There are many things that I miss from my childhood: Wiffle ball in the front yard, watching Ducktales after school, playing Nintendo on a Friday night with my Brother while eating Little Caesar’s pizza, and going to the arcade for a few rounds of pinball. In the midst of all of these modern electronic diversions, cell phones, game consoles, the internet, I hope you can remember the timeless joy of pinball. It’s that slanted table with the silver ball bouncing off a bunch of bumpers and lights. The experience is a cacophony of sights and sounds like the click of the flippers, the vibration of the ball plunger, the flashing lights of the scoreboard, the sheen of the painted table top, and the beautiful artwork of the sparkling back glass designed to attract more players. Seriously, have you ever looked at some of these machine’s artwork? Some of these paintings are hidden gems of artistic creativity.
A pinball machine is a unique hybrid of technology and artistry. From the first machines of the early 20th century to the few machines that are still being built today, the back glass painting has always been the first and most attractive feature of the machine. The painting is basically a message to the player from the machine as to say, “Check me out! I’m exciting and unpredictable!” The most exciting part of course is the actual game play. However, I want to pay tribute to some of the most creative paintings featured on an assortment of machines.
Some great glass artwork inspires players and in some cases takes them away from the arcade, bar, or bowling alley the machine sits in and teleports them to the story of the game. For me, this suspension of disbelief happens whenever I play “Jokerz!” The game is set to baroque music and features stunning visuals of a King and Queen playing cards while a gang of little jesters looks on. The music and the artwork is what makes “Jokerz!” such an exciting table. There is some subtle humor in the artwork itself. For example, notice the little jesters helping the King and Queen cheat? Also, notice how the two drinks being served are of different amounts? Perhaps the King is trying to get the Queen drunk? Yeah…nice. The painting is rendered in brilliant colors and tells a fun story making “Jokerz!” my all-time favorite machine for the music and artwork alone.
One of the most popular machines of all time is “Twilight Zone.” The back glass presents a wonderful synopsis of the old television series. Standing in the doorway to another dimension is your host Rod Serling. In the room sitting along side him are some of the iconic symbols of the most popular episodes. For me, the Talking Tina doll seated in the bottom left is the most unsettling – in a fun way. The painting sets a mood of mystery, danger, and the unknown. In short, this painting is creepy and fun!
The last pinball machine I’ll highlight is “Black Knight 2000.” I simply love the fusion of a futuristic civilization and a medieval kingdom. The Black Knight is the villain and the player must take him down. He’s quick and unpredictable (symbolized by the lighting bolt in his hands) and he will taunt you until you beat him. Red is a color of love and passion, but also of power. Having so much red in the composition suggests a feeling of aggression and conflict. You the player have a single mission: take down the evil Black Knight. If you ever see this machine then give it a shot. The action is fast, the music is pounding, and the artwork sums up the exciting experience.
As a programmer by day and artist by night, I think I have figured out why the pinball machine captivates me so. It’s a junction point for science and art. There is also something special about viewing the paintings of a pinball machine. Think of the differences between viewing pinball art versus a painting in a gallery. I love viewing art in galleries, but the experience is static. The painting just sits there. In a pinball machine however, the lights behind the glass and the sounds from the speakers bring the artwork to life. The experience is more dynamic and engrossing. Much like a good book can get the reader lost in the story, a good pinball machine can capture a player for a session of thrills and heart-pounding action. You’re getting all of this fun just because a glass painting pulled you in for a closer look?
Ah the power of art.