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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Game Nearly Over for Pinballers

ASBURY PARK, New Jersey -- TILT! Game over?

Not quite. But the venerable pinball machine, once the undisputed arcade king from the Jersey Shore boardwalks to the Santa Monica Pier, is certainly down to its last ball.

In the computerized, digitalized world of high-tech entertainment, the pinball machine now clings to a diminished niche. Of the big four American companies that once cranked out 100,000 glitzy machines a year, only one survives f and it produces a fraction of that figure. Even worse, the proudly made-in-the-U.S.A. pinball machine f "as American as apple pie," as one arcade owner notes f now finds its biggest market in France, where it's as popular as snails and Jerry Lewis.

What is the world coming to?

"It's a shame," says Walt Levine, a 25-year industry veteran, offering an oft-echoed opinion. "This could be a thing of the past."

Don't say that around the last bastion of pinball optimism: suburban Melrose Park, Illinois, home of the family owned Stern Pinball. Company president Gary Stern believes his business can keep the flippers flailing where others have failed.

"We no longer talk about how we're the last man standing," says Stern. "Now we just talk about how we intend to be around for a long time to come."

Stern's is a lonely voice in the new generation of arcade games. Many in the industry fear the silver ball is headed south toward oblivion.

Bob Haim, co-owner of the Long Island, New York-based pinball distributor R.H. Belam company, has watched pinball's steady decline. His father founded the business in 1946; his son, Daniel, is a law school student and unlikely successor to the clan's pinball wizardry.

"I doubt he'll go into this business," the elder Haim says. "His generation is part of the problem."

It's a generation raised on virtual reality, Nintendo and Sony PlayStation, a generation that views the pinball machine as an anachronism.

"There's a new generation brought up on games off their computers," shrugs Levine.

Levine speaks while standing inside the future f Broadway City, a three-level collection of more than 200 high-tech arcade games. In a cramped second-floor room, obscured by the new big-ticket games, sit a half-dozen pinball machines.

"This is an accommodation to the past," Levine acknowledges, standing alongside a vintage "Addams Family" machine and a newer "South Park" game. "It doesn't make money."

The pinball machine debuted in 1931, a hardy contraption that quickly became a hit in the United States. It was first a gambling machine that offered players a cash payout if they could score points without "tilting" the machine f rattling it so hard that it shuts down. The payoff later was reduced to a free game or two for beating certain scores.

Over the seven decades that followed its invention, pinball's popularity waxed and waned. The late '70s were a boom time, the mid-'80s a rough stretch, the early '90s a comeback. In 1992, when the pinball machine was successfully fighting the video challenge, 100,000 machines were sold worldwide. Last year, that figure was about 12,000.

One by one, like targets zapped with a quick wrist flick, the pinball makers disappeared. Bally Manufacturing sold off its pinball division in 1988. Last November, WMS Industries said good-bye after its pinball division lost $17.8 million in the last three fiscal years. When all the arcade dust settled, Stern was the last pinball production company in the world. But when Stern looks into the future, he sees a vision of the past.

"Pinball is sort of retro, which is a big word these days," Stern says. "Retro is the 'in' thing. Think of a cool 1978 VW Beetle f that's nostalgia. But a brand-new Beetle f that's retro."