From Flop to Flip: The Surprising Success of Pinball Machines Inspired by Bad Movies
Sometimes a movie comes along that sounds so fun, so exciting, and so promising… and it completely misses the mark. Whether it’s based on existing IP, or a sequel that’s part of a hit franchise, or even a completely original idea with a killer premise, history has shown that even in Tinseltown the best-laid plans often go awry, resulting in financial losses and disappointed audiences.
Luckily, where one medium falters, another medium may thrive, and we’ve seen plenty of badly executed movies bounce back with fantastic pinball machines. Here are seven of the best- er, worst movies that inspired good pinball machines.
- Letterboxd Score: 2.4/5
- Pingorithm® Score: 7.556
- Machines Produced: 8,362
Before Deep Impact and Armageddon, there was Meteor, a 1979 film about a meteoroid heading straight for Earth, with Sean Connery and Natalie Wood headlining. While the missiles obliterated the meteor in the movie, critics obliterated Meteor, itself, calling it a display of boring conversations and skimping on the destruction promised by the premise.
This dud of a movie turned out to be Classic Stern’s most successful pinball machine. Chock-full of drop targets, unpredictable movement, a useful third flipper, and solid spinner rips, players can’t get enough of catapulting rockets to help save Earth.
- Letterboxd Score: 2.45/5
- Pingorithm® Score: 8.036
- Machines Produced: 2,129
With the success of Jurassic Park in 1993, Michael Crichton’s book Congo was a no-brainer to adapt. The 1995 movie followed a rescue expedition as they traversed the Congo rainforest, facing off against deadly gorillas and erupting volcanoes.
The film also faced off against critics who claimed it lacked interesting characters and suspense, and instead delivered campiness and confusion.
The adventure that was lacking turns up in Congo’s pinball machine, manufactured by Williams. This machine pairs the jungle atmosphere with Congo’s memorable score. Multiple ramps, fun turnarounds and side-lanes, and two video modes that incorporate mineshaft excursions and killer hippos make this a fan favorite. The erupting volcano that starts one of the main multiball modes is the cherry on top.
- Letterboxd Score: 2.71/5
- Pingorithm® Score: 7.799
- Machines Produced: 2,756
Before Keanu Reeves took on The Matrix, he starred as Johnny Mnemonic, a man implanted with a cybernetic brain, responsible to deliver sensitive data before he dies from overload or is killed by those after the information.
Based on a short story, Johnny Mnemonic offered a bleak view of 2021 where megacorporations rule and the population is controlled by the Internet. These themes were lost on audiences, due to a career-low performance by Reeves and a cyberpunk vision that was more cheesy and tacky than flashy and impressive.
The movie failed on delivering atmosphere, but Williams made up for it when they released their Johnny Mnemonic pinball machine. Spearheaded by the great George Gomez, the machine immerses players into the world with a glove crane gimmick, humorous callouts, and a speedy pace that keeps players engaged and coming back. Sharpshooters appreciate the need for precise aim.
- Letterboxd Score: 2.74/5
- Pingorithm® Score: 8.208
- Machines Produced: 4,247
The Shadow debuted in print in 1931 and has been adapted into five films. The most recent attempt at bringing The Shadow to life was in 1994 when Alec Baldwin starred as the titular vigilante able to hypnotize, read people’s minds, perform telekinesis, and to turn fully invisible except for his shadow.
Living up to the invisibility, nobody saw The Shadow when it hit theaters, and those who did found him to be a wannabe Batman lacking both an exciting plot and a charismatic hero.
On the other hand, Bally and designer Brian Eddy delivered a Shadow pinball machine worthy of being seen. Showcasing innovative mechanics, especially for its time, The Shadow features user-activated diverters to send the ball into different ramps. An upper playfield with drop targets and a Pong feeling, and a fun magnetic ball lock feature help this machine stand out. Its toughness, and dare we say, Kinetic Satisfaction, gives it longevity.
