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National and World

January 22, 2013

Slate: Can this man save pinball?

(Continued)

LAKEWOOD, N.J. —

A few years ago, Guarnieri — who had started selling new and refurbished pinball machines online in 1999 — decided that this direct-to-man-cave fare had gotten stale. At his high water mark, Guarnieri had sold around 1,000 machines annually through his online store PinballSales.com. In 2010, Guarnieri sold less than 50, telling the site Pinball News that "there was no product left for him to sell" — that his customers were yawning at Stern's sparsely adorned, simplistic games. What they longed for, he thought, was something that didn't exist, a modernized game that would kick-start a long-stagnant industry and return pinball to the world beyond rich dudes' basements.

In January 2011, Guarnieri got to work building that game.

The Jersey Jack factory is not a place where the dreams you dare to dream just come true. Here, the dreams get built by hand, one ruby-slipper-shaped flipper at a time.

When you're creating a pinball machine from scratch, somebody, somewhere has to craft or acquire every mechanism and fixture. Jersey Jack Pinball licenses its flippers from Planetary Pinball Supply, gets its wiring assemblies from a company in New Jersey, and builds its soundboards in partnership with Massachusetts' Pinnovators. A woodworking firm in Illinois fashions the Wizard of Oz cabinets and playfields, then sends them to another company that adds the game's specially designed artwork using a $300,000 inkjet printer. Jersey Jack tested more than 10 different playfield finishes, rolling and shooting hundreds of thousands of balls before determining which one worked best. A pinball-crazy sculptor designed the plastic trees and munchkin huts.

In aggregate, these decisions reveal Jersey Jack Pinball's grand plan: In every way that matters, the Wizard of Oz is a refutation of how modern pinball machines are designed and built. Rather than choose a bro-friendly theme centered on robots and/or guitars, Guarnieri acquired the pinball-ization rights to Dorothy, Toto, et al. Instead of the standard static back-glass art and dot matrix display, Jersey Jack's machine is topped by a 26-inch widescreen monitor that displays full-color, cinema-grade animations. The game has no conventional, burn-out-able light bulbs — it's illuminated by RGB LED lights that can generate any hue. And perhaps most significantly, the Wizard of Oz is the first "widebody" game since the mid-1990s. The fatter-than-usual apparatus means there's room for an oversize load of eye-catching doohickeys: a spinning house, a winged monkey, a melting witch, and a video-displaying crystal ball that Guarnieri sees as his coup de grâce. "When you look into the crystal ball and see a moving image," he explains, "you say, Holy sh--, how much more could you put into this game?"

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