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You may have heard I play a lot of pinball, and I'm here to set the record straight: I play a lot of pinball. And in 2019 I think I've played more pinball than any other year before. I'm not entirely sure why that is. Perhaps it's because my son is now old enough to understand and play with me. It's also probably because I now have a few machines in my possession, essentially converting a room in my house into a makeshift arcade. My wife hates me!
I do have to thank a very special Beastcast listener whose incredible generosity got me my first table ever (duder Don), the now infamous Funhouse machine. Sure, it's possessed and so what if I'm its chosen dark servant now enslaved for all eternity, endlessly fulfilling its evil bidding. You can't change the fact that it's a wildly entertaining and challenging machine. And in all seriousness, restoring and repairing it has been an incredibly educational and satisfying experience.
For me, nothing can replace the feel of playing physical pinball. It's a fascinating array of electronics, circuitry, wiring, programming and engineering all working together to form a sandbox of geometrical chaos. There's skill, there's luck, there's logic, there's everything. Long live pinball!
So this year, with my love for the game arguably at its peak, I wish to bestow upon you, the Giant Bomb audience, friends and family alike, my current top 10 list of pinball machines as of this writing in December 2019. Some of these are older, some brand new. But most are easily findable, so I encourage you to check them out at an establishment near you using either Pinball Map or Pinside.
I'm gonna get real nerdy here with my freewheeling use of jargon, so get ready for a crash course in what it's like being a giant pinball addict.
As far as I'm aware, this isn't exactly the most beloved pinball machine in the world, but it holds a very special place in my heart. Every summer when I visit Ocean City, NJ, this table is sitting at one of the few old-school boardwalk arcades I frequent, reliably in solid condition, just waiting for me to play. Like old friends we exchange pleasantries and then after maybe 20 minutes or so of catching up, I finally start playing.
This table has a lot of fun callouts from the first film, including some really cool hand-drawn art. Tim Burton's face is also hidden in one of the plastics! The playfield is dominated by a Batmobile ramp--probably a bit too close to the flippers for my taste, but a fun shot to aim for nonetheless. My go-to strategy is getting the Guggenheim Museum multiball started and after that it's mostly a free-for-all. It also has a flipper-gap post which you really don't see anymore.
9. White Water (Williams, 1993)
Growing up I was a sucker for tables that had ramps galore--and that's essentially what White Water is. There are so many ramps and levels in this table that the bottom playfield is mostly covered. This is definitely a more iconic table, meaning you'd probably recognize iwt if you saw it. For me, the big draws here are the endless orbits and ramps you can send the ball on and of course the mechanical Bigfoot character in the top-right corner of the game.
The left side of the table has a long plastic roller-coaster style ramp that ends in a kind of down-the-drain spiral which is just awesome.
8. World Cup Soccer (Bally, 1994)
Released alongside the 1994 World Cup Soccer tournament, this table is a surprisingly addictive game that has some really interesting playfield features, including a rapidly spinning and very unpredictable top-half of a soccer ball, along with a goal, complete with moving goalie.
It's also got one of the stranger plunger shots around, essentially launching the ball into a weird kind of Plinko box the game calls a Coin Toss. But my favorite part of the machine is an objective that lets you take a penalty kick using one of the flipper buttons.
And yes, this is my little dude Dylan playing the game in the image directly next to the text you are reading.
7. Dialed In (Jersey Jack, 2017)
Jersey Jack Pinball is one of the newer manufacturers on the scene, debuting with a licensed Wizard of Oz table. Dialed In is the company's only non-licensed themed machine, and it's also one of my favorites. Designed by pinball royalty Pat Lawlor, Dialed In was my first experience with a hologram shot, a sort of mirrored glass contraption that can display various images on it, dynamically changing with the rules of the game.
