Walking through the Stern Pinball factory, you’re rarely out of sight of Angus Young’s sneering gaze. It’s the very same sneer that appears on the cover of AC/DC’s 1979 album Highway to Hell, only here it’s rendered in silk-screened and airbrushed paint on large wooden boards. Follow the boards down the assembly line and you’ll see Angus’s face become steadily more embellished with lights, bundles of wires, and complicated-looking mechanical assemblies before the board is fitted into a cabinet where it will become the playing surface of Stern’s current flagship product, a pinball machine dedicated in loving detail to this most massive and gloriously boneheaded of rock bands.
The Stern factory, like most places that conjure up visions of Wonka-like playtime utopias, is actually kind of drab, housed in a nondescript building in one of the many nondescript industrial zones scattered throughout Melrose Park. It’s a smallish operation, with anywhere from 100 to 150 or so employees depending on what phase of production the current machines are in at the time. For more than a dozen years, it was also the only place in the world where new pinball machines were being manufactured. Williams, Stern’s last competitor, closed down its pinball division in 1999 to concentrate exclusively on slot machines. (This year, upstart Jersey Jack Pinball began manufacturing its first game, based on the Wizard of Oz and set to be released in March.)
Since at least as far back as the 1930s, Chicago has been the global capital of pinball manufacturing—home not only to Stern and Williams, but also the late giants Bally and Gottlieb. There doesn’t seem to be any one specific reason why the pinball industry made Chicago its home, although the local manufacturing infrastructure and the regional popularity of bagatelle (pinball’s flipperless, French-born evolutionary forebear) were certainly factors. Chicago remained the epicenter of pinball culture as it spread across the globe, even during a period when it was actually illegal to play pinball here.
“I’ll tell you what,” pinball designer Steve Ritchie says of the industry’s peak, “it was extremely fun for me. It was fun for all of us. And, yes, there was ridiculous competition. Just ridiculous. [But] we all knew each other.”
Things are different now. There’s hardly any “each other.” Ritchie’s one of the last designers standing; Jersey Jack is the only other place that employs them.
Ritchie’s official biography includes a lengthy list of technological firsts; machines he designed boast features that have since become standard in pinball’s technological lexicon, and Ritchie-designed machines like High Speed and Terminator 2: Judgment Day are considered classics among pinball fanatics. His designs have outsold all other designers, and during pinball’s heyday Ritchie, a musician who picked up the guitar the day after he saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan in 1963, was sort of the industry’s rock star figure. High Speed, for instance, is based on a high-speed chase that Ritchie once had with police while driving a Porsche.
“My hearing is very bad now,” Ritchie says. “I have an ear disease so I can’t hear pitch very well anymore. But as long as we’re playing AC/DC music I’m totally happy.”
When arcade video games hit the public in the late 70s they were aimed at pinball’s prime demographic: kids with time to kill and quarters to spare. But a steady stream of technological advances and an overall uptick in sophistication made the 80s and 90s a golden age for pinball design. In the late 90s, however, increasingly powerful home consoles gave gamers little incentive to go out to arcades, and pinball’s popularity suffered greatly as a consequence.
There are two major factors that helped Stern survive the industry’s near extinction. One is that they’ve maintained a high quality of gameplay, bringing on design legends like Ritchie and John Borg to develop their tables and staying away from dopey technological gimmicks like Williams’s doomed-from-the-start “Pinball 2000” video projection system, all of which reflects favorably on the company in the eyes of hard-core pinball players. The other was Stern’s savvy instinct for licensing existing entertainment properties ranging from Batman and Tron to CSI and the World Poker Tour. Stern marketing director Jody Dankberg credits those smart licensing decisions with maintaining a connection between Stern and the pop culture world at large.
“Licensing can mean everything for a company like ours,” he says. “We like to try to do what we call A-plus licenses, something that has a lot of history to it and has exposure all over the world, since we ship to almost every country. So it’s really important that something that’s popular here is popular in Australia, popular in China, in Europe. Superheroes work real well, big title movies, big rock bands, stuff like that.”
