2019 was a year. The last of our "normal" years, you could even argue, and one of the last years of normal production cycles for pinball machine manufacturers. That year alone, Stern released a full set of cornerstone games, PLUS an impressive reskin of a somewhat maligned 2017 release (Star Wars), a boutique Pin Franchise legacy machine (Elvira 3) AND a new home style pin (also Star Wars). Plus we had a new release and a vault edition from Jersey Jack, a re-release of a 90s classic from Chicago Gaming, a release from Multimorphic for it's P3 platform, and a brand new drop from a new manufacturer to the market (more on that later).
As with most things, there's a rush to rank and make sense of the new in the moment, but it's usually better to address these things a few years later as the hype cycle dies out and the substance of the subject becomes more clear. This is particularly true in the world of pinball, where games are frequently released with unfinished code, and it's never totally clear how mechanical parts will hold up until they get beat on by Joe Q. Public for months on end.
So, in the year 2022, what were the best new pinball machines released in 2019?
Note - for the sake of brevity and everyone's sanity, we will not be breaking out all the various trim models of each machine. If you're looking for that kind of guidance, just know that generally speaking, the Premium tier, or middle model for non Sterns, are usually the best representation of the machine. But lots of people enjoy the base models plenty!
Contenders for the best new pinball machines of 2019
- Stranger Things - Stern Pinball
- Medieval Madness Remake - Chicago Gaming Company
- Star Wars Comic Art Edition - Stern Pinball
- Elvira's House of Horrors - Stern Pinball
- Jurassic Park - Stern Pinball
- Star Wars Home Edition - Stern Pinball
- Cosmic Carnival - Suncoast Pinball
- Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory - Jersey Jack Pinball
- Black Knight Sword of Rage - Stern Pinball
- Wizard of Oz Yellow Brick Road Edition - Jersey Jack Pinball
- Munsters - Stern Pinball
- Heads Up! - Multimorphic
What was the consensus best new pinball machines in 2019?
In 2019, despite a ton of new pinball machine releases on the calendar, pretty much everything was blown out of the water by Stern's Jurassic Park machine. This particular release was Keith Elwin's 2nd game and follow-up to the much loved Iron Maiden. Players (particularly on the competitive side of the hobby) were blown away by the rules, theme integration, toys, artwork, and overall game play.
Other contenders like Stranger Things, Black Knight Sword of Rage, the Munsters and Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory were mostly panned for various reasons by the pinball community, but how much of that holds up now that games are mostly code complete?
Ranking the Best New Pinball Machines of 2019
Rather than a standard numbered list, let's borrow from the popular tier list format, starting from the bottom (D tier) and moving up to the top (S tier) to get firm handle on the best pinball machines of 2019.
The D Tier 2019 Pinball Machines
The Munsters - Stern Pinball
Even though some people seem to be slightly nostalgic for this pin today, it certainly wasn't very well received on release and has a general reputation of being a poor seller, with weak secondary market demand. While the artwork and general theme integration is quite good, the rules are thin and game play can be brutally unforgiving for all but the most accurate of shooters. And despite several code updates in 2022, it's just not at the same level of some other Stern machines on this list. There's a good reason why Stern ended their production run of this model relatively quickly.
Cosmic Carnival - Suncoast Pinball
Well, the effort was sort of there at least. It takes a lot of work to get a pinball company, let alone a working machine, off the ground, and Suncoast Pinball did that. Unfortunately that's about all they did. While the artwork and theming received positive reviews, due mostly to the work of veteran pinball artist Dirty Donny Gilles, not much else with the machine worked - and we mean that both figuratively and literally.
Suncoast only ever got about 25 of these machines out the door, and they were plagued by poor build quality, buggy code, and mechanical issues. The rules and game play were considered thin at best.
Soon after release, Suncoast Pinball's parent company, Suncoast Arcade, would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, effectively ending the nascent pinball startup before it ever truly got started.
Heads Up! - Multimorphic
Admittedly it's somewhat unfair to put Heads Up! in the D tier as it technically wasn't a wide release model. Heads Up! was an add-on game for the P3 Multimorphic system that was essentially built for a Texas area Dave and Busters location to add a couple machines to their floor. Heads Up! enabled a game play mode where two players could play against each other on connected (side-by-side) machines. Not many people got a chance to play it.
The C Tier 2019 Pinball Machines
Wizard of Oz Yellow Brick Road Edition - Jersey Jack Pinball
The Wizard of Oz machine put Jersey Jack on the map, as it was their first official release back in 2013, and was well loved by collectors and players everywhere. It was loved so much that they produced several more versions of the machine in the coming years. However by 2019, the title was feeling a bit tired, and the community was ready for a new experience. While we don't fault Jersey Jack for going back to a (likely profitable) well, it would be hard for us to truly rank this game above mid-tier, since it wasn't bringing a whole lot of new material to the arcade.
Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory - Jersey Jack Pinball
Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory showed a lot of promise on its initial release as Jersey Jack had supposedly secured a number of assets and authentic voice talent to use in the game, and legendary pinball designer Pat Lawlor was behind the design. And even though most could agree it was fun to shoot, made for a good family pinball machine, and had a unique layout, it still didn't fully come together as much as many were hoping it would, as it never seemed to rise to the popularity and acclaim of other Jersey Jack titles past and present.
Black Knight Sword of Rage - Stern Pinball
It pains me to put a Steve Ritchie game so low on this list, particularly given the history behind this particular pinball franchise. Given pinball's focus on licensed themes of late, it felt refreshing to have an original theme (even if it is the third machine in the line of Black Knight tables) out in the market. Plus, with a killer custom soundtrack by guitarist Scott Ian (Anthrax), it seemed like it was going to be a surefire hit.
However, it just didn't land right. Game features and code were quite lacking, and many felt the play field was a bit too on the underpopulated side. Plus game play was frequently brutal, even for a Steve Ritchie game. Spending a lot of time on a Black Knight Sword of Rage machine meant getting comfortable with extra short ball times and lots of drains. This is another title that was short lived on Stern's production line.
Star Wars Home Edition - Stern Pinball
It's a home edition pinball machine, so game features were already pretty lean and it wasn't really geared towards the most passionate pinball fans in the market. But, those who did get a chance to play it were somewhat surprised by the amount of fun they had, talking positively about the flow, shot satisfaction and enjoyable game play. But it's still a home pin, so really hard to rank it much more than mid-tier, which already feels generous.
The B Tier 2019 Pinball Machines
Star Wars Comic Art Edition - Stern Pinball
Steve Ritchie's original Star Wars pinball machine by Stern Pinball was already a touch polarizing for pinball fans. While some love the fast game play and rule depth, there are just as many people frustrated by those same things, plus a fairly lackluster job on theme integration and artwork.
And you wouldn't think so without seeing it in person, but the 2019 artwork refresh of this title makes a world of difference. Even though the game play remains unchanged, it feels like an entirely new experience complete with new pinball energy. Collectors must have had the same kind of reaction, as it's a machine that enjoys more solid demand on the secondary market than the original theme.
The A Tier of 2019 Pinball Machines
Stranger Things - Stern Pinball
Another title that was derided on release, as its fan layout (modeled almost exactly after the original layout of Medieval Madness, another Brian Eddy title), incomplete, shallow code and a few mechanical / build quality issues were not well received by pinball fans. It didn't help that shortly after launch, we'd all soon experience the first waves of the Covid-19 pandemic, limiting the ability for most pinball fans to try out the new machine on location.
However, Stern would continue to plug away at the game, releasing a UV lighting accessory kit and several major code updates that were all received well. Combined with its theme integration, great flow, and easy to understand rules, it's getting a lot of newfound love in 2022, particularly as Stranger Things the TV show has just wrapped a 4th season that once again penetrated pop culture in a way few other TV shows do. These can now be hard (or just expensive) to find on the secondary market.
Medieval Madness Remake - Chicago Gaming Company
This title almost gets A tier status just because it's one of the best games ever made, and Chicago Gaming Company did this remake justice by providing superior build quality and small quality of life improvements like an improved display. Releasing this remake also provided more pinball fans with a new opportunity to own this classic title (at a reasonable price point) which also has to be greatly appreciated.
The S Tier of 2019 Pinball Machines
Elvira's House of Horrors - Stern Pinball
This too sort of ran into the buzz saw that was Covid-19 before a lot of folks could get their hands on it. As a boutique release at a higher price point (no Pro model of the game was released) it benefited from a packed play field, a stellar art package, solid build quality, and a fantastically deep and enjoyable rule set thanks to legendary pinball wizard coder Lyman F. Sheats Jr. The game is a ton of fun to play, shoot, and just get lost in, as it fairly takes its place among some of the best classic pinball games ever produced. Compared with Black Knight: Sword of Rage, this is a much more worthy cap to the Elvira pinball franchise.
Jurassic Park - Stern Pinball
Keith Elwin's Jurassic Park machine was the number 1 pinball release back in 2019, and even though I personally think Elvira may be a touch better, this deserves to hold the top spot even today. Jurassic Park was a bit of a revelation when it was released, as it built on some of the comic art styling and creative liberties taken with the Deadpool franchise in a previous release in order to get around some thorny licensing issues, while still building a creative and highly satisfying game to own and play.
Jurassic Park has a deep but approachable rule set, fun, unique shots, innovative toys (the T-Rex ball throw is a lot of fun!), and the all important "one more game" factor. If there's any real complaint, it's that some of the shots can be clunky, and tends to reward accurate stop & go shooters over flow players. Still, though, this is as close to a modern classic as we can get these days. Highly recommend.
While 2019 may have started off slowly for pinball releases, with probably a bit more hype than substance, things picked up later in the year with some great new machines.
However, as we move into the latter half of 2022 it's clear that both Jurassic Park and Elvira: House of Horrors are still head and shoulders above the rest, with Stern's Stranger Things also making up a bit of ground thanks to strong code updates.