ordering parts, and learning restoration skills like re-pinning connectors, rebuilding flippers, testing coils and power supplies with a multimeter, and getting lots of practice soldering. I ordered an all-in-one board to replace the mess of what boards were left in the head, did a full LED bulb replacement, did a LOT of cleaning, and after months of work I was able to bring the machine back from the dead and turn it on for the first time in probably decades! You can watch me turn it on for the first time here - without any magic smoke even!

I still had a lot of work to do - none of the original VFDs worked and there was no sound - but I had a functional game. I enjoyed the challenge and satisfaction of getting the machine working, but there was just one catch: I didn't even know if I liked playing pinball yet! I guess it was poetic that my first game of pinball as an adult was played on the machine I fixed up myself. I was actually surprised how well it played with a new set of rubbers - maybe there were a few dirty switches and a sticky pop bumper, but almost everything worked perfectly. And you know what, it was pretty fun! Genie isn't the deepest game out there, but I enjoyed it for what it was: building my bonus, stacking multipliers, and trying to avoid those hungry Gottlieb outlanes. Sure it was a simple score-attack game, but I was able to make the progress I craved in a place I didn't expect - myself. The more I played, the more I developed my skills and timing. I started to learn techniques like cradling, dead flipping, nudging, and overall just improving my aim and reaction time. Sure I wasn't literally increasing my levels or unlocking new abilities, but in some sense I was. This personal improvement - building muscle memory and learning strategies for keeping the ball alive - were enough of a progression system to keep me coming back for more. Oh, and trying to beat the high score of course.

I continued to work on the Genie, getting the sound working and adding new Wolffpac displays one-by-one. As my machine became more complete, my appreciation for the game of pinball grew as well. In addition to honing my skills at home, I started seeking out machines on location as well. As I played more modern games, I started to "get" the game of pinball. I found a local barcade with a lineup of 10 modern games that I would visit whenever possible. I downloaded virtual pinball programs on my PC so I could learn popular games at home. I would seek out pinball hotspots that my wife and I could stop by when we went on vacation. We made pilgrimages to pinball meccas like the Ronoake Pinball Museum, Flippers in the Outer Banks, and the Pinball Hall of Fame in Vegas. Not only was I falling in love with pinball, but my wife was having fun at these places as well. After years of playing video games solo while my wife did her own thing, it was great to have a hobby that we could both enjoy.

By the time I got my Genie fully functional, I was deep down the pinball rabbit hole. I was watching pinball streamers, reading up on tournament score strategies, making lists of all the machines I had played, and ranking all the popular machines in my head. In other words, I had become one of you! And as much as I enjoyed playing modern games on location and having a cool 70s game to play at home... something was missing. I wanted a modern machine at home, something with a multiball, modes of some kind, and other modern features. I wanted to practice advanced techniques like cradle separation, post passing, and shooting a fan layout. And I really wanted something with a nice smooth orbit! The problem was that my budget was pretty low. I couldn't afford to drop thousands on a modern Stern, or a modern anything for that matter. Pretty much anything DMD-era or newer was out of my price range, so I was searching for something 80's or early 90's solid state, in the sub-$2000 range. I checked out a Grand Lizard that was way too overpriced, I almost bought a Lightning that somebody else beat me to, and I just barely missed out on a Raven for $200 (that one still hurts).

After a lot of searching and a number of just-missed-it deals, I finally caught a lucky break and found a nice Lethal Weapon 3 for sale with a seller willing to accept close to my shot-in-the-dark lowball offer. It had everything I wanted - multiball, a cool ramp, a nice fan layout, modes (kind of) and of course a sweet, fast full-playfield orbit. Also I had heard it was one of favorites of SDTM's Greg Bone, so it was high on my wishlist. It was a bit of a drive, but after a smooth and friendly transaction I found myself the proud owner of an honest-to-goodness DMD game. And I couldn't be happier with it. In a perfect world it would have been a little more of a fixer-upper, with a lower price and a project for me to work on, but there is something nice about getting a fully working machine out of the box too. Plus, it's not like there is no work to do. It still needs a shop job and an LED conversion at the very least... maybe some art blades, and - nevermind, I'm getting off-topic.

So here I am now, a little over a year after first hearing that podcast that changed my mind about pinball, fully obsessed and the owner of 2 games at home, and looking for more projects to fix up. I honestly don't know what I enjoy more - playing the games or fixing them up. Thankfully I can enjoy doing both!

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39 days ago

Great post! Loved reading your journey. Despite some turds this is a great community.

39 days ago

Great read, and a great story.

39 days ago

Great story. I am new to pinball as well but my story is very similar! Nothing beats having hobbies- especially ones that interconnect!

38 days ago

As a former Everquest and wow player I ditched the pc and consoles as well. We switched to pinball when my wife said to me she wanted to play pinball and maybe we should get one so I jumped at the chance. Venom might be right up your alley with its new approach. Welcome.

38 days ago

It comes as little surprise that someone who could construct an engaging, passionate story such as this would also have the passion to engage in reconstructing a deserving pinball machine. Well done sir and welcome to the community!

38 days ago

Thanks for sharing your story. I too have a hard time deciding if I enjoy fixing or playing more. Welcome to the "rabbit hole"

38 days ago

Love the story I see we share love if guitars and Pinball!

34 days ago

Thanks for the share. Hoping to have a home Pin one day soon myself.

33 days ago

Thanks for sharing! Excellent write up, and welcome to your new obsession

31 days ago

I was a gamer all my life and had gotten board with the modern game scene. A group of friends and I went to funspot in NH which was like a seven hour drive to play the arcade that the Donkey Kong record was scored at. We got there, excited about playing the games and discovered pinball. We had all seen them in arcades from our youth but this was the first time we had spent any real time with them. After that I was hooked. I bought my first love which was a Bally Xenon less than six months from our trip. ^_^

Oh I still play JRPGs from time to time. Gotta love that grind. Even made some myself. Thanks for sharing your journey.

31 days ago

I fell down this rabbit hole myself, just 4 years ago I started collecting upright Vids (becuase playing these were my main go-to in the 80ies/90ies). I then picked up my first pinball machine in a bigger bulk-buy of uprights..Stern's MAGIC (1979)..learned how to rebuild flippers, how to clean/wax, and actually get some 'real' time on a pinball machine..learned to fix most of these pins along the way. I now have 23 Pins, and theirs really no going back..I still have my go-to classic vids, but they really pale in comparison to a physical ball that will never hit a slinghot, pop, or anything the same twice. In the 80ies/90ies, I didn't realize the lights and goals had any real meaning..so I was in that same boat. Welcome to the pinball fever (as well), and thank you very much for your awesome writeup!

30 days ago

Great story thanks for sharing!

29 days ago

Thanks for sharing your story, and welcome to the hobby, or lifestyle, and maybe it's both.

27 days ago

Congratulations!!! Thanks for sharing your story! Looking forward to future updates :)

27 days ago

Great Story!

23 days ago

Good story. Thanks for sharing. If you find another $200 Genie, send it my way!!

23 days ago

Pinball rocks!

23 days ago

Awesome. and ditto.

22 days ago

Enjoyed your pin journey and writing! Nicely done!

22 days ago

Inspiring post! Thanks for sharing.

18 days ago

Nice journey. I feel like we lived it with you!!!!

Next step on your journey: Filling the space next to your FIRST machine, with your SECOND (or THIRD) machine...

16 days ago

Great read! It's impressive the time and work you put into that first machine, a true "labor of love".

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