At the Texas Pinball Festival in beautiful Frisco, Texas, my watershed moment hits me on Day Two, while playing a game starring rock band Aerosmith.
Whether you’re a fan of the band or not, it’s a gorgeous machine with ample bells and whistles: stunning colors, impeccable drawings of the band, plenty of targets to shoot for and lights that flash triumphantly when you make a smart move.
I’ve stopped at the machine because, for the moment, it has no line. Like all of the games at this pinball paradise, it’s set up for free play, i.e. you pay one price at the door and can play any game in the house.
I’ve never played this game before, but it doesn’t seem to matter. I propel the ball straight into a tight slot. Ding ding! I send it coasting down a curving ramp. Whoosh. When it threatens to escape the playfield, I leap in with my flipper and save it in the nick of time.
When it’s done, I feel victorious. Which machine can I smite next?
I don’t have to look far to find one: There are more than 470 games, an all-time high at what has become the largest pinball show in the country. What started out as a nostalgic pinball fan club has blossomed into a massive event—one that draws nearly 5,000 attendees who savor three consecutive days of unfettered gamer bliss.
The festival’s home for the past few years has been in Frisco, at the beautifully renovated ballroom at the Embassy Suites Dallas-Frisco Hotel and Conference Center. They roll out the red carpet, bringing in a variety of food trucks serving barbecue, tacos, sandwiches and more. And they host a pinball machine swap meet in the parking lot, where collectors trade parts they don’t want for pieces they need.
The success of the festival mirrors what’s happening in the real world, too, as pinball experiences a major comeback. Old school pinball bars are one of the hottest trends, opening in cities across the country, as the retro games are embraced by a new set of younger fans.
Festival attendees reflect this new diversity, as the core middle-aged male diehards are now joined by young punk rockers, women, families and kids—some wearing headphones to muffle the mind-boggling volume of hundreds of pinball machines being played all at once.
With a wide assortment of machines both old and new, the festival offers an unwitting history lesson and tapestry of pop culture. A few machines are nearly a century old, with graphics that feel ultra-simple and charmingly quaint compared to the vivid, black-light-tastic coloring and complex intricacies of the new machines.
Beyond the advances in technology, pinball machines over the years also offer a glimpse of the cultural icons of their era, from Charlie’s Angels to Dale Earnhardt Jr. to rock bands like AC/DC.
Some games at the festival are brand new, such as the Pirates of the Caribbean machine from Jersey Jack and Total Nuclear Annihilation from Spooky Pinball, one of the newer manufacturers that has sprung up in the past few years.
Even if you don’t know which machines are new, you can spot them by their long lines, as eager pinball fans scramble to get their hands on the newest game out.
There’s a cool sense of community that prevails. I find myself admiring a 1994 version of Killer Instinct, a head-to-head-style arcade fighting game that requires two people to play. Barely five minutes elapse before a young guy volunteers to join me in battle.
It doesn’t take long to determine that he’s a far more experienced player; he slays me in a matter of minutes. But I manage to get in a few kicks before he decks me with a final punch. Pinball is a fun and welcoming world.
Vendor stands offer a relaxing respite from the raucous din, selling T-shirts and comics, custom and recycled parts. There are cool bumpers with glowing lightning rods, and hand-painted panels you can insert to create a new backdrop on your machine.
One vendor estimates that more than half of the attendees own one or more pinball machines at home. Some haul an entire game to the event to sell. It’s a brisk market, with machines selling for $5,000 to $10,000 apiece. Next time I’ll bring my checkbook.
The most nail-biting portion of the event is the tournaments. This is serious stuff: Endorsed by the International Flipper Pinball Association, the tournaments are simultaneously broadcast online so that non-attendees can observe the action. Winners get trophies and cash prizes, but bragging rights are the real reward.
Contestants must compete in all three of the generations of pinball games: modern, solid-state and golden age. One warrior waits for his turn, his fists clenched with anticipation. He tells me there are three rules for pinball competition. Know your machine. Work on your saves. Remain calm.
From there, all you gotta do is pull back the plunger and let the ball rip.