Machines continue to beckon pinball collectors
Posted: Thursday, June 4, 2015 6:00 am | Updated: 10:13 am, Thu Jun 4, 2015.
By Ken Newton St. Joseph News-Press
Stand in Todd Svec’s basement for a while and machines will beckon. Yell at you, in fact.
Pinball machines, at least those of latter generations, have an attract mode, meant for arcades, and they serve the same function as a carnival barker, assuming the barker had a mechanical voice.
“‘Stick a quarter in me,’ is what they’re saying,” Mr. Svec says, though he rarely notices the occasional come-ons.
In his St. Joseph home, he has 80 or so pinball machines, a collection that includes classics, the sort with reels displaying the score, and just-released models with LED lights.
A walk down the stairs overloads the senses, and Mr. Svec likes it that way. He knows the chaos of silver balls colliding with bumpers and getting batted by flippers.
So, what’s a little flashing and dinging in that context?
Growing up, he had an interest in electronics.
“My dad bought me one of those Radio Shack kits,” Mr. Svec recalls. “You could build buzzers and transistor radios and stuff like that.”
That was in fourth or fifth grade. Later, he would become fascinated with video games. “When I was in high school, I was the kid playing Asteroids and Donkey Kong at the pizza place.”
Flash ahead some years, past the time he spent his workday lunch hours plugging quarters into machines. Mr. Svec bought a house before giving himself permission to buy his first pinball machine.
That was Police Force, a 1989 game made in Chicago by Williams Electronics Inc. A player could get a “Top Cop Bonus” and move through the “Hot Sheet Values.”
A friend tipped him off to the sale of some video games being sold at a skating center, four for $100. Mr. Svec bought them, gave his friend one, fixed the rest up and sold them.
“I thought, ‘I’m pretty good at this. I think I can figure this out,’” he says.
But he liked pinball machines. By the end of the 1990s, his collecting was in full blossom. And, seeing him open a machine — sliding out the glass, lifting the playfield and exposing the inner workings, all in a space of 20 seconds — a person can imagine his proficiency in their maintenance.
With his passion for and knowledge of the machines, Mr. Svec became conversant with the pinball history and marketplace. The older machines were marvels of electromagnetics, with their spinner motors and relay coils. Breaking one open, he points out a trio of tilt mechanisms, the bane of aggressive players.
The EM machines can be difficult to work with; any contact point might pose a problem.
With a solid state machine, which came to the fore in the late 1970s, the circuitry allowed for more complex designs and proved easier to narrow malfunctions to a certain few components.
(Mr. Svec, who moved to St. Joseph in 2011 when his wife took a job in the city, has developed a business selling pinball parts over the Internet.)
Giants of the industry — Gottlieb, Williams, Bally, then Williams and Bally — saw changes in gaming entertainment. Home video games became a cavalcade of auto theft, warcraft and an overall-wearing guy named Mario. Suppliers of machines began to make more money off dart and pool leagues.
But Mr. Svec, 50, believes guys his age and younger started to get a little money ahead, remembered good times with pinball playing, and thought, why not?
Niche manufacturers, as well as the old guard, began catering to the home collector. The more astute of these will know a well-designed machine, kept in good shape, can appreciate in value with the years.
The St. Joseph man has no snobbish pretenses about the machines, mostly gut instinct. He likes games with good themes and that play well.
“Some games are dogs because you just feel you’re keeping the ball going,” Mr. Svec says. “The better games have difficult but obtainable goals.”
Lighted backboxes speak to places like the Theatre of Magic, to bands like AC/DC, to people like Dr. Dude (along with his Excellent X-ray).
Innovations have unseen magnets catching a ball and shifting it along a different course. LCD monitors flash to new generations, with game plans related to The Wizard of Oz and The Hobbit.
Mr. Svec likes a variety, old and new, and his interest hasn’t waned.
“I’ve had so many machines go through my hands, my collection is starting to get full,” the collector says amid the rows of machines.
He thinks about this, then adds, “Not that I’m going to stop looking, because I love the bargains.”
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