Interest in pinball has seen a resurgence over the last years. This is fantastic news, but it’s possible that this comeback is driving pinball machine prices up.
New games tend to cost a small fortune, although we’re guaranteed state-of-the-art technology. It’s also getting harder to find games that fit in the “bang for your buck” category. Even games like Whirlwind, The Shadow and Bram Stoker’s Dracula can no longer be called bargains.
The kind of machine you will want to buy depends on how you intend to use it. This is why we have shortlisted the best inexpensive machines for you according to their main strengths. Here are our recommendations of the best pinball machines for the money:
- Durable, sturdy budget pinball machines: Sweet Hearts, Evel Knievel
- Budget pinball machines with complex playfields: Taxi, Last Action Hero
- Budget pinball machines with deep rulesets: World Poker Tour, Fire!
- Gorgeous and cheap pinball machines: Old Chicago, Jurassic Park
- Cheap and easy to find pinball machines: Demolition Man, Hot Hand
I’m Looking for Durability in my Pinball Machine
One of the most important aspects to consider when purchasing a pinball machine, for home use or otherwise, is reliability. You want the machine to last, playing well and retaining its value for years to come.
You can’t beat Gottlieb’s Electro-Mechanical pinball machines when it comes to durability and price. They were made to resist being played tens of thousands of times. Some games, like Majorettes, were even designed with nudging as part of the gameplay.
My favorite examples, for reasons that aren’t only about their reliability, are Sweet Hearts and Atlantis. They don’t need multiple toys to be incredible, and they’ve been around — and acclaimed — for over 40 years.
These are, however, really hard to find — although they will come cheap once you find one. Their price can go as low as $500. Few machines of each model were shipped, and those who have them rarely want to part ways with them.
The other problem is that, once you do find one, you’ll have a lot of work to do with them. Refurbishing or restoring requires more money. So even if you find Sweet Hearts for $1,000, it’ll take more $500 to get it to top condition.
Keep in mind these machines also tend to be very big and heavy. This means you can’t move them around much, and picking them up would be a hassle.
Electro-Mechanical machines might also require special care to keep their durability, as they heat up far more than their Solid-State counterparts. As such, you should install them properly and safely to get the best out of them.
I prefer a Solid-State Pinball Machine
A more accessible option would be an early Bally Solid-State machine. These are equally as sturdy and almost just as cheap, but are easier to find. More of them were produced, and the technology in them is far more advanced, which makes them lighter.
Good examples of this type of machine are Evel Knievel and Mata Hari. Some of them are actually home editions of successful electro-mechanical pinball machines. By getting one of them, you can have the best of both worlds.
You can find a machine like Mata Hari for under $1,500, perfectly playable. The deals are easier to come by and you’ll find machines in better conditions. They’re also easier to take care of.
I Want a Great Pinball Playfield for a Great Price
It’s not because a machine is cheap that it can’t have multiple ramps, great multiball options or crazy toys. Some of the best pinball machines, in terms of game design, are actually pretty cheap.
That’s because Hall of Fame game designers often worked in games based on movies that didn’t do well. But a controversial theme shouldn’t stop an avid player! It actually only adds to the charm.
I want flippers, ramps, multi-balls — I want it all!
Games like The Shadow were once hailed as the best bargains in pinball gaming. The reason for that was simple: if they were made today, they would cost over $9,000. I’m not even exaggerating here.
Mid-90’s Williams games always have all the flippers and ramps you can imagine. Nowadays, they aren’t so cheap anymore — although Johnny Mnemonic is still a solid option if you have $3,000.
The best combination of cheap and exciting still belongs to Williams machines. However, it’s the Williams System11 games that now embody the bang for your buck philosophy. You can find a lot of fun in Taxi and its passenger-pickup gimmick for $2,000.
I Want The Best, Most Unique Toys
No amount of bumpers and drop targets can make up for the lack of that unique twist. That ball-eating monster, that game-changing post — that distinctive toy that makes a game memorable.
