Inside the Market for Vintage Pinball Machines
Pins dating to the '70s and '80s, and particularly the '90s, are fuelling nostalgia and finding treasured spots in collectors’ homes.
Inside the Market for Vintage Pinball Machines
Before video games conquered the world, pinball ruled. Whether it was the old Harlem Globetrotters machine at the pizzeria or the “Twilight Zone” pin at the local dive bar, everyone had their go-to game. And for pinball wizards who came of age playing the silver ball, the nostalgic desire to have an old favorite in their home drives a healthy collectors' market for vintage machines.
Unlike most other collectible genres, older artifacts aren't necessarily the priciest. In fact, many pinball fanatics (aka "pinheads") show little interest in tables from the 1950s and '60s. Far more popular are pins dating to the '70s and '80s, and particularly the '90s — widely considered modern pinball's "golden age." To compete with video games, the era saw pinball machines become more imaginative and complex while offering all sorts of gimmicky, sensory stimuli.
Going back to the birth of coin-op pinball in the 1930s, we careened down arcade memory lane and flipped the flippers on 15 machines — from classics to curios — for a round-up of collectible tables you'll need more than a pocketful of quarters to afford.
'The Addams Family'
Manufacturer: Bally (Midway)
No shock, the best-selling machine of all time (more than 20,000 units sold) is also one of the most addictive. Based on the 1991 movie starring Raul Julia and Anjelica Houston, the design combined classic pinball elements with the latest tech and kooky-spooky table toys (including a mechanical "Thing" hand) for an inventive overall layout. These beauties remain popular and routinely scare-up $8,000 to $10,000 on eBay.
Manufacturer: Bally (Midway)
There's the arcade up ahead — your next stop, Twilight Zone pinball! Legendary pin designer Pat Lawlor followed up his Addams Family machine with what some consider a superior, albeit more challenging table. Though the soundtrack employs a Rod Serling impersonator (boo!), it does feature the TV show's original theme music as well as the 1982 song "Twilight Zone" by Golden Earring.
Best of all are the many visual references to episodes of the classic TV series (Talky Tina, anyone?). For all this fifth-dimension fun, you'll pay $8,000 to $10,000 on eBay.
'Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure'
More than a decade after 1981's "Raiders of the Lost Ark" ruled movie theaters, Indy finally swung into arcades with this outstanding pin featuring the soundtrack voice of Dr. Jones' Egyptian sidekick Sallah (actor John Rhys-Davies). Unlike Indy, you won't need to fight Nazis to nab one of these prized artifacts on eBay for about $10,000.
Going even bigger at auction in 2016, a customized Disneyland-themed version (pictured) drained a collector's pocket of $15,000.
Machines immortalizing metal bands like Guns N' Roses, Metallica and AC/DC are all the rage with pin headbangers, but if you wanna rock and roll the table all night, the classic is this KISS cabinet released in the band's heyday. On eBay and sites like Pinside, asking prices typically fall in the $2,500 to $5,000 range, depending on condition.
Another late-1970s' classic, this pin celebrating every kid's favorite motorcycle daredevil epitomizes an era when cabinets featuring "Me Decade" icons like The Six Million Dollar Man and Charlie's Angels were increasingly cropping up in arcades. A fun table for its time, the backglass boasts way-cool artwork, but sadly the game's designers failed to include a ball-jump ramp. No matter. Fans of the legendary stuntman will happily fork over $1,500 and up for a mint-condition machine.
'The Rolling Stones'
Sure, the Stones pin released by Stern in 2011 is loaded with fun gizmos (including a "Moving Mick Target") and plays clips of 13 original songs by "The World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band." But for vintage-cool cred, what you want is this 1980 machine picturing Mick and Keith in their "Glimmer Twins" prime. On eBay and websites like Pinside, you'll find Stones-pin satisfaction in the $2,000-to-$2,500 ballpark.
'The Who's Tommy Pinball Wizard'
Manufacturer: Data East
We previously covered The Who's original 1975 Bally "Wizard" machine in a round-up of rock 'n' roll memorabilia. So for this game, instead we'll play the silver ball on this excellent '90s table featuring 21 songs from the Broadway musical adaptation of the group's famed rock opera. To lay your crazy flipper fingers on one of these babies, you'll need to pop about $3,500 for a table in primo condition.
