Do they still make pinball machines? They do, in a huge new factory near Chicago -- with most selling to the 1%

Christopher Borrelli, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Lifestyles

Beyond that, a team connects speakers, assembles a scoreboard, a marquee. In the center of the floor, partially assembled boards move south through hands, a plastic insert here, a plug there. Wood is sanded and smoothed and given a sheen. Boards go into an ancient four-post press (handed down by Gottlieb) to keep everything symmetrical, each board lining up with a master board so every last hole is justified.

Soldering sparks.

Ramps and toys get inserted. It begins to look like pinball. Boards are moved to the south end of the building, tested again, inserted in a special vise nicknamed a rotisserie that turns the game in half-circles until all is fine-tuned. Computer processors are connected. The cabinets stand on their own and go through another round of tests. In the last stages, glass is inserted atop the game board and styrofoam hugs the legs. As for the pinballs: they go into a separate box, to avoid knocking around during shipment.

It’s here I realized, I could never justify buying one of these things. Mike Nogle, owner of Great American Pinball, a longtime distributor in West Chicago, told me the aftermarket for used games is so hot now it helped make 2023 one of his most successful. But even used, he’s talking thousands. Which is too bad, because I’m the demographic. I grew up with pinball and the kind of titles that Stern celebrates: “Lord of the Rings” and Rush and Godzilla and Iron Maiden.

And they are always looking for more IP. Whatever’s hot and sells globally.


Taylor Swift? Barbie?

“That’s absolutely being discussed,” Davis said. The Grateful Dead is another frequent request. This year, Stern unveils three new machines; other than “Jaws,” they won’t hint at the rest. Last year they only released two — Venom and the Foo Fighters — because they had such a backlog of orders. That’s a good problem to have. But when I ask if they will ever lower the price, Davis said: “The more you make an affordable, alternative pinball machine, the weirder it is.” They have not figured out how to make a cheaper machine.

Because, again, pinball is too tactile, requiring too many parts, a sizable factory.

So, in the near future, the electronic game that comes out of that huge building in Elk Grove Village will live mostly in the homes of those who can afford it. Not that I can complain anymore than I can complain about the price of a Mercedes. But pinball was once an egalitarian game, Sharpe said, “a fantasy world under glass.” And now, at least for the time being, “Detroit still makes cars, and Chicago is still making pinball.”

©2024 Chicago Tribune. Visit at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


blog comments powered by Disqus