Popular movies regularly lead to popular product tie-ins. From toys to bedsheets to videogames, the right movie property could bring instant name recognition and hopefully gigantic earnings for the product developers. Unfortunately, many of the movies that garner heavy market saturation just aren’t that good and perfectly good games often suffer an underwhelming reception simply due to the bad movies they depict. Here’s a list of 11 really fun pinball machines that are much better than the less-than-stellar films they’re based on.
A giant lizard who goes around leveling cities and regularly does battle with the likes of Mothra and Gamera sounds like the perfect vehicle for a Hollywood blockbuster, right? What could go wrong? Well, Matthew Broderick and terrible writing, unfortunately. Sega probably assumed this stinker was going to be a sure-fire hit based on name alone. It’s a shame because, unlike the movie, the pinball is actually enjoyable. An exciting art package, a ground-rumbling shaker motor, and four separate magnets makes this game fun to play. And just like the movie, the best part of the game is actually Godzilla himself, a detailed sculpted toy that, instead of fire, spits four balls directly at the player. Fun fact: if you look closely on the game’s backglass you can see graffiti that says “Save Ferris,” referencing the iconic character played by Matthew Broderick in a much better movie. While the 1998 Godzilla movie may be the one that actually needs saving, the pinball version can stand on its own.
2. Barb Wire
Looks can only get you so far, as the mostly-forgotten Pamela Anderson vehicle Barb Wire proves. The IMDB description for this movie is a “Post-Apocalyptic remake of Casablanca set in a strip club.” An exciting and convoluted premise, surprisingly the film never really figured out exactly what it wanted to be. Fortunately Gottlieb knew exactly what it was making: an action-packed pinball machine. In addition to the film’s two most important assets prominently displayed on the artwork, the pinball brings over all of the fun, campy elements from the movie and invites the player “crash the trolls, battle the notorious ‘Big Fatso,’ and locate the elusive contact lenses.” A fun game in its own right, the multiple flippers, numerous ramps and biker-babe imagery (plus a lower price tag than most) has made this game hipster-chic in the pinball community.
3. The Shadow
This movie, which was based on the famed pulp novels and radio dramas from the 1930s, left such a stigma on whatever it touched that even the pinball game was left on the wayside by the pinball collector. Alec Baldwin may be able to sell movie tickets, but his mug emblazoned on a backglass was the kiss of death for an otherwise amazing game. Only recently has the collector community embraced this game for its ingenuity and feature-packed gameplay. Sure, you’ve got two key ramps with diverters, a fun video mode where you dodge flying daggers, and a never-before-seen “Battlefield” toy that fires a piston to keep the ball in play, but the real star of the show is an under-playfield magnet that makes your ball “disappear” in front of your eyes before delivering multiball gameplay.
An ancient race of gorillas, diamond mines and Ernie Hudson? Sign me up! Surprisingly, the rest of the movie-going public wasn’t so enthusiastic about the film loosely based on the Michael Crichton novel. Director Frank Marshall may not have known what to do with Congo, but famed pinball designer John Trudeau sure did. Williams’ Congo pinball invites players to navigate through Congo (scoop), collect diamonds by hitting key shots (ramps and targets), escape a threatening volcano (multiball), and battle a breed of angry gorillas (under-playfield toy). This pinball has the bragging rights of having the a gorilla toy sculpted by movie effects master Stan Winston and being the only pinball game voiced by Tim Curry.
5. Demolition Man
I know what you’re saying: “Demolition Man isn’t a bad movie!” Well, have you watched it lately? Let’s just say Oscar winner Sandra Bullock has come a long way in her career. The pinball version could have just come out of cryofreeze, however, because it is as fresh and fun as when it debuted in 1994. A widebody game, Demolition Man allows you to play with traditional flipper buttons or with two chrome-covered handles above the playfield. In addition to some great cheesy dialogue from Stallone, Snipes and Bullock, this game has a captive eyeball you shot to activate a special mode, several ramps, and an elevator that delivers the ball to a “cryoclaw” that activates your choice of modes and multiballs. The only thing lacking from this version of Demolition Man is Rob Schneider, which, we can all agree, is a good thing.
