The 15 most iconic pinball machines of all time

The 15 most iconic pinball machines of all time


Don’t get tilted

The past two decades might have seen pinball become something of a niche, rich folk’s pastime, powered by a massively inflated collector’s market and the increasing rarity of machine components, but for those of a certain age, there was, truly, a time where you couldn’t enter a public building and not fall over a pinball machine or three. Arcades, bars, clubs, laundries, restaurants, theaters, corner stores, and gyms. If there was a five-foot footprint empty, then it had a pinball machine plonked on it.

There have been thousands of machines produced since the 1930s, from coin-operated bagatelle tables, through to the delightful electromagnetic (EM) machines of the ’50s-’70s, these would give way to the Solid State (SS) machines of the ’80s, pinball’s golden renaissance in the ’90s, and ultimately lead to today, with companies such as Stern and Jersey Jack continuing to roll out brand new, exciting, hi-tech games for people who have much more money than should ever be legal.

baywatch top 10 pinball machines lists

Pinball has a visual style all of its own, a tangible reality that most interactive entertainment fails to capture. And while the past few decades have seen the release of hundreds of great-looking, great-sounding, and completely compelling games, some examples stand out in the memory of the pinball community more than others. They might not necessarily be the best games, but they are the embodiment of the pinball age at its most lucrative. Stalwarts of the genre. Masters of design. Icons.

Here are 15 of the most iconic pinball machines of all time. Take your Skill Shot.

15. Cirqus Voltaire (1997)

Considered one of the last icons of pinball’s golden ’90s era, Bally/Williams Cirqus Voltaire is one of the most colorful, vibrant, and visually ambitious games of all time, as the player pushes through the various acts of an electric, arthouse circus — Its unique aesthetic is reflected in its psychedelic playfield, and bolstered by bright neon lighting, ethereal sound, and fluorescent tubing built into the ramps. CV is also well-remembered for its sinister “Ringmaster”, a mischievous head that rises and falls to taunt the player.

14. Black Knight 2000 (1989)

The direct sequel to the more modest 1980 release, Black Knight, pinball veteran Steve Ritchie’s Black Knight 2000 supercharged the follow-up with faster gameplay, an electrifying visual design, a totally radical dude ‘late-’80s aesthetic, and, most notably of all, a blaring banger of a theme song, written by Brian Schmidt and powerful enough to drown out the sounds of every other machine in the arcade. When someone was playing BK 2000, you knew about it, bub. Check it out in the video above.


A machine that embodies the hedonism and raucous nature of the 1980s, BK 2000 is almost twee when viewed by modern eyes. But, make no mistake about it, no pinball machine was more determined to make you, and everybody else, sit up and take notice. Oh, and it was also hard as nails to boot. It would be followed by the sequel Black Knight: Sword of Rage an incredible three decades later.

13. Scared Stiff (1996)

Scared Stiff is the second of three pinball machines starring The Mistress of the Dark, Elvira. While I personally prefer 1989’s Elvira & the Party Monsters, (and I’m sadly yet to play 2019’s Elvira’s House of Horrors), Scared Stiff is the most commonly found of the three games. Featuring the look and vibe of her iconic TV show, Scared Stiff features comic-book gore, a backglass “Spider Spinner” and plenty of callouts recorded by the great woman herself. Gameplay is a tad on the easy side, but SS is a much-loved machine within the community, and a great bookmark for modern pinball’s “middle era”.

12. Xenon (1980)

Released in 1980, Xenon is a stunning and truly iconic trendsetter for the decade to come, wonderfully stylized in the fonts, colors, and architecture that would typify the following years. Not just in pinball, but in all forms of new-wave fashion, music, art, and culture.

Xenon features a future-noir silver/blue color scheme, electronic music, a litany of dazzling lights, and the sultry, beckoning voice of composer/sound designer Suzanna Ciani, who entices the player with flirtatious callouts and — let’s just call it what it is — “orgasmic” sound effects. Xenon defined a new era for pinball, which would step away from the bells, chimes, and rootin’ tootin’ cowboy themes of yore, to be replaced with an era of solid-state sound, sci-fi, and sex.

11. Monster Bash (1998)

One of the most popular machines in the collector’s community, Williams’ Monster Bash takes the Universal Monsters, (Frankenstein, The Bride, Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon), and reimagines them as a retired rock band, who are digging themselves out of the grave for a reunion tour. It’s up to you to get the band back together and back on stage.