Fortunately, many games with incredible toys are surprisingly inexpensive. Last Action Hero’s crane is famous and compliments the game’s three magnets and six multi-ball game pretty well.
Data East manufactured many cheap pinball machines with great toys in the 90’s. Today, they are priced around $2,750. They make the perfect machines for families and parties since they have impressive value in toys for their price.
I Want a Pinball Game that will Keep Me Playing For Years
For continuous home use, it’s great to have a game that is easy to learn, but difficult to master. You’re looking for a deep ruleset that makes even the most basic playfield exciting, with many objectives and modes.
I Want Pinball Games with that “One-More-Ball” Factor
If you want a budget machine that will keep you hooked for hours on end, once again Williams’ System11 machines are your best bet. However, the ones with the most unique rulesets are the ones with non-standard features, and they may cost you under $2,500.
Fire!, for example, has no pop bumpers whatsoever. Two of its ramps also lead nowhere. It also has a fire hydrant at the center, making it a strange, symmetrical playfield.
However, its ruleset grants it a fine narrative quality to the game, taking advantage of the game’s quirks. You’ll want to play more balls just to see what else the game can do, and that’s more than enough.
I Want Complex Pinball Games that Require Strategic Thinking
For the seasoned player looking for a challenge, modern Stern machines have a lot to offer in inexpensive machines. These games often have deep rulesets that combine fast pace with strategic shots.
A machine we can highlight is the World Poker Tour. Its rules are as deep as the likes of The Simpsons Pinball Party, but for half the price. Complex games may be an acquired taste, so getting a cheap machine is a sensible move.
Give me some Gorgeous Budget Pinball Machines
What constitutes a beautiful pinball machine is deeply subjective. It’s hard to recommend games based on something that boils down to personal preference.
I, for one, am a huge sucker for playing cards-themed games. I also love the vintage feel and bleepy sounds. But I know this is not universal — perhaps not even common — so I can’t recommend you Hot Hand.
In spite of that, there are some general tips that can lead you to a cheap machine with fantastic artwork. Games with renowned classic artists like Gordon Morison or Greg Freres are guaranteed to look amazing.
My favorite artist, for example. is Dave Christensen, from Old Chicago and Mata Hari. I love his artworks and themes.
You can take your time to research, but ultimately there will be themes you will naturally be more drawn to. Pinball games based on movies are a staple in the industry — and not all of them are expensive.
Licensed products by Data East tend to be cheaper and still feature great content. The playfields are not always original, but the unique toys based on the movies give them a different spin.
Jurassic Park, for example, has an iconic ball-eating dinosaur. It’s a great homage to the franchise.
I Can’t Find These Pinball Machines For Sale!
It’s true some machines listed here aren’t that easy to find, although they are cheap. Also consider some of them may require hard upkeep maintenance, increasing costs over time. You may also face difficulties looking for replacement parts for older machines.
You may want to buy a machine that’s easy to maintain, ideally with the manufacturer still giving some support. In this case, Classic Stern pinball machines are good options. You can find a restored Hot Hand for $2,500.
Some games from the mid-90’s will also serve you well since there are many of them around. It’ll also be easy to repair them since the technology is not too old nor too new.
This is what makes games like Demolition Man, Judge Dredd or Jack*Bot good options for budget pinball machines. They cost under $3,000, are easy to find and easy to maintain.
Newer machines have the problem of requiring complex repair procedures for simple problems. You may need to replace an entire module because of a burnt LED.
Look Out for Deals!
The truth is that acquiring budget pinball machines depends on looking out for opportunities. There are many pinball markets out there, collectors who need to sell some machines and exhibitions with auctions.
If you want to buy cheap pinball machines, you should focus on two or three you really want. Then, look out for sale ads on the Internet and track them down. The machines can be rare, but the opportunities come by regularly.