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January 11, 2013

Slate: Can this man save pinball?

LAKEWOOD, N.J. — The last guys who tried to save pinball bet all their quarters on a bunch of 3-D aliens. With sales of new machines dwindling in the late 1990s, the top execs at Williams, the company that controlled 80 percent of the worldwide market, called on their designers to reinvent the game. They emerged with an arcade centaur — the head of a video game on the body of a pinball machine — in which pixilated, holographic-looking Martians marauded among the mechanical gewgaws. Pinball 2000 was a technological marvel. It also nearly killed pinball forever.

In October 1999, not long after Williams introduced Pinball 2000 in a promotional video featuring clips of the moon landing and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, the company shuttered its pinball division. As the excellent documentary "Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball" explains, Revenge From Mars, the initial Pinball 2000 title, sold well, but a Star Wars Episode I-themed follow-up got less traction with the Jar Jar-hating masses. Rather than prop up its declining pinball operation, Williams chose to focus on a more promising line of business: slot machines.

Thirteen years after this failed holographic experiment, pinball is just barely alive. A single company, Stern Pinball, holds a virtual monopoly on new equipment. What was once a quintessential American pastime has been exiled from its natural habitats — bars, diners, and even arcades.

For Jack Guarnieri, pinball's decline brought on an existential crisis. Guarnieri has held most every job that has to do with flippers: repairman, game operator, reseller, inventor. With his livelihood and life's passion in peril, he figured there was only one thing to do: Create history's greatest pinball machine, one that would introduce a new generation to the pleasures of a well-struck ramp shot. Three-dimensional aliens couldn't save pinball. Can a small-business man in New Jersey?

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