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1970s Pinball Machines

Before fancy video games, pinball machines were the king of the arcade!

Pinball machines have been around since the late 1800s (though they were banned in many large cities from the 40s through the early 70s), but the 70s were the last true years of pinball popularity before games like Pac Man came in and took over.

Though arcades still have pinball machines, these gems would never again enjoy as much popularity as they did in the 1970s.

At the beginning of the decade, the release of The Who’s Tommy in 1969 made it extra cool to be a pinball player. The rock musical was the story of a “deaf, dumb, and blind” teen from England who became the neighborhood pinball wizard, despite his disabilities.

Previous to the mid-1970s, pinball machines enjoyed a wide variety of subject matters, from sports-themed games to others based on fables and legends.

It wasn’t until 1975, however, that a pinball machine was based on a licensed theme. In this case, it was the aforementioned rock musical, The Who’s Tommy, which was released as a movie in 1975.

The game featured depictions of stars Roger Daltry and Ann-Margret on the back glass and other movie-based artwork on the game board. Another Tommy pinball game was released the following year.

That one included Elton John in his famous Pinball Wizard gear. The Tommy games made pinball a symbol of rebellion and many adults viewed teen pinball players as lazy, unproductive individuals, giving the game a bad rap in some instances.

After that, however, more and more pinball machines were based on movies and television shows. As a matter of fact, one of the most popular pinball machines of the 70s was Happy Days, based on the well-known TV show and featuring favorite characters like Richie Cunningham and The Fonz.

Today, most pinball machines still boast a movie- or television-related theme of some sort.

The other most notable pinball-related advancement that occurred in the 1970s was the introduction of the first solid-state pinball machine, also in 1975. Previous to that, these machines were electromechanical.

The first solid state game was The Spirit of 76, a patriotic-themed game manufactured by Micro Games.

Two years later, however, the games began to run via computer chips, making them much more dependable, more elaborate and complex, and less likely to break down.

Despite these advances, pinball machine manufacturers were worried that aficionados of the games would miss the bells and churning gears of the old machines so they added in those special effects in order to keep long-time players happy.

Other extremely popular pinball games of the 1970s included a Playboy version, Space Mission, Centigrade 37, Star Wars, and Gorgar, which appeared at the very end of the decade and was the first “talking” pinball machine, with a vocabulary of seven words that could be strung together in different order to make a variety of short phrases.