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Pinball begins to reinvent itself as competition bubbles up

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Earlier this week, Stern Pinball announced a new table — an update of the classic Spider-Man machine first released in 2007. Stern officials are also at CES quietly talking about replacing the long-in-use dot matrix displays of pinball tables with LCD screens.

Neither is earth-shattering news, but they do point to something that might be surprising to all but pinball aficionados: Pinball is popular again.

Back in 2008, Stern Pinball Inc. was the last of a dying business — a company that mass produced pinball machines. Its Melrose Park, Illinois factory pumped out a relatively pitiful 10,000 machines a year.

When Stern dies, the thought went at the time, so goes pinball.

But then something surprising happened; interest in pinball machines began to grow and with it came new pinball manufacturers.

In 2013, Jersey Jack Pinball released The Wizard of Oz, the first pinball machine not made by Stern since 2001, and the first with an LCD display.

Since then a crop of boutique pinball creators have popped up, working on an assortment of tables like The Big Lebowski, Wrath of Olympus, Timeshock and Rob Zombie’s Spookshow.

And already that competition is having an impact on the technology of pinball.

spiderman

"Last year we showed off our new spike electronic system, a nice modern system built on a series of node boards and ribbon cables," Jody Dankberg, director of marketing at Stern Pinball, told me. "This year we’re talking about an LCD display."

Spider-Man, the company's current main focus, will include the original dot matrix display. LCD in Stern machines will be a topic discussed later in the year in more detail.

It sounds like a minor adjustment, but dot matrix displays have been around in pinball machines for decades. Dankberg says they haven’t upgraded the displays, which can only show an array of shades of orange, because of nostalgia. That's despite the fact that more modern pinball machines, like Stern’s Game of Thrones table, include fight scenes on those displays.

So why now?

"For the longest time we were the only ones making pinball tables," he said. "But now there are some boutiques making pinballs and they’re using full color displays, and that gives us a little nudge."

The new displays will offer the ability to show full color, full resolution footage from concerts or movies.

"It supports a lot more detailed graphics," Dankberg said. "We can create a lot more custom graphics.

"We’ve brought in a bunch of new talent."

spiderman

The decision to upgrade to better displays is also bolstered by that rise in pinball’s popularity, he added.

"Sales are fantastic," he said. "We are still on an upward trajectory."

Stern recently moved from a 35,000-square-foot facility to a 110,000-square foot one in an attempt to better meet demand.

"We’re in a situation where we are on back-order and we can’t build them fast enough," he said. "Now we’re able to pump out games faster and more on demand."

The upcoming remake of Spider-Man is another, different sort of sign of that increased interest.

"Marvel controls Spider-Man again and they asked us to update the look and feel of [the 2007 table] so it wasn’t dated to the old movie," Dankberg said.

The Spider-Man Vault Edition pinball machine is now inspired by the Marvel Universe comic series rather than the Sam Raimi movie.

While the playing field remains the same — Dankberg said the Steve Ritchie designed table is considered one of Stern’s top 10 — the machine’s cabinet, back glass, decals and playfield art are all being overhauled to match the Ultimate Spider-Man art style.

"We resculpted all of our toys and have new voice over tracks and sound effects," he said.

They also used the remake as an opportunity to improve the durability of some points on the table that wore down on the old machines, like the Sandman and Doc Ock figures.

The machine, which went on pre-order Monday, will sell for $7,595 before tax.

"Spider-Man is one of Marvel’s most popular characters worldwide. Our goal was to take one of our most popular games and make it even better," said Gary Stern, Chairman and CEO of Stern Pinball, Inc. "Stern Pinball and Marvel Studios share a love for the characters in the Spider-Man universe and have a long, successful history of collaboration."

Correction: A Stern Pinball representative contacted Polygon to say that the LCD display would be announced later in 2016, but that it won't be in the first machine after Spider-Man, contrary to Dankberg's comment.