Monster Bash is surprisingly straightforward, gameplay wise, but is hugely popular due to its cast of characters, fun dot-matrix animations, and amusing playfield features. These include Frankenstein’s revolving lab table and a ball-stalking Count Dracula. Some of the music tracks, (but not the great main hook), are a little cheesy to modern ears, but Monster Bash‘s overall concept is great fun, and the machine sits proudly in many a collection.

Universal should’ve based The Dark Universe on this.

10. Centaur (1981)

Arguably the most Heavy Metal pinball machine ever made, Bally’s Centaur is in a class of its own where visual design is concerned. Styled almost entirely in black & white, the Centaur playfield is one from which no color will ever escape, and is intricately detailed with the dark, comic-book artwork of Paul Faris. Centaur recalls an era of horror comics, Dungeons & Dragons, and the parent-bothering “Satanic Panic” that would tear throughout the 1980s.

The “half monster-half motorbike creature” is, quite frankly, funny as fuck today, but even that staple of metal cheese just adds to the machine’s perfect “time capsule” of the dawning 1980s. A well-maintained Centaur stands today as a thing of beauty.

If pinball did drugs, then Centaur is a cabinet of whiskey and coke.

9. The Machine: Bride of Pinbot (1991)

While 1986’s Pin-Bot is undoubtedly one of the most beloved classics of the pinball era, its 1991 sequel The Machine, (more commonly known as “Bride of Pin-Bot“), is pinball royalty. The Machine has the player attempt to build a robotic waifu for our boy Pin-Bot. The construction is presented as an epic event, and The Bride comes to life with a soothing and flirtatious voice (ala Xenon), as well as a wonderful sequence where the entire playfield shuts down, The Bride’s birth represented by a evocative “heartbeat” light show.

The Machine: Bride of Pin-Bot is perhaps the shallowest of the Pin-Bot trilogy, (it was eventually followed by 1997’s Jack-Bot), but The Machine‘s knack for special effects and storytelling made it an incredible smash hit on release, becoming one of the first “Must-Play” pinball machines of the ’90s renaissance.

8. Medieval Madness (1997)

Easily the most popular and recognized of pinball’s latter-day period, Williams’ Medieval Madness is something of a Crown Jewel within the collections of those able to afford it. And it’s quite easy to see why, with its intricately detailed playfield, physical models and effects, and galley of hugely satisfying shots. The audio package features myriad amusing callouts, which feature Monty Python-esque comedy and a roster of fun allies and enemies.

Whether smashing castles, bashing trolls, defeating dragons, or rescuing damsels, Medieval Madness is a fast-playing, hugely gratifying game, and the ideal title to put in front of a newcomer to help them understand why pinball is so compelling. For these and other reasons, Medieval Madness is also one of the most expensive machines on the market, with original ’97 models usually trading well into five figures. I told you it was a rich man’s pastime.

7. Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure (1993)

In the early ’90s Williams’ went hard on licensed titles, often to great effect. A great example of this model is 1993’s Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure. This “widebody” game, (around five inches wider than the standard pinball dimensions), is a celebration of the original Indiana Jones film trilogy, and features characters and modes inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Temple of Doom, and The Last Crusade.

The playfield features numerous physical effects, including moving idols, a rotating temple gate, a revolver shooter, and a World War biplane. Powerful new DCS sound technology allows for great replications of the famous theme tune, along with voice samples from characters such as Indy, Indy Sr, Marion, Short Round, Willie, and Sallah. Still, today Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure is one of the very best licensed games.

A second Indiana Jones game was released by Stern in 2008.

6. FunHouse (1990)

FunHouse truly turned heads upon its 1990 release. As pinball entered a transition period from early solid state and alphanumeric titles into a new world of gimmicks, games within games, and bold ideas, FunHouse became instantly iconic thanks to the disembodied head of mechanical carnival barker, Rudy, who taunts the player, offers hints, and even swallows balls! (behave). Fun fact: Rudy is voiced by Ed Boon, who was a Williams employee and would soon co-create the Mortal Kombat franchise.

FunHouse is perhaps the quintessential pinball game. It’s fast and fluid, it’s loud and colorful, it’s compelling and frustrating, and it’s one of the final titles that pushed the then-limitations of the market to the brink, right before the launch of a bold era of technically superior, highly polished, licesened games. It’s lunchtime, go get yourself a hot dog.

5. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

One of the most popular games devised by pinball designer Steve Ritchie, (also the original voice of Mortal Kombat‘s Shao Kahn), Terminator 2: Judgment Day was a part of the then unheard-of billion-dollar marketing drive for James Cameron’s sci-fi blockbuster. As a typical Ritchie title, Terminator 2: Judgment Day features high-speed gameplay with a heavy emphasis on complex combo shots.