“Shoot the Pyramid!” is a phrase you’ll hear repeatedly in this pinball game, which is it’s only negative feature. Admittedly, the Kurt Russell/James Spader sci-fi flick Stargate isn’t a bad film. However, if given a choice, I would rather play the pinball version of this movie for the duration of the film’s 2-hour run time. A drop-target dream, this game has long been considered a bang-for-your-buck pinball in the dot matrix display (DMD) category. Drawing players in with a fantastic mirrored backglass with a chasing lighting effect, the game delivers a solid ruleset, plenty of ramps, wireform habitrails, and an abundance of multiballs. The flip-up Anubis head is cool, but the spaceship revealed from the pyramid (spoiler alert! It’s aliens!) is cooler and is quite a nice reward after hearing “Shoot the pyramid” for the thousandth time. A minimal problem for an above average game based on an average movie.
7. The Flintstones
From a movie we all wish we could forget comes a pinball machine most of us never knew existed. Neither the film nor the flipper game are anyone’s favorite. However, the pinball machine is still more enjoyable than the movie. Barely.
8. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
James Cameron’s Terminator? Amazing. Terminator 2: Judgement Day? Stunning! Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines? Um…well…it has a good pinball game! Thank goodness Stern Pinball came along to save us all from that Nick Stahl juggernaut. Pinball designer extraordinaire Steve Ritchie could polish any turd, but the game he delivered based on this hot licensed property back in 2003 was gold. For Rise of the Machines, Ritchie basically took his classic design for 1992’s T2 and juiced it with steroids: steel ramps, gun handle ball launcher, “infrared” lighting mode, dual Terminator heads, and even a cannon that launches a ball in the backbox! “I’ll be back…” for more pinball. (Groan.)
9. Lost in Space
As with Godzilla, Sega Pinball’s strategy was to secure licenses to films that were sure to be blockbusters. Unfortunately, with Lost in Space, the only appeal to the movie was being able to say, “Hey guys, look! It’s Joey!” Perhaps sensing a box office bust, Sega threw everything except the kitchen sink into their pinball. A slightly-modified fan layout takes players on a journey through space with two cool spaceship toys, Robby the robot, vertical up-kickers, spinners, ramps, and, of course, Matt LeBlanc.
10. Tron Legacy
The movie-going jury is split down the middle with this sequel. A visual marvel with an admittedly weak story, this film will assuredly not have as lasting an impact as its predecessor. That said, Tron Legacy is one of the best pinball games ever created. Period. From satisfying ramp shots to difficult-yet-rewarding inner loop shots, everything is done well on this game. For the pinball addict it provides the perfect “just one more game” allure. This table offers perfect theme integration as players attempt to shoot ramps, a scoop, and spinners to complete each of the key elements from the movie: finding Flynn, battling light cycles, and finding the portal to win the game. The best feature of this game is the spinning disc which hurls the silverball so fast you have to blindly react on instinct. The Jeff Bridges movie quotes and Daft Punk soundtrack are icing on the cake.
11. Johnny Mnemonic
If you’re thinking to yourself, “Johnny Mnemonic is perfection. How can anything top it?”, you’re in the smallest minority known to man. It’s hard to believe that a movie with Keanu “Whoaa!” Reeves, Ice-T, Henry Rollins, Dolph Lundgren, a talking dolphin, and supremely-outdated technology doesn’t hold up well, but alas. For a movie that relies so much on the digital space, it’s actually the analog features of the pinball machine from Williams that make this game so fun. Some tight shots in a somewhat non-traditional fan layout by legendary designer George Gomez (Monster Bash, Revenge From Mars) deliver fast gameplay and some great movie tie-ins. Perhaps the most dominant feature is the magnetic glove that lifts your ball to allow for your strategic placement on the grid to maximize points and unlock multiball. Also, a lights-out power down mode lets you know you’re one of the cool kids who made it to the wizard mode. When you revisit the film, Johnny Mnemonic holds up about as well as the Sandra Bullock movie The Net, but playing the pinball version is always fresh and exciting.
Preston Burt is a graphic designer living outside of Atlanta, GA. He has previously written for the Screen Crush Network and co-hosts the Gameroom Junkies Podcast. He is a founder and organizer of the Southern Fried Gameroom Expo.