The last pinball wizards keep game alive

Gary Stern has a quick answer for anyone who says he runs the last pinball machine company in the world: it's not the last - it's simply the only pinball company.

Stern, 58, was born into the pinball business and is determined to keep it alive.

His father ran a top pinball manufacturer back in the day when the flipper machines were banned in Chicago, New York and other US cities as gambling devices.

Stern saw the machines become cultural icons as generations of kids with a quarter or two burning a hole in their pockets slapped at flippers to keep a shiny silver ball spinning around the tilted play field.

Even when the arcades started to get crowded with video games like Pac-Man, pinball was able to hold its own. But computer games, home game systems like Nintendo and finally cell phone apps emptied the arcades.

One by one, Stern's competitors failed or simply walked away from pinball.

Annual sales of new pinball machines have plummeted from a peak of about 100,000 in the 1990s to the 6,000 or so machines that Stern Pinball sells worldwide.

A core group of enthusiasts has kept the iconic machines from the scrap heap and Stern is confident his $30 million a year business will remain strong - and profitable - for years to come.

--- 'The ball is wild' ------

"We make good games. Our games are fun," Stern said during a tour of his factory in an industrial park near Chicago's main airport.

"The ball is wild. It's not programmed. You can play pinball on a computer, a simulation of it, but that's not (real) -- it's all programmed."

Joshua Henderson, 14, got into pinball the old fashioned way. He watched his dad play a round on a machine at a bowling alley and started bugging him for quarters.

Henderson's father signed him up for a tournament near their Plainfield, Illinois home because it seemed like a good deal - the $10 registration fee was all it would cost for Joshua to play all day.

That's where they discovered that Henderson is a pinball wizard.

He placed fifth at the PAPA World Pinball Championships in Pennsylvania last month and has used nearly $10,000 in winnings to buy a Spiderman-themed pinball machine and build up a college savings fund.

Like most kids his age, Henderson likes video games. But there's something different about pinball, he says, something that keeps him engaged.

"One of the main quirks about it is that you can use your physical strength to control the ball. You're in control," he told AFP.

"It has a little more strategy than video games and is non-linear too, so every ball is different."

Henderson is part of a growing number of pinball enthusiasts who see the game as a competitive sport.

"It's never been bigger than it is now," said Josh Sharpe, president of the International Flipper Pinball Association.

Sharpe, 31, revived the association in 2006 and has helped it grow to more than 10,000 ranked players in just five years.

Like Stern, he was born into pinball. Three of the 17 machines in Sharpe's basement were designed by his father when he worked at Williams, the same company Stern's father used to run.

Though Sharpe is a tad embarrassed by the machine that has his mother's face superimposed on a scantily clad damsel in distress and his father's visage on the knight about to rescue her.

Sharpe ranks sixth in the cumulative world rankings and his brother Zach is ranked seventh.

"Any one that doesn't know what they're doing plays in fear of the ball going down," Sharpe said.

Competitive players approach the game in a totally different way, Sharpe said. They learn where to shoot for higher points. They develop a strategy that he describes as a combination of chess and golf.

"When I play a game of pinball I'm looking at the play field for areas where I want to be and where I don't, whereas a casual player just doesn't want the ball to go down," he said.

--- 'A pinball machine is like a movie' -------

There are rumors flying around the pinball world that someone's going to try to start up a new pinball company.

Sharpe - who works as an accountant at a gaming company - doesn't think they'll have too much luck. The start-up costs are just too high. The engineering too complex. The market too small and too demanding.

Walking through the Stern factory it's easy to see why Sharpe is skeptical.

Each machine uses over a half a mile of wire it takes more than 30 hours to assemble the 3,500 or so parts.

Stern spends about $750,000 designing each game and puts out three or four new ones every year.

They all use licensed themes to draw in the fans - Tron, the Rolling Stones, Iron Man, Avatar, and Shrek are the current titles - and the goal is to make each game a different experience from the next.

The Rolling Stones has a Mick Jagger figurine which dances back and forth across the playfield blocking the ball, while the signature red lips and tongue perches on top of one of the ramps.

Tron shares the eerie glow of the movie sequel to light its two ramps and uses a miniature of the Tron arcade game that sucked the hero into a computerized world as a target.

"My father taught me that a pinball machine is like a movie," Stern said.

"It's got to have a theme, action, a climax, good photography or art work, good sound effects, good promotion, good distribution. Same thing."

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