Thinking of buying a vintage pinball machine but don’t know where to start? Maybe you want to be part of the small but growing community of the pinball hobbyists. Or maybe you have a knack for collecting vintage stuff – the nostalgic value of it. Perhaps you’re just looking to buy one so you can play at home and a new machine doesn’t sit well with your budget. It can be fun to add a pinball machine to a game room that might have a dartboard, a hobbyist collection of remote control cars, movie screen and more.
Whatever the reason may be, you’re not the only one. While many might think of pinball as a game from the yesteryear, in recent years it has been making a comeback. There’s a new generation of these machines hitting the market. And with this resurgence and growth in popularity, it’s easier than ever to find resources, sellers, a varied selection, and affordable prices.
But that’s not to say that you won’t need to do your due research because a pinball machine is going to be a hefty investment. So you’ll have to ensure that the hundreds or even thousands of dollars that you’ll be spending on your machine don’t go down the drain.
Even after you have made the purchase, you’ll have to do regular maintenance and make an occasional repair for smooth operation and to keep its value intact.
In the following post, we’ll explore these factors and a few more to help you make the best purchase you possibly can.
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What exactly is a pinball machine?
At its core, pinball is a popular coin-op game. The objective is to score as many points you can by deploying the balls within the machine itself. Once deployed, the machine can hit any number of spots on the playfield, for which you get a different number of points.
You also have to try and keep the ball or balls from going down the drain with the aid of flippers. If the balls go down the drain a certain now of time, the game ends. To win, the idea is often to get the highest score. Either that or you could try and spend as much time playing as you can.
Before we go further, a little bit of history…
The history of pinball
Before videogames took the gaming scene by storm, Pinball machines were thought of as the freshest arrival in the gaming department. Back in the 70s when computers weren’t ubiquitous, the features Pinball machines offered– with their flashing lights, sound effects, and computer wizardry, were a novelty.
But as mentioned above, it wasn’t long before they faded into obscurity with the arrival of videogames. Not only were they attracting more customers (and as a result, more revenue for you if you were a store owner) they also required much less maintenance compared to a pinball machine.
So it wasn’t a surprise when the end of the century saw some of the biggest pinball names shutting down after having operated and manufactured them for decades. Today only a handful of manufacturers remain in operation – six to be precise.
But the origins of pinball predate the rise and fall of the industry by centuries. The earliest ancestors of the 20th-century pinball can be traced back to bocce (AKA bowls) which later morphed into ground billiards – which later branched into a tabletop variant. This tabletop variant was the closest thing you can find to a modern pinball machine.
Which vintage pinball machine type to pick?
Which pinball machine will be the right fit for you is not just a matter of your personal preference, but your mechanical and electrical skills. Remember, you can’t find a repairman to do the maintenance and basic repairs, so you’ll have to do those yourself.
Here are the two basic types of vintage pinball machines:
Electrical Mechanical (EM)
EM machines were some of the earlier models. And as the name might suggest, they ran on electrical relays and mechanical reels. They were also the most basic type, with simpler gameplay and mostly limited functionality.
These machines were manufactured until the late ’70s. And since they had mechanical and electrical parts, you’d need at least some experience to make repairs.
Solid State (SS)
The name solid state comes from solid-state transistors, and it usually means that the machine is operated and run by a computer. These machines featured plasma displays, which was much lower in resolution compared to modern displays.
Since it was computer-controlled, it afforded more complexity to the machine in the form of more subways, ramps, and such. Although it made the gameplay more complicated, it was also more diverse which could capture and hold a player’s attention for longer.
Inspection of the pinball machine
When you’re hunting for your pinball machine, you’ll have to inspect each machinery part individually and only after you’ve vetted the whole game, should you negotiate a price. If you find the parts worn out, cracked, rusted, or water damaged, you can either ask those parts to be replaced or you can keep looking.
But before you inspect the parts, play a game. And then another. And another. Play a few games till you’re satisfied that no problem comes up because a single game might not reveal every issue. If everything’s fine in that department, you can move on to the inspection.
The first thing you need to look for is damage to the back glass. If it’s broken, the game is hardly worth anything. Broken glass isn’t easily replaced, and even if it is it’ll be a reproduction (which are costly), so you’d want to keep looking.
However, even if it’s not broken, you probably won’t find one in mint condition. Backglass often flakes. So you shouldn’t skip a machine just because one or two colors have flaked off over time.
The playfield is where you’ll have to pay more attention. Don’t accept the machine if you notice any parts or playfield plastics missing or any damaged wood. Or even if the paint is flaking, it usually indicates that the machine hasn’t been well-cared for.
Lift the playfield and look for signs of wear and tear. See if any parts are water damaged or if any wires are exposed or frayed. If everything seems neat, you can proceed to inspect the cabinet.
Although the cabinet doesn’t have a direct bearing on the playability of the game itself, it’s still a good idea to look for cracks and check to see if the bolts are secured and not rusted (even if they are, they can be easily replaced, so it shouldn’t be a major concern).
You might find that the color of the cabinet has faded from exposure to sunlight but in some cases, it isn’t readily apparent. You can compare the color of the cabinet to a reference photo (which can be found online), and see how it holds up. If the color (often reds) has faded, the value drops.
Finally, you’ll have to check if the game has been modified in any way. For instance, check to see if the machine which doesn’t support it, has been set to the free play setting. If it has been, it also cuts down the value of the machine.
Where to buy vintage pinball machines?
There is one universal rule that you have to keep in mind when looking for a pinball machine: stay close to your residence. Pinball machines are fragile and they cost a pretty to move. So, try to buy it from someone close to your place, because then you won’t be running a higher risk of damaging the machine in transit (because it is a very real possibility).
Another caveat. Try your local online classifieds before you go visit an online retail store like eBay or Amazon. Why? Because the shipping costs can make an already expensive unit pricier. And also, because it’s always a better idea to play the game yourself before you pay for it.
If you can find a local collector that’s willing to sell, you should go take a look. A good starting point would be finding a local pinball community. They can introduce you to sellers and also give you valuable advice.
To find classifieds relevant to pinball machines, go visit pinball listings online. If you don’t find anything interesting there, you can find a pinball show near you, where you’ll find games available for sale.
Maintenance and repair of the machine
Use the right cleaners on your machines, especially if they’re older because you wouldn’t want to peel their paint off the chemical. Aside from the occasional cleaning, you’ll also need to tighten bolts and screws.
Even though there are hundreds of moving parts in a machine, you won’t have to lubricate them all, or often. The need for lubrication will arise very rarely, so you won’t have to worry about that unless everything isn’t running smoothly.
On the flip side, you’ll have to wax the playfield and file the contacts regularly.
We’ll wrap up this post on this note: even after you’ve found and bought your favorite machine one that worked perfectly fine when you tried it, unexpected issues will crop up now and then. And when they do, you have a ton of resources available online which you can refer to, should you run into a problem.