Jersey Jack pins are unmistakable, primarily because of the big honking 27-inch LCDs mounted inside their backboxes--a feature the rest of the industry seems to be playing catch up on. Dialed In has an endless selection of shots, a smart rule set and is a shining example of how pinball has evolved in terms of technology and sophistication.
6. Iron Maiden: Legacy of the Beast (Stern, 2018)
The thing about pinball is that sometimes a game's theme has nothing to do with whether or not the table itself is fun to play. That's the wild situation with Iron Maiden: Legacy of the Beast. If you're a fan of the band, you're well served with a bunch of their classic songs, but even if you've never heard of them, the table's layout and flow rise above its heavy metal dressing. Designed by Keith Elwin (a pro pinball-player-turned-designer), Maiden features a playfield-intersecting plunger shot and a first-ever hit-detecting Newton ball. Keith is basically a pinball rockstar and this isn't the last time I'll mention him on the list.
5. Funhouse (Williams, 1990)
Funhouse gets the number five spot for several reasons, some obvious, others not-so-much. This machine is currently in my possession, and is also, as mentioned previously, tragically possessed. When I first got this in the house and turned it on, it sounded like dying vacuum. A lot of stuff didn't work. But in just a month or so I learned more than I ever thought I would--not just about how insanely intricate and complicated a pinball machine's innards are, but about how electrical components work, how to solder, and just what the hell you're supposed to do with a multimeter.
My Funhouse went from barely functioning to 100% working, a feat that I absolutely could not have achieved if it weren't for the help, patience, and incredibly generosity of duder Anthony Thomas. This guy has spent hours upon hours helping me out, even getting me to cut open an old ethernet wire to use it to fix a circuit board. Pretty wild.
But back to the game itself, and why it's number five: Funhouse is approaching 30 years old, but it plays way ahead of its time. It's another Pat Lawlor classic, with its overhead playfield rails and a special left-side plunger that needs to be unlocked in-game to operate.
Funhouse is super prolific--odds are you've seen it, or at the very least would recognize the star of the game, the disembodied head of a ventriloquist dummy named Rudy (voiced by none other than Ed Boon!)
Funhouse is also relentless in its challenging presentation. The game is hard, like real hard. And because of that, playing well comes with such a satisfying feeling of achievement. Play it if you come across one, but just remember it demands crow, hawk, or raven's blood to operate correctly. Whatever, we all have our quirks!
4. The Addams Family (Bally, 1992)
OK, this one I know you've heard of.
If there was ever some kind of way to tally up all the quarters I've dropped into arcade machines throughout my life, I'm positive The Addams Family pinball machine would sit comfortably at the top of my list.
The Addams Family is probably the game responsible for the birth of my pinball fascination, and the best part is that it's everywhere. You can reliably find one in most all-you-can-play throwback arcades or even places you might not think: like the rear entrance of a hotel in Lake George or a secluded basement of a Vermont ski lodge, nestled between rows and rows of unused lockers, seemingly stuck forever in 1992.
This table is just the best. Such great flow, memorable call-outs from the film and one of the best mechanical gimmicks around: Thing grabbing a ball for a multiball lock. It really is one of the smartest-designed games around (another table from Lawlor) with such an easy-to-digest rule set, ridiculously fun modes and lots of room for deeper scoring.
3. Deadpool (Stern, 2018)
I currently have a Deadpool machine in the house and it's got one of the fastest and smoothest playfields around. Based on the comic book likeness of Mr. Pool, the game features Nolan North (as Deadpool), Brian Huskey, and Jennifer Lafluer, with writing from Brian Posehn.
Everything about this game is so damn slick and polished. From the unbelievable playfield art, to the animations and overall 8-bit design featured on the LCD--the game screams style and lands the Deadpool theme better than any other game I've played. It's also, dare I say, funny?!
Its flow is centered around a number of objectives, but mainly a battle mode where you must take on enemies like Mystique, Juggernaut, Sabretooth and others. You can also get some help from X-people like Wolverine, Colossus, and Dazzler.
