In a handful of venues across the Four Corners, there are familiar clacks, dings, sounds of steel rolling across a surface, and music and audio samples herald the return of a form of entertainment that has quietly survived the test of time: Pinball.
The machines that once dwelled in bars and arcades across the country are back, inviting adults with nostalgia for bygone eras to return while also hooking in a new generation of players. The pinball cabinets are not just relics dusted off for the amusement of a niche community — as the industry slowly returns, companies are creating brand new machines, featuring innovations that continue to evolve the game.
The return of pinballIn the Four Corners, the pinball renaissance is mostly occurring at five locations: three in Durango, one in Farmington, and one in Pagosa. Durango Pinball, a club in Durango that has hosted a number of tournaments in Durango and Farmington over the last three years, has about 100 members.
Durango’s current scene owes a lot to Jason Thomas. He’s an operator, meaning he owns and maintains the pinball machines at J.Bo’s Pizza and Rib Co., The Garage, and Union Social House in Durango — fourteen of the city’s machines.
Thomas’ dad owned Love’s Wood Pit Barbecue in Sacramento, California, and Thomas worked there during the summers in the mid-’80s to earn enough money to buy pinball machines. Living not exceptionally far from Santa Cruz and its boardwalk, Thomas was obsessed.
The most famous machine he had growing up was the 1979 KISS pinball cabinet. His mother thought it was satanic, though, and blamed it for anything he did wrong, he said, to the point where she sold it for $200 to get rid of it. Thomas got his revenge, though, by always having more machines coming in.
“I’ve always been fascinated by moving parts and the fact that it’s random,” he said. “I like video games, but if you memorize the Pac-Man thing that’s gonna be the same every single time versus in a (pinball) game, you can never replicate it — it’s always different than the last time you played.”
More recently, he bugged J.Bo’s owner Bo Maloney for years to let him manifest his vision of being able to promote pinball in the pizza place and bar. At the time, only a handful of other places, including laundromats and the airport, had machines, and they were poorly maintained. Establishing the pizzeria as a headquarters for pinball allowed a community to slowly form. Finally, in 2016, they let him put a Metallica and a Ghostbusters machine in the restaurant.
Many of Thomas’ machines are new — a surprising fact to anyone who hasn’t been paying attention to the industry. Interest in pinball began to wane in the late ’80s as arcade-style video games took over pinball spaces. Then, the arcades that still had them started to go the way of the dinosaurs. With no one to maintain them, the random machines you’d find in gas stations and restaurants fell into disrepair in the 2000s, and pinball nearly died.
But, with the advent of arcade-bars in major cities, and as the generations that grew up on pinball earn increasingly disposable incomes and grow nostalgic for the game, pinball is on the upswing again. Pinballers generally point to 2015 as the start of the new golden age.
Michele Zebrowitz, who runs Durango Pinball’s social media, said the group also formed about four years ago with just a handful of people as a selfie league — in which individual players go and play pinball independently and take photos of themselves with their high scores. They’d get together once a month to play as a group. After the group grew to 20 or 30 people, they began hosting more formal tournaments, which draw up to 50 or 60 players at a time (up to a quarter of which are a new generation of kids and teens). Their first tournament occurred during 2017’s Intergalactic Snowdown festivities.
When Farmington’s Lauter Haus Brewing Co. opened in October of 2019, there was a set theme, but it was always supposed to have gaming, said owner and brewmaster Brandon Beard. While he grew up more on the video-game side of the arcade, his business partner Brad Foley was a pinball aficionado all along. By bringing those two elements together, they’ve created the only honest-to-goodness arcade-bar in the region.
Lauter Haus currently has 12 machines up and running, but hopes to have 18 by the end of the year, Beard said. The brewery owns all of the machines, and between the time they opened and March, they were able to host two of Durango Pinball’s tournaments.
While Zebrowitz and Thomas describe their club as rather casual in nature, Beard perceives it differently.
“The people down here, when they enter these tournaments, and they see the guys from Durango come down, they get their asses kicked,” he said. “But they also watch the game and learn at the same time. Like, ‘How are they doing this?’ ‘What are they doing differently than what I do?’ So it’s a nice educational thing for people, too.”
If Durango actually has any superiority over Farmington, it may be owed to the fact that it has had a pinball community for a few years longer. (Meanwhile, in Pagosa Springs, players of all ages have access to at least six machines at Avalanche Arcade, according to pinballmap.com.)
Owning pinballAt present, of course, nobody is getting together for a tournament, as a certain virus is preventing crowds of people from gathering in public. And even as the restaurants, breweries, and bars begin to reopen, it’s unclear what the rules are or how safe it is to play a pinball machine in a public venue. For example, New Mexico’s coronavirus orders require patrons of breweries like Lauter Haus to remain seated while they’re in the establishment so that they don’t mill around the bar. To comply with this rule, but still allow patrons to play pinball, he placed bar stools in front of the pinball machines.
