Pinball is an arcade game that has evolved over the decades, and it’s definitely not the game that pinball’s pioneer creators would recognize. However, its popularity has evolved just as much as the game itself, leaving many to wonder when the most popular time for pinball was.
The most popular time for pinball was in the early 1990s. This is the decade during which the most pinball machines were manufactured, and it saw the creation of some of the best-selling pinball machines to date, such as The Addams Family pinball machine.
However, pinball’s popularity hasn’t been a smooth ride since the first modern pinball machines were made. Below, we’ll talk about the history of pinball machines and why their popularity has shifted so many times over the years.
Early Pinball Machines
The first pinball machines were not like the ones you’ll find in modern arcades. They didn’t have any flippers, bumpers or many of the lights and other technology that goes into a pinball machine nowadays. Their popularity was also limited, as pinball was a very niche game back when it was introduced in the late 19th century.
It wasn’t until the 1930s that pinball machines began to evolve with mechanisms still found on today’s machines. Coin operated machines first appeared in 1931, and electrification modernized and enhanced a lot of the machines’ other components.
The reason this decade saw so much movement in the world of pinball was that it provided cheap entertainment to the masses that were struggling financially due to the Great Depression. There were around 150 companies making pinball machines in 1932, and by 1934 there were just 14 remaining. All of these companies came from Chicago, Illinois.
The competition within this group of companies was fierce. This led to not only a dramatic drop in the number of surviving manufacturers in such a short timeframe, but also major boosts in the number of features and the popularity of pinball machines. However, the 1940s saw the introduction of bans on pinball machines, which stunted the game’s growth.
When Pinball Was Illegal
City councils in New York City and even in Chicago saw pinball to be a form of gambling. This led to bans on machines, but some manufacturers ploughed on with production. Gottlieb was one such manufacturer, and with Humpty Dumpty in 1947 came the first flippers.
This was crucial for the survival of the game, as just under 30 years later, in 1976, Roger Sharpe managed to help convince a court in New York that the game did involve skill. He did this by using the flippers to make a shot into the middle lane that he had called beforehand.
This led to the legalization of pinball machines, and thus the popularity of the game could increase once more. The 1970s saw some more advancements, which in turn just continued to make pinball machines a staple of the arcade scene.
Pinball In The 1950s Through The 1990s
In the 1950s and 1960s, pinball machines used electromechanical relays and physical reels for scoring systems. These were advanced at the time, but when the 1970s arrived, so did the microprocessor. Circuit boards replaced mechanical components, and digital displays made pinball machines brighter than ever.
New Kids On The Block
However, as pinball machines took advantage of modern technology, so did other arcade games. Classics like Space Invaders of 1978 and Pac-Man of 1980 took over arcades, and their low-maintenance nature, along with the lack of many – if any – moving parts meant that the machines were cheaper to build and maintain than pinball machines.
However, all was not lost. The pinball manufacturers hit on a goldmine when they realized the power of leveraging popular culture. Using films and TV shows, pinball manufacturers were able to once again appeal to the masses. The 1990s saw the introduction of some of the most popular pinball machines of all time.
The Addams Family
The Addams Family arrived in 1992, and since then more than a whopping 20,000+ units have been sold. More than a third of all pinball machines were built during the 1990s, when pinball undoubtedly saw its most popular phase. However, it didn’t even last for the decade, as major manufacturers, like Gottlieb and Capcom, had closed their doors by 1997.
Only two pinball manufacturers, Sega Pinball and Williams, made it to the 21st century. Just before the turn of the millennium, Sega Pinball became Stern Pinball, a company still around to this day. However, pinball saw something of a resurgence in the 2000s.
Modern Pinball Popularity
Pinball machines remained few and far between in terms of production throughout the early 2000s. Some machines were shelved before they entered production, like the Crocodile Hunter themed machine that never made it to the arcade floor as a result of Steve Irwin’s death in 2006.
Things didn’t pick up from there, with Australia’s TPF (The Pinball Factory) failing to produce two promised machines in Medieval Madness and Cactus Canyon. Stern remained the only company producing pinball machines for more than a decade.
Modern Pinball Companies
However, modern companies like Jersey Jack Pinball and Spooky have popped up, once again creating some competition for the industry. 2017 saw 938 pinball machines made, which made it the second most productive year ever, behind only 1992. Nearly 5,000 locations in the USA still offer pinball machines to the public.
The overall arcade market is also still productive, being worth around $25 billion in 2019. However, this is set to decline at a rate of -10% each year, as modern home gaming systems continue to outperform physical locations.
However, pinball itself is still a very popular game. The last decade has seen growth in the number of players worldwide, especially competitively. 2006 saw 500 players in 50 competitions worldwide. By 2017 the figure was 55,000 players across 4,500 competitions. Pinball is definitely not ready to throw in the towel quite yet and is still a popular game the world over.
Pinball was most popular in the 1990s, and 1992 saw the highest production figures. While the game’s popularity has since declined, there are still more than 55,000 competitive players across the world. This means that pinball is still a popular arcade game, and should remain so for years to come.