Choosing a pinball machine to buy

There are thousands of different pinball machines made. How to choose which one is best for you ?
This page is an addition to my buying a pinball machine page. Please read that page too !

Sometimes it can be easy: you only found one machine for sale, or there is only one you can afford. No problem then. Although, read this page to see if the game you're about to buy is something which will fit you and you'll enjoy, or it may be better not to buy this one and search further until you find a better one for sale. Most of these instructions are to guide to when you're able to choose between different types of machines.

This page was written around 2003 and then the situation was very different compared to now, 20 years later.
New pinball machines couldn't be found and were very expensive. Older pinball machines were easily available.
The market has changed completely. In the last decade Stern Pinball sells probably more pinball machines to private home owners than to operators to put on location. This changed the market of used pinball machines completely. Very cheap pinball machines are almost impossible to find, but there is a large market of recent machines in good condition.
You can either buy one brand new (from a dealer) or easily find lightly used machines that only a few months to a few years old.
While everything below is still valid, if you have enough budget it's often just a matter of finding a theme you like.

PLAY, PLAY and PLAY the machine. You buy the machine to play it. You have to enjoy it. Play it as much as you can before you decide you will (not) buy it. If possible, also play other kinds of pinball machines (other brands, models, ..) so you are able to compare. However, try not to play games you cannot afford at all !! Usually they cost (much) more because they are better. And once you've had a taste of them you'll always compare.. So if you can only choose between EM games, don't play the latest pinball machine made. If you've got $750 to spend you may test games up to $1000 and find out if it's worth spending a bit more and get a better type of machine, but do not try a +$2000 game when you only want to pay $200. There are also differences between types: EM and Solid state, and the different versions of solid state games: early Bally/Stern/Williams, games of after 1985, and in dot matrix games the Gottlieb, Bally/Williams and Data East/Sega/Capcom games all feel and play different. If prices are almost the same then compare and get what you find is best, if prices between the types differ a lot then only compare to what you can afford. Try to identify which things make you like and dislike a game. Pinball machines are not all the same ! Do you like a fast game, with a good flow ? Or a series of short, difficult shots ? Do you want to work through modes to reach a certain goal, or just keep on playing and get a high score by hitting targets ? There are a lot of possibilities, decide what you like and dislike. Then look for a pin which fits this profile. Do not buy a machine which has something in it you hate. This could be its theme, something in gameplay, or sounds/music. If gameplay in general is too difficult, don't worry, you'll learn how it plays. (Unless you know of yourself you won't be able to learn, you're not interested, don't have time, don't have the skills, then you're better off to buy a cheap game you'll enjoy from the beginning). But if there is something very specific which you absolutely do not like, this won't be solved by playing more, so then you're better off finding a machine which you like better.

Does the machine work ? Perfect ? If it's your first machine, and you haven't worked on pinball machines yet, I strongly advise you not to buy a machine which isn't working. Even though there are excellent repair guides on the net. If the seller says it's a simple problem or only a broken fuse, why didn't he replace this fuse ? You may be lucky and find a game which works after five minutes of tweaking, but in most cases you'll end up putting a lot of time in a game and made problems worse. Yes if you are handy, it's not difficult to figure out how a pinball machine works. But first try to learn this on a working pinball machine, unless you prefer to spend more time repairing pins instead of playing them.

Twilight Zone backglass

Opinions of others and popularity. Be careful with this. Some games like Twilight Zone are very popular among collectors, but they are quite technical (especially TZ) and intended for more experienced players. Not everyone likes them or 'gets into them'. While some pins may 'grown on you' and you have to play them like 2 weeks before you start to like them, you may not be a die-hard pinball player or collector. So maybe an easier, more simple game is better for you if you are a novice pinball player.

Opinions can also change in time. When games like Bram Stokers Dracula, Cirqus Voltaire and Twilight Zone were released, they didn't have the popularity they have now. Some games which aren't popular when operated can be very popular once people have them at home. So always think about who's opinion you are asking.

Opinions of others are only useful when you can choose between games which you don't know very well yourself. Then others who know the games better can aid you choosing which is the best value for money. You may i.e. know 2 games for sale for $800 and another for $1200. You'd go for one of the $800 ones because every game is the same for you and you like them all.
However, one of the two $800 games can be much better then the other. Or people can advise you to buy the $1200 game, because it really is a much better game, which you'll enjoy much more, and which will hold its value better when you want to sell it.

