Saturday May 18, 2024

Guide for First Time Pinball Buyers

Where to Find Machines For Sale
There are many places to find machines for sale these days - eBay, Craigslist, newspaper classifieds, online forums and of course arcade/pinball dealers.  You might even know someone that owns some pinball machines and not even realize it.  Buying your first machine can be slightly nerve racking.  Are you getting a good deal?  Is the seller hiding something?  How do you know it's fully functional even if they say it is if you don't know what to look for?  How do you interpret the seller's descripton of the condition?

To an extent, buying a pinball machine is kindof like buying a car.  It might look nice from the outside but have all sorts of mechanical or electronic problems/hacks on the inside.  So the best way to buy a machine is of course seeing it in person and being able to physically play the machine and look it over.  This is especially important if you want a fully working machine as your first pinball.  It's pretty easy tell if a machine is working at all when you can see it shoot the ball out, start a game, display a score and the flippers actually flip.  If you buy through eBay and have a machine shipped to you.. what happens if it's not fully working or not working at all?  Will the seller help you fix the issues, pay a serviceman's bill or refund your money?  My recommendation would be to search locally for people with fully working machines for sale.  Most people will schedule a time for you to see the machine & play it before committing to buying it -- and if they don't want to let you try it out before commiting to the purchase then find someone who will!

Some things you may want to ask the seller about:

  • Condition of playfield
  • Condition of backglass
  • Condition of the cabinet
  • Any known issues/problems with the machine
  • Any known hacks?
  • Does it come with keys/manual?
  • Will it be easy to load? (ie. where is it located, any steps, etc)
  • Will the seller help load it?
  • Can you try it out?

Interpreting the Seller's Description
It's important to find an honest seller and get an honest description of the machine.  There are many types of sellers on eBay and Craigslist, some of them are very quick & don't put the time or effort into describing their items or may even be short-worded to hide some inherent problems with the item.  If you find a machine listed on Craigslist with a blurry picture and couple word description "Works Good", you'll want to find out if that means it's 100% working or has any issues.  Often you'll see people listing games with descriptons like "nice condition.  lights come on but ball doesn't pop out."  Stay away from these kind of machines for your first pinball.  Most honest sellers will write more than a few words about the game and be willing to send detailed pictures or describe the condition of the game in more detail.

Some examples of what sellers might say and the actual problems (from personal experience):

  • "Ball doesn't pop out"
    • could be anything from simple switch issue to a fully dead game.  fuse blown; circuit board issues; battery acid damage; game is likely not-functional
  • "Doesn't work. Could be a blown fuse"
    • might be a blown fuse, but wouldn't you think they'd have tried replacing a $1 fuse before offering it for sale and potentially losing a few hundred dollars?  probably battery damage, circuit board issues, etc
  • "Switch doesn't work"
    • this one was great -- they meant when they flip the power switch, nothing happened (only general illumination lamps lit up).  i thought they meant a single playfield switch was not working.
  • "Nice condition.  Needs work."
    •  this could be anything, maybe the machine is in presentable condition but does not play.  usually indicates more than a simple fix
  • "Some lamps out, could use a nice cleaning"
    • usually indicates game was on-route or hasn't been serviced in a while.  needs a cleaning, re-rubbering and most likely has some other issues with switches, etc.  most likely boots up but definitely not fully working.

People can be very vague with their descriptions.  Some may do this unintentionally, or may not even know how to describe the machine's condition.  Other people are vague intentionally.  If a seller isn't willing to spend the time answering a few questions for you or giving a clear description of what they're selling, don't waste your time or money.  Look at the pictures, if they're blurry or you can't get a good feel for the condition.. ask for more pictures.  If the seller doesn't say whether the game is working 100%, ask.  If they don't have pictures showing the game with lights on, displays (if electronic) lit up, etc.. ask.  Noticing a trend here?  ASK QUESTIONS!  :)  Please don't buy your first machine from a seller that won't let you try it out first or tries to rush you along -- you'll be disappointed and stuck with a broken game you won't be able to fix.  The best sellers will let you try the game out, give you the keys to the machine, show you how to access the circuit boards, briefly show you some of the mechanical parts in the machine, etc.

You may want to consider buying from a reputable arcade dealer that is local to you.  Usually the arcade dealers have a showroom where you can try the games out and often offer limited warranties and/or free service in-home service calls for a period of time.  The downside is you will pay much more (often times A LOT more) when buying a machine from an arcade dealer versus a private seller, but if you have no intention of learning the mechanical or technical aspects of fixing a machine, it may be worth the piece of mind to buy from a reputable arcade dealer that offers these services.

Buying Solid State?  Check For Battery Damage
If you're buying a solid state machine, you should ask to take a look at the circuit boards to check for battery damage.  Batteries were used in many of pinball machines from the late 70s thru today's games to store high scores and configurations.  Often a machine can be fully working, but have suffered battery damage on the MPU board -- the main circuit board in the machine.  Some sellers don't even realize the games have batteries.  It's a good thing to check for when purchasing a solid state machine and isn't too hard to spot severe battery acid damage.  ***Games can still be fully working even though they have battery damage***  This is very important, if you buy a working game with battery damage, it's a ticking time bomb and GUARANTEED TO DEVELOP ISSUES.  Electromechanical pinball machines don't have any circuit boards or batteries in them so no need to worry about battery acid damage on an EM machine.

Battery Corrosion - Stern MPU100
Picture: Battery Corrosion on a Stern MPU-100 (from a Hot Hand pinball machine)

Battery Corrosion - Gottlieb System 80
Picture: Battery Corrosion on a Gottlieb System 80 MPU (from a Ready Aim Fire pinball machine).

Battery has been removed, but corrosion must be cleaned up & bad components replaced.

Try The Machine!!
Of coures, try the machine out before you buy it!  If you take the seller's word that it's working and don't look the machine over at all or have a chance to play it, how do you know it's working?  If you're paying the premium price to get a fully working machine, you want to see it working!  It's also your last chance to decide if it doesn't fit your personal taste.  Maybe the sounds aren't what you thought or the gameplay is too slow.  You might notice some issues with things that aren't working right.. if you hit the flipper buttons, the flippers should flip.  It's advised that you look for YouTube videos of the machine you're considering purchasing and/or other pinball machines so you know how a working machine should play.

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