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Pinball wizards of all ages drive interest in arcades and retro game machines

Pinball might have been at its peak in Australia in the late 1990s, but a resurgence in interest has seen middle-aged fans buy up retro machines — some for as much as $20,000 — while teenagers join the competitive ranks.

Long-time fan Vaughan Jones has taken his love of the retro game a step further by opening the doors to a dedicated pinball arcade in Nambour on the Sunshine Coast.

Not the only pinball venue in the area, Mr Jones said he is keen to “attract a different kind of pinball enthusiast”.

“Both competitive players and home collectors who are looking for parts and restorations of their games at home,” he said.

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As the tournament director of the Sunshine Coast Pinball Club with 200 competitive members, Mr Jones looks after International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA) sanctioned tournaments on the Coast.

Man standing beside a pinball machine smiling
Vaughn Jones is opening a pinball arcade in Nambour, on the Sunshine Coast, as the game enjoys a resurgence in popularity.(ABC Sunshine Coast: Annie Gaffney)

Pinball players of today

So what does the typical profile of a pinball player look like in 2020?

While they are mostly men aged in their mid-40s to 50s, Mr Jones said they were not “necessarily indicative of the best competitive player”.

“There are casual gamers, they’ve wandered in off the streets with some dollars in their pocket to have a bit of fun on a whim,” he said.

“And then there are competitive players.

“The current world champion is 19 years old, and some of the best players in the club here are in their teens.”

The Queensland Pinball Championship held in Brisbane last year caught the eye of 16-year-old player Escher Lefkoff, an Aussie teen who lives in the United States.

At the time he was ranked eighth in the world by the IFPA, which is the governing body for pinball as a competitive sport.

The teenager said he had been playing on pinball machines his dad owned since he was a toddler.

“I would just kind of watch my dad play,” Escher said.

The teen said pinball was different from other sports because it was strictly a single-player game, and a hybrid of a tactile game and video game.

Fellow teen pinball player Emily Cosson, also 16, of Burleigh Waters, said her family owned 16 machines.

She said she often competed alongside her father.

A row of men playing pinball machines and a young woman standing looking at a clipboard in front of the machines.
Emily Cosson, left, and Escher Lefkoff, centre, compete regularly in international and national pinball competitions like this one, in Coolangatta, in August 2019.(Submitted: John Cosson)

“He was always in the pinball room, so I was always wondering what he was doing, so I’d join in,” Emily said.

“Then one day he said he was going to a competition, so I was like, ‘OK, I’ll join you’.”

New machines ‘not cheap’

Most arcade pinball machines in Australian arcades are originals, including the almost 20 that line the walls of Mr Jones arcade, with names like Mousin’ Around, No Good Gofers, Congo and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Mr Jones has one new machine on display, Black Knight Sort of Rage.

He said new games were “not cheap”.

“You can buy a new car for the price of a pinball machine,” he said, explaining that most were made in Chicago in the United States, and could cost upwards of $20,000.

Australia’s only mass-produced pinball manufacturer, Hankin, closed its doors in the early 1980s.

There is some hope, though, for a resurgence of Australian-made games.

“There is a pinball manufacturer based out of Melbourne who is a start-up and making his first game,” Mr Jones said.

“His name is Haggis Pinball and I think he’s just made a game called Celts, and it’ll be a low-production-number game, made to order.”

Looking over a man's shoulder as he concentrates on playing a pinball machine.
Celts is an Australian-made game from Haggis Pinball in Melbourne, and the game was featured at the Melbourne Silverball Championships in November 2019.(Submitted: John Cosson)

Aussies love the games

Melbourne pinball distributor Wayne Gillard, who has been involved in the business for 37 years, said Australia consumed more pinball machines per capita than any other country.

He said the resurgence had been led by a combination of sentimentality and players seeking out something different.

“We remember playing it when we were younger in the local bowling alleys and fish and chip shops … and then you’ve got a whole heap of people who are used to playing video games who are experiencing pinball with a ball that is flying around a playfield,” Mr Gillard said.

“And no two games are the same, so they get a lot of enjoyment and something they weren’t brought up with.”

Mr Gillard said machines were now worth between $8,500 and $20,000 and he sold between 300 and 400 machines a year.

And it is not only the game of pinball that is experiencing a resurgence.

It has been 51 years since the band The Who released its fourth album, Tommy.

The album is a rock opera about a blind and deaf boy who becomes a pinball wizard.

Next year the rock opera will take the limelight in Melbourne’s Palais Theatre, and Ken Russell’s 1975 cinematic version of Tommy was re-released last year for the 50th anniversary of the album.


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