One of the world’s biggest pinball collections has just opened in Budapest. There are more than 130 machines, from the very first that dates to 1871 and is basically a flat wood board, to the latest modern and complex models. This rare collection has earned it the title “Europe’s biggest interactive Pinball Museum”. It’s certainly another impressive attraction for the capital.
Balázs Pálfi, the owner of the Pbal Gallery in District XIII, started the collection five years ago. As it grew, space ran out, so he found a site to display the colourful machines as a way to rekindle pinball, not only for those people who once played during their childhood but also for those others who had never played or even seen the game.
Pálfi’s own fascination began when he saw a pinball machine for the first time at a hotel. “I was five years old and I couldn’t reach the pinball,” he recalls. “So I got a small chair, I climbed and I played. It was love at first sight.”
The years may have passed but the passion lingers. He bought the whole collection except for one piece: a totally Hungarian remade machine that was offered to the museum as a gift.
Everything has been thought out to the smallest detail to create an amazing, nostalgic but also trendy atmosphere, from the stairs that go to the reception, where pinball posters welcome visitors, through decoration showing old playfields to the three rooms that house the exhibition. And because the games originally had to attract players’ attention, the machines are pieces of art themselves.
As Pálfi built the collection, more than half of the machines weren’t working. It took some time to restore them and it requires constant maintenance to keep them going. Every day the repairman works before opening time to guarantee that all the machines are working as they prepare to receive visitors.
This maintenance level can be easily understood if we consider that we are talking about a collection holding pieces from the 19th century and some of the most wanted pinball machines in the world, such as Twilight Zone, The Addams Family, Indiana Jones and Tales of the Arabian Nights. This ensures their popularity.
For fellow collector Attila Vígh, who manages Pbal Gallery, defining what makes a machine special is difficult. But he ventures to say that it is mostly down to the first impression: the design, colours, lights, animation, theme, originality, sound and sophistication. Plus the number of levels, the small details and – of course – how good it is to play.
While half of the collection was found in Hungary, Pálfi and Vigh travelled to several of the 16 countries that complete the collection. One of their most iconic pieces was found by accident while they were having lunch in Slovakia. They lucked onto a “cocktail pinball table”, a design for four players that rotates on itself.
The exhibition is arranged chronologically, so visitors can see the game’s evolution. The trip starts in 1871, with the earliest relative of the modern pinball machines: bagatelle, a basic construction of a frame around a playfield, where the balls had to land in holes guarded by nail pins.
Pinball boomed in 1932 with Ballyhoo, the most produced game ever, as an arcade game born of the Great Depression. “People were unemployed, they had a lot of free time and pinball machines were very cheap,” Pálfi explains. History has repeated itself, he says, with a resurgence of pinball coinciding with the current economic downturn.
With a few more steps visitors can see the lights and electric sounds that started to enter the game, and the mechanically animated moving parts with which players could interact. In 1947 the first flippers were introduced.
Designs include sports, Wild West cowboys, Godzilla, Star Wars, Arabian nights, Apollo 13, films and bands. And the details get spectacular. We find a combination of pinball and video games in one machine (to reach one you have to score on the other), plungers in the shape of gun handles, characters in the playfield, an undulated field, flippers that are also joysticks and multi-level games with more than one playfield.
Pbal Gallery has been averaging 50 daily visitors since opening in April, including enthusiasts from the UK, Russia, Netherlands, Germany and Sweden. “It’s a mix of generations and genders,” Pálfi says. “My purpose is to attract the young generation and young couples who will bring their children.”