Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Should you buy a pinball machine?

Pinball machine ownership is an expensive and time-intensive hobby.  Is it worth doing, especially if you are lucky enough to live somewhere you can still play pinball in public?  Let's have a look at the pros and cons of home pinball ownership.

Image by Fred Bellet via Tampa Bay Online

Pros

Condition control.  This is probably the number one reason to own a pinball machine.  Machines in public places are not always taken care of and maintained.  It hurts the play experience, and this is something you may not even realize until you've played a well-maintained machine.  As a pinball owner, not only will your machine be played more gently (and mainly just by YOU), you can keep it in tip-top condition.  You control the pitch of the playfield, you control the various program settings (profanity filter on/off, score resets, ball save timers, etc.).

Access to specific machines. Another benefit to seeking out your own machines is that you aren't limited to whatever machine happens to be onsite at your local bowling alley or bar.  If you always loved Terminator 2, you can get a Terminator 2 pinball machine.  For a while, my local airport actually had Medieval Madness, and I looked forward to playing it any time I travelled through there.  But then one day it was gone.

Tinkering.  If you're a tinkerer, oh man, is pinball ever the hobby for you!  Even if your machine is running perfectly, there are endless opportunities for tweaks, polishing, and improvement.  A pinball owner's work is never done.

Some of history's greatest men were tinkerers...

Modding.  When you own your own pinball machine, you can do with it as you please.  Pinball modding presents a whole world of fascinating options.  From practical additions like Invisiglass and Cliffy protectors to decals and flashy decorative mods like undercabinet lighting and playfield toys, modding allows you to improve the play experience and make your machine more uniquely you.



No quarters necessary.  Unless you want to give your kids the world's heaviest piggybank, all machines can be set to free play for a home use environment.  You'll get a lot more practice in when all you have to do is hit start, believe me.  You'll try riskier moves, and if the ball drains in the process, or you tilt the machine, oh well; the next game is just a button push away.  If you want to become more skilled at pinball, nothing helps more than having a machine in the next room when you've got a few minutes to spare.


"All my friends will be so impressed!"  Well... not necessarily.  I mean, that's what we thought at first, but we've actually found that most of our pre-existing friends aren't that enthusiastic about pinball (though they may be impressed anyway, in a "wow, you guys are amazingly obsessed" kind of way).  They aren't calling up all the time to come over and play, and when they are over, there's a weird hesitation barrier to pushing the start button.  On the flip-side, people we weren't as close to, like my daughter's best friend's mom or the neighbors across the street, turned out to love pinball, and now we share that much more common ground.  And we've made new friends in the pinhead community, too.  You don't have to ask that crowd twice to attend a pinball party at your place.


Cons

Expense.  Buying a pinball machine will generally cost you thousands of dollars.  And shipping is certainly not trivial either; that'll run $300 - $400 or so.  You're not going to make back the initial costs on the quarters you save.

Ongoing expense.  Bulbs go out.  Pinballs get dings and wear, and need to be replaced (about $1 a piece).  You need lint-free cloths, and the proper cleaning solutions, and wax, and other maintenance supplies.  If a plastic piece on the playfield breaks, it's off to Ebay or one of the pinball parts suppliers for a replacement (if one exists).  Your DMD display will probably die at some point and need to be replaced. 

Learning curve.  Unless you want to just shell out for the local pinball repairman every time something goes wrong (if there even IS a local pinball repairman in your area), you'll have to learn how to fix stuff.  That can be a positive or a negative, depending on your temperment, but every time a new problem surfaces, it's on you to figure out how to fix it.  Granted, the online pinball enthusiast community is a priceless source of information, support, and advice.  I say it's on you to fix it, but you're not alone.

What if it breaks forever? It's always possible that a permanent failure will occur, something that just can't be fixed. For the most part, though, that doesn't happen. As complex as a pinball machine is, it mostly boils down to simple electronics and triggers, and a computery motherboard or two.


Under playfield view of Bally's The Shadow

Bigger than a bread box.  Pinball machines are a huge piece of furniture, and getting them into the house can be a hassle.  If/when you move to a new residence you have to factor in that hassle amongst all the other hassles inherent in moving.  It's pretty much the equivalent of taking your refrigerator with you every time you move, multiplied by however many machines you wind up owning (and you can fool yourself into thinking you'll stop at one, but overwhelming case evidence is against you there).

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In the end, owning a pinball machine vs. playing on site is a lot like owning a home vs. renting. And just like home ownership, it's not for everyone.  One thing to remember if you do become a collector, though; your local arcade still needs your support!  Don't forget to drop a quarter in those machines now and then, even if you become an obsessive addicted pinball collector. :)

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