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Pinball Machine Buyer's Guide
Pinball machines are some of the best-loved, most unique games room machines around. Often based on a pop culture theme, like a blockbuster movie franchise or a massive rock band, their complex playfields, interactive components, audio/visual displays and bright graphics make them firm favourites for collectors and gamers alike.
When choosing a pinball, you’ll need to make a few decisions. Here we explain the things to think about. Digest the whole guide to gain expert knowledge on these fantastic machines, or use the quick links to jump to specific information you need.
Should I Get a New Pinball?
New pinball machines are precisely that – brand new, crate-sealed machines straight out of the factory. There aren’t too many pinball manufacturers still making new machines; by far the largest is Stern Pinball, the American brand. Stern produces two or three new machines per year, usually attached to a major film or music licence. Some of their recent themes have included Deadpool, Iron Maiden and Star Wars. Other pinball makers still operating include Jersey Jack and the Chicago Gaming Company.
The Jersey Jack Dialed In pinball machine. (From £7995.00) [ view in store ]
A brand new machine will feature the very latest technology, such as LCD screens for displaying cinematic set pieces and video game missions, holographic targets and more. Some machines now even have Bluetooth connectivity and adjustable obstacles that change the difficulty level.
With modern electronics and components, a new machine will be very reliable, with many years of enjoyable gaming ahead of it.
The Stern Star Wars Pro pinball. (From £7799.00) [ view in store ]
Take a tour around the Stern Pinball workshops in Chicago. See how these impressive games machines are made and developed.
Should I Get a Reconditioned Pinball?
Reconditioned pinball machines are older models that are out of production. The used pinball market is quite large, so it is possible to find many popular machines from the past 20-30 years. These are then carefully overhauled, repaired and tested, before being sold with a long, comprehensive warranty. This is a great way of owning an iconic part of your childhood, but with the confidence of expert backup if something does go wrong.
Older machines with ageing wiring and out-of-date components can suffer complications, but this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t buy one. We compare them to classic cars; owned by enthusiasts who aren’t put off by the occasional technological hiccup. You can read about how we recondition pinball machines here.
A technician working on a reconditioned pinball.
Virtual Pinball Machines
Virtual pinball machines are a relatively new addition to the world of pinball, only becoming mainstream in the last few years as technology has allowed.
They differ from conventional pinball machines in that they are entirely based on video game-style gameplay. Instead of a playfield, a huge monitor screen is mounted into the cabinet to create a full-size playfield. Depending on the model, other screens are used in the backbox (to simulate backglass artwork) and for DMD simulations, for score displays, mini-games and more.
The Legends Ultimate virtual pinball machine. (From £899.00) [ view in store ]
For some pinball purists, the virtual video game style will never match up to a real machine with a physical playfield and metal pinballs. But for the open-minded, virtual pinballs open a whole universe of new possibilities. You can play accurate digital recreations of classic pinball machines, or the new breed of highly interactive, animated pinball games with visual effects that conventional pinballs can only dream of.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of virtual pinball is that you can have a huge pinball collection, including all your dream titles, in just one machine. And, depending on the machine, you can change your collection almost at will, loading in new game collections sourced through services such as Steam, ArcadeNet or even just from pinball game forums.
It's a truly revolutionary approach to pinball gaming, and one that we think is firmly established for the long run. See our range of virtual pinball machines here.
Which Theme Should I Choose?
This is personal. Most modern pinballs are based around a theme, with a licence from a film studio or record company. Many people are introduced to pinball ownership by buying a machine based on their favourite band or film, as a kind of ‘ultimate collectible’. In this case the game itself is almost secondary – the main attraction is the ownership of a high-value product as a status symbol among fans.
The Groot toy on the Guardians of the Galaxy pinball machine. (From £7200.00) [ view in store ]
But there are plenty of pinball collectors who buy machines for the game itself, and for whom the theme is less of a priority. These are the people who are constantly searching for the best-designed playfields and the most exciting and fulfilling gameplay, who want to spend time chasing high scores and looking for unusual game features or exciting missions. For example, the Stern Star Trek below is widely recognised as one of the best-designed pinball games on the market.
The Star Trek pinball machine playfield. (From £7200.00) [ view in store ]
If you are looking at a pinball because the theme fits a personal interest of yours, then naturally you will want to buy that themed pinball.
However, if you’re looking to have your skill tested and want to enjoy the finest pinball game designs ever developed, then you’d be best advised to research the different tables on the many pinball fan blogs, take advice and buy the one that looks like it’ll deliver the challenge you’re looking for.
How Much Space Do I Need?
Pinball machines are generally a similar size. The machine only needs to be accessed from the front to play, although it’s worth bearing in mind that sometimes the on/off switches are hidden at the back of the machine. For this reason, it’s best to have plenty of room on at least one side of the machine for access, and of course to show off the sumptuous graphics that all pinballs are clad in.