What's wild about Deadpool though is that it wasn't always such a highly regarded machine. It wasn't until a few code updates did the game's potential truly unlock. That's right my friends, pinball machines can receive software updates that not only change the rules of the game, but fix bugs, add completely new art, dialogue, screens, whatever. And now that nearly all modern pinball machines have screens in their backbox, the possibilities are seemingly endless.
2. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Jersey Jack, 2019)
Jersey Jack Pinball was kind enough to let me borrow one of these machines (for some upcoming content!) and it's been an interesting few days so far. I'd played a bunch of Willy Wonka at my go-to pinball museum down in Asbury Park, but I didn't truly get to put in the real hours until I had this one set up.
Wonka is a divisive game amongst the pinball community. There are a lot of players who dismiss it because its ruleset seems overly complicated, others because its flow can become repetitive.
But for me, I'm not sure I've seen a better implemented theme in ages. If you have a favorite part of the classic Gene Wilder original, odds are it's represented in some fashion here. Be it the Wonkavator, boat ride, Fizzy Lifting Room, whatever it is. Clips from the film are everywhere to be found and the game's callouts (soundbytes from the movie) make you feel like you're inside the factory.
That 27-inch screen in the backbox has A LOT going on, but Wonka also has a 7-inch Wonkavision screen on the playfield that relays instructions and game updates in a really satisfying and seamless way. It also has some really clever skillshot designs that have an impressive amount of replay value.
It's another Pat Lawlor design, so there is a fair bit of challenge and learning curve there. Quite a few situations can lead to heartbreaking drain-outs, and like I mentioned before, understanding all the rules and modes takes a really long time. It's the kind of thing that a lot of commitment to play, experience and eventually digest and master.
When it's all said and done, Wonka's pros far outweigh its cons. I don't think all of the game's criticisms are unwarranted, but I also think this machine is one or two code updates away from hitting the next level. And that's the thing with being a smaller manufacturer--you probably can't commit to supporting a game's evolving lifespan the same way a much larger brand can.
1. Jurassic Park (Stern, 2019)
So, remember when I said a room in my house is kind of like an arcade now? Well this machine gets the most play there. Jurassic Park has experienced incredible praise right out of the gate, and I didn't know how justified it was until I finally got my hands on one.
My goodness, is this game addictive. It's the second Stern table from Keith Elwin and he nailed it out of the park. Jurassic Park has a lot of interesting design and smartly crafted shots that have you shaking your head as you discover new ways to combo ramps, orbits and rails.
Impressively enough, the game is still operating on what's close to its earliest code and it already feels polished and refined. Oh, and did I mention the two higher-end versions of the game feature a mechanical Tyrannosaurus Rex that eats the damn ball and spits it back onto the playfield? Yeah.
JP's gameplay loop has you traveling from paddock to paddock, rescuing park workers and capturing dinosaurs. A jeep outfitted with a Newton ball in the top-center of the playfield lets you choose which branch on the park map to pursue next, all while being a pivotal mechanic in other game modes as well.
And what's really peculiar about Jurassic Park, is well, it's not exactly the license you might expect. Meaning, this isn't exactly Jurassic Park, the 1994 movie, nor is it a Jurassic World game either. It does an OK job recreating selected moments from the '94 film, but it seems like Stern was only able to get permission to use Dennis Nedry's likeness and use some of his callouts--which is odd.
If you're a Jurassic Park purist you might be slightly turned off by just how much the game doesn't include licensed stuff, but it's just so damn fun to play you'll forget about it almost immediately.
If you liked this list and want to learn more, check out some machines from the indie pinball companies like Spooky Pinball (makers of Total Nuclear Annihilation) and the upcoming Rick and Morty table or Chicago Gaming Company (replica makers of classic tables like Attack From Mars and Medieval Madness). There's also a Big Lebowski machine out there, but finding one is like spotting a unicorn.