Arcade games, and pin ball games in particular have a long and storied history and took years to evolve into the game that we recognize and love today.
Growing up as the granddaughter of a bowling alley proprietor, I have never been a stranger to arcade games, but I had no idea that they had such a checkered history.
Before games started to be designed with flippers at the base of the game that allowed the player to use skill to keep the game in motion, pinball machines were considered games of chance and not unlike a form of gambling. In some instances, machines even awarded payouts, similar to slot machines.
Being that gambling in and of itself was illegal in many place around the country, this made the use or ownership of the machines completely illegal during a period of history.
Through the decades, there were various types of pinball devices geared towards the practice of gambling and various trends and themes came in and out of fashion during these years.
It all started with the 1931 production of the first coin-operated pinball machine, the Wiffle Board, from Automatic industries.
This essentially changed the game forever. What was once a parlor game became a serious cash cow. The machines continued to develop, started to be produced with legs, and glass coverings, to combat cheating and quickly became money making machines at bars and pool halls.
Eventually, pay out devices were added to the machines, further cementing the machines as gambling devices.
Prior to electricity being added to pinball machines, in 1933 Bally introduced a game titled, Rocket, which used a battery to power the inner workings of the game to pay out coins to players who shot balls into specific holes in the playing field. (This is before the advent of flippers and the larger change in the design of the playing field that occurred.)
After electricity was introduced, a game with a similar payout system was created, the Jennings Slicker.
Given that the games were primarily being used as gambling devices during this time, it makes sense that many games soon began sporting card game themes and were widely popular. During this period of the 1930’s many Baffle Ball devices were converted to card games. One such game was titled Hit the Deck.
However this did not help to change the view that these games were games of chance versus those of skill.
During This same time period, there was several table top devices that incorporated roulette wheels into the design, or games in which the roulette wheel served as the main source of action.
Then in 1966 The Captive Ball Spinner was invented by Norm Clark, and was the first use of a roulette wheel in a pinball game. The game to incorporate the wheel was William’s game titled A-Go-Go.
The wheel served as a scoring device for the game, and wahttp://wefollow.com/mes enclosed in a separate area that couldn’t be accessed by the ball within the playing field. There were several small trap holes along the edge of the scoring system. When it was in motion, it would spin, causing a ball to roll with it. Once the wheel stopped, the ball would then fall into one of these holes and each hole included an indicated value and would give the player this amount in their overall score.
Playing the Ponies
Pinball seemed to often follow suit with other popular game themes, so during the 30’s and 40’s, many games came out mirroring larger scale horse races. The pinball games with this theme often included payout devices and were solely used for the purpose of gambling on the “pony” of your choice.
Eventually, flippers were introduced into the game, making it more of an art form and skill, and several games with this theme were released. These game titles were mostly manufactured in the 1950s.
1951: Sparkplugs (Williams)
1954: Daffy Derby (Williams)
1956: Derby Day (Gottlieb)
1960: Hayburners (Williams)
Another popular re-invention of pinball was a bingo style game. Advance Automatic Sale developed a new game using 5 balls which allowed the user to score and replay by hitting numbers and lighting them up in a certain pattern.
Bally developed a similar game titled Bright Lights.
These games did not include flippers, and as such, lacked a skill factor, and were considered gambling devices by the public and the courts due to the fact that in most instances the winners were paid in cash and because the player could win a large number of replays.
Payout VS Entertainment Games
There began to be a divide in the types of games being produced and played. As we’ve listed above, many games were being produced for the purpose of gambling and included payout systems, either through the machine or over the counter. However, many novelty games were still being produced and played as well.
Many of the games that were geared towards payout only included one ball per game, hence becoming known as, one-balls.
The advent of pinball machines gave slot machine operators another source of revenue, and drew in new and additional players. Many felt slot machines were fixed in the operator’s favor, and the pinball games gave customers something fresh and new and that gave them the perception of having more of a chance of winning as it was a game that they played and could use their skills to master. One example of a one-ball game was Pamco’s Ballot. The reality is, these games were no different than the slot machines in terms of payout and were in fact gambling devices. Some of these games were even timed.
Subsequently, there started to be an increase in disdain for the game from certain groups who were anti-pinball, including government officials and agencies.
However, soon the flipper was introduced into the game. Those who were pro-pinball used this new feature to fight the courts and defend novelty and amusement pinball machines. With this new invention, the game changed from solely a game of chance, to a game of skill.
The Free Game System
In 1935, the concept of free games was introduced into the design of pinball machines. Bill Belluh, an employee of Harry Williams, invented and patented a device called the free-play coin mechanism. This allowed players a free game after they made a certain high score.
