Before there was Candy Crush and Angry Birds there was Madden Football, Super Mario and Grand Theft Auto in their many iterations. Before those video games came Mortal Kombat, Frogger, Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Asteroids and Pong, considered the very first video game.
But before any of those high-tech games could be played on phones, computers, television screens or arcade machines, there was Heat Wave, Majorettes, King Pin, Moulin Rouge, A Go-Go, Old Chicago and Surf Champ, which are just some of the old-school pinball machines that collectors have brought for the Golden State Pinball Festival today through Sunday at the Lodi Grape Festival Fairgrounds, 413 E. Lockeford St.
“Pinball’s kind of getting a resurgence,” said Eric Neff, a pinball player and one of the event organizers. “We have a league in Lodi. We meet and play every other week. This is a good way to meet other players and get your pinball skills up.”
Although in its first year as the Golden State Pinball Festival, the gathering is in its seventh year. Previously called the Pin-a Go-Go Pinball Show in Dixon, the Northern California event moved to Lodi, where available space was nearly double, Neff said.
The name was changed because the event draws participants from all over California, many of whom have brought their own games for the three-day event. More than 300 pinball games are lined up and ready to be played. No quarters required. Admission allows free play.
Pinball games, at least in the recognizable format most people know, date to 1931. The flippers were added in 1947, but by that time, the games were banned in large cities — namely New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — until the mid-1970s because law enforcement and politicians viewed them as games of chance, thus gambling devices.
The game with the silver balls and ringing lights and buzzers where players sought to drive up their scores never went out of style, though. In New York, they were lined up behind porn stores in Harlem and Greenwich Village.
They became a bit of a symbol for rebels, which may be why Fonzie was a player on “Happy Days.” Even The Who’s rock opera “Tommy” wasn’t so much about the strange deaf, dumb and blind kid, but about rejecting authority.
But in arcades around the country, in bars, in bowling alleys, in malls and pizza parlors, pinball machines were omnipresent until they gave way to electronic video games, their popularity eaten up by Pac-Man and the like.
But Williams, a pinball manufacturer, produced a Space Shuttle-themed pinball game in 1984 and Neff said “it was the game that saved pinball.”
Pinball never completely disappeared, although video games were the norm starting in the 1980s The best-selling machine of all time came out in 1992, “The Addams Family,” featuring voices and images from the 1991 film starring Raul Julia and Angelica Huston.
But it was in early 2000 when pinball regained a foothold and gamers gave it another look.
The weekend event demonstrates the wide-ranging appeal of pinball games, built as they are around “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Ghostbusters” and other movies and television shows and rock bands including “Metallica” and “AC/DC.”
“Part of it is people who remembered playing pinball when they were young,” Neff said. “They reached a point where they have some extra income and they have game rooms. They can get a pinball machine in their home. A few collectors have more than a dozen each. They’re cheaper than classic cars. They’re fun to play and they’re fun to work on.”
Neff himself is lending six games to the event.
In addition to the free play, the Golden State Pinball Festival — with proceeds benefiting Lodi’s World of Wonders Science Museum — will feature prize drawings, tournaments, silent auction, flea market and swap meet and for the first time, Pinball University, with guest speakers covering topics such as maintenance of games, how-to play from the experts, introduction of new games being released and stories of the golden age of the game and insights from the talent behind the music and art of the games.
Neff said California is home to four big pinball events a year, one every season. That number may even grow.
“I got a call a week ago from a bar in Lodi called El Rancho,” Neff said. “They said, ‘can you bring us posters for the show? We have guys who play pinball here and want to hear about the show.’ It’s next to the Grape Festival and I take some posters over there and they had brand new “Guardians of the Galaxy” by the pool table. I played a few games.
“There’s a bar in downtown Lodi that has AC/DC and a few pizza parlors have games. They’re starting to appear more and more in public locations.”
Neff said pinball is drawing in young players with applications on phones, where they can start learning about the game.
“The age of the people actually playing them is those who’ve reached an age where they want to see classic games when they go out,” Neff said.
Contact reporter Lori Gilbert at (209) 546-8284 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @lorigrecord.