Retrogaming: The pinball collecting conundrum

Pinball

In which I ponder the challenges, benefits and not inconsiderable costs of collecting pinball tables. It’s awfully tempting, though. That sound of silver balls thumping around gets into your blood.

I like retro gaming, and that shouldn’t be a surprise to any regular readers of this blog in any capacity whatsoever. One of the more interesting challenges with retro gaming is deciding what to play.

Back when I was much younger and significantly more cash-strapped, that would have been whatever was to hand, because I only had access to a very small number of games, which is why to this day I can recall exactly how to finish Fairlight, or for that matter precisely how frustrated the Amstrad version of Ghosts N Goblins got me.


And that music. Oh god, that music. It haunts me still.

I’m no longer constrained by such paucity of choices however, largely because I’ve kept most of what I ever purchased, with very few exceptions. It’s almost akin to the problem I often hit with folks who emulate entire systems at once, because you get almost strangled in gaming terms by the agony of choice, flitting from one game to another because something better could be just around the corner.

I find as time goes by that my own opinion on emulation is softening somewhat. To be clear, Australian copyright law does NOT provide for emulation of games software very explicitly, but it clearly still happens in Australia on a quite widespread basis. The reality is what it is.

There are plenty of completely out of print games that are never likely to be revived for virtual services that command truly ridiculous asking prices these days, and I’m still very much in the camp that says games should be played, not collected. I get that emulation makes that possible for some folks, and where there’s no commercial road to availability I’m not seeing as much real damage in those cases for truly ancient titles. At least for now.

Still, of late, I’ve been rather obsessed by a retro gaming niche that puts the prices that even an avid collector of, say, Panzer Dragoon Saga would blush at.

Namely, pinball.

Before I kick off, you really should listen to episode 110 of Vertical Hold. Not because I’m on it (although I am one of the two regular co-hosts, and you should totally subscribe), but because I interviewed Tim Arnold from the Las Vegas Pinball Hall of Fame in it, while I was in Vegas for CES 2017*.

There’s nothing quite like being surrounded by 250 flashing, blinking and chirping pinball tables. Probably pure hell if you’re affected by epilepsy, but pure heaven if you like the challenge that only real world pinball can bring.

As such, since returning from Vegas, I’ve been getting my pinball fix in whenever I can. That’s meant a lot of play of titles such as Zen Pinball and The Pinball Arcade, both of which jostle for pinball supremacy in the digital game space. The Pinball Arcade strives for authenticity, and it’s easily the cheapest way to get access to the pinball games of my youth, even if each table runs to around $10 each; a little less if you buy the seasons depending on your platform of choice.

Here’s the thing about The Pinball Arcade, or Zen Pinball, or any other digital pinball simulation, though.

When I was interviewing him, Tim Arnold from the Las Vegas Pinball Hall of Fame made the point that “pinball only exists in the real world”, and he’s essentially right. The digital simulation of pinball is fun, and it’s undoubtedly giving me access to many more tables than I could realistically afford, but it’s not the real thing.

To give it a retro gaming spin, back in the early 90s, arcade gaming was absolutely dominated by Capcom’s Street Fighter II. Sure, there were plenty of other games, but Street Fighter II was the game. If you were there, you know I’m right.

So of course, there were imitators to the throne. Plenty of them, and some of them were OK, but if you were playing them, you were almost certainly aware that you could otherwise be lining up your 20c pieces on the Street Fighter II machine, and that was always preferable.

Or in other words, digital pinball is to real pinball as World Heroes is to Street Fighter II. It’s sort of similar, but it’s not the same thing, really.

That’s not intended to be an absolute attack on The Pinball Arcade, by the way. The fact that in 2017 I can walk around with 20+ simulations of real world pinball in a device that fits in my pocket is nothing short of extraordinary, and unless I accidentally invent the next Facebook, I’m not likely to afford 20 real pinball tables, or the space to store them all.

One pinball table, though?

The appeal of having a pinball table to play at any time has some solid allure. There are physical challenges, because these are heavy items that command a lot of floor space, but I could work around that.

What’s tougher to reconcile, of course, is the asking price of that actual pinball table. They’re custom electronics, and like any custom electronics, building to a small scale means that they’re expensive items, both to acquire and to keep running in peak condition.

So here’s my problem. Historically I haven’t spent that much on what’s now deemed my retro collection, because the vast majority of it was purchased when it was new. I genuinely cannot recall the last time I spent more than, say $100 Australian on a game of any type, new or old.

There are bits and bobs that I’ve bought over the years and a few trips, but not much of truly insane value as regards my own buying price. Yeah, there are a few things that would require silly money to replace because their percieved value has risen, but I’m not selling, and as such , but I’m left in the position where that would be an insurance issue more than anything else.

Purchasing a physical pinball table, however, isn’t just an investment in space. It’s a serious cash outlay. Even an older table with simple targets and bumpers is likely to set me back around $2,000 in working condition, and for a more recent, modern and challenging table, pricing is typically around $5,000 and upwards.

I had the opportunity to try out Stern’s new Batman ’66 table while at CES 2017, and it’s a lovely thing in many ways. I’m still not quite sold on full LCD screens at the top of pinball playfields, because I find them distracting (that’s probably the point) and my inner purist loves an LED-only screen (and that’s probably just me being old and crotchety).

This is really pretty. An exceptionally pretty pinball machine... that costs a pretty penny.
This is really pretty. An exceptionally pretty pinball machine… that costs a pretty penny.

A new Batman ’66 table, however, would be an investment in Australia of some $12,500. I do get why it costs the way it does; these are high-end machines that are brand spanking new in an environment where a smaller cadre of enthusiasts are the core market. Yes, you do still see pinball machines every once in a while in a retail environment, but they’re hardly as common as they used to be. These are luxury items, and they’re priced as such.

It’s no better if I go second-hand, however. A table of my choosing would typically be around $5,000. Five grand for what, however pretty it might be, is just one game puts any and all silly “collector’s edition” current generation games to absolute shame.

Equally, if I’m going to spend that kind of money, I very much do want to ensure that I’m getting precisely the table that I want. Ideally Bally’s Doctor Who table, because, well, Doctor Who, although I could probably settle for a Rocky & Bullwinkle, Star Trek: The Next Generation or Jurassic Park.

Guess how much those go for. Go on, guess. Yeah, a lot. I could do a lot of things with the $5,000+ that a full licenced pinball table goes for.

There is the argument that they’re solid investments, but I’m a little torn on that front. Any pinball table I buy is one that I’m going to want to play, and play on a pinball table invites wear and tear. Some parts are not hideous in terms of replacement cost and availability, but any unique items are only going to get harder to replace and repair over time.

A pinball table in less than collectible condition quickly drops in value; it doesn’t take long researching pinball table prices to find plenty of machines being sold off for under a grand, but before you get too excited, they’re always machines in a non-working state, and often being sold by folks who clearly do know a thing or two about machine repair. In other words, an investment in a pinball machine is also an investment in upkeep, unless I never want to play it.

Which I clearly do, and besides which, I don’t much like the whole “retro is an investment” side of retro gaming anyway.

Which leaves me, for now, playing and enjoying digital pinball while I count and save my pennies. Maybe one day. Maybe.

*I travelled to CES 2017 as a guest of Dell. This has nothing to do with this post, but I like clear disclosure, OK?

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