Number of games built. Don't buy a game because it's rare and only a few hundred were made. Certainly if it's the only game you'll buy. Often the reason why not many were made is: they were no fun to play. Games like that are maybe nice to have, for collectors, but not as your only game. There are always exceptions of games which are good and for reason were not built in large amounts, and are wanted by a lot or people (i.e. Gottlieb Krull, Capcom Big Ban Bar). And there are 'classic' games of which ten thousands were made, but still a lot of collectors look for them in excellent condition (Bally Fathom, Fireball, Xenon, Gottliebs Haunted House, ..). So the first rule applies here too: play the game and enjoy it.

Who are you ? Why do you want a game ? Same as paragraph 1, what do you like about a machine ?If you don't know, who are you ? What do you want ? Are you looking for a pinball machine for a child ? Then better choose a game with easy to understand rules. Most electro-mechanical or pre-dmd solid state pins will do fine. Or are you someone who already plays well and wants a hard challenge ? Then some of the latest dmd-pins with a deep ruleset will be what you need to keep you entertained. I bought my Twilight Zone from someone who had it for his 7-year old daughter. I think she was happy not to drain the ball and didn't know any of the rules.

Buying a game for (small) children ? As said in the paragraph above, the game shouldn't be too difficult with its rules. However, as most children flip all the time, even when the ball is not around, or hold the flipper button for a longer period, you're looking for a reliable game which won't break down after a week. You should learn them to only flip when the ball is near the flippers, but this may take some time. An EM should be possible (unless they hold flipper buttons too long, but multiple flips aren't a problem). I noticed problems with the first generation solid state games (Stern/Bally). Yes these games were designed to be abused in a commercial environment, but they were also designed to work for 5 years. These have now old electronics, playing in a normal way is no problem, but abuse by children can cause problems. So therefor my personal opinion is to stay away from them for small children (less then 6 years old) if they flip all the time. You're better off then with a cheap (late) 80ies Gottlieb i.e., whose electronics are not so old and more reliable. Or be prepared to do repairs (or have a repair man come over, and don't complain to him if the game breaks down again).

harley davidson

Fan of a certain theme ? Star Trek ? Dolly Parton ? Porsche or Corvette ? Soccer, basketball ? Kiss, Guns and Roses, the Rolling Stones ? There is probably already a pinball machine about this theme you like so much. Then just look for that particular game, and the theme will be half of why you want and like the pinball machine, even if it's not the best playing game considered by others. Remember you have to like it. Do keep in mind that you may pay a lot more just because of the theme, and get a pinball machine which isn't a lot of fun to play. On the other hand, some themes were popular once, but very dated and unpopular now (some 70ies and 80ies pins). Some of them are good fun to play though, so if you don't mind the looks of them, you can have a great playing pin for a low price, because almost no-one else is interested in them.

Fireball backbox

Electro-mechanical (EM) ? Electro-mechanicals are the old games, made before 1977. They have a lot of switches and other mechanical things in the backbox and beneath the playfield. Your score is displayed by wheels in the backbox which rotate. They are fun to play, and have a certain charm. Once they're working fine, maintained properly, and played regularly, they'll just keep on running and give you less problems then a solid state pin. If you want a pinball machine which will still work in 50 or 100 years from now, this is what you are looking for.

Twilight Zone backbox

or Solid State ? These games are controlled by a microprocessor. Yes they have a computer in them. Your score is shown on electronic displays, and since the early 90ies on a dmd-screen which also shows animations. These have self-tests, so if the cpu is working, it will notice you of any problems with switches and so on the playfield. If the cpu doesn't work, you probably will not be able to repair it yourself (unless you have knowledge of electronics). Some older games even use chips which are obsolete (or very hard to find). Solid State games however (certainly more recent games) have much more possibilities than EM's and on average will challenge you for a longer time (although there are both good and bad solid states and em's..).

