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In the Sacramento area, pinball retains its allure in a digital age

How to win at pinball - 3 tips from a master

Steve Faith, a Davis resident and member of the Northern Pinball Association, demonstrates three techniques using a pinball machine's flipper to control the game.
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Steve Faith, a Davis resident and member of the Northern Pinball Association, demonstrates three techniques using a pinball machine's flipper to control the game.

Plunk in a couple of quarters and let those flippers fly. It’s time to play some pinball, the classic arcade game that has endured through the decades in pizza parlors, bars and game rooms all over the world.

That silver ball certainly rolls through the greater Sacramento area. The 20th annual Pin-A-Go-Go Pinball Show and Swap Meet is set for Friday-Sunday, May 13-15, at the Dixon Fairgrounds with more than 100 pinball machines, from the early days of this flipper-and-ball-based game to new-school machines with dazzling digital features, all ready to play.

The Sacramento region is also home to a number of pinball enthusiasts and collectors, some of whom compete in tournaments and join pinball leagues. The state of local pinball can be tracked on the Sacramento Pinball Map, which is maintained by Davis resident Steve Faith, and lists all the public spots where pinball can be found.

“In the Sacramento area there’s been a gradual increase (in pinball interest) and I would say it’s poised for an even bigger increase,” said Faith, who also serves as president of the Northern California Pinball Association. “I think that reflects what has been going on around the country with a renewed interest in pinball. We’re seeing places that are dedicated to playing pinball and bars with (vintage video games) and pinball machines.”

In some ways, pinball is the vinyl record of the video game world – a medium that seems to reflect days gone by but maintains its classic status in a digital world. According to Forbes, profits for Stern Pinball Inc. – the country’s leading manufacturer of pinball machines – saw its profits triple between 2009 and 2015.

As Faith racks up points on his home collection of 14 pinball machines, he’s seen prices spike on the games themselves.

Pinball can be traced to back centuries to the French court’s game of bagatelle.

“You can justify the (increased interest) just by looking at prices,” said Faith. “In 2005, you could get a whole shipping container of pinball machines that were re-imported from Europe for $10,000. I’ve seen individual games like ‘Addams Family’ now go for $6,000. That used to be a $500 game.”

While pinball might seem to be a fixture of amusement from the mid-20th century and beyond, its timeline rolls back hundreds of years. The game’s lineage can be traced back centuries, to the French court with a primitive version of pinball known as bagatelle. A spring launcher for the ball was patented in the late 1800s, and coin-operated versions of the game debuted in the 1930s. The game itself was once outlawed in New York City from 1942 to 1976 after the machines were classified by lawmakers as gambling devices and corrupters of youth.

Pinball has since become engrained in popular culture, from the Who’s “Pinball Wizard,” to such bands as Kiss, Metallica and AC/DC using their likeness and music for games. The elaborate graphics on the machines themselves can also provide a snapshot of events and fads from decades gone by.

“If you look at the art themes of pinball, they really represent what was on the minds of people at the time,” said Faith. “For example, there were a lot of space-themed (pinball machines) in the 1950s and 1960s because there was huge interest in the space race and Cold War.”

Much of pinball’s popularity drained as video games, both played in the home and at arcades, began to win over the public, and such pinball companies as Gottlieb and Williams either folded or stopped producing pinball. By 2002, Stern Pinball Inc. emerged as the only major American manufacturer of pinball machines.

Pinball became that ‘thing’ about five or six years ago

Damien Charléty, pinball collector

But much like with the muscle car or cassette tape, nostalgia can be a powerful, rejuvenating force. Those who came of age with pinball machines are now being courted with vintage-themed arcades that have sprung up around the country over the past decade, and especially within the past few years. At such bars as EightyTwo in Los Angeles and Atlanta’s Joystick Gamebar, former youth soccer players and kids at heart can now pair their pinball gaming with craft beers and cocktails. Sacramento’s Coin-Op Game Room, the second location of a San Diego-based company, debuted in May 2015.

Another manufacturer of pinball machines also sprouted in 2011. Jersey Jack Pinball of Lakewood, N.J., now offers two machines: “Wizard of Oz” and “The Hobbit.” These pinballs offer an especially high-tech approach to the game, with digital stereo sound, high-definition displays, animation and more.

No matter if the games’ bells and whistles come through digital or analog means, pinball remains a go-to game for many players. Damien Charléty of Dixon started collecting pinball machines about 2007 and co-founded the Capitol Corridor Pinball League in 2011. This group caters to pinball enthusiasts from throughout the Central Valley, with current sections in the Lodi and Folsom areas.

For league play, members gather in private residences that house numerous pinball machines, for a mix of socializing and pinball upsmanship. Their games are configured for ultra-competitive play, such as not allowing extra ball bonuses and adjusting the machines to prevent tilting. Final results from their tournaments are reported to the International Flipper Pinball Association, the governing body, which tallies the official World Pinball Player Rankings.

Meanwhile, Charléty has noticed the overall playing field growing in pinball activity. The IFPA now logs 40,000 players in its rankings, up from 8,000 players in 2010.

“Pinball became that ‘thing’ about five or six years ago,” said Charléty. “Places like San Francisco were a pinball desert, but now there’s so many places to play. The competitive aspect’s also got a lot more popular, and it’s been this kind of snowball effect.”

Around the capital, some pinball enthusiasts prefer the five machines at Fanny Ann’s in Old Sacramento for being especially well-maintained. Pinball machines are generally placed in establishments by outside operators, who are responsible for servicing machines and who then split the take of quarters with the business that hosts the machine. Not all pinball operators stay equally on top of maintenance needs, said Faith.

A variety of local spots remain popular with pinball players. Woodstocks Pizza in Davis houses six pinball machines, and Coin-Op Game Room has 10 machines to play, including the classic 1992 game “Fish Tales.”

But the grandaddy of all local pinball playing events is Pin-A-Go-Go, which is presented by the Northern California Pinball Association and celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Pin-A-Go-Go includes all-you-can-play pinball for a fee. More than 100 machines will be on site, and the festivities also includes pinball clinics, tournaments and a swap meet for collectors.

Pull the plunger and let the pinball games begin.

“When you’re playing pinball, you’re not thinking of the water bill that has to be paid, you’re just immersed in the game,” said George Rosta, a member of the Solano Pinball League, who works promotions for Pin-A-Go-Go. “With all the electronics of the last 15 years, people got used to ‘virtual’ everything. People really appreciate something that’s kind of unpredictable and physical, something you can’t program ahead of time.”

Chris Macias: 916-321-1253, @chris_macias

Pin-A-Go-Go

A three-day celebration of all things pinball, including all-you-can play pinball, clinics, a pinball swap meet, and more.

When: Friday-Sunday, May 13-15; check website for hours

Where: Dixon Fairgrounds, 655 S. First St., Dixon

Cost: $20 for May 13 or May 15, $25 for May 14; $45 for a weekend pass. Price includes play on all pinball machines – no quarters needed.

Info: pinagogo.org

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