Manufacturer: Stern Electronics/Seeburg
Not well known outside the hardcore pinball community, one of the weirdest novelty machines ever made was Stern Electronics' attempt to compete with the early-1980s arcade video game craze. Designed by a pair of former NASA engineers, the frenetic, lunar-themed Orbitor 1 launches your ball across a curvy Plexiglass surface (the only non-flat playfield in pinball history), where it's often caught in orbits around spinning bumpers that fling the ball every crazy which way — even behind the flippers. Far out!
The gimmick flopped and Stern Electronics went belly-up two years later. But Orbitor 1, the company's last-ever machine, remains a target of niche collectors who'll cough up between $2,000 and $3,000 for a cabinet in fine condition.
Another machine from the novelty file, head-to-head pinball tables like 1983's Joust and 1991's A.G. Soccer-Ball have gobbled their share of quarters over the decades. Among the earliest head-to-head games, Challenger places you and a competing player at opposite ends of the table for a test of your mad flipper skills while the playfield itself tilts back and forth. Only 110 of these machines were produced and have fetched as much as $3,300 on eBay.
Early pinball machines were bagatelle-style tables (or "marble games") lacking flippers. During the Great Depression, companies aiming to profit from pinball's popularity began developing coin-operated machines. It's generally agreed the first was a 1931 table named "Whiffle Board." However, the first mass-produced coin-op sensation was "Baffle Ball," which you could play for a penny in taverns and drugstores across the country. Today, these antiques sell for $500 to $1,000, primarily to hardcore collectors of historic Gottlieb machines.
The first game with flippers, this benchmark machine single-handedly launched modern pinball. Curiously, the table's six flippers face outward from the playfield rather than inward like nearly every table that'd follow. How much will it cost ya' to own this premier piece of pin history? Prices vary widely depending on condition, but $1,000 to $1,500 will generally result in a respectable score.
Prefer your pinball on the demonic side? Meet Gorgar, the devilish star of the first-ever machine to feature a speech-synthesized "talking" soundtrack. Gorgar's limited vocabulary meant he only spoke seven different words:
But backed by a scary heartbeat sound effect, the horned-one's words were combined to form phrases like "Me got you!" and "Gorgar speaks!" — which to this day still haunt children of the early '80s. Despite the big-time nostalgia appeal, serious collectors on the Pinside website suggest you shouldn't pay more than $1,500 for a Gorgar in tip-top shape.
'Attack From Mars'
With apologies to Williams' 1997 "Medieval Madness" (considered by many the best modern pin ever), in this slot we're going with its Martian-themed rival. Back in '95, this highly entertaining machine with strobe lights and out-of-this-world table toys (UFOs and four-armed aliens) blew the collective mind of pinball nerdom. The table was such a hit, it spurred the '99 sequel-machine "Revenge from Mars." For an original '95 cabinet, expect to pay $6,000 to $9,000.
'Big Bang Bar'
Manufacturer: Capcom Coin-Op (original prototypes); Illinois Pin Ball (reproductions)
Year: 1996 (original prototypes); 2006-'07 (reproductions)
In 1995, the Capcom company began designing a risqué, outer space-themed machine named "Biker Babes from Mars." By '96, the ribald concept had evolved (we use the term lightly) and resulted in 14 prototype machines branded "Big Bang Bar" — an adult, intergalactic nightclub-themed game featuring cavorting alien drunks and a topless go-go dancer figure that was definitely unsuitable for your local Chuck E. Cheese.
Capcom went bankrupt before the machine could go into full production, and a modern pinball legend was born. Originals have sold for as high as $20,000. However, the cabinets most common on eBay date to 2006-'07, when an independent company built nearly 200 reproductions for players who like their bumper action on the cheesy-sleazy barroom side.
'The Pinball Circus'
Here it is: the myth, the legend, the holy grail. This unique vertical pinball machine was the brainchild of innovative pin designer Python Anghelo and is played on four ascending levels that your balls climb via ramps and rails. At the top level, you flip a "jackpot" shot into the open mouth of a sinister circus clown. Creepy fun!
Extremely expensive to design and produce (the project's budget was $1.5 million), only two prototype machines were built and tested in arcades, where they flopped. The project was scrapped, and one of the prototypes eventually fell into the hands of a private collector. The other was acquired by the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, where it's available to play. We've personally given The Pinball Circus a whirl and can assure you it's one of the weirdest, wildest pins ever. What's the machine worth? Since neither has ever been sold, for now it's considered priceless.