- Associated Press - Sunday, July 30, 2017

ROCKFORD, Ill. (AP) - Remember, if you can, the pinball games of yesteryear, when the hobby was in its prime and didn’t have to contend with your iPhone or Nintendo Switch games.

Now add flashing lights, noise, figurines and high-definition screens.

That’s the modern world of pinball, and there’s a small but growing community of aficionados here who can’t get enough of it.

Rockford resident Nate Johnson is one of them. He and his buddy Dave Franklin, who lives in Roscoe, are self-described “pinball enthusiasts,” and will always make a point to find the few-and-far-between pinball machines in town, or find the places that have them when they’re out of town.

Last week, they were at Prairie Street Brewhouse enjoying beers and facing off against each other on a bright-colored pinball machine themed around the band Metallica. It’s one of four pinball machines in the lower level. It’s also one of the newer ones. There’s also Medieval Madness, a pinball game that originated in 1997 and has been manufactured some 4,000 times. Pinball machines new and old have their benefits, Johnson said.

“I prefer it to the (newer) machines,” he said. “It plays pretty fast and you can walk up and pump money into it and not learn all the nuances. The new machines are kind of formulaic, but each one has its own look and feel.”

New and classic machines are sprouting at local businesses, sometimes used as a fundraising tool, as pinball wizards continue to seek out places to play and mingle while banking on both nostalgia and their skills.

Pinball machines in their most primitive form stretch back to the 1930s, with the more modern coin-operated games making a boom in the 1970s and growing in the 1980s. In 2009, Stern Pinball, an Elk Grove Village manufacturer that made the four machines at Prairie Street Brewhouse and scores more across the country, partnered with Hagerty Peterson & Co. to weather the recession and expand into newer markets, this according to the company website.

“Certainly they’ve embraced technology,” Johnson said of modern pinball games. “Look at the older machines and they only had a couple loops and a few targets, but once you got the hang of it you got burnt out.”

Nick Naruz helps run Toad Hall, his family’s book and records store. The family used to set up arcade and pinball games at several areas across Rockford including Magic Waters and Rock Valley College. When the 1990s hit, they rounded them up and sold most of them except for a few favorites.

When he found a pinball-friendly venue, Naruz bought newer games and took them to Prairie Street Brewhouse as a place for enthusiasts to mingle and play.

“This is my love of pinball and my hobby,” Naruz said. “I always wanted to build a community, and slowly but surely, it’s happening.”

Naruz brought some pinball games owned by the family to Prairie Street at the beginning of the year. Each is distinctive - one is themed after the original “Ghostbusters,” the aforementioned Metallica is another one and then there’s “Medieval Madness.” The latest addition is based off rock band Aerosmith, with a total of four pinball machines.

Each has a layout and components specific to its theme. “Ghostbusters,” for example, has a figurine of the character Slimer and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Speakers blare the movie’s iconic theme song.

Every month since the beginning of the year, one of the pinball games at Prairie Street Brewhouse is designated as that month’s playing ground. Members of a monthly pinball league stop by whenever they can to rack up points. At the end of the month, the top three champs get prizes. The league has about 40 members, according to its Facebook group. This month, the members are squaring off against one another on the Metallica game.

Reigning pinball champ this month - and just about every other month of the tournament - is Rockford resident Jim Whitmore. He makes it look easy, usually racking up more than a billion points on the pinball machines and making it virtually impossible for second place to catch him.

“To me, it’s my Olympics,” said Whitmore, 54.

He’s been playing since he was a child, back when his father introduced him to the old-school Eight Ball Deluxe pinball machine.

“I’m good at it, and I love playing,” Whitmore said. “It’s very challenging. You think of pinball and you think of kids, but most kids aren’t equipped to play it. You have to be damn good at it, which means you have to spend a lot of time in front of it.”

Naruz said the pinball resurgence is a “coming of age.”

“The generation that never had pinball sees it as something new and more exciting than their phone games, or even their (gaming) consoles,” he said. “We’ve all played ‘Pac-Man’ on our phones; you get bored of it easily and people are looking for something more authentic, more genuine, more soulful.”

Woodward, an aerospace designer and manufacturer with offices in Loves Park and Rockford, is using pinball as a means to raise money for a good cause.

Two pinball machines, borrowed from Toad Hall and based off the movie “The Hobbit,” have found a temporary home on each campus. The games arrived about two months ago. The money that goes into the machines will benefit the United Way of Rock River Valley. Several thousands of dollars has been raised for the organization, according to Tom Dotson, chairman for the United Way campaign at Woodward.

But the pinball machines aren’t just benefiting United Way - they’re having a positive effect on the company culture, Dotson said.

“They can take a break, and it’s something different from what they’ve been doing up to that point,” he said. “It’s enjoyable, it’s cheap; it’s only a dollar and the return investment on that is a three-to-five-minute game. It affords the opportunity for team-building and camaraderie.”

“The Hobbit” pinball machines at Woodward represent “the latest and greatest” of pinball technology, Dotson said. It includes surround sound and screens that display high-definition graphics and clips from the film.

It’s a way to infuse today’s technology with that of yesteryear, but staying true to its original purpose.

“This is not your dad’s pinball machine,” Dotson said. “You can still play pinball and have the technological features in the game. It really transcends from one generation to the next. It still remains as affordable today as it did 40 or 50 years ago, if you have a dollar in quarters in the seat cushions of your sofa.”

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Source: Rockford Register Star, https://bit.ly/2ubCZlf

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Information from: Rockford Register Star, https://www.rrstar.com

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