Hands-on with the new John Wick pinball

John? Is that you, John? John? Can't we discuss this like civilized men?
Enlarge / John? Is that you, John? John? Can’t we discuss this like civilized men?

Stern Pinball

If you don’t follow the ins and outs of pinball, you might be surprised to find out there are more active companies making games in 2024 than ever before.

Stern Pinball is the 800-pound gorilla of the industry. It has been around the longest, has the largest factory, sells the most games, and releases more titles per year than anyone else. For years, it was the sole remaining pinball company in the world.

Now—despite the decline of arcades—pinball is seeing a second life. A passionate collector base dedicates entire game rooms in their homes to machines. Pinball and bars go together so well Stern has a whole video series on “brewcade hopping”. There are games in comics shops. One of my more amazing local spots is in the back of a Korean BBQ. All this interest has created a thriving pinball ecosystem of boutique makers, where success is often measured in sales of 1,000 machines or fewer. Other pinball companies might not compete with Stern directly by volume, but they do provide a level of competition for ideas that keeps the hobby strong.

An incomplete overview of the landscape

Stern’s latest release is John Wick, and we’ll get to my hands-on impressions shortly. Another semi-recent title from Stern I’m very fond of and wouldn’t mind owning is Godzilla.

Recent notable first-time boutique releases include Pulp Fiction from Play Mechanix/Chicago Gaming Company and Labyrinth from Barrels of Fun. More established indie companies like Spooky Pinball have done games like Scooby Doo, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Halloween. Jersey Jack Pinball has led the charge in the ridiculously expensive category, with games like Elton John and The Godfather including eye-watering $15,000 limited editions.

Full disclosure: I was the art director on Alien from Pinball Brothers, and I recently finished a new Ellen Ripley package for it and contributed art to the company’s new ABBA title.

Multimorphic, a company that makes games that are a hybrid of physical pinball and an interactive LCD playfield, recently released the Princess Bride and Weird Al.

You may be noticing a trend here: many licensed entertainment titles and a lot of ’70s and ’80s nostalgia. It’s what sells to an older collector base. Even Pulp Fiction, which is a ’90s film, is built to look like an early ’80s game, complete with alphanumeric displays and a simpler playfield layout.

Among all these older licenses and small runs of games, Stern stands out. While it isn’t immune to the nostalgia factor either—it recently released Jaws—it also traffics in more modern licenses like Stranger Things or The Mandalorian.

The company’s brand-new game, John Wick, is refreshingly current. The fourth film in the Keanu Reeves assassin franchise only came out last year. Licenses are a reality of the industry; it’s what sells, but it’s nice to see something that doesn’t feel aimed squarely at the 40-and-up crowd’s youthful memories (yes, I’m a member of that group).

I got some hands-on time with the Premium version of the game and an interview with Stern’s marketing director (and world-class pinball player), Zach Sharpe. The following are my initial impressions mixed with bits from our talk.

The Pro (L) and Premium (R) versions of the playfield are similar, but the Premium includes a few more shots and interactive elements.

The Pro (L) and Premium (R) versions of the playfield are similar, but the Premium includes a few more shots and interactive elements.

Stern Pinball

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