T2 features numerous firsts: It is the first pinball machine to feature a button-activated auto-launcher, it was also the first game designed with a Dot-Matrix Display (DMD), and to feature a built-in mini-game, as players use the shooter to blast approaching T-800s on the DMD. Terminator 2: Judgment Day is far from the best game on this list, but it was very widely distributed among arcade centers, and as such is remembered by even the most casual of arcade attendees today.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, also designed by Ritchie, was released by Stern in 2003.

4. Gorgar (1979)

While the oldest and arguably most simplistic title of this list, Williams’ Gorgar perhaps embodies the identity and culture of pinball more than any of the other games. The storyline sees the player battling the titular demon in an apocalyptic showdown, and the playfield is emblazoned in heavy metal iconography, parent-bothering themes, lurid horror-comic artwork, and half-naked humans, all while offering a brutal, quarter-munching challenge.

Gorgar was the first pinball machine to utilize synthesized speech, with a seven-word vocabulary that forms crude sentences. Gorgar eschews music in exchange for a constant pulsing “heartbeat”, which adds to the game’s unholy appeal. The kind of pinball machine that would likely appear on ’80s news broadcasts as “encouraging devil worship”, Gorgar’s rudimentary gameplay only adds to its old-school charm.

3. Star Trek: The Next Generation (1993)

Williams’ Star Trek: The Next Generation might have hit the scene during the show’s twilight years, but that didn’t stop fans from flocking to its huge, stunningly designed cabinet. Another “widebody” title, Star Trek: TNG took an age to come to fruition, with the design team having to almost move the stars themselves in order to score the license from Paramount — reportedly bagged on the insistence that the game’s action upholds “The Prime Directive“.

ST:TNG is not only a great-looking game, but it is packed out with tricky shots, satisfying combos, a Borg Multiball, and a bevy of challenging missions, culminating in a “Final Frontier” endgame. Seven original cast members recorded new dialogue for the sound package, adding to its authenticity. Today, some 30 years later, Star Trek: The Next Generation stands up easily to any modern machine — a testament to its timeless design excellence.

2. Twilight Zone (1993)

Submitted for your approval: One of the best and most iconic pinball machines of the 1990s. Offered a “blank cheque” after his success with The Addams Family, designer Pat Lawlor followed up with this excellent adaptation of another classic of Americana: Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. The pinball version of the groundbreaking TV series features references to various familiar episodes, including “Living Doll”, “The Hitchhiker”, “The Invaders”, and “A Most Unusual Camera”.

Twilight Zone sports some of the most difficult gameplay in pinball, which turned away all but the most dedicated of players. Despite this, the game is a classy-looking and highly polished delight, with a cabinet that could be found in arcades across Europe and North America for years. TZ doesn’t quite capitalize on its theme as well as it could have, but the cool backglass and its rendition of the famous theme tune should instantly spark nostalgia in any arcade goer of a certain age.

1. The Addams Family (1992)

Tell anybody who was around in the ’90s that you’re into pinball, and, never fail, you’ll be met with some variant of “Oh yeah, I remember pinball!.. Yeah… Addams Family!”. This is with good cause, as Williams’ The Addams Family is officially the best-selling pinball machine of all time, having shifted a staggering 20,270 units since its initial release. TAF is, of course, an adaptation of Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1991 movie, but nobody could have quite anticipated the game’s incredible popularity.

Designed by Pat Lawlor, The Addams Family features a memorable, comic-book playfield, with modes based upon various scenes in the movie. These include the secret staircase, the living bear rug, Wednesday’s toy train, the family vault, and, most importantly, THHHE MAA-MUSHKAAA! The playfield utilizes hidden magnets to play havoc with physics, while an animatronic Thing emerges from a box to lock balls. As a final touch, Raul Julia and Angelica Houston recorded new dialogue especially for the game, reprising their roles of Gomez and Morticia Addams. ‘Tish.

The Addams Family pinball machine was unavoidable — a cornerstone of practically every single arcade, bar, beachfront, bowling alley, and nightclub in town. You can still find them on site today, though often in upsetting states of disrepair. But perhaps the best example of The Addams Family’s enduring legacy is that, whether you personally play pinball or not…

…You already knew that this was going to be number one, right?

Chris Moyse

Senior Editor – Chris has been playing video games since the 1980s and writing about them since the 1880s. Graduated from Galaxy High with honors. Twitter: @ChrisxMoyse

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