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Why Is This 25-Year-Old Pinball Machine Still the Most Popular?

You can even play a video-game version of this table

This picture of Uncle Fester holding a lightbulb in his mouth is right above the "gobble hole" at the base of a pinball table. (DocChewbacca/Flickr)
smithsonian.com

To those in the know, March 1992 is a watershed moment in the history of pinball.

That’s when The Addams Family—the pinball game, not the movie—premiered. It was based on the 1991 movie starring Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston as the married couple at the center of a strange family. The game has a quirky aesthetic that closely aligns with the spooky-ooky-ooky vibe of the film.

It was a big success in a moment where pinball had a lot of pull. In the early 1990s, advances in computing had allowed pinball machines to get ever-more complex, and arcades were still big business. These factors coalesced with the pop culture of the time, resulting in some truly decadent examples of ‘90s kitsch: The Twilight Zone, The Simpsons and Tales From the Crypt are just a few of the hit franchises that got their own pinball incarnation.  

But The Addams Family was something a little different: it still stands today as the best-selling pinball game of all time, with more than 20,000 units sold. There’s no real mystery to the success of the game, writes Seth Porges for Popular Mechanics. It was a great combination of old and new, he writes:

The game featured plenty of next-gen features, such as a moving mechanical hand (Thing) that picked up balls, an enormous number of scoring modes and new dialogue recorded by the film’s stars specifically for the game. But the real reason for its success was that it had great game play. With well-placed ramps and shots leading into each other naturally, The Addams Family avoided some of the all-too-common pratfalls of the pinball machine. The game nailed the simple things, and virtually every game since has taken design cues from it.

Drawn by the fame of the Addams Family machine, this Smithsonian reporter played a few games on one at a local bar. Verdict: it’s fun even for a pinball novice, and to anybody who loves the movie it has enough references to enhance gameplay. It's also still popular among pinball lovers who have presumably seen it all, as the below video shows.

Pinball aficionados are serious about what they do. A few years ago, pinball simulator Pinball Arcade made headlines when it came out with an Addams Family game funded by a Kickstarter campaign. It brought the game to a new generation of fans and preserved the feel of how a perfectly-functioning game would play (maintaining pinball machines is a notoriously difficult task). No word on whether it’s their best-seller.

As Smithsonian has written about previously, mid-century America was beset by anti-pinball sentiment and the machines were even banned in some cities. Arguments for banning pinball sounded a lot like arguments against video games today, writes Eric Grundhauser for Atlas Obscura. Wonder how those mid-century crusaders would have felt about the gothic vibe and dark jokes of The Addams Family.

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