Brand ? Especially when buying a dot matrix machine, do you buy a Williams/Bally, Gottlieb or Data East/Sega or Capcom ? Collectors usually want Williams/Bally as on average these were the best (most fun). However they also made some bad machines.. Data East also made some good machines (Tommy, Star Wars, Last action Hero, ..). There are a lot of spare parts available for Williams/Bally, a lot of people know how to repair them, there's a lot of documentation around. However, most of these games do have a lot of game-specific parts which can be difficult/impossible to find. Because of the many collectors, there may be a huge demand for these parts which increases prices, but this may also cause some people to replicate parts. So some parts are impossible to get now, but may become available in the future..Data East/Sega and Gottlieb games usually are less fun to play, or have more simple rules (better suited for children). However these games usually have fewer technical problems. Less people know how to repair them (especially Gottlieb system 3) so try to get to know a repair person when you buy one.. Usually it's more difficult to find spare parts for these, however, sometimes you can be lucky. I know a dealer in Belgium who has new ramps and parts for most Gottliebs since 1985 in stock.. no-one bought them so they're still available, while their stock of Williams spare parts has been sold out long ago.. Stern does still support Sega/Data East machines so if you have specific problems or need a part for a Sega machine, it probably still is available (but may be expensive to order from the USA). So, it's difficult to draw a conclusion.. there shouldn't be a reason why you would only buy one brand and not another. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. It's best to inform though if you know someone who can do repairs of pinball machines. And if the machine you're going to buy has broken/missing parts, it's best to check in advance if these parts are still available or been sold out long ago.. With Electro-mechanical games it doesn't matter a lot which brand you buy. They're old anyway, and they have such a long history that there isn't one brand which is much better then the other. Buy what you like. However, in general European games are cheaper then American pinball machines. This is because of demand, most people want an American game, even if there's i.e. a spanish version of the same game available made with american parts.. But there are always collectors who i.e. want every french game and only look for these.. Parts like coils are available for old american games, but for some rare Italian/Spanish brands it may be very difficult to get a replacement part.

Looks You've got to like the game, looks are important too. You decide how important looks are. Do you want a game to play and enjoy, or a game to put in your living room, impress your friends, and play a game every few weeks ? Keep in mind some good looking games are therefor high in demand and you'll pay more because of their looks than gameplay. Examples are Tales of the Arabian Nights, Theatre of Magic, and some others..

QBert Quest X flippers

Unique playfield feature Don't believe the hype. Some games are collectible and will be worth more because they have a unique feature. Gorgar was the first speaking pinball machine made, therefor a lot of people remember and want it. Orbitor One didn't have a flat playfield. But as so many different games have been made, almost every one of them will have a special feature. One will have the most flippers/bumpers/targets, one will be the first game made with zipper-flippers, another be the last to have had them. Same for banana-flippers. Or roto-targets, disappearing bumpers, .. So don't think this one feature will make the game unique and worth a lot. It's nice to know, but gameplay or other factors will say how much this game is in demand, not this one feature on its own. If you search long enough, it'll be possible to find something special about every game..

Resale value This shouldn't be the most important, but can be important when you have to choose between different games and don't have any preference regarding gameplay/looks/.. Then you can consider its value and how fast you'll be able to resell a game. Ie a Williams/Bally game which is considered to be a 'good' one you'll probably be able to sell faster then a Data East/Sega game, because there's more demand for WMS/Bally games. Unless you're very lucky you won't pay a very low price for the machine. So when you can choose between machines, consider how much money you want/can afford to loose. Any game will get sold at some price. When you buy a $400 machine and are only able to sell if for half the price, you 'only' lost $200. Have you bought a $2000 machine and need to sell it fast, you may lose $500. So keep in mind the more expensive machine the machine is, the greater your loss can be. I don't say you will loose money, but it's always possible. It's not only in case you've got to sell, but also when a major problem happens with it. (although then the opposite mechanism works: with a $400 machine not everyone will spend $200 on repairs, while on a $4000 machine they will) This is something to keep in mind when comparing machines of different prices, compare prices with other shops/ebay/.. because a more expensive machine will not always be a better.

Condition If you can choose between different machines, they're similar in price, gameplay, demand, .. then take the one in best condition. If there's a small price difference, most of the time you're better off to pay a bit more and get a machine which is much nicer. But only do this if you're going to keep your game in very good condition, and the game is (a bit) popular. If you'll only play and not maintain it, then buy the cheap one and enjoy its play. Games get damaged all the time, people don't maintain them. So the amount of 'great condition' games of that model will get lower over the years, raising the value of your machine and making it easier to sell (a lot of collectors unfortunately all want a game which looks as new and will complain about scratches, wear, ..). An example: An operator I know had 2 ST:TNG's for sale, one in good condition for 1050 euros, with some scratches on the cabinet, and one for 1100 euros in excellent condition, no scratches, ramps are a bit more clear, ... Best thing to do is buy the 1100 one, and keep it in good condition. The small extra price you'll get back when you sell it, because it's in good condition. Even if the difference is larger it can still be interesting to buy the best game. You might think you'll buy some replacement parts like decals and ramps, but usually the parts will cost much more than the money you'd saved with the cheaper machine, so in the end you'll spend more money and put time and effort in it finding and installing replacement parts.