The reliance on licensed properties has put an end to quirkier, non-licensed pinball machines such as Junkyard and Pin*Bot (which even inspired a sequel, Bride of Pin*Bot), but it’s also given them the kind of vintage cachet bestowed upon rare vinyl. And that loss has been largely counterbalanced by the fact that while not all licences are a natural match with pinball (Wheel of Fortune? CSI?), superheroes, sci-fi movies, and rock bands are exactly the type of things people who care about pinball are predisposed to like. Rock bands especially.
“I don’t know if it was [Stern Pinball founder] Gary Stern or [whoever] who said, ‘We were rock and roll in the 70s,'” says Jim Zespy, who not only owns the music distributor Chicago Independent Distribution but also Logan Hardware, a Logan Square record shop with a vintage arcade hidden in the back. “But it’s true. If you look at the imagery, you look at the lights and the sound, it’s like a giant rock show all in a box.”
In Stern’s eye the beauty of a license like AC/DC is that there are plenty of AC/DC fans who might not be in the market for a pinball machine—but who are crazy enough about the band and, in the case of older fans, have enough income and space to pony up for a machine just because it’s AC/DC. “[If] you slap Ted Nugent” on the side of a machine, says Zespy, “or Kiss, it’s so much more expensive, because you just opened up a whole ‘nother collector’s market that maybe wasn’t into pinball, but they’re that completist. They say, ‘I need everything with Ted Nugent on it. Holy shit there’s a pinball,’ and that ends up being the crowning piece of their collection.” The most hard-core collectors can upgrade from the basic Pro model of the AC/DC machine, which retails for about $4,700, to a fancier Premium edition, or even the Limited Edition that features a more powerful internal sound system, a gamefield with significantly fancier decorations, and a cabinet autographed by the band, which will go for around $7,500. (So far Stern’s only started production on the Pro model.)
While it’s obviously a good thing for pinball players that there are enough AC/DC fans with the budget and devotion to drop that much on a machine—therefore keeping Stern’s assembly line moving and designers designing—the important thing to them is that the game plays well. Just off the factory floor at Stern there’s a room where parts of the machine are put through their tasks—and to the test—by mechanisms that, say, shoot a constant stream of pinballs at a particular target for as long as it takes to cause the target to malfunction.
There’s another room where machines are tried out the old-fashioned way. The AC/DC Pro machine in that room is set for free play, and hip-checks and other physically intensive play are not only allowed but encouraged.
It’s clear from the first ball that the game continues Ritchie’s recent run of ingenious design work. It succeeds as well on the level of pure pinball play as it does on the level of just loving the shit out of AC/DC. Entire songs from the band’s catalog—another first for Ritchie—blast out of the machine, and the speed and flow that are a hallmark of Ritchie’s designs feed off of the band’s frenetic energy in a heart-rate-rattling kind of way.
Hitting a target beneath a sculpture of a bell emblazoned with an AC/DC logo results in a satisfying tolling sampled from the beginning of “Hell’s Bells”—as well as a tricky ricochet. Hitting the “Big Gun” ramp after lighting the proper target puts the ball into a pinball-size gun that allows you to shoot it across the playfield at a target, which is dumb, gimmicky fun in exactly the same way that “Big Gun” is, or even moreso, “Big Balls.”
I only had time to play maybe six or seven games of AC/DC before I had to leave, but it was enough time to become absorbed by its flow, which is the sign of a good pinball experience. Later on it struck me that it’s the same kind of loss of self that a good rock show produces, which—more than “Pinball Wizard” and legacy band licensing opportunities—forms the real bond between rock ‘n’ roll and pinball. Both pinball and rock music have had some pretty rough times recently. But that only makes it easier to appreciate the fact that people are still making both.
Correction: This story has been amended to correctly reflect that the band members of AC/DC aren’t signing our games. Steve Richie autographs the Limited Edition machines between playfield hard coats, and Gary Stern signs the Certificate of Authenticity that comes with each game.