The 1980s brought a huge shift in pinball architecture and design where electronics became prevalent in most machines. The artwork, sound systems, and video graphics turned pinball machines into excitingly loud, innovative games. The best pinball machines of the 80s turned arcades into goldmines.
The 10 best pinball machines of the 80s are:
- Black Knight
- Flash Gordon
- Eight Ball Deluxe
- Elvira And The Party Monsters
- Swords Of Fury
With the advantage of the 80s electronics boom, as well as an influx of ready cash into kids’ pockets, pinball machines became increasingly popular and exciting to play. Below we will take a look at some of the best pinball machines of the 80s and see why this decade was so popular.
Boasting a sinister playfield and with amazing sounds for a game made in 1981, Centaur is a popular classic among pinball fans thanks to its amazing gameplay and design. A solid-state electronic game like most new machines of the 1980s, Centaur has a Gothic Fantasy theme to it.
It features a stunning playfield and a backglass that has a post-apocalyptic feel to it. As well as a standard in-play tilt, Centaur has the option for the player to have two tilts per game. Although, the backglass displays a warning light and if the player tilts again, the game ends.
Another excellent feature of Centaur is that during the game-over mode, tapping either flipper causes each of the features to be highlighted across the playfield, one at a time. As each scoring feature is highlighted a speech card verbally identifies each feature by name, something pinball machines in the 70s could only dream of.
With an average sale price of $3,930 in 2021, Centaur still holds exceptional value. With 3700 machines made by legendary pinball maker Bally, this classic from the 1980s remains a fan favorite and having one in your collection is considered a major coup.
Despite its 5-ball multi-ball with four ways to activate it, Centaur does not have all the features of pinball machines from the end of the decade. However, it continues to stand out thanks to its quality and longevity and will likely remain the best pinball machine of the 80s.
A truly stunning playfield adorns Fathom, the 1981 release by Bally that features a scuba diving, underwater-themed 80s classic. It had excellent gameplay and an assortment of features that entertained for hours. It is not only one of the most attractive pinball machines ever made, but is also one of the most sought after.
Even though 3500 units were produced, it is rare to see Fathom at shows or in auctions. An average sale price for 2021 of $7,431 is at the very high end of what most pinball machines sell for, and Pinpedia, the Pinball Encyclopedia, shows only three going up for sale for the whole of 2021.
The machine itself has many features, including slingshots, 6-bank and 3-bank drop targets, in-line drop targets, a spinner, and more. With an array of features like this, the gameplay on Fathom is widely appreciated, with many options available to go for the high score.
Released in 1980, Firepower was an absolute game-changer of pinball design and is notable for being the first solid-state pinball machine to have the multi-ball feature. It was also the first pinball machine to have player-controlled lane change features, and the first-ever to have animation on the playfield itself.
These achievements alone make Firepower a worthy addition to any list of greatest pinball machines, but to further cement its position, Firepower was one of the most successful pinball machines ever sold. The manufacturer, Williams Electronics, produced 17,410 units for distribution.
Firepower is one of the only pinball machines to have its own dedicated website, firepowerpinball.com. Firepower had an incredibly wide player base during the 80s thanks to the 17,000 machines that were sold. The large player base alone made it one of the most popular machines from the 80s.
Firepower’s gameplay reviews are positive, the flow of the game was excellent, multi-ball worked well, although could be tricky to get hold of, and the objectives of the game are easy to understand but quite hard to master. All of this keeps fans of the machine returning to it again and again.
Another 80s classic that sold well and received an excellent reception from fans, was Black Knight, released in 1980 by Williams Electronics. Like Firepower, Black Knight was another leap forward in pinball architecture, featuring both the first “Magna-Save” feature, as well as being the first multi-level game ever created.
Magna-save was a great innovation with magnets activated by the player that they could use to attempt to catch the ball, theoretically saving the player. Although at times the feature led to the player losing. The split-level playfield had three ramps that further added to the playability of Black Knight. With a spinner, multi-ball, and many other features, it quickly became a fan favorite.
Over 13,000 units were produced by Williams, and this Knight-themed classic started the 80s pinball scene off with a bang. Many other pinball manufacturers quickly brought out machines with similar features in a bid to keep pace with this superb machine.
Released soon after the 1980 movie of the same name, Flash Gordon was the first attempt by pinball manufacturer Bally to produce split-level pinball machines. With likenesses of the actors portrayed on both the backglass and playfield, Flash Gordon was a commercial success, shipping 10,000 units.
An entertaining and lightning-fast playstyle, with multiple features on the playfield to entertain both amateur and skilled players alike Flash Gordon became a popular machine among fans. Features included three flippers, and multiple pop bumpers, slingshots, rollovers, and spinners. Without a multi-ball system, the game was reputed to be one of the hardest single ball pinball games to master.
With a stunning backglass, playfield, and even flyers promoting the machine with images of Ming the Merciless on them, Bally made sure the release of the movie helped to push sales of Flash Gordon. This was a licensing success that Bally were past masters at, having realized in the 70s the power of tying their pinball machines in with current trends.