This brings us up to the late 1940’s. One-ball games were primarily used for gambling, and the newer flipper style games were considered novelty and amusement devices, although many of them still had components that allowed them to be used for gambling. The knock off button was a device that allowed the operator to reset the number of free games after a player had been paid. The Mills machine, One-Two-Three was an example of this.
Golden Age of Pinball
Pinball’s peak of popularity was from 1948 to 1958 during World War II. During this time, for the most part, games were not being widely produced, but conversion kits became popular, allowing owners to refurbish and rebrand existing games with new themes and designs. During the war, patriotic themes, such as titles like Victory in the Pacific were popular.
It was during this time that the flipper was first introduced in the game as we know it today, and this was the main reason behind the resurgence of the game and spike in popularity.
Backlash Against The Game
Starting in the 1930’s there had been opposition to the game of pinball based on the concerns that the machines were gambling devices. Additionally, because the early games were used as gambling machines and placed in casinos, pool halls, and bars, and pinball parlors there was a negative connotation surrounding who played and who was controlling the game. Many believed that the game was associated with the mafia. In conjunction with the concerns over gambling, many were concerned about the games being distracting time waster and dangerous money pits for children.
At this time, gambling was illegal in the states outside of Las Vegas and government officials did their best to crack down on pinball, often staging media events to raid establishments with these and other slot machines and to seize and destroy them. Some of the most notable raids were performed in New York by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.
In 1934, the largest event of this nature took place when an entire barge of slot machines was towed out to sea and met their end through drowning. What an awful way to go.
Attorney General Earl Warren began an attack in 1939 by serving notices to off-shore gambling ships. During subsequent raids on these boats , hundreds of machines were confiscated.
On January 21, 1942, Mayor LaGuardia officially banned pinball machines in the state of New York. To prove he meant serious business, the good Mayor publicly smashed several confiscated machines.
Then in 1950, Congress passed the Johnson Act, which outlawed inter-state shipment of gambling devices, except to states which the device was legal. The law include specific language about certain features that defined the machines as gambling devices. Most one-ball and novelty flipper games had these devices. The pinball industry was forced to remove these features from flipper games.
From this time in the 1940’s through the 1970’s , the games went underground, still being played, but operating in stealth in less than reputable locations.
During this time, the industry was still creating new games, innovations, and updates.
In 1954, Gottlieb introduced the first multiplayer game, the Super Jumbo, which had a circus theme.
Just two years later, Balls-A-Poppin was released by Bally and included the feature game with a multiwall feature.
In 1957, the first use of a match bonus was introduced to the market. This refers to a number which is randomly produces at the end of each game. It was created to match the last digit in the user’s final score and either give them a free game or earn a credit.
In the 1960’s, the times they were a changin’ and pinball machines were no different. Alvin Gottlieb introduced the concept of additional game balls for players during the course of their game, should they reach certain pre-defined high scores. Each player stared their game with 5 balls and the game would be over once each ball had been played. These new machines were produced to give players an additional 5 balls depending on their score, for gameplay up to 10 turns. These add-a-ball games became accepted in many places where replay style games had been outlawed, and often two versions of a game were produced, one with the add-a-ball style of game play, and another with the free-play design.
In 1962 the first game to feature drop targets was introduced in a game titled, Vagabond.
Then in 1968 the first game to sport modern size, three inch flippers was rolled out for the public by Williams on their Hayburners II. The original Hayburner game was a popular game which was modeled after horse racing, the new game retained the same theme, but now with flippers, which made it a game of skill.
In 1975 the first solid-state, or electronic pinball machines began being distributed. This marked the beginning of the end for electro-mechnical machines, to solely electronics based games. The Spirit of ’76 was the first game of this kind. Other games soon followed, including the 1976 Bally game, Freedom, and The Atarians, released by Atari. Yes, that Atari!
Roger Sharpe Saves Pinball
Thankfully, in 1976, New York City overturned the ban on pinball. But it wasn’t an easy process to get the game overturned. It took the supreme skills of one man to prove that the game was now a game of skill rather than a game of chance or a gambling device. The coin-operated amusement lobby finally got City Council to schedule a hearing to re-examine the decades long ban.
Luckily, 26 year old magazine editor, Roger Sharpe stepped up to save the day. Two games were brought to the hearing. One game to serve as the game Roger would play, and a second game to serve as the backup in case the first machine had an malfunctions. The council members were so skeptical that they required Roger to play the backup machine instead, certain that the first machine had been altered to Roger’s advantage. Unfortuantely, he wasn’t nearly as familiar with the back up game, and did little to prove the “game of skill” theory.
Finally, in a last-ditch attempt, he pulled a move that has cemented him as the Babe Ruth of pinball. As he started to put his ball into play, before pulling the plunger, he pointed to a specific section of the playing field. He stated that he would land the ball through the specific lane he was pointing at to prove that the game was based on skill.
Roger then released the ball and landed the shot. The ban was quickly overturned!