Pinball machines are tall – usually slightly taller than your average adult male. So do check your headroom before ordering.
An Iron Maiden LE pinball machine. (From £11295.00) [ view in store ]
In the 1980s and 1990s, there was an oversized style of pinball machine made by Data East, Bally and Williams. They were known as ‘Widebody’ or ‘Superpin’ machines. These are wider than standard pinballs, usually by around five inches, giving a larger play area but of course requiring more space.
A flyer for the Judge Dredd widebody pinball machine. (From £7495.00) [ view in store ]
Pinball machines themselves are very similar in function and form to each other, with only the playfield, media and game systems tending to differ wildly.
All decent pinball cabinets will have adjustable feet for levelling, so they can be installed on uneven floors or carpets.
Most machines have a coin door at the front. This is a door that allows access to the machine internals such as the volume control, and is also where the coin mech is located. We sell machines without coin mechs fitted as standard, so the door and coin slots will be present, but the mechanism inside is not supplied. We can easily add a coin mech for a small surcharge, if you’d like to put your pin in a commercial environment or use it as a piggy bank.
The coin door on the Stern Jurassic Park pinball machine. (From £7799.00) [ view in store ]
Parts of a Pinball Playfield
A pinball machine is a veritable playground of targets, ramps, wireforms, toys and much more.
The basic premise is to fire a ball into the playfield using the plunger. Once in the playfield, the ball will start hitting the various playfield features. These could be drop or bank targets, which drop into the playfield when the ball hits them, or rollovers, which are activated when the ball rolls over them.
The Stern Munsters Pro playfield. (From £7200.00) [ view in store ]
You might hit bumpers, which rebound the ball violently on impact in an often random direction, or spinners, which the ball spins when passing – the more spins, the higher the points score. There are kickers, which also rebound shots across the table, or captive ball traps, which hold your ball captive for a few seconds before relaunching. Or you might hit the special playfield toys that are on your particular machine – often animated and always packaged with a large score bonus.
As the ball comes down to your end of the table, it’s your job to use your lightning-fast flippers and ping it right back up there again. Flipper technique looks almost random, but pinball experts know that the direction of the ball and its speed depends on which part of the flipper blade is used during the shot, and the ball’s existing momentum. Skilled players can repeatedly play the same shot to hit a specific target time after time. You’ll also see players ‘passing’ the ball from one flipper to the other in order to line up a juicy shot. There’s plenty of flipper technique to master.
When playing from the flippers you can usually target ramps, orbits and wireform ‘habitrails’. Ramps and wireforms elevate the ball above the playfield and transport it to a different area – often at very high speed - whilst orbits carry the ball around the back of the playfield and launch it back into contention in a split-second. You might even find that on some tables, ramps can transport the ball to a secondary playfield, which might have its own flippers, targets and features.
But the main purpose of the flippers is to stop the ball from ‘draining’ and keep it in play. If you drain, you lose. If you have extra lives remaining, you’ll get served another ball immediately. If not, it’s game over.
Some of the shots and targets on the Star Trek Pro pinball. (From £7200.00) [ view in store ]
When buying a table, make sure it’s got the features you’re looking for. Some players love the multiball feature, that introduces multiple balls to the playfield simultaneously, but others don’t. Our best advice is to seek some video footage of machines being played to see how the playfield and the game rules function.
Read our detailed guide to the pinball machine playfield.
Delivery & Installation
Your pinball will be delivered to your address by a courier. These machines are usually delivered by a crew of technicians who will unpack and set up your machine, so you’re ready to play. If you’d prefer to set it up yourself, it’s still not too difficult – but you’ll need at least one more pair of hands.
Most normal pinballs - excluding those with special cabinets, like widebodies - will fit through a standard doorway (just). It would be prudent to measure all of the gaps along the route the machine will take to its location, and checking the width of the machine carefully.
The Stern Deadpool Pro pinball in its crate. (From £7799.00) [ view in store ]
The legs will need attaching – simply have your helper lift the back of the cabinet up, and bolt the rear legs into place. Then lift the front of the cabinet up and bolt on the front legs.
When packaged, the backbox is hinged and laid flat over the playfield. It needs carefully rotating upwards and fastening into place, usually with a couple of retaining bolts.
Then just plug in the mains cable and switch it on. The location of the ‘on’ switch varies from machine to machine, but on most the switch is underneath the cabinet, close to one of the legs, or at the back of the cabinet, where the mains cable enters the body.
Choose Your Pinball
The last thing to do is to choose your dream machine. Take your time and make sure it’s the one you really are going to be happy with. Browse our new pinball machines here, and our reconditioned pinball machines here.