The marketing slogan for the Flash Gordon pinball machine was “Pathetic Earthlings… Who can save you now?” and the machine itself had a “squawk & talk” board installed that made Flash Gordon only the second Bally pinball machine to have speech integrated into the unit.
Some themes seem to go very well together, and pinball machines, pool, and poker seem to hit all the right notes. Eight Ball Deluxe is a pool-themed Bally creation released in 1981 that sold over 8,000 units, and rapidly became one of the best pinball machines of the 80s.
With a classic theme and immersive gameplay, Eight Ball Deluxe also boasted vivid artwork that seemed to draw players’ attention to it. A very 80s looking cowboy playing pool adorns the backglass of the machine, whilst brightly colored pool balls cover the playfield like a real pool table.
The Eight Ball Deluxe was one of the earliest and best solid-state electronic pinball machines. Despite having 8,250 machines built, buying one of these today could cost as much as $6,576 making Eight Ball Deluxe one of the costlier of the 80s pinball machines.
Mastering Eight Ball Deluxe is notoriously difficult. Numerous skill shots can be made to increase scores as well as to get extra credits and freerolls. It is this simple, yet hard-to-master design that fans often cite as the game’s most endearing quality.
Elvira And The Party Monsters may not be the first theme that comes to mind when looking for a successful pinball machine, but strangely it seems to work very well. Released in 1989, this pinball machine features a provocative yet cartoon-like artwork on the backglass, dancing boogie men on the playfield, and a 3-ball multi-ball.
The game, like Elvira herself, seems to polarize opinions: you either love this game or hate it. The gameplay is simple yet entertaining, the sounds and speech are fun, especially the spooky organ sounds that add depth to the game, and the colors are loud yet easy on the eyes. Overall, Elvira is great fun to play.
For fans of Elvira, or even just fans of a fun pinball machine, Elvira And The Party Monsters is a great addition to a collection. Although, with only 4000 units ever produced by Midway Manufacturing Company, you may find them hard to come by. In 2021 this fan favorite has an eyebrow-raising average price of $6,214.
Built around magic and wizardry with an awesome soundtrack, Swords Of Fury is a 1988 release by Williams Electronics that looks amazing and gets progressively harder the longer you play. With multiple spinning targets as well as seven standup targets, this pinball machine is a multi-ball, multi-playfield shooter that relies on great gameplay to keep players engaged.
A dark playfield with excellent lighting to highlight the key features, Swords Of Fury is adorned with three spinning targets, horseshoe lanes, and a 3-ball multi-ball. The fan reviews of the gameplay depict a real Williams classic, as players just keep coming back for more.
One standout feature of the machine is the drop targets. The faster a player drops one, the slower it resets, meaning the more skilled at the game you become, the harder it is to score. This great feature adds to the difficulty and challenge of Swords Of Fury and makes finding a rhythm much more complex as you take the slower drop targets into your gameplan.
Only 2,705 units of Swords Of Fury were ever made, making it a rare piece. However, despite this rarity and the overall praise the game receives, sale prices often hover around the $1250-1500 mark, making this one of the cheapest pinball machines around.
Pin-Bot is another world-class release by Williams Electronics. With 12,001 units sold, this robotic, space-themed classic from 1986 is still as popular with fans today as it was when first released. Pin-Bot has stunning artwork and a light array on the playfield that tracks your progress as you hit targets.
Williams’ marketing slogan for the release of Pin-Bot was “We don’t make an exceptional number of pinballs. Just a number of exceptional ones. NOW… PINBOT.” It is hard to argue with them, Pin-Bot is a superbly designed game, locked in a cabinet that looks fantastic.
A player’s skill level really counts on Pin-Bot. With multiple skill shots, including an opening shot that sends the ball up a conical ramp, it takes talent to reach high-score levels even with a multi-ball that is fairly easy to get. The hard to achieve bonuses and the speech built into the game is a fan favorite that makes Pin-Bot one of the best pinball machines of the 80s.
Catching a taxi might not be the first theme to come to mind when creating a new pinball machine, but the 1988 Williams Electronics Taxi pinball machine pulls it off nicely. Thanks to simple yet fun gameplay, and some rather interesting features, this 80s machine is another classic.
From slingshots to kick-out holes, a plunger lane skill-shot that shoots the ball to a whirlpool for an extra 100,00 points, and a left-side catapult that makes the ball travel through the air into a habitrail, Taxi may not have been the best-looking pinball machine on the market, but it was certainly one of the most fun.
Williams Electronics, a giant of pinball manufacturers, had a great decade of making superb pinball machines and shipped 7,300 units of Taxi. Taxi has a 2021 average price of $2,216, which is a reasonable price for yet another stalwart of 80s pinball history.
New technology combined with some of the all-time classic elements of pinball made the 1980s a defining era for fans of pinball machines. The 80s boom brought in more money, better machines, and a new generation of pinball fans that reinvigorated the scene, making the 80s a great decade for playing some of the best pinball machines ever made including the number one machine of the time, Centaur.