If I ever give a talk on how to get your first pinball machine again, these will be my notes, assuming I remember that I wrote them.
Guaranteed to Break
Rule One: It will break.
I have a game I unboxed at a show. After three days on the show floor it had two faults that required warranty repair.
Coin-op equipment is usually quoted as being good for five years. After that, it’s intended to be worn out. Good games from the 1990s are usually over 20 years old at this point. The good news is that it is usually a reasonable effort to keep them running, but it does require a little effort.
Plan on Doing Basic Maintenance
If you can assemble flat-pack furniture, you can swap (most) rubber rings, batteries, and clean the playfield. That’s usually enough to keep the repairman away.
If you prefer not to do that, plan on buying a game from a dealer and having it serviced it from time to time.
Make sure any batteries are removed from the computer board! Most dealers do this now as a matter of practice because it is expensive to repair when they leak, but always confirm. (Not all games have batteries, but most do.)
How to pick a game
Try my easy tree step process:
- Is it fun?
- Play the game. If it’s fun, consider buying it.
- Condition matters as to price, but as long as wear isn’t greatly impacting playability (cupped inserts, damaged playfield) or severely ruining the looks (lots of missing paint, very poor backglass), don’t worry about it too much.
- It is worth considering the long-term appeal of a game. I bought a Back to the Future based on good memories. I still like the sound, but the rules are shallow enough that I felt it hurt the fun. Several Data East titles share this flaw, but they’re not the only ones.
- Is it affordable, and reasonably priced?
- Buying a brand-new Stern Limited Edition on a $30,000/year salary is financially insane.
- Be patient. Wait for a reasonable deal.
- Will your
wifespouse let you have it in the house?
- You bring a date back to your apartment. She sees your pinball. If it’s High Speed, that’s probably fine. If it’s a Bally title with a lot of T&A, it may be an issue.
Try to buy a game that meets your needs, not one to satisfy the pinball geeks on the Internet. (Like me.)
Is game X any good?
Try playing it until you know.
Questionable reasons to buy a particular game
- It’s an “AAA” title
- It’s home use only
- The color red in Medusa matches my decor (this happened)
- I heard it’s pretty good
- It’s rare
TRY a game before you get it–don’t believe what you read on the Internet.
AAA titles are probably overvalued. I like Medieval Madness as much as anybody, but is it worth a $2,000 premium over a brand-new Ghostbusters? Not to me.
Home Use Only increases the price and implies a game in very good condition, but won’t make it fun if it’s a clunker.
Rare games are usually low production, and low production games mean they probably suck. (There are many exceptions.)
What will it cost?
Probably the #1 question I get is, “aren’t they expensive?” Some are, some aren’t. The prices have gone up considerably as the market has changed.
Very rough guide to private party sales:
- $10,000+ AAA title in very good shape
- $8,000 new Stern Limited Edition, street price
- $6,200 new Stern Premium, street price
- $5,000 new Stern regular (“Pro”), street price (about $1,100 off of retail)
- $2500 “B” title, or super clean C title
- $1500 “C” title, or super clean 78-83 Bally
- $600 less desirable 78-83 Bally that plays really well*
- $300 needs work, B title
- $0 “get it out of here”
Retail prices, naturally, are higher, between 25% and 150%. Getting a warranty is a really good idea, particularly if you pay big money and can’t fix a game. Getting a reputable seller is an even better idea. I recommend the Pinball Pirate if you’re in the SF Bay area.
* Actually a lot of decent games this vintage are around this price, although the Bally titles played better on average.
Price guides are available but not incredibly accurate. Always deduct for major wear items. California prices are higher.
HUO? NIB? 200 Plays? Clearcoat?
It’s OK to buy games with a little wear. It doesn’t make them less fun! Games with a lot of wear can affect rule #3.
“HUO” means “Home Use Only”, that is, it never had to work for a living. HUO games don’t tend to suffer as much as “routed” games (that is, games that were part of a regular rotation on an operator’s route).
“NIB” means “New in box”. Even better than HUO, a NIB game has only the factory-installed flaws.
I would also be wary of any claim of only a few hundred plays. I put that on my first pinball in the first month. Software play counts are easily reset.
Diamondplated games, or games with other high-durability clearcoat, started around 1990 and tend to command a premium. These games have much less playfield wear.
EM and SS
Games before about 1977 were all electromechanical, abbreviated EM. They use relays, motors, and steppers. EM games will have score reels, or if they are particularly old, lights indicating scores.
Games after about 1777 are solid-state, abbreviated SS. They use a computer. Solid-state games have score displays, usually orange. The classification is somewhat ironic, since only in pinball is a solid-state device still filled with solenoids, relays, and lots of moving parts.
Electromechanical: Gottlieb games are typically most desirable. Chicago Coin is least desirable. Single-players are preferred to multi-players in general since the features carry-over ball to ball. Add-a-ball games are more desirable than replay games, since they play a little better on free play. Solid State: Williams games 1985 and newer are generally pretty reliable. All Bally games are electrically pretty good, but titles between 1984 and 1990 or so are less desirable. Gottlieb games can be very unreliable if not well-maintained. Newer Stern titles are very expensive.
Watch for games that were made just for home use. Bally made a few of these, including games called Captain Fantastic and Fireball. But probably not the ones you want.
There were several other brands, too.
If it has a coin door, you’re fine.
The “home” games can be fixed, and could be fun, too, but are not generally as elaborate as a coin-op model.
Where to buy a game
Probably the #1 question I get asked is, where do you get them?
There are shows, private sales, dealers, auctions, Craigslist, and other coin-op classified services.
- Get a warranty
- Beware of shady dealers
- Make sure the dealer can honor the warranty!
- “shopped” and “working” are not well defined
Can be cutthroat: bring truck and money.
Craigslist is a good way to acquire a game that isn’t working. How do we know games on CL aren’t working? If they working, they wouldn’t be for sale, they would be getting played!
Internet: Mr. Pinball, rec.games.pinball, Pinside, local owner’s group
There are some games for sale at any pinball or arcade show. This can be a great venue to find something, or talk yourself into or out of something.
Some auctioneers pile the BS pretty high
- Working all the way
- It’s just a fuse
- Deal of the day
Beware of buyer’s premiums and sales tax, typically 13%-18% and 7.5-9% here in California — that’s a premium of 21% – 28% on top of the hammer price!
Change the batteries yearly
Most frequent mistake of owners: forgetting to change the batteries. Battery corrosion is very expensive to fix, and the only problem in pinball ownership that gets worse by sitting around.
Typical battery damage is in the $100-$600 range.
Keep your game working
Do a little maintenance now and then. #1 reason wife wants you to sell the pinball: nobody plays it. #1 reason nobody plays it, it doesn’t work. Practically any game can work just as well as it did when it was brand new!
How to move a pinball
Legs un-bolt. Head may fold down (don’t drop it on the side rails). Head will come off. Game can fit on a hand truck if needed.
How to open a pinball
Unlock coin door, release lock-down bar lever (typically on right side of coin door), pull off lockdown bar, slide out glass. Very important to clear that stuck ball!
If your Williams (or ’90s Bally) game says “FREE PLAY.” with the period, it’s trying to tell you that it has detected a problem. Stern/Data East/Sega games will also tell you things in test mode but it can be harder to see the warning. Fix it and it will play better.
Repairs you can do
No matter what your experience level is, you can change rubber, do light cleaning (Novus #2), and replace rusty balls.
Get a manual
If you have a solid-state game, a manual will have lots of good information.
Parts are not that hard to get.
- pbresource.com (especially Gottlieb)
Stuff that breaks all the time is readily available: flipper parts, light bulbs, new balls, legs, leg levelers, pop bumper mechanism parts.
Find a repair guy
If you’re not into fixing games, find a local repair guy. Get your game fixed if:
- the game tells you there’s a problem
Lock your game
Keep your guests’ kids’ fingers out. High voltage and easily deformed parts inside. Locks are readily available. Coin doors are keyed to a 7/8″ lock with a 7/8″ depth.
A common problem in games, particularly Bally/Williams games from the ’90s, is a spontaneous reset. Guests visiting will incorrectly identify this and say things like it “lost its score”. http://www.kahr.us/ sells a fix that seems to be a good bet.
How to play a pinball at your house
- Always turn it on before a party.
- Don’t play while the baby is asleep.
- If you are holding a baby while playing, and the baby cries, that counts as an end-of-game tilt.
- Push the START button ONCE PER PLAYER.
- Put your game on free play. Almost all pinballs have a setting for this except pre-86 Bally/Stern.
- Keep your game locked, but keep the key handy.
- Keep the manual in the game.
- Solid state games 6°-7° tilt. Lock levelers in by tightening nut under leg.
Thanks to Chris Kuntz for reviewing this and lots of great suggestions.