- Letterboxd Score: 3.08
- Pingorithm® Score: 8.150
- Machines Produced: n/a
TRON: Legacy was one of the most anticipated legacy sequels when it arrived in 2010, given the first Tron was released 28 years prior and had a cult following. Jeff Bridges returned as Kevin Flynn / Clu, the designer of a digital world turned prisoner of said world, until his son entered the realm to play a tournament of cutthroat games to save his father’s life.
The visuals were applauded, not to mention the soundtrack by Daft Punk, but where the special effects shined, the story suffered, as the characters came off flatter than the multi-dimensional world they inhabited and the plot was missing originality.
With the movie being known for its sound and music, Stern leaned into those components with their TRON: Legacy pinball machine and brought to life a hypnotic and adrenaline-fueled digital world under glass. Gameplay features based on set pieces from the movie include Light Cycle battles on the grid, targeting the motorized Recognizers, and fighting in a good old-fashioned Disc War.
- Letterboxd Score: 3.12/5
- Pingorithm® Score: 7.889
- Machines produced: 3,600
A Stargate is an ancient device that opens a wormhole capable of sending its travelers anywhere in the universe. This is the premise of Roland Emmerich’s 1994 film that kicked off a whole media franchise; an impressive feat, given the movie received lukewarm reviews.
Delivering fun set pieces and special effects, the movie suffered when it came to a clunky script, missing the opportunity to explore some of the interesting questions set up earlier in the story and fumbling its finale.
The Stargate pinball machine, on the other hand, is regarded by some as being one of Gottlieb’s best. Guardians can raise and lower during the game, players can accumulate quartz and trade it for rewards, and the main draw is the pyramid that opens to reveal a flying glidercraft.
- Letterboxd Score: 3.3/5
- Pingorithm® Score: 7.470
- Machines Produced: n/a
Based on the TV show, this 1994 Western comedy saw Mel Gibson slipping into card sharp Bret Maverick’s bootstraps, with Jodie Foster and James Garner – star of the original Maverick show – along for the ride.
Despite the cast having fun, the movie was too tongue-in-cheek and lacked the kick the TV show brought and instead came off as smug and gaudy.
Data East’s Maverick pinball machine seems to be the better home for the Western. From the ball locking in the paddlewheel of a riverboat to the final mode being a poker championship, this machine embraces the theme to a T. Lots of drop targets and great animations make a case for how the west was fun.
One of the reasons we love the pinball hobby is that it’s just filled to the brim with weird obscurities and details that no single person can ever hope to fully digest. Do enough digging and you’ll find enough to keep you learning something new every day.
So it’s with some humor (and maybe a little shame) that I bring attention to the fact that in the original assignment for this article, I asked Brad to include “Judge Dredd” as part of this list.
Of course, Judge Dredd the pin came out before Judge Dredd the movie! It was based on the comic series which dates back to the ‘70s. It just so happens that comic inspired Judge Dredd happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to Sylvester Stallone’s portrayal in the ‘90s movie, and if you happened to be between the ages of 7 and 9 years old when the pin and the movie were released, you don’t think too hard about it.
Why share this bit of sausage making?
Because it’s an example of the type of fandom we want Kineticist to embody. Enjoying the process of learning and discovery and engaging with a form of art is just as important as figuring out the best game meta for a tournament.
Anyway, it was good writing, too, so enjoy!
Mega-City One is a dystopian future city and Judge Dredd is the law enforcer who acts as judge, jury, and executioner when he busts criminals on the street. Originating in comic books, he was adapted into a film in 1995 when Sylvester Stallone played the merciless character.
Harsher than the judge, himself, were the critics. Never quite balancing the tone of action and satire, the movie also suffered from a bland performance by Stallone and a forgettable script.
While not being based directly on the ’95 movie, Bally breathed the character of Judge Dredd to pinball life in 1993. Loaded with tons of shots, modes, and mini modes, this machine also offers a gameplay mechanic called Super Game, which starts with a multiball. The callouts and humor earn the Judge Dredd pinball machine the respect it deserves.