Many of the region’s most avid pinballers own their own machines, though, and have been playing them through the quarantine. For instance, Zebrowitz and her boyfriend James Upshaw, who introduced her to pinball, have seven in their garage and have been able to bring friends over for pinball-based potlucks.
Owning pinball machines is not an endeavor to be undertaken lightly, though. Even older, used machines can cost thousands of dollars. And pinball machines break.
Pinball is growing as an industry again, but it’s still pretty niche. If your machine breaks, there are not many professionals around who know how to fix it, unless you live in a metropolis. As such, you basically have to teach yourself how to do it. Zebrowitz said she recently took one of her machines apart, and upon putting it back together realized she missed something somewhere.
“I can’t turn it on. It might start smoking if I plug it back in,” she said, gesturing to a Crescendo pinball machine from 1970.
Similarly, Lauter Haus’ Judge Dredd machine (dating back to 1993) has been plagued by problems. Beard said the machine was working when it was purchased, but quickly broke and took two months to fix. After replacing four or five things on it, the machine worked for two and a half weeks before something else broke — a pop-up mechanism for which no replacement parts exist. The brewery is now looking into whether the part can be 3D-printed.
And depending on what’s in your collection, you might have to learn how to repair electronics from across the better part of a century. There are four basic eras of pinball based mostly on their technological sophistication, especially in score-keeping: electro-mechanical (1947-1978), early solid-state (1979-1989), dot matrix display (1990-2012), and colorized displays (2013-now). Looking at the inner guts of an early pinball machine and a new one is not unlike an auto mechanic comparing a Studebaker to a Tesla.
This is not to say that those ancient machines are not worth maintaining, though. Their simplicity is part of their charm and it comes across at every level. For instance, hearing the machine as you play it evokes a visceral level of pleasure, largely because unlike their modern equivalents, their bells and whistles are actual bells and whistles. When they make a noise, they’re doing it mechanically by, say, hitting a metal bar like a xylophone, rather than playing a recorded audio sample.
“It’s so cool to watch it run,” Zebrowitz said.
Owning pinball machines can be fun in a creative way, too. There’s an entire mod community that takes existing machines and adds to them, hooking up extra lights or gadgets or changing the experience of the game. (Astute listeners will notice that “The Walking Dead” machine at The Garage no longer has the generic hillbilly call-outs it was programmed with — they’ve been replaced by sound bites from the AMC television show.)
Becoming a pinball wizardThe hard thing about getting good at pinball is that it takes practice. And unless you own your own machine, practice costs money.
Zebrowitz said she got into pinball about four years ago, while Upshaw, whose parents owned a bar in San Diego, has been playing his entire life. But even as a relative neophyte, she said it’s not terribly difficult to learn how to play well.
There are all sorts of skills that pinball players can master — catching the ball, saving it, tilting — but Zebrowitz said for a beginner, the best thing to do is hit what’s blinking.
It’s also important to realize that every even halfway-modern pinball machine has a game within it, on top of the basic mechanics of how pinball works — something Beard said he found out the hard way very recently. For example, the AC/DC machine features a number of different modes based on 12 of the band’s songs, which illuminate different parts of the board and require you to hit different targets to unlock things like multiball — that ridiculously fun mode where you have to juggle multiple balls at once. Once you’ve successfully completed all of the songs, a super jackpot unlocks, allowing you to rack up a ton more points — assuming you’ve lasted that long.
In Durango, Thomas said one of the best machines to learn pinball basics on is the South Park machine (currently at The Garage) because it’s easy to activate its various modes. In Farmington, Beard likes Lauter Haus’ Iron Maiden cabinet because even if it’s not an easy machine to play through, it’s an easy one to earn a lot of points on.
As companies like Stern Pinball come out with new machines, they often feature innovative new play modes. For instance, it’s been possible to play multiplayer pinball for decades. Players just take turns whenever they sink a ball, competing for points over multiple rounds. But Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, one of the newest games on the market, features a cooperative mode in which up to four players each embody one of the turtles, and as players take turns, their progress through the game is carried across to the next player. This allows them to help each other complete modes, fuel the multiball, and defeat enemies.
Once you start competing in tournaments, you get points and a ranking from the International Flipper Pinball Association, which oversees pinball tournaments across the globe. And once you go down the pinball rabbit hole, you find out it’s very deep. Pinball fans congregate across the country, dragging their machines with them, to set them up for others, sometimes under the clear blue sky. At massive conventions, the price of admission grants you access to hundreds of machines, all set to free play.
With a growing fan base in both Colorado and New Mexico, Pinball is here to stay in the Four Corners. As soon as it’s safe to do so again, we expect to see crowds lining up again to play the silver ball.