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In The World Of Pinball, An Underdog Takes On The Giant

For more than a decade, Stern Pinball was the only manufacturer of pinball machines. The Chicago-based company's last rival closed down in 1999.

But Stern's pinball monopoly may be drawing to an end. In 2011, the startup manufacturer Jersey Jack Pinball opened for business, and it's working hard to grab a slice of the industry.

"You know, it would be a boring world, I guess, if there was only one company making shoes or handbags or anything," says Jack Guarnieri, the New Jersey company's owner. "So, I think more competition and more product in the marketplace raises the awareness of pinball."

Jersey Jack Pinball's debut game is based on The Wizard of Oz film. They plan to release a second game, The Hobbit, in the spring of 2014.

Breaking Stern's monopoly and squeezing into this industry will be a challenge, mainly because demand just isn't what it used to be. Between 1955 and 1970, the games made more money than the entire American movie industry. Thirty years ago, there were nearly a dozen pinball manufacturers in the U.S.

Now, it's a very different story.

"Back in the day, they used to sell 5- to 10,000 of each pinball machine — now they're lucky if they hit 1,000 to 1,500," says Tim Arnold, owner of the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. "So it's exactly like the movies — if you get a hit movie, everything is great. But if you have one or two dud movies in a row, you're in deep trouble financially."

Arnold says Jersey Jack needs to do two basic things to succeed: create an incredible product and bring it to the masses.

Jersey Jack seems to be on track with that first goal. Arnold compares The Wizard of Oz game to going from black-and-white to color television.

The game has a multicolor LED screen that plays animation and clips from the movie. Special flipper settings and lights transform the board according to each mode of play.

"If you're going for the Emerald City, all the lights turn green," says Arnold. "If you're battling flying monkeys, it all turns red. It's really a spectacular visual presentation."

There's only one problem: The Wizard of Oz is hard to find. Even two years after its initial release, the game is unlikely to be in your local arcade. Many of the units have gone to homes of private collectors.

Molly Atkinson, one of the few who has played it, had to go to a collector's home to do so. She's a collector herself and runs a public-access arcade called Pins and Needles in Los Angeles.

"It's a real fancy game, Wizard of Oz," she says. "It has a lot of neat features on it. And for some reason, it's really grown on me."

Atkinson doubts it will join her collection any time soon. The machine costs about $8,000. "No new games are affordable! When it was a public play thing, games never cost this much," Atkinson says.

She only charges 25 cents per play at her arcade, but even if she charged double, it would take 16,000 games for her to recoup that cost.

Atkinson had hoped that if the pinball monopoly was broken, the machines would become more affordable.

"We finally do have someone else who's entered the market," says Atkinson. "But their games are maybe even more expensive. So it's just very unattainable for someone like me to get one."

Still, Atkinson says the arrival of a new game-maker is a good thing. She hopes that competition between the two companies will breathe fresh life into the industry.

Jersey Jack owner Guarnieri, a veteran arcade executive, says that's the whole point. "That's really what you want to hear," he says. "That's success."

With Jersey Jack's second game due out in the spring, Guarnieri says a third machine, with an all-original design and story, is already in production.

Stern Pinball did not respond to press inquiries for this story. A banner on the company's website declares it it is "the only maker of REAL pinball games on the planet!!"

Guarnieri says they probably just haven't updated the site yet.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